Does Anyone Care about Elementary Social Studies?: Dilemmas of Teaching Elementary Social Studies Methods within a High Stakes Testing Context

Article excerpt

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 required states to set more ambitious improvement goals for student learning in reading, writing, and mathematics with corresponding sanctions for schools who do not meet the stated goals. These goals have been translated into summative assessments that have increased the stakes for student, teachers, schools, and school districts across the nation. As a result, many states have decided not to include social studies in their battery of summative assessments and, as a result, in some elementary classrooms social studies has disappeared from the school curriculum.

Abrams & Madaus (2003) suggested that policymakers who insist on linking test scores to high-stakes consequences for students and schools often overlook lessons already learned. Over a decade ago, Madaus (1988) described seven principles that captured the intended and unintended consequences of high stakes assessment. Based on the literature reviewed, when important decisions are made based on test results, teachers teach to the test which narrows the curriculum to reflect what is tested. The literature indicated that high stakes consequences forced teachers to give more attention to testing content and to decrease the emphasis placed on untested content (i.e., social studies).

To date, although 34 states do test social studies (Buckles, Schug, & Watts, 2001), Florida remains a state where the social studies curriculum is not tested. This issue becomes a particularly pressing dilemma for teachers in Florida as state-mandated curriculum frameworks that emphasize standardized testing in the areas of reading, writing, and mathematics increasingly endure at the expense of the non-tested social studies curriculum. Consistent with the research of the 1980s, elementary schools in Florida that face pressures of "raising their school grade" have clearly shifted their curricular attention away from social studies and social studies has become a second and less significant tier of the elementary curriculum.

This shift away from teaching social studies in the elementary school becomes particularly problematic as calls for connecting theory and practice come from almost every organized educational policy group (i.e., Holmes, NCATE). These groups advocate the coupling of methods courses with field experiences and developing closer ties with K-12 education through the cultivation of school/university partnerships often referred to as Professional Development Schools (Holmes, 1986). These schools are places where simultaneous renewal occurs for all stakeholders and theory and practice are seen as merging for prospective teachers to witness. Given the current context of high stakes testing reshaping the educational terrain, teacher educators need to understand the vehicles that facilitate or inhibit the teaching of elementary social studies within the schools where these field experiences take place.

FINDING THE "SPACE" FOR TEACHING ELEMENTARY SOCIAL STUDIES

In our professional development school in central Florida, both practicing and prospective teachers voiced substantial frustration in teaching and learning to teach the untested subject of social studies. For example, Robert, a teacher in one of our partnership schools, described a field trip that he routinely conducted with his 51'1 grade students before his district shifted personnel and support away from social studies:

We use to have a mock court that we went to that was connected to our study of the judicial system and the Bill of Rights. We would go to the Court House each year and local attorneys would work with the 5th grade students. The attorneys, judges, law students, and others would hold a mock court for the kids. The kids were selected to sit on the jury and there were one or two scenarios that they would use and go through the trial process. They had direct examination, cross examination, witnesses, to see how the court system worked in our country and the kids or jury would go back and deliberate and come back with a verdict. …