The Shrinking of Social Studies: As Standards-Based Reform Gains Ground, Social Studies Is Getting Squeezed

By Howard, Robert W. | Social Education, September 2003 | Go to article overview

The Shrinking of Social Studies: As Standards-Based Reform Gains Ground, Social Studies Is Getting Squeezed


Howard, Robert W., Social Education


Social studies is the most important of the academic disciplines. To prove my point to sometimes-skeptical students in our teacher preparation program, I ask them to quickly write down what are the most important things in their lives. The answers can be summarized as money, family, religion and "sex, drugs, and rock & roll." As it happens, each of these is included in the social studies: economics; different types of human relationships; the status of different consciousness-changing chemicals under laws of different nations (e.g., alcohol, marijuana, ecstasy); and one form of a culture's arts. I then conclude with a rhetorical question: When was the last time that a crisis in phonics or mathematics riveted the world's attention as did the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 20017 This crisis, which falls within the scope of several social studies disciplines, does not have a parallel in other disciplines, unless the major advances explicitly affected humanity (as was true of the science of atomic fission, which demonstrated its impact in August 1945 with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima).

In this era of standards-based education, what I consider the most important discipline, social studies, has been treated as a second-class subject. However, in my home state of Washington it is in danger of moving from second class to third.

In addition to advocating the primacy of social studies, the purpose of this article is to document how standards-based reform has had a negative impact on social studies education, especially at the elementary level, and to recommend a course of action.

The Impact of Standards-Based Reform on Social Studies

Since the U.S. Department of Education published A Nation at Risk in 1983, the principal change in public education has been the ascendance of a "standards-based" reform and its impact on state and federal educational policies. (1) The standards movement generated changes in curriculum, evaluation, and accountability (i.e., providing rewards and sanctions based predominantly on the result of high-stakes testing).

The reform movement emphasizes rigorous standards for both curricular content and assessment. Subsequently, each of the major disciplines has created its own content standards, such as the social studies standards developed by National Council for the Social Studies; most states have also created new measures to promote assessment (e.g., the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System). The standards movement created "high stakes" incentives (both positive and punitive) for meeting the standards. In some states, teachers and administrators get financial rewards when their students meet or exceed the standard. (2) The punitive measures include a variety of consequences such as "reconstituting" schools, a term that refers to removing the entire educational staff and reopening the school with a completely different faculty and administration.

The two most recent changes in the standards-based movement are the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, also known as "No Child Left Behind") and the 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris Supreme Court decision allowing, at least under some circumstances, public funds to be used for vouchers. The former adds additional accountability to what was already a high-stakes environment. Both increase the ability of parents to make choices about which school their child attends. Both take major steps towards privatization of public schools (i.e., using public dollars to support private education and schooling).

The changes created by the standards-based movement have a significant impact on social studies. The proponents of standards say their aim is to improve the quality of education and to include all children in this goal. (3) For example, Marc Tucker and Judy Codding write that their aim is to demonstrate that "it is possible to build a system [using standards] from the materials at hand that will enable virtually all American youngsters to leave high school with a fine education.

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