Social Awareness on the Back Burner: Withering Social Studies Instruction in Elementary Schools Has Experts Biting Their Fingernails, Debating Testing and Seeking Partnerships

By Pascopella, Angela | District Administration, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Social Awareness on the Back Burner: Withering Social Studies Instruction in Elementary Schools Has Experts Biting Their Fingernails, Debating Testing and Seeking Partnerships


Pascopella, Angela, District Administration


It's a crisis. Social studies, particularly in the elementary grades, has been pushed to the back burner in schools.

Time is the biggest nemesis. Increased attention to math and language arts under the federal No Child Left Behind law is squeezing out social studies. Many states have standards in social studies so teachers are expected to cover the topic, but without being attached to a high-stakes test, the subject has lost ground.

Some states, such as Illinois, are even dropping state social studies tests. What little social studies is taught usually consists of "laundry lists"--vocabulary words, dates and people's names, educators say, which is just plain boring.

Money is another rare commodity to buy proper books, to find quality teachers, and even to create standardized tests to ensure the subject is being taught.

Most educators find the decreased attention to social studies a travesty. Even though many students learn social studies in middle or high school, they lack the basic knowledge needed for the subject. Many middle and high school teachers are squeezed for time and can't teach it all.

In the end, educators fear youngsters are growing up with little or no knowledge of their own and their neighbors' histories, ironically, when the nation is at its most vulnerable given fears about terrorism.

"What has happened with No Child Left Behind is that someone made a political decision that reading and writing and arithmetic are the core subjects that we need to spend a considerable amount of time and money on in grades three through eight. And it put social studies on the back burner," says Jesus Garcia, president of the National Council for the Social Studies. "That doesn't make sense. We should maintain the core subjects at the forefront and allow the kind of funding to teach that well."

The 2004 report from Council for Basic Education, Academic Atrophy." The Condition of the Liberal Arts in America's Public Schools, reveals that social studies is suffering particularly in high minority schools. The good news, the report states, is more emphasis is placed on math, reading, writing, science and secondary social studies. But the bad news is the reduced commitment to the arts, foreign language and elementary social studies.

Syd Golston, dean of students at El Hambra High School in Phoenix Union High School District, says education author Alfie Kohn is right when he says learning for the joy of learning should guide education, but it doesn't. While districts nationwide may test social studies, there is little, if any, time for mock trials, role playing or immersion learning, Golston says, which really inspires children and makes learning fun. "There is no time to do the things that are personal and process-oriented," he adds.

What it Means

Social studies is the integration of social sciences and the humanities to promote civic competence within the social sciences, identified as history, political science/government, economics and geography. "We say the purpose of social studies is to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good in a democratic society in an interdependent world," Garcia says. "Historically, social studies has always been one of the core subjects that was dominant in the curriculum."

Before the nation was even formed in the 1700s, Garcia says, social studies was about building community. When the country expanded westward, social studies included the right to rule, and then in the 20th century it was more about what it meant to be an American. "We have to make sure everyone understands what it means to be an American ... with rights and responsibilities. If we don't teach that in elementary grades we will have a country that is fractured because of diversity.

"Not learning what it means to be an American could have some dire consequences down the road," Garcia continues. …

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