Ask Not What Your Students Can Do for You ... the Nov. 4 Election Provided a Remarkable Opportunity to Teach Lessons about the History, Politics and Culture of Our Nation. Unless You Work or Learn in a District Where History and Social Studies Aren't Really Taught Anymore

By Ankeney, Kirk; Hayes, Matthew | Leadership, November-December 2008 | Go to article overview

Ask Not What Your Students Can Do for You ... the Nov. 4 Election Provided a Remarkable Opportunity to Teach Lessons about the History, Politics and Culture of Our Nation. Unless You Work or Learn in a District Where History and Social Studies Aren't Really Taught Anymore


Ankeney, Kirk, Hayes, Matthew, Leadership


The political contest just concluded--arguably one of America's most historic presidential elections--provided a remarkable opportunity for us to guide students in lessons about the history, politics and culture of this great nation. In several weeks, the new president will set forth his goals for our country, and the inaugural address should present another powerful teachable moment for students everywhere.

That is, unless the kids attend school in a district where history/social studies doesn't really count much anymore.

There is simply no disputing the fact that the history/social studies curriculum has taken a backseat in schools throughout California, and that federal and state testing requirements are the convenient scapegoats. The adage that "if it's not important enough to be tested, it's not important enough to be taught" has proved true in far too many places, as the supremacy of English language arts, math and science have sucked the instructional minutes for history (and other important subjects) out of the building.

Since history doesn't figure into the NCLB calculations, about half the 50 states no longer bother to test the subject. Florida dropped history from its Comprehensive Assessment Test a few years back, and historic Massachusetts came within a handful of votes of leaving it out of its annual Comprehensive Assessment System.

Attention diverted in California

In California, our STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) program requires only three years of testing, at grades 8, 10 and 11. Since history/social studies is not tested at grades K-5, many school districts have systematically turned teachers' (and students') attention away from the subject. In fact, there was a time in the late 1990s when lessons about the history of California (as specified in the state standards for fourth grade), were not taught in many of the city schools in our state Capital.

The California Standards Test for history that is administered in grade 8 includes content from the sixth, seventh and eighth grade curricula, but this three-grade, comprehensive exam accounts for less than 7 percent of a middle school's Academic Performance Index. The two CST assessments given during a student's high school years account for less than 15 percent of a high school's API. Thus, even when the subject is tested, its importance is severely diminished in determining the efficacy of a school's educational program; such low test weighting actually serves as a disincentive for rigorous history/social studies instruction.

Learning for life

It seems that federal and state politicians (the U.S. Congress, our state Legislature and successive governors) and political appointees (the State Board of Education) have decided that history/social studies doesn't matter very much in our students' "learning for life." How can a child's education really be "complete" without history/social studies?

In addition to teaching students the lessons of the past, we must ensure that they are fully prepared to be contributing members of society, and that includes capability in citizenship. Understanding how government operates and how history impacts the future is essential to he an effective citizen.

We need to stop asking students to chase English language arts, math and science test scores to make adults look good; instead, the adults should ask what they can do to provide an exceptional education for all children. …

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Ask Not What Your Students Can Do for You ... the Nov. 4 Election Provided a Remarkable Opportunity to Teach Lessons about the History, Politics and Culture of Our Nation. Unless You Work or Learn in a District Where History and Social Studies Aren't Really Taught Anymore
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