Social Studies: Is It History? Districts, Especially in Poor Areas, Struggle to Give Adequate Social Studies Lessons While Meeting NCLB Requirements

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WALK INTO ANY LOW-PERFORMing middle school classroom in your district and you may be shocked to find children unable to identify the state or country in which they live. Many may not know the continents or the U.S. president. "By fifth grade kids should at least know what the U.S. Constitution is and the Bill of Rights and know that we have a president, a Congress and a court system," says Peggy Altoff, social studies facilitator for Colorado Springs (Colo.) School District 11 and past president of the National Council for the Social Studies. However, because such basics are not being taught at the elementary level, kids in middle and high school are not performing well, according to Altoff. "At any low-performing school, they spend most of their days on reading, writing and math."

It's year six of the No Child Left Behind law, and social studies has suffered greatly. In spite of the public outcry over the law's testing mandates and limited federal funding, some educators believe most of the public doesn't know about core academic subjects being squeezed out of the K12 public school curriculum. Given that social studies education isn't tied to high-stakes testing, instructional time for it has taken a significant hit, particularly at the elementary grades, since the implementation of NCLB. This has educators deeply concerned about their ability to prepare children to become active citizens and about the long-term viability of the nation's democracy.

"We expect the public schools to educate citizens," says Cathy Roller, director of research and policy with the International Reading Association. "Social studies are a major player in that arena and are integral to teaching a sense of civic duty and how all of the important things about a democratic society work."

According to a 2007 report from the Center on Education Policy, which surveyed nearly 350 school districts across the nation, 44 percent of districts reported cutting time from one or more subjects or activities at the elementary level, including social studies.

While the National Alliance of Black School Educators, which supports some aspects of NCLB, has not taken an official position on the subject, Executive Director Quentin Lawson says that programs such as social studies, art and physical education started getting squeezed out years before NCLB was implemented. "It's clear that to any educator over the past 10 or 15 years there has been a major constriction of some very important subjects that are essential to our culture and general intellect," Lawson says. And squeezing out such subjects "was exacerbated and almost legalized, or moralized, as a result of NCLB."


Low-Income Pupils Suffer Most

Gayle Y. Thieman, president of the National Council for the Social Studies, says that schools with high minority populations and low socio-economic status are suffering the most. "What's really criminal about that is the enriched curriculum that all kids deserve is still taking place in districts with high-achieving kids," says Thieman.

Altoff agrees. "Kids in schools with higher levels of poverty are less likely to get social studies than those in more affluent schools," she says. Altoffis concerned, as are many of her colleagues, that with a discrepancy in exposure to social studies education comes the risk of creating a society that is divided between those who know what a difference they can make as citizens and those who don't. Some call it the civic achievement gap. "Students getting less social studies are less likely when they grow up to vote and less likely to contribute," Altoff says. "These are things we see as barometers of citizenship."

The danger of failing to provide students with strong course work in government, economics and geography, according to Thieman, is that they are ultimately unable to work together to solve public problems because they don't have the knowledge to do it. …