The Disrespecting of Social Studies

By Alan Haskvitz

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The joke is everywhere:” What is a social studies teacher in Texas called?” The answer is coach. There are indeed grounds for such a cruel generality, but what is worse is that many consider social studies unimportant and believe anyone can teach it. To this end there are very expensive “canned” curriculums that can be duplicated and handed out in sequence so that the social studies teacher literally only needs how to run the duplicating machine.

Even the leadership of the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS) does little to help its own cause as they encourage non-social studies teachers to highlight their national conferences. The hope being that the publicity generated from non-social studies teachers would increase attendance and create a positive press, something that is truly needed. On the other hand why aren’t the award winning social studies teachers programs being highlighted? Having been the recipient of the NCSS national exemplary award, national middle level teacher of the year, and even the Christa McAuliffe award you would think there would be some outside interest in my social studies program. But, sadly, no.

Thankfully, a social studies teacher who was selected National Teacher of the Year brought some needed attention to the subject by the NCSS. But overall the field of social studies has been shredded of its versatility and basic core of essential learnings by three things. First, the No Child Left Behind Act that does not even recognize its importance per se. Secondly, the infighting between groups representing the many aspects of social studies such as history, civics, voting rights, service learning, and Constitution groups fight each other for the limited number of grants. This results in some terrific resources not being able to find there way to the public.

The diverse nature of social studies and its many parts also creates a problem for university staffs as psychology, sociology, geography, economics, anthropology, and history battle for more staff and funding as separate entities and thus help destroy the integrated nature of the subject.

Finally, the lack of respect given to it by school districts who are so intent on improving language and math scores that they ignore the one subject that has the potential to help both subjects; social studies. Indeed there is so little respect for the subjects that principals have been known to ask potential social studies teachers what they coach as a hiring criteria. I can recall at many interviews in which the principal said to me that they were looking for social studies teacher who could coach.

Of course the major blow to social studies is the No Child Left Behind legislation that does not even mention social studies while crowning testing in English and math as the only necessary fields to show student improvement. Add to that the fact that some high schools are not requiring as many social studies classes as they used to and you have even more evidence that the subject is on the decline.

Heaped on this reality is the fact that administrators driven into test mania are abandoning social studies in favor of more classes in science, reading, and math as forced upon them by state and federal mandated assessments. In essence that means less funding which means those teachers are going to find it more difficult to justify monies for resources to spice up their lessons. Title One schools with a great many ESL students also must sharpen their funding needs as it is common knowledge that this group of pupils could well hold the key to the school’s testing success. And so these schools, which are frequently populated by new immigrants with little understanding of America or its institutions, are torn between filling that large knowledge void or playing to the mandated test scores and public opinion leaving social studies tethered to the door.

Money in the form of grants and scholarships also leaves social studies on the short end of the curriculum stick. Recently lame duck president Bush said he wanted funding for more math and science teachers. He never mentioned the teaching of civics clearly indicating he was pleased with the lack of public understanding of the checks and balance system or even the First Amendment, which a recent survey found, was overwhelmingly unremembered by the majority of Americans when compared to the cartoon characters on the Simpsons. Of course, if social studies teachers could get the advertising money that show generates maybe the public would equally understand the amendments.

Besides NCLB, the federal government is also helping remove social studies from its proper place by calling for more funds so that the Untied States can maintain its competitive edge. President Bush’s plan calls for the creation of a new teacher training program that will prepare as many as 100,000 full- and part-time educators to teach higher-level math and science courses. Meanwhile, social studies is not and has never been mentioned, of any significance. In his State of the Union address he called for a new 10-year, $136 billion education and research initiative that again, never cited social studies as vital to the cause.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), was so concerned about the lack of interest and understanding of the law of the land that he placed into a recent appropriate bill the fact that the nearly two million federal employees working in the Executive Branch get training about the Constitution and that every September 17 should be called Constitution Day. In addition, all universities that receive federal funding must have a program about it. So there are some people interested in getting at least the civics part of social studies back into the public eye. Of course there are no provisions to enforce any part of Constitution Day. In light of the publicity Constitution Day received I placed a great many lessons and resources about the Constitution on my website, in anticipation of spreading the message. I found the listings were generally ignored and so I asked around and found out that among the 25 schools in my area Constitution Day wasn’t known or having the students recite the Pledge of Allegiance covered the issue. A teachable moment gone, but more importantly, the systematic demise of the importance of social studies can also result in less of an appreciation of how government works and the rights of the individual.

Students are also keenly aware of the non-importance of social studies to their goals. They know very well that the SAT is essentially language and math filled and so are almost every other placement test. Given a choice of doing well in those subject areas or social studies is obvious. Knowing parents also support the primary focus being on math, science, and language especially those who are looking for the higher paying jobs for their children. The social studies major never rank near the top in a salary study. The parent knows that when their child gets to university it costs the same for a business or computer degree as it does for a social studies one and thus push their charges in that direction. In 30 years of education I have frequently seen good money paid for math and English tutoring, but only a handful willing to pay for social studies remedial assistance.

When asking a parent why a student was not doing the social studies work I find it a common excuse from the parent is that the pupil had too much homework in English and math. Social studies is left for last. Those with a passion for the past and a love for the elasticity of social studies education look askance at the lack of support for social studies. A spokesman for the NCSS even stated that the NCLB act clearly left social studies in the backwaters as what is tested is what is taught and teaching to the test is simply the best way to win.

Some people believe that you don’t have to teach social studies everyday. They think that reading is the answer to better student achievement. They even go so far as to maintain that if students don’t have the ability to comprehend English social studies lessons are meaningless. Of course that is bogus. Social studies is a daily event and if a student can even marginally understand English they can discuss current events, learn the geography of the events, and even start to acquire an understanding of their role in the world. Again, social studies is the ideal format for teachable moments using the media as a stimulant.

Yet another reason for the disrespecting of social studies is the lack of preparation many teachers have for this curriculum area. According to Diane Ravitch, there is yet another area of concern for social studies teachers and that is the few who actually have degrees in the field that they teach. In Ravitch’s speech to the National Council for History Education (October 18, 1997) she cited the fact that of those who teach social studies in middle school or secondary school, only 18.5% have either a major or a minor in history. The result of such a lack of educational preparation results in teachers being unfamiliar with the subject and thus sticking to the textbook and handouts to cover the subject matter. This results in social studies being labeled as boring. (Schug, Todd, & Berry, 1984; Shaughnessy & Haladyana, 1985).

Only the naïve would hold out hope that just mandating social studies instruction in the elementary and middle schools would save the subject from deterioration. Every state has a disjointed curriculum that has students covering material that is vastly too sophisticated for them to truly comprehend and this is all the more so when the reality of what has to be covered is examined. For example, in the 160 days from the start of school to when California eighth graders have to take the state test in social studies they have to cover 70 major sections. The students would have to cover the Constitution and Bill of Rights in about a week. No wonder when they get to high school they do so poorly as they have to literally start all over again.

What is also forcing social studies to the bench is the lack of emphasis being placed on good storytelling with a message. The success of Joy Hakim’s The Story of US books is that they captivate students, teach them a lesson and allow them to see that social studies extends far beyond the classroom.

Lastly, social studies have been thought of as the bastion of the liberal teacher who motivates his students to be active participants in change. The content has thus become controversial, too controversial for some, and the result is that teachers simply stay to the textbook without making much effort to tie it to current events or to the student’s own situations. Religion has been taken as an excuse for curriculum altering as much in science as it has in social studies. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation newsletter monthly provides fodder for those who would like to change the public education system in America. Social studies textbooks are a favorite target of their concerns. Essentially the articles express a desire that social studies inform students that democracy is the best form of government ever conceived; that Americans cannot take its survival for granted; and that the survival of democracy depends on every student learning and respecting what the Founding Fathers brought into being and their political view of liberty and equality. Thus social studies is further diminished as those with differing views and are not familiar or unwilling to take on critical thinking lessons just stick to the book rather than be accused of brainwashing students with ideas that question the politics of the teacher rather than the politics that created the situation.

 I can remember when my students wrote a letter to the president asking for his rationale for the invasion of Panama and got a standard letter back to compare to the personal one they received from General Manuel Noriega. Conservative parents were appalled that I was allowing my students to take up the president’s time by asking him for his view. The topic wasn’t important, the fact the students were questioning the president was their concern. Instead of the event being a great learning opportunity the students learned that some people don’t want social studies to be a participation subject. In other words, the disrespecting of social studies is in part due to the poor way it has been taught. Turning out students who are not encouraged to question is helping lead social studies to its own demise. And to remind the masses, social studies is not history. It is far more encompassing and alive.

The challenge isn’t in saving social studies as a valued subject. That war was over the moment NCLB was passed. The challenge is in turning social studies teachers into subversives that can incorporate subject matter and critical thinking strategies into a variety of forms from science to math to language. To avoid the pre-fabricated lesson plan in favor of teachable moments and integrated lessons is a goal that could salvage this noble subject from the pre-molds of standardized lesson plans and testing. The prognosis is dim. An abundance of credentialed social studies teachers makes it easy for administrators to continue to look for the coach before the educator. The lack of testing significance for the subject means that funding will be scarce. Finally, the disrespecting of the subject by those that teach it without making it relevant to the students could well spell the end of social studies class in favor of hardfacted history.