“What Changed” in Social Studies Education
A View from the Classroom
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part column. The second installment can be found here.
“What changed?” asked one of my graduate school professors. She was talking informally with me and another student about how so many undergraduate students seem unprepared for the rigor of college-level history courses. She observed that she had to constantly revise her syllabi due to the decreasing skill level of the students she taught from year to year. It frustrated her that she kept having to reduce the number of monographs she assigned and the amount of academic writing she required. But the question of “what changed” isn’t mysterious to me: not only am I a graduate student, finishing my master’s degree in history, I’m also an eighth-grade social studies teacher with a decade of classroom experience. Being on the front lines of social studies education in this way, I have a unique perspective from which to answer her question, and some ideas about finding a solution.
From a teacher’s point of view, the answer to “What changed?” is rooted in the ambiguous definition of “social studies” itself. In most American classrooms, social studies is an amalgam of disciplines largely dominated by history, but depending on the curriculum adopted by a district or school, it also may incorporate geography, political science, economics, religious studies, psychology, sociology, and archaeology. This means that social studies teachers at all levels are often forced into the stereotype of being a jack of all trades and master of none. For that reason, many history professors will end up seeing students with limited historical content knowledge and critical-thinking skills. But what they might not understand is that social studies curriculum is heavily dependent on not just teacher preferences (or preparation) but also the priorities of the government. District and state standards matter, but the status of social studies education as a mix-match of disciplines reflects priorities that start at the federal level.
Social studies education, it seems to many educators, has never recovered from the blow dealt to it by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, with its high-stakes standardized testing in math and reading, to the detriment of other subjects. The effects of NCLB are evident when students in a 100-level history course do not understand the difference between primary and secondary sources, for example, or when students in upper-level courses have trouble identifying and evaluating a historian’s argument. These gaps in the skills necessary to succeed in history courses are formed at an early age for most American students because of the emphasis on math and reading education.
On the ground, this means that elementary and intermediate school teachers have a dual mission: teaching multiple content areas and increasing reading and math standardized test scores. If teachers feel underqualified or ill-equipped to teach social studies curriculum per se, they might integrate pieces of it into content areas that students will be assessed on. For example, teachers might use a short story with the American Revolution as a backdrop in a reading or language arts class. Or, students might learn about the state bird in a science class as part of a broader unit on varying species. On paper, the student has received social studies “minutes” as mandated by the state or district, but in reality, the student has learned about an event, a person, or a place without any historical context. The student therefore views the topic in isolation, never to be thought about again. Young learners’ inherent curiosity is stifled when they can’t move beyond the what to also explore the why and how: the very essence of what quality social studies education should encourage.
Unfortunately, the lack of quality social studies education does not improve much as a student progresses in grade level. According to the most recent Schools and Staffing Survey, conducted in 2011, third graders in American schools spent less than 10 percent of their academic week learning social studies. By the eighth grade, students spent only 4.2 hours per week in a history or social studies class—as compared to 6.5 hours in English or Language Arts, 5 hours in math, and 4.3 hours in science. What changed, then? Social studies, and therefore history as a discipline, became the bottom rung of the educational ladder for many schools and therefore the first of the core academic subjects to be modified or reduced to increase minutes in other subject areas, or to be scrapped completely.
Prioritizing social studies education probably won’t come from state or federal mandates, nor should it. Its needs to come from the grassroots level, by encouraging professionalization among those who teach social studies. Professionalization would increase educators’ authority to emphasize content-relevant skills in their curriculum, and to incorporate opportunities for students to experience what it means to be a professional historian. This would result in clear skill development among students, which would transcend the problem of social studies’ content variability—a problem that has contributed to its decline. At a time when it seems the only path to a subject’s legitimization is whether it is tested, professionalization would help teachers gain recognition for their content mastery while also reinforcing their ability to develop students’ critical-thinking skills.
The means of professionalization for social studies teachers can and should vary by individual, but there are several readily accessible pathways, including content-driven professional development, advanced study, and networking with professional historians. Professionalization will allow the conversation to move from “What changed?” to what works.
 Dinah Sparks and Kathleen Mulvaney Hoyer, Instruction Time for Third- and Eighth-Graders in Public and Private Schools: School Year 2011–2012 (NCES 2017-076) (Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education, 2017), https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2017/2017076.pdf.
Samantha Stearns is an eighth-grade social studies teacher and chair of the social studies department at Roosevelt Middle School in River Forest, Illinois.
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