Who recalls the dates of the Byzantine Empire? Or that the Ohlone Indians spoke one of the Utian languages? Details from social studies are easy to forget once we graduate to the real world. Still, such primers in history, geography, politics, and anthropology are crucial to our children’s education.

How do you know if your child’s social studies curriculum stacks up? Check out our grade-by-grade milestones to understand your state and national standards.

Vague standards

Students are not getting the same quality of instruction in history that their parents and grandparents received. Critics point to many reasons, with some saying the major problem is vague history standards in most states.

Others point to the fact that No Child Left Behind requirements emphasize reading and math to the detriment of social studies subjects (such as history, government, and geography).

But colleges want to see that high schoolers are taking more than the minimum requirements for graduation. Experts suggest students take at least three years of social studies in high school. However, the more the better, and the more rigorous the better — with Advanced Placement and honors classes being the most desirable, if they are offered.

Social studies defined

“One doesn’t know whether to say ‘social studies are’ or ‘social studies is,'” says Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University. “People don’t know if it’s a science or a collection of disciplines.”

In elementary school, many subjects — history, geography, current events, and government — are lumped into the social studies category, but once students reach middle school they will start receiving instruction in the separate disciplines. By high school there are usually many more options in the form of electives, such as economics, psychology, even Russian studies.

History: The backbone of social studies

Prior to the 1930s, history was considered a core subject along with reading, writing and math. According to Ravitch, in her article “A Brief History of Social Studies,” social studies supplanted history in the early part of the 20th century. Educators and politicians felt that teaching chronological history was not the best use of school resources at a time when most Americans needed job skills and were not necessarily college bound.

The separate disciplines that make up social studies, however, can all be taught within the context of history. “You’re getting government, economics, geography, and sociology in history. They all come together in one particular time and place in history,” says Ravitch.

While there are no national history requirements in K-12 schools, the most likely course to be required is U.S. history. In addition, every state requires at least one year of state history.

The generally accepted program of history instruction is to teach one year of U.S. history in elementary school, one more in middle school, and one final year in high school. Students usually learn about the colonial period and the American Revolution in elementary school, then revisit the American Revolution in middle school and continue on through the Civil War. In high school they cover the Civil War through modern times.

However, one year of U.S. history in high school will not impress college admissions offices. The College Board, creators of the SAT and Advanced Placement classes, recommends that students take one year of U.S. history, one semester of U.S. government, one semester of economics, one semester of world history or geography, and one additional semester of one of the above or another social studies elective. The SAT’s competitor, the ACT, recommends that students take three or more years of social studies.

The importance of history

To be well versed in local, national, and international history is to be well-equipped to understand current events and historical cycles and to participate effectively in government, society, and culture. “History keeps people from being ignorant,” says Ravitch. “A nation that forgets its history can be manipulated. It doesn’t make you a better person to know history, but it makes you a better citizen.”

Ravitch sees the current emphasis on math and science as being shortsighted. “I would argue that the economy depends just as much on linguistic skills as it does on math and science,” she says. “We seem not to be advancing in humanistic things such as history.”

What the Nation’s Report Card tells us

There is hard evidence that we have a problem with how history is being taught in the United States. In its most recent report on student achievement in U.S. history, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — also known as the Nation’s Report Card — showed that only 17% of eighth-graders and 11% of 12th-graders performed at or above the proficient level.

“NAEP is better than the SAT or the ACT as an indicator of quality of education,” says Jeffery Mirel, a professor of history and education at the University of Michigan. “If U.S. history teachers were doing a bang-up job and students were putting in high-quality effort, then everybody would be proficient. One of the problems with NAEP, though, is that there is no consequence of doing badly. The students don’t put their name on the test. And 12th-graders, in particular, might not care enough to do well on the NAEP test.

“The second and more important problem is that there isn’t a lot of high-quality history teaching going on.”

How are we doing in world history?

We’re doing even worse in world history. A 2006 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based education think tank, criticized American education in world history, saying “most states don’t even try to provide young Americans with a solid grounding in world history.”

According to Ravitch, “California is the only state to require three years of world history. California and Massachusetts are the only states to require the study of ancient history in middle school. No other states require ancient history.”

A case study in state standards

In the Fordham study, states were graded for the quality of their world history standards. California earned an A and accolades as the gold standard of standards, by emphasizing that “history should be taught chronologically, that its story should be told well, and that major events should be covered in depth rather than by skimming enormous amounts of material.”

North Dakota, one of the 20 states awarded an F, earned its failing mark because “mentions of world history are rare, and when the curriculum does address international affairs it does so in vague language.”

The California standards for the 12th grade are too long to be discussed in detail in this article, but readers can get an idea of why Fordham has such high regard for them from the brief excerpt below:

  • Students explain the fundamental principles and moral values of American democracy as expressed in the U.S. Constitution and other essential documents of American democracy.
  • Students evaluate and take and defend positions on the scope and limits of rights and obligations as democratic citizens, the relationships among them, and how they are secured.
  • Students evaluate and take and defend positions on what the fundamental values and principles of civil society are (i.e., the autonomous sphere of voluntary personal, social and economic relations that are not part of government), their interdependence, and the meaning and importance of those values and principles for a free society.
  • Students analyze the unique roles and responsibilities of the three branches of government as established by the U.S. Constitution.
  • Students summarize landmark U.S. Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution and its amendments.

North Dakota’s standards, in comparison, are vague and nonspecific:

  • Understand the role of chronological thinking in describing and investigating historical events and time periods.
  • Understand the principles governing historical analysis and interpretation.

Examples of specific knowledge that support the standards and benchmarks:

  • Timelines, sequencing, dates, historical eras
  • Consequences of political, social, and economic activities; questions for inquiry and analysis; differing sets of ideas; historical fiction; different portrayals of historic figures; illustrations in historical stories; multiple perspectives; historical inevitability; influence of the past
  • Role of agriculture and irrigation, hunting and gathering, rise of cities, rise of empires, political unity, class and caste, trade, industrialization, specific civilizations (e.g., ancient civilizations — Egypt, Mesopotamia, Indus Valley, China, India; classic civilizations — Greece, Rome; Mesoamerican civilizations — Incan, Mayan, Aztec; African civilizations)

To learn more about your state’s standards, visit Education World.

What the critics are saying

Social studies and history classes are often criticized for being dry and boring. Is social studies, as the U.S. Department of Education writes, “a group of instructional programs that describes the substantive portions of behavior, past and present activities, interactions, and organizations of people associated together for religious, benevolent, cultural, scientific, political, patriotic, or other purposes”? Sadly, all too often Greek mythology, the American Revolution, and the Civil War, otherwise engaging stories and events, are dumbed down and packaged into weighty textbooks.

“Teachers can’t rely on textbooks, which are deadly dull,” says Ravitch. “A whole country’s history is condensed into a few pages. There’s no room for vividness.”

What good instruction looks like

For Michael Yell, a seventh-grade history teacher in Wisconsin and vice president of the National Council for the Social Studies, a good history class should go into detail. “For each unit I teach, I essentially write an article, and I have the kids keep it in their binders,” he says. “Textbooks are getting so large, and rather than trying to go through all that’s in them, we need to pick a few important areas and really go into them in-depth — dig a posthole into them. In each unit, I try to find a posthole.”

Yell also advocates using primary sources. “One of the most important things is not only what is taught but also how it is taught,” he says. “In my classes, we look at Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and how they read the writings of the Greek historian Polybius. This illustrates how some ideals of the Roman republic made their way into our government.”

What parents and students can do

“We’re not doing very well in teaching our students about history and social studies, somewhere between a C and a B,” says Peggy Altoff, president of the National Council for the Social Studies. “First of all, NCLB does not call for any action related to social studies, therefore there have been a lot of cuts. Thirty-three percent of districts surveyed have reduced the amount of social studies to make more room for math and reading instruction. In some middle schools, social studies is taught half a year instead of a full year.”

Parents and students seeking a more rigorous or varied social studies curriculum should check to see if their high school offers classes from the College Board’s Advanced Placement program. This program gives students the opportunity to take college-level classes, and possibly earn college credits, for classes ranging from biology to French. The social studies options include macro- and microeconomics, European history, comparative government and politics, U.S. government and politics, human geography, psychology, U.S. history, and world history. If your high school doesn’t offer the classes you’re interested in, check for virtual schools that offer them online, such as Apex Learning.

Advice from a college history professor

High school students should not take world cultures classes that may be offered as an alternative to history classes, warns Jeffery Mirel, professor of education and history at the University of Michigan.

“Be careful. Some courses may sound more exciting to kids than courses with dry names like American history, but courses that teach basic knowledge don’t pander to kids,” he says. “I think you do have to hook kids to study history, but what I see in some courses is that it keeps them busy and has no real content. High school kids should take three or four classes: a good world history class, a good U.S. history course, and a good civics class.”

Additional resources

Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, by E.D. Hirsch Jr. (Vintage, 1988): This book contains a list of 5,000 names, phrases, terms, and dates that Hirsch considers essential knowledge for an informed citizenry.

Visit the College Board for information on Advanced Placement history classes.

The Library of Congress website has a number of useful features for high school history students. One, Today in History, features a different historical event for each day of the year. Another, Digital Collections & Programs, offers a wealth of digitized original sources, such as sound recordings, films, and documents from historical collections.

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