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.
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 there is evidence that this is starting to change, and some teachers are coming up with innovative approaches that use primary sources, which are now more easily accessed because of the Web.
Social studies defined
“One doesn’t know whether to say ‘social studies are’ or ‘social studies is,'” says Diane Ravitch, 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.
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.
“The least well-formed curriculum in U.S. history is at the elementary level,” says Ravitch. “The first course usually occurs in fifth grade and is concerned with the early years of the republic. There are no state tests of history in elementary school, so teachers might not teach it. There’s nothing mandatory across all states.”
In elementary school, usually in fourth grade, students study their state’s history. In grades below fourth grade, history instruction is spotty — many times it’s covered by looking at biographies. By high school there are more options in the form of electives, such as economics, psychology, even Russian 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 eighth 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 understand the major events preceding the founding of the nation and relate their significance to the development of American constitutional democracy.
- Students analyze the political principles underlying the U.S. Constitution and compare the enumerated and implied powers of the federal government.
- Students analyze the foundation of the American political system and the ways in which citizens participate in it.
- Students analyze the aspirations and ideals of the people of the new nation.
- Students analyze U.S. foreign policy in the early Republic.
North Dakota’s standards, in comparison, are vague and nonspecific:
- Understand the role of chronology and perspective in describing historical events and periods of history.
- Understand how key events, people and ideas contributed to North Dakota history.
Examples of specific knowledge that support the standards and benchmarks:
- Timelines, cause and effect, points of view, push/pull factors, cycles, biographies, interviews
- Settlement patterns; Native groups; explorers; role of immigrants; role of railroads; role of political parties and state government; influence of agriculture and industry on state’s growth and development; role of cooperatives; role of natural resources and geography; recent immigration patterns, chronological order of events in state history, historical conditions that influenced the formation of the state
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.”
According to the critics, the problems start in elementary school. “The social studies curriculum is the most vapid of content at this level,” says Ravitch. “The standard approach is ‘expanding environments’ or ‘expanding horizons.’ For example, in first grade children would study themselves. In second grade they would study their families, in third grade, their community, so that they are always moving outward in their studies.”
“Educators think that this is inherently interesting to the child,” says Mirel. “This is a mistake. First, there is no solid psychological evidence that children are more interested in themselves than in myths or legends that would teach them history. Harry Potter is utterly fanciful, just as fanciful as Greek myths, and it is enormously popular to children.”
Ravitch sees a positive trend away from the expanding horizons approach. “In the past 10 to 15 years, there has been a revolt against it. More and more states are adding content and biographies. Children should be learning about people that changed the world. They shouldn’t be learning just about their neighborhood helpers. It should be vivid and inspiring and a great story.”
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 kids 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.”
Mirel suggests that parents who want to supplement their children’s instruction read anything by E. D. Hirsch Jr. of the Core Knowledge Foundation. “There is a whole series, from What Your Kindergartner Needs to Know through What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know,” he says.
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 Hirsch considers to be essential for an informed citizenry to know.
Visit the College Board site for information on Advanced Placement history classes.
The Core Knowledge Foundation offers a book series for kindergarten through sixth grade that suggests what children should be learning by grade level.