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Your middle-schooler and social studies

Though state standards vary widely, most middle schoolers take a year of U.S. history.

By GreatSchools Staff

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 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.

Comments from readers

"How can children study when there are no books to bring home. There are no graded papers for parents to follow-up on with your child. Sure there is a parent portal that is recorded some of the time, but where is the validation?"
"I do not like what my daughter is learing in 7th grade Social Studies.Buddism.I wished they'd learn something about the cities of this state we're in Georgia"
"It's time to evaluate exactly what and how history is being taught. Revisionist history is teaching children mistakes of the past rather than concentrating on the remarkable events that makes the U.S. the most desirable place on earth. Children are not learning about the sacrifices made by our founding fathers to create our Constitution. These are the facts that should be emphasized in teaching history."
"I teach history and love what I do. I put myself into my class everyday. I talk in different tougues and in different ways. I try to bring stories into my classroom to tell why something happened, not just that it did. I have students who have said that I was their best teacher theyever had but I also had others who disliked my class. Lucky for me more are the former. I think we need passion in teaching history. I go with my school to DC and last year we toured the Halocaust and as I was going with my students I noticed there were about fifty or so adults listening to everything I am saying about what they are seeing, they loved it ans I was thanked afterwards. The states are telling us to only touch the subject while getting indepth is what they students remember. I wish they would realize it."
"its a great info n i can get better scores for this when things help me i do great n get good grades that im a gifted student "
"Good report and links to help my daughter in middle school. Thanks"
"I am eighth grade and I will be taking the Ohio Achievement test in history next week and my class had been preparing for it all year and I feel comfortable and we do very fun stuff in history class one of my teachers thinks that the OAT tests are stupid. But I will try my best on the social studies test since my school hasn't been doing well on the social studies test. Last year 49% of eighth graders passed it so ever since October our teachers had been sacrificing every Friday since then just to prepare for the test. When we did the practice test for the social studies test I got a 92% on it so I should do well on it."
"As a Social Science teacher in California, and as someone who grew up overseas in embassies and consulates, coming back to the states as a sophomore, I can tell you that Americans are quite deficient in understanding the place of the social sciences in our internal and external relations. I try to remedy this using both Geography and timelines as frameworks. Particularly these daays, in climatic crisis worldwide, it is important to know our place in the cycles of nature and how human activity is disrupting natural processes. Illustrating impact on a timeline reaching back to the Mid-Palaeolith, with the punctuations to the equilibrium of the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the Digital Revolution is useful to explain the large-picture view of History. What significance was the Roman Empire to us, or why Huns were appeased or why the Church ran things for so long, or why resources become overly exploited all contribute to an understanding of our immediate futures. ANTICIPATING things is a human use of the invisible tool of TIME, only recently acquired by sapients. One of the most glaring disinctions between neanderthalensis and sapients is the latter's consideration of events as transactions in time -- planning and projecting historical trajectories to mitigate as yet unrealized hazards. The Agricultureal Revolution came about because of human manipulation of natural resource processes. This brought about better productivity by anticipating the results of human intervention, agri-culture (cultivation). Planning for floods, reservoiring of waters for times of scarcity, building granaries for storage of surplus to be displaced in time to times of low harvest, investing in trade for external security -- all these activities ! derive from human calendrics and forethought. Anticipating problems leads to improvements in our systems - if there is a perterbation, or some irritating problem that can be improved, it is the use of time, thinking ahead, imagining that improves the human lot. Time is a uniquely human trait. Planning in a timeframe allows for the progress of our comfort and security. So setting chronology as a framework for social studies allows the incorporation of all the disparate factors which constitute an understanding of historical events. Understanding allows for projecting probable outcomes of important decisions we need to be making today. TIME is the framework for understanding and wisdom."
"nice job"
"Some excellent points were made in the article concerning the relevance of teaching history in primary education. I remember vividly being bored in history classes in high school, and now wish I could recapture some of the offered knowledge to better round out my understanding of current events. It sometimes causes me to disengage myself from conversations I know nothing about. Learning the history of the country in which you live and the world beyond will better equip young people to become informed and active citizens."
"The problem with history classes when I was a child is they forgot to talk about all the important women who helped shape our world. My child is only 6, but my guess is it will still be up to me to teach her about the wonderful accomplishments of women. So, no, I don't want what I received years ago (I am 44 now)I want better!"
"I would have liked to hear more from Michael Yell in this article. He is truly a model social studies educator. Parents and teachers can learn a tremendous amount from him. The book he recently published for NCSS contains a wealth of information. Emphasis on the work of Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsch was troubling. Their work espouses such rigid, traditional beliefs regarding the teaching of social studies. The authors should have offered more balanced perspectives. However, I am pleased that Great Schools chose to write a piece covering social studies education. These disciplines have taken a back seat to math and literacy in recent years."
"I loved this article. I was just saying to my child's teacher, we're in TN, that the SS curriculumm in our school was the worst I had ever seen. The children sit with their mediocre texts and listen to it read to them by a narrator on CD! Then some worksheets and that's it. Compare this to our previous school where in 3rd grade three countries were studied in great detail, Japan, Australia, and Kenya. They looked at economics, government, education, language, culture (food, dress, traditions, celebrations), religion, the works. They also had time to learn NY state history & geography, and US government & geography. I miss that program terribly! Thank you for the recommended resources. We'll be doing a lot of filling in the blanks in our summer activities and trips."
"As a parent and an 8th grade Social Studies teacher, I am very concerned with the lack of support for Social Studies not only in my own district but across the nation. Arizona's Social Studies Standards start with kindergarten through 12th grade. The standards have 5 strands: US history, world history, civics, economics, and geography, with all 5 strands having objectives at each grade level. Unfortunately, as your article states since NCLB has no Social Studies requirements districts have cut down Social Studies instruction (some elementary schools do not teach any Social Studies or limit it to 30 minutes a week). My students come to me with very little prior knowledge of any area of Social Studies, so instead of being able to spiral from the previous knowledge they should have been taught I am often their introduction to every unit. I do not see a change in sight, schools are so concerned with test scores that learning has suffered especially in any classes without required tests. Our children are missing out. "
"I teach 6th grade social studies and we focus on ancient civilizations. I have tried to make my students understand how important these civilizations are, but they just don't get it and to tell you the truth, they don't care. They don't see how ancient civilizations or any history relate to their lives. They have a hard time remembering facts, dates, and names. I guess for most of them 6th grade is the first time this is required because many of many students have informed me that they didn't study history last year. Most of them don't know the difference between a continent, country, and a state. I do a few(and only a few) students that do the grasp the idea and importance of ancient civilizations, but it is very rare. Unlike my fellow teachers in my building I do try to make social studies fun. We have a lot of hands on activities and very rarely use the textbook. I definetly teach the opposite of how I grew up. I grew up reading, taking notes, and watching film strips. My students are growing up using hands on activities, projects, dvds, and discussions. "
"I feel that History, from beginning to the present, is very important. I agree that much of the information regarding government and economics can be garnered while studying history. It is a very sad fact that many students don't understand the basis of democracy and why it is so important. If you mention a historical person's name, many of them will get a glazed-over look and won't be able to answer very rudimentary questions. How can we avoid the errors of the past if our future leaders have no background? Math and reading are essential, but the children will not survive college without history, geography and economics."
"The Social Science class of our 6th grader is like that: Since the beginning of 6th grade the teacher let the students write outline notes, page by page, chapter by chapter. 2 chapters per week are assigned including 2 questions to be answered. She doesn't correct if the answer (academically very chanllenging). She doesn't discuss the questions in class. Further the kids have to learn 'acadamic vocabulary' which is not designed for 6th graders (I don't know where she takes the words from). Further she likes to do field trips (4 by now). And projects which are designed for 8th graders. So no wonder to me, our son will not learn for the future in this class because it is overwhelming and no in-depths learning. I should mention we are living in the Bay Area in CA and are going to leave because of the school situation (even the people over here are so proud of the schools in the district). I should mention I contacted the teacher ('I'm preparing the kids for the High School exit exam'), principal and the district but they tell me 'there are some students who are able to do it'. So I feel my child is left behind.... but he is only overwhelmed and bored of this class especially as he is an ESL student!"