HomeAcademics & ActivitiesAcademic Skills

Your high schooler and social studies

High schoolers take their history lessons up to the present.

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 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.

Comments from readers

"Why are they 'crucial' to our children's education? Crucial is a remarkably strong word - is it well-chosen? I've taught history and anthropology for years and enjoyed every moment but I couldn't defend either subject - as 'crucial'. If in fact they are crucial to our society's well-being then we are indeed in serious trouble for few educators other than history teachers- must less the general public - have a sound knowledge of history, politics, geography or anthropology."
"By the time they reach high school, students should learn when history and geography were corrupted into 'social studies' and what has happened to history and geography scores since. At the VanDamme Academy (K-8) the students memorize the correct spelling and location of every country and capital in the world plus all of the states and capitals in the US. By age 11 they have a good grasp of world and national geography. In history they learn--in a three year rotation--about the principles that formed the ancient world up through the fall of Rome; the key developments from the fall of Rome to the Industrial Revolution and the forces that carried us from the Industrial Revolution to the present day. They memorize key dates, names, places, the sequence and relationship of historical figures and events. Every test is an essay test where grammar, spelling and punctuation are graded along side of the student's understanding of who, what, where, when, how and why history is wh! at it is--with emphasis on the why. By the time they reach the 8th grade they understand world and national history from the ancient world to the present, which forms a detailed and purposeful fabric behind the classical novels they read, the representational art they study and the world events the pause to consider."
"Most of the history text are outdated or incorrect. It's unfortunate we have lied so long about so many things we aren't sure what approprate to go in the textbooks anymore. I teach my daughter both. The truth and how to pass a test for school."
"And students learn even less history in private school! (But Great Schools would never mention that.)"
"I found the article very interesting, my son in sixth grade tested at college level on his Iowa Test. He loves history, geography, and learning different cultures. As an eighth grader, he is looking into a high school that can enhance his desire for learning more about the world. Unfortunately he has not found a school which has a strong program, especially freshman year. Most schools focus on science and math which he does well in but he has plans to work in a professional that would require international and global knowledge. Recently he went to State’s Geography Bee, not sue what the options are in High School to continue his interest?"
"I agree with the lack of instruction of history in our schools. Students have no idea of past history and what came before America was discovered. After spending time abroad in England, I was embarrassed to find how knowledgable the students there were in comparison to the students that I work with at the high school level. They were well versed on American History as well as European history. "