Abolish social studies

“Social studies” — as opposed to history, geography and civics — was invented in the Progressive era to socialize children for a future planned by technocrats, writes Michael Knox Beran in City Journal.  It’s become dull, vacuous and a waste of time.  Abolish social studies!

Social studies is hostile to individualism, Beran writes. A 1931 social studies book for junior high school students condemned the U.S. economy’s wasteful lack of central planning and extolled Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan, which “resulted in millions of deaths from famine and forced labor.”

In the 1940s, as social studies took root in elementary schools, there were no more paeans to central planning. Paul Hanna’s texts were designed to teach children  “desirable patterns of acting and reacting in democratic group living.”

A lesson in the second-grade text Susan’s Neighbors at Work, for example, which describes the work of police officers, firefighters, and other public servants, is intended to teach “concerted action” and “cooperation in obeying commands and well-thought-out plans which are for the general welfare.” A lesson in Tom and Susan, a first-grade text, about a ride in grandfather’s red car is meant to teach children to move “from absorption in self toward consideration of what is best in a group situation.” Lessons in Peter’s Family, another first-grade text, seek to inculcate the idea of “socially desirable” work and “cooperative labor.”

Hanna doesn’t acknowledge “individual exertion, liberty of action, the necessity at times of resisting the will of others,” Beran writes. It’s group, group, group all the time.

Today’s social studies books are big on group spirit.

Lessons from Scott Foresman’s second-grade textbook Social Studies: People and Places (2003) include “Living in a Neighborhood,” “We Belong to Groups,” “A Walk Through a Community,” “How a Community Changes,” “Comparing Communities,” “Services in Our Community,” “Our Country Is Part of Our World,” and “Working Together.”

“Social studies textbooks descend constantly to the vacuity of passages like this one, from People and Places” aimed at third graders, Beran writes.

 Children all around the world are busy doing the same things. They love to play games and enjoy going to school. They wish for peace. They think that adults should take good care of the Earth. How else do you think these children are like each other? How else do you think they are like you?

Beran prefers the “old learning” which awakened children to their cultural heritage. McGuffey’s Readers introduced  eight-year-olds to Wordsworth and Whittier, nine-year-olds to tShakespeare, Milton, Byron, Southey, and Bryant and  ten-year-olds to Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Sterne, Hazlitt, Macaulay,  Pope, Longfellow, Shakespeare, and Milton.

In my younger days, I loved to read history. We didn’t study it till high school. Social studies consisted of memorizing the three principal products of every Canadian province and every country in Latin America. I also learned that Birmingham was the “Pittsburgh of Alabama” and the “Pittsburgh of England.” Malmo produces ball bearings.

Who will teach informational reading?

Students should read more non-fiction and “informational text,” say Common Core State Standards adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia. The new standards say half of elementary school reading assignments should be nonfiction, growing to 70 percent by grade 12. Who should teach informational reading?

Already, English teachers are cutting literature units to make room for recommended texts, which include Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” “FedViews,” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) and “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management,” published by the General Services Administration, reports the Washington Post.

But David Coleman, who co-authored the standards, say educators have it all wrong.

Teachers in social studies, science and math should require more reading, which would allow English teachers to continue to assign literature, he said.

Social studies teachers, for example, could have students read the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” while math students could read Euclid’s “Elements” from 300 B.C.

. . . The standards explicitly say that Shakespeare and classic American literature should be taught, said Coleman, who became president of the College Board in November.

. . . The specifics are spelled out in a footnote on page 5 of the 66-page standards.

Across the country, English teachers say their principals have told them it’s their job to teach students to read non-fiction. Social studies, science and math teachers are not sharing the responsibility.

Social studies follies

There are no Common Core social studies standards, nor even a framework for standards, but there is a “vision” of a “framework for inquiry,” reports Ed Week.

Welcome to the social studies follies, writes Checker Finn on Education Gadfly. The “vision” of a College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework will “focus on the disciplinary and multidisciplinary concepts and practices that make up the process of investigation, analysis, and explanation.” The document goes on:

It will include descriptions of the structure and tools of the disciplines (civics, economics, geography, and history) as well as the habits of mind common in those disciplines. The C3 Framework will also include an inquiry arc—a set of interlocking and mutually supportive ideas that frame the ways students learn social studies content. This framing and background for standards development to be covered in C3 all point to the states’ collective interest in students using the disciplines of civics, economics, geography, and history as they develop questions and plan investigations; apply disciplinary concepts and tools; gather, evaluate, and use evidence; and work collaboratively and communicate their conclusions.

The C3 Framework will focus primarily on inquiry and concepts, and will guide — not prescribe — the content necessary for a rigorous social studies program. CCSSO recognizes the critical importance of content to the disciplines within social studies and supports individual state leadership in selecting the appropriate and relevant content.

Nowhere is there a mention of “knowledge,” complains Finn.  “When was World War I, why was it fought, who won, and what were the consequences?” Dunno.

Of course, “content” is mentioned, but Finn isn’t impressed. “This could turn out to be simply awful.”

American students don’t know much about civics and aren’t prepared for citizenship, writes Rick Hess, who’s co-edited a new book, Making Civics Count, with David Campbell, political scientist at Notre Dame and authority on civic engagement and Meira Levinson, education philosopher at Harvard and author of No Citizen Left Behind. In a 2006 survey of college students, “more than half of seniors did not know that the Bill of Rights prohibits the establishment of an official national religion.”

McCullough: No teacher should major in ed

Americans are “historically illiterate,” by and large, complains historian and author David McCullough in a 60 Minutes interview. When he speaks at universities, he meets bright, attractive, stunningly ignorant college students.

One young woman at a university in the Midwest came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she’d never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast. And I thought, “What are we doing that’s so wrong, so pathetic?” I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities, same thing. . . . when I say our fault I don’t mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part. The stories around the family dinner table. I say bring back dinner if you want to improve how children get to know history.

What about the teachers? asks Morley Safer.

“We need to revamp, seriously revamp, the teaching of the teachers,” McCullough replies.

I don’t feel that any professional teacher should major in education. They should major in a subject, know something. The best teachers are those who have a gift and the energy and enthusiasm to convey their love for science or history or Shakespeare or whatever it is. “Show them what you love” is the old adage. And we’ve all had them, where they can change your life. They can electrify the morning when you come into the classroom.

One of the historian’s children, David McCullough Jr., is an English teacher known for his “you’re not special” commencement speech at Wellesley High in Massachusetts.

New standards, old content-lite teaching

New Common Core Standards won’t help students learn if schools stick with the same old content and teaching strategies, writes Matthew Levey, a parent of three children in public schools and the husband of a teacher.

Non-fiction matters more than ever before, according to Common Core. So how does my tested-above-proficient 8th grader come to believe that the Confederacy was winning the Civil War prior to the Battle of Gettysburg? Perhaps it starts with history textbook with too many empty graphics, organized around themes rather than time. Maybe it starts by asking them to write about the battle before they were assigned the right chapters in the book? If content is king, children don’t seem to be getting enough.

“Children also need much more explicit instruction” to put content into context, Levey writes.

My daughter’s first written assignment this year was to imagine herself as a delegate in 1787, and explain whether she would vote for the Constitution if the Bill or Rights wasn’t included. Since my daughter hadn’t learned anything about the small states vs. big states debate, or any of the other big ideas that roiled Philadelphia that summer, all she could express was her feelings.

. . . Asked to write about the inevitability (or not) of the Civil War, my son struggled. He knew about slavery and industrialization, but years of the Teacher’s College writing model used in our local schools left him ill-prepared to organize his knowledge effectively. Judith Hochman, whose program is credited, in part, for helping save New Dorp High School correctly observes that “much writing instruction prior to ninth grade … is based around journals, free writing, memoirs, poems and fiction.”

The result, Hochman notes, is that students don’t know “how to communicate effectively to an audience. Students are given little or no preparation for the types of expository writing required in high school, college, and the workplace.”

Raising standards without redesigning the curriculum and retraining teachers is doomed to fail, Levey predicts. 

Via Core Knowledge, where Robert Pondiscio has started a squishiness watch on the upcoming common social studies standards.  A draft framework will be released next month, he notes. “If a report by Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz is any indication, they might be so devoid of curricular content as to be functionally meaningless.”  The new standards won’t detail issues or events students should study, Gewertz writes. Instead they’ll describe “the structure, tools and habits of mind” they should develop.

No content? Pondiscio offers the Core Knowledge Sequence for Pre-K to 8th grade as a reference.

Homeschooling in the city

When dad’s a part-time professor  and editor and mom’s a laid-off journalist, there’s no money for private school and no motivation to schlep the kids from Brooklyn to Manhattan for a public school with a “gifted” class. Paul Elie writes about the joys of homeschooling in the city in The Atlantic.

Homeschooling isn’t just for “religious traditionalists and off-the-grid homesteaders,” Elie writes. For middle-class parents — with a stay-at-home mom or dad — it’s “a practical alternative to New York’s notoriously inadequate education system.”

The city’s public schools are underfunded, overcrowded, and perpetually in turnaround. District boundaries governing enrollment change from one year to the next, as do standards for admission to gifted programs and “citywide” schools, accept­ance to which is determined by children’s scores on tests whose educational relevance is questionable.

. . . Some of the parents in our (homeschooling) circle are “unschoolers,” convinced that early education should follow a child’s interests and initiatives rather than shape them. Some of us aspire to offer something like a classical education: logic and rhetoric, mythology, Latin. Most of us are put off by the public schools’ emphasis on standardized tests and their scant attention to the visual arts, music, religion, and foreign languages.

New York City offers a “gorgeous mosaic of intellectual and cultural offerings,” Elite writes.

On a normal day in our Brooklyn apartment, I teach math first thing, then go to an office space in a different neighborhood. Lenora picks up from there, teaching American and world history, language arts, geography, and penmanship, depending on the day. She and the boys then set out into the city for science at the Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Zoo, or the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; history at the Queens County Farm Museum or the Wyckoff Farmhouse, in Brooklyn; or art at the Metropolitan Museum.

Homeschoolers can find free programs or affordable classes, such as one that “teaches children the history of a place—­medieval Europe, Federal-era New York—through its architecture.”  He pays $5 a week for a homeschool soccer program led by a coach who can’t find other work during regular school hours.

Reading like a historian

A program developed by Stanford historians that asks students to analyze primary sources can “deepen students’ content knowledge, help them think like historians, and also build their reading comprehension,” reports Ed Week.

The Reading Like a Historian program, a set of 75 free secondary school lessons in U.S. history, is getting a new wave of attention as teachers adapt to the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts. Those guidelines, adopted by all but four states, demand that teachers of all subjects help students learn to master challenging nonfiction and build strong arguments based on evidence.

In a 2008 experiment  in 10 San Francisco high school U.S. history classes, teachers using Reading Like a Historian outperformed the control group in factual knowledge, reading comprehension and analytical skills.

The program takes primary-source documents as its centerpiece and shifts textbooks into a supporting role. Each lesson begins with a question, such as, “How should we remember the dropping of the atomic bomb?” or “Did Pocahontas save John Smith’s life?” Students must dig into letters, articles, speeches, and other documents to understand events and develop interpretations buttressed by evidence from what they read.

Teachers trained in the approach focus heavily on four key skills: “sourcing,” to gauge how authors’ viewpoints and reasons for writing affect their accounts of events; “contextualization,” to get a full picture of what was happening at the time; “corroboration,” to help students sort out contradictory anecdotes and facts; and “close reading,” to help them absorb text slowly and deeply, parsing words and sentences for meaning.

The Stanford historians adapted the documents to help weak readers. “They shortened them, simplified syntax and vocabulary, and added word definitions,” reports Ed Week.

Students: School is too easy

School is “too easy,” according to many students concludes a Center for American Progress analysis. Many students aren’t challenged in school and aren’t working very hard, conclude Ulrich Boser and Lindsay Rosenthal, who analyzed federal education surveys.

Some 37 percent of fourth-graders, nearly one-third of eighth-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders say their math work is often or always too easy. Just under half of 12-grade students say they are always or almost always learning in math class.

Civics and history work is easier: More than half of eighth-grade and high school students say their civics and history work is often or always too easy.

For most students, school is not a “pressure cooker,” Boser, a senior fellow at the center, told USA Today.

Only one in five eighth-graders read more than 20 pages a day, either in school or for homework. Most report that they read far less.

“It’s fairly safe to say that potentially high-achieving kids are probably not as challenged as they could be or ought to be,” Boser said.

Almost a third of eighth-grade students report reading less than five pages a day.

The report recommends raising expectations and standards.

Here’s an interactive map of the states.

Teacher: ‘Cold reading’ is boring, shallow

Common Core Standards’ recommended English lessons are shallow and boring, writes teacher Jeremiah Chaffee on Answer Sheet.  Along with colleagues at his upstate New York high school, he spent a day on an “exemplar” lesson that calls for “cold reading” the Gettysburg Address. Teachers are told not to introduce the speech or discuss the Civil War, he writes.

Students are not asked to connect what they read yesterday to what they are reading today, or what they read in English to what they read in science.

The exemplar, in fact, forbids teachers from asking students if they have ever been to a funeral because such questions rely “on individual experience and opinion,” and answering them “will not move students closer to understanding the Gettysburg Address.”

. . .  it is impossible to have any deep understanding of Lincoln’s speech without thinking about the context of the speech: a memorial service.

Teachers are told to read the speech aloud, pronouncing the words clearly, but not dramatizing it.

That’s not good teaching, writes Chaffee, a 13-year veteran. He thinks Common Core’s stress on just-the-words reading is designed to prepare students for tests.

David Coleman, who co-wrote the English Language Arts standards, demonstrates a close-reading lesson on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail here via EngageNY on Vimeo.  Is this good teaching?

 

Report: Education failure puts U.S. at risk

Educational failure threatens our economic prosperity, global leadership and national security, according to a report by a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) task force chaired by Joel I. Klein, former head of New York City public schools, and Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state.

Too many young people are not employable in an increasingly high-skilled and global economy, and too many are not qualified to join the military because they are physically unfit, have criminal records, or have an inadequate level of education.

“Human capital will determine power in the current century, and the failure to produce that capital will undermine America’s security,” the report states. “Large, undereducated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy.”

Among other policy suggestions, the report calls for expanding Common Core Standards to include “the skills and knowledge necessary to safeguard the country’s national security,” including science, technology, foreign languages, creative problem-solving skills and civic awareness.

Update:  History, science and art are “truant” from school, said panelists at a  Common Core discussion. Common Core will be creating Common Core State Standards-based curriculum maps in history and geography. David Coleman, one of the lead writers of the new English Language Arts standards, said it’s impossible to teach K-5 reading “without coherently developing knowledge in science, and history, and the arts.”

 And that is why NAEP scores in early grades can improve slightly but collapse as students grow older. Because it is the deep foundation in rich knowledge and vocabulary depth that allows you to access more complex text.

Let’s not get confused here that [the CCSS] are adding back nice things [history, arts, science] that are an addendum to literacy.  We are adding the cornerstones of literacy, which are the foundations of knowledge, that make literacy happen.

There is no greater threat to literary study in this country than false imitations of  literature which do not deserve to be read.

Coleman told states not buy mediocre materials with a “Common Core” stamp.  Wait for the good stuff to be available, he said.