States debate over voluntary social studies standards, or, what I learned in Social Studies

March 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

I don’t know about you, but when I was in school, our well-meaning social studies and history teachers rarely made it through their intended curriculum. In high school, no class I took got beyond the Vietnam conflict. We were lucky to make it to World War II. Even in college, my American history courses usually got stuck near the civil rights movement. Consequently, my knowledge of recent history (say, 1950 to 1997, when I became conscious enough to start paying attention to the world around me) is rather lacking. Most of what I know comes from quick Wikipedia scans after reading news articles referencing something I haven’t heard about before, or something I am vaguely familiar with, but don’t know enough detail to understand why it’s relevant to the story I’m reading/watching/hearing.

Heck, let’s be totally honest.* Even the stuff we managed to cover in class is rather fuzzy to me. Sure, I know when the American Revolution took place, the reasons behind the Civil War, that there was something called the Teapot Dome or some such, that FDR was the first and last president to be elected to more than two terms. But local history? Women’s history? Some element of detail? Not so much.

I certainly don’t fault my teachers (well, maybe a couple, but definitely not most). I remember quite vividly some of the lectures, discussions, and assignments from their classes. They were trying their hardest, and doing a good job, in my opinion. And I definitely learned something, even if we didn’t get to everything they had planned or hoped.**

Now, I bet you’re wondering why I’m rambling on about my experiences in social studies and history classes. Well, it’s because I’ve been reading several books about accountability, testing and curriculum, and because I read this in Education Week today.

I was far out of school by the time NCLB came into being, so I really don’t have much of an idea on the impact it has had in the classroom, other than what has been described to me and what I have read. But it seems to me that if social studies, history, and other non-tested subjects have been increasingly marginalized in favor of math and reading, then students who are currently graduating from high school (like my younger brother), will have little chance of knowing even the few things I managed to hold on to from the classes I took when I was in school.

Yet, part of me wonders what kind of impact voluntary standards like the ones described in Education Week. Obviously, there is political debate over what should be included in the standards. There always will be. But if there is a state-wide requirement of what must be covered, no matter the political “leaning,” teachers may be forced to go from in-depth coverage of subjects (usually the reason the class falls behind schedule) to a more cursory coverage of the required items. I have trouble seeing how that will benefit the students’ understanding.

One last thought, on a positive note. I am happy that states are deciding to emphasize the importance of social studies, history, and other subjects which are not included in testing. Whether or not this importance gets translated into class time, or into actual learning and understanding by students, will be seen in time.

*The two people who read this won’t judge, after all.

** Here, I bet some of you are thinking, “But Courtney, you have a BA in history! Surely you know more than you let on!” Which is true… if you want to know anything about the reign of Mary I of England, or Cardinal Reginald Pole, papal legate to England during her reign. Outside of England in 1553 – 1558, I’m fuzzy about quite a lot.

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