Columnist Rich Cairn: More social studies instruction needed

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Most people know the original purpose of American public education — repeated in countless school mission statements — to create better citizens.

Most of us learned history and civics across our school years. So it is understandable if most people assume that today’s schools teach social studies. Unfortunately, history and civics are all but gone from a growing number of Massachusetts schools. The Legislature is considering a decisive new strategy in part to counter this decline.

Democratic senators Harriette Chandler, of Worcester, and Eric Lesser, of Longmeadow, and colleagues introduced bills to require that students complete a civic engagement project to graduate. Seventy percent of social studies teachers in a recent survey supported such a requirement. Even more educators, 88 percent, supported requiring that students pass a civics course.

The Legislature’s Joint Education Committee held a hearing June 13 to garner testimony about civics education. Now the committee is considering whether to advance or kill a civics bill.

Earlier this month, a survey of Massachusetts social studies teachers and administrators from 86 school districts statewide revealed a dire picture for social studies. A majority of Massachusetts students in grades K-4 spend less than 45 minutes per week on social studies. At 5th grade, 60 percent of Massachusetts schools allot an hour or less per week for social studies. In today’s schools, these time constraints are firm. Thus teachers have little flexibility (and often face outright prohibitions) to teach social studies.

At the secondary level, a tenth of schools have absorbed social studies into a “humanities” program. This seemingly reasonable idea collides with a lack of tradition, guidance, training, and materials for general humanities at the K-12 levels.

How did this happen? In 2009, the Massachusetts Board of Education abruptly canceled the social studies MCAS test, three weeks before implementation. Hit at the same time by the recession, cuts of social studies teachers followed. Since then, the emphasis on MCAS tests in math, English language arts, and Science has continued to erode the subject.

The board officially remains open to reinstating the social studies MCAS test. A panel of educators is reviewing state social studies standards, and will take up the question this year. (Public input will occur early in 2018.)

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, social studies educators resist a fourth MCAS, as 48 percent oppose it, while just 42 percent support it. These teachers dislike the multiple-choice test format because it fails to measure what matters.

Among social studies teachers, even supporters of a fourth MCAS do so conditionally: “If a social studies MCAS were to test skills, I would support it.” Yet skills-based tests, performance portfolios, and other more meaningful assessments take money and time. The debate will increase over the next year.

Early in 2016, the Massachusetts Board of Education revised the definition of its goals for students to add readiness for civic life as well as for college and career. This advance in language could prove pivotal if assertively supported.

If a decline in public knowledge and understanding of history and of civics concerns you, make your voice heard to public officials now and over the coming year. The mission of public education is at a crossroads.

See the full results of the June survey of social studies educators and a report on the June 13 hearing on civic engagement, including links to proposed legislation, at http://EmergingAmerica.org/blog.

Rich Cairn, of Amherst, directs a statewide professional development program for teachers.