The Trouble with National Social Studies Standards, and how the Common Core Might Help

Seneca fallsEducation Week reports on social scientists who complain that the new Common Core curriculum standards replicate the problems of No Child Left Behind, by shunting civics and history in favor of English and math. 

I share the concern about the sorry state of civics and history education in American schools, but this is actually one reason why I'm cautiously optimistic about the Common Core. The Common Core English standards call for 50 percent of all reading assignments to be non-fiction and "informational;" currently, according to David Coleman, the lead architect of the new standards, about 80 percent of all reading assignments are fiction or memoir. So if schools and teachers take the Common Core suggested reading lists seriously, students will gain  a lot more exposure to great thinkers and ideas in civics, history, and the social sciences. Here's a sampling of what the Core suggests they read:

K-1: How People Learned to Fly

2-3Martin Luther King and the March on Washington; A Medieval Feast

4-5:  We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball; Let’s Investigate Marvelously Meaningful Maps;  The Kid’s Guide to Money

6-8:  Preamble and First Amendment to the United States Constitution; Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus BoycottA Short Walk through the Pyramids and through the World of Art

9-10: "Gettysburg Address;" "Letter from Birmingham Jail;" Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West;  Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491

11-12:  Common Sense; "Politics and the English Language;" Democracy in America; "Delcaration of Sentiments" by the Seneca Falls Conference

English class reading lists aren't a substitute for high-quality history and civics courses, but they do foster seriousness toward these subjects across the curriculm. And remember: There are pragmatic political reasons why the Common Core isn't explicitly crafting history standards. Every time the country or even an individual state tries to come to any sort of agreement about how to teach history, we become embroiled in culture war nonsense. It happened in the 1990s with the National History Standards, which were written by a staggeringly broad array of scholars and teachers, yet attacked by Lynne Cheney et al as a font of identity politics liberlism. In Texas last year, the state Board of Education approved what can only be called a jingoistic, Christian conservative history and economics curriculum.

The United States remains an outlier among developed world nations in not articulating national standards for history. But with our politics as polarized as they are, and with the Republican Party particularly skeptical right now toward any federal attempt to regulate or even influence local schools, I just don't see the next few years as the time when we'll break through this barrier.

drawing depicts Elizabeth Cady Stanton speaking at the Seneca Falls Conference for women's rights, July 19, 1848

4 thoughts on “The Trouble with National Social Studies Standards, and how the Common Core Might Help

  1. Tom Hoffman


    You are simply being tricked. The curricular suggestions associated with the Common Core standards are just suggestions. It is, essentially, marketing. There is no reason to take them any more seriously than anyone else’s suggestions about curriculum.

    If you evaluate these standards based on anything other than the standards themselves, you’ve being played.

  2. Dana

    Tom, I understand fully that the states and schools will have a lot of flexibility with the standards — but there will also be assessments created to test them, which could be a powerful lever. I do think the Core will prompt deeper thinking about content, reading and writing than NCLB has.

  3. Sherman Dorn

    That’s definitely a glass-half-full attitude! I think you’re right that the non-fiction elements in the language arts standards are better than nothing, and if you look at the sample list in your entry it makes a great deal of sense once students are in high school.

    I am less sanguine about exposure to primary sources at younger grades, though that’s where the introduction to them needs to be. The recent revision of the Florida social studies standards was originally (in draft form) going to skip primary sources as a benchmark for all grades 3-8 until I and other commentators pointed out primary sources need to be put in front of students every year. Maybe the Gettysburg address isn’t appropriate for a fourth grader, but letters are.

  4. Dana

    Sherman, thanks for your thoughts. I also noticed that the intro to primary sources occurs in the middle grades. Curious as to specific examples of primary sources that work for younger children. If teachers have ideas, please post!


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