Friday, May 31, 2013

Continuously Uncertain Reform Effort: The Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework

Below is a brief background of the Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework. It is difficult to locate an up-to-date history of this reform effort and I hope this commentary offers some context for understanding the current state of social studies education in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Education Reform Act (MERA) of 1993 had a monumental effect on the public education system in Massachusetts. In less than 20 years, Massachusetts has drastically reformed state oversight of education and embraced the standards-based movement. While Massachusetts has often been touted as a national model of education reform and its students consistently rank at the top of national and international assessments (Massachusetts Department of Education, 2008; Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 2011), social studies education has taken a back seat to math and literacy in these reforms. Furthermore, over the last decade the state’s history and social science mandate has involved constant mixed-messages related to content, accountability demands, and future existence; conditions which I label a continuously uncertain reform effort.

It has been a turbulent, politically charged, and continuously uncertain road for the Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework (Massachusetts Department of Education, 1995, 1997, 2003) and its related graduation test. Over the last 20 years, the state has published three different versions of the history and social science curriculum framework and pilot tested several multiple choice and essay-based exams. Furthermore, the state has delayed the graduation exam requirement on three separate occasions and most recently suspended the social studies assessment indefinitely for budget reasons.

This all began in 1993 when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the school finance system in the state violated the education clause of the state’s constitution. As a result, the state legislature passed the Massachusetts Education Reform Act (MERA). This law directed the Commissioner of Education to institute a process for producing curriculum frameworks in the core subjects (mathematics, science and technology, history and social sciences, English, foreign languages, and the arts)” (McDermott et al., 2001, p. 30). MERA also mandated a statewide assessment system based on those curriculum frameworks called the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). According to French (1998), MERA required “broad public participation in the creation of the frameworks” (p. 184). He described the Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE) as embracing this and the DOE openly sought the public’s participation, including teachers and parents. In fact, Massachusetts was the first state to include students in the drafting of their frameworks. As a result of many public hearings and study groups, the DOE created early drafts of the curriculum frameworks, including a draft of a social studies framework called Uncovering Social Studies (Massachusetts Department of Education, 1995). “By the DOE’s estimate, about 50,000 people participated in the process in some way. Educators saw the common core and the curriculum framework as part of a larger project reforming curriculum and pedagogy along constructivist lines, which they supported” (McDermott, 2003, p. 32). The social studies curriculum appeared to have widespread support.

By the mid-1990s, Republican Governor William Weld’s appointments to the Board of Education left a decidedly more conservative view of curriculum and teaching among the board members. In 1996, John Silber was appointed chairperson. “Under Silber, the board revised the curriculum frameworks, eliminating their constructivist tendencies. The educators who had been involved in producing the common core and the frameworks, and in aligning their schools’ curricula with the state requirements, opposed the new direction and criticized the state for changing its goals to suit leaders’ whims” (McDermott, 2003, p. 32). During this political shift in the Board of Education, the social studies curriculum framework also underwent significant changes.

The second generation social studies curriculum framework was created primarily through a top-down process. There is little evidence that the teachers, administrators, students, parents, or historians had much input into their design or creation of the second generation of social studies curriculum. “Teacher committees were dismissed, and new drafts were created by conservative board members and hand-picked practitioners who shared their political viewpoints. In the new social studies drafts, lists of facts about people, places, dates, and events predominated. There was a strong Eurocentric point of view, and key areas of the world were virtually eliminated” (French, 1998, p. 187). The Social Studies Curriculum was renamed the History and Social Science Curriculum Framework and the first officially published version was released in 1997. The new framework’s scope and sequence was ambitious and extensive. The PK-4 curriculum introduced topics of families and communities, early Americans, Massachusetts history, and ancient civilizations. The 5th grade curriculum included U.S. history until 1815, 6th grade was open for electives, 7th grade focused on world history and geography, and 8th grade focused on U.S. history until 1877. The curriculum for high school included world history (from 500 AD to the present) being taught in 9th and 10th grade and U.S. history being taught in 11th or 12th grade. Furthermore, it was recommended that a 12th grade course in civics/US government be taught (Massachusetts Department of Education, 1997). The K-12 curriculum primarily focused on the history of Europeans and White Americans.

Just when it seemed that the social studies curriculum was set in Massachusetts, there was another abrupt change. In 2002, the Massachusetts Board of Education commissioned a new draft of the history/social science framework (Massachusetts Department of Education, 2003). Motivated by the nationalism and patriotism following September 11th, and citing a 1938 Massachusetts law requiring the teaching of American history, the Department of Education abandoned the previous curriculum framework’s emphasis in high school on world history and began work on a predominately United States history focused curriculum (Cohen, 2008). The project was lead by Senior Associate Commissioner Sandra Stotsky and a small group at the Department of Education. This new framework was approved in October 2002 and officially released in 2003 (Massachusetts Department of Education, 2003) with very little input from social studies teachers, teacher educators, history and social science content specialists, or community members. For the past decade, this iteration of the history and social science framework has remained in place.

Once the History and Social Science Curriculum Framework was finally set in 2003, the Board of Education began the process of establishing a high-stakes exam in history that would be required for graduation. This was voted on and approved in October 2006. Students were to meet the “Competency Determination” in U.S. History, beginning with the class of 2012 (Massachusetts Department of Education, 2007). The state established a contract with corporate testing firms to produce the MCAS History and Social Science pilot exam based on the 2003 History and Social Science Framework. Cohen (2008) explained that WestEd of California created the exam as a subcontractor for Measured Progress of New Hampshire. Furthermore, he found, “the Department of Education, in order to broaden the input of educators, has set up teams of teachers to serve on Assessment Development Committees (ADCs) at each of the levels of testing … before the examinations are printed, to go over the questions presented by WestEd and Measured Progress in order to make sure that the questions are significant, rather than trivial. Representatives of both companies attend as well” (p. 3). However, this self-selected group did not necessarily represent an accurate cross-section of the state’s social studies teachers, as this was a major time commitment and many teachers were unable to participate. Multiple choice and essay-based pilot exams were administered to grades 5, 8, and 10 between 2005-2008. The 5th grade exam focused on North American Geography and U.S. history until 1820. The 7th grade test included questions on world geography and ancient civilizations. The 10th grade test primarily focused on U.S. history. The 5th and 10th grade exams also included questions on government, civics, and economics (Massachusetts Department of Education, 2007). Many of the teachers that administered these tests, including myself, found them to be sub-par.

At first, the state gave districts very little access to their students’ data from these pilot exams. However, in the later years, access was given to overall school-wide performance, but not the scores of individual students. In 2009, the history/social science pilot exams were unexpectedly and abruptly suspended as a result of budgetary issues. At the same time, it was announced the graduation requirement would be delayed for the third time in the last half decade to the class of 2014 (Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 2009). The latest development occurred in 2011, when the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to delay the history and social science requirement until three consecutive history and social science assessments are administered statewide. Since the state has yet to administer a single history and social science assessment, it is unlikely teachers will see the subject required for graduation anytime soon. However, the state does continue to send the mixed message that the test is still in development, while simultaneously remaining suspended. To the detriment of Massachusetts students, the social studies curriculum framework and assessment continues to be a continuously uncertain reform effort.


Cohen, S. (2008). What form should the test take? Disagreements over assessment in Massachusetts. Statement on State History Assessments. Retrieved March 20, 2011, from

French, D. (1998). The state's role in shaping a progressive vision of public education. Phi Delta Kappan, 184(1), 184-190.

Massachusetts Department of Education. (1995). Uncovering social studies: Draft social studies curriculum. Malden, MA: Author.

 Massachusetts Department of Education. (1997). History and social science curriculum framework. Malden, MA: Author.

Massachusetts Department of Education. (2003). History and social science curriculum framework. Malden, MA: Author.

Massachusetts Department of Education. (2007). MCAS guide to history and social science assessments. Malden, MA: Author.

Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (2009). Education board votes to postpone history graduation requirement. Retrieved March 10, 2009, from

McDermott, K. A. (2003). Capacity to implement education reform. Education Connection, 31-33.

McDermott, K. A., Berger, J. B., Bowles, S., Brooks, C. C., Churchill, A. M., & Effrat, A. (2001). An analysis of state capacity to implement the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Center for Education Policy

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