Sunday, January 26, 2014

What Happened to Elementary Social Studies? ...And How Can We Get It Back?

Recently, an experienced elementary teacher in a local urban district asked me for some ideas for motivating elementary teachers to teach social studies, especially when it is not tested in Massachusetts and teachers feel they have to "squeeze it in" with the new Common Core standards. I am posting my response in hopes that it will encourage other elementary teachers to make the case that social studies is more important than ever. Here is my response (with a pseudonym):

Dear Linda,  

From speaking with other teachers and our preservice teachers, I have become incredibly concerned about the lack of social studies being done at the K-5 level (especially in urban schools). Sadly, it shouldn’t be hard to squeeze in, especially since it should be a taught daily like math, English, and science. In an age of Common Core (whether we like it or not), social studies needs to be a regular part of the elementary curriculum. Part of the problem is that most people see social studies as learning stories and memorizing names, dates, and places. However, it should be taught as inquiry and argumentation, which fits in well with the major themes found in Common Core. I have attached two nice handouts, one from the Boston Public Schools and one from the state of Oregon, on the shifts in ELA found in Common Core. Both offer the keys to arguing that social studies is not only needed, but vital for students to do well on the Common Core assessments (PARCC, Smarter Balanced). If you need to tie more social studies into Common Core, the best argument is that social studies serves many needs in the ELA/literacy portion of Common Core, particularly a focus on informational texts, text-based answers, and increased writing from sources. More importantly, beyond Common Core, social studies is a vital school subject in helping students understand their histories, develop as citizens in a democratic society, and understand the world and cultures around them, not to mention learn to reason and make arguments based on evidence. 

To help with ways to connect all the social studies disciplines to Common Core, I would recommend looking at the recently released C3 Framework. Supported by national history and social science organizations (including the NCSS), an outstanding writing team created this framework to help guide states revise their social studies frameworks (much like science groups created the Next Generation Science Standards). It is aligned with Common Core and it breaks it down by social studies disciplines (history, government/civics, geography, economics) and includes student goals for grade levels (2nd, 5th, 8th, and 12th). My hope is this will be the document that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education uses whenever they decide to revise the state's History and Social Science Curriculum Framework.

I hope this helps with your attempt to get teachers to teach social studies even though it isn't tested.


  1. GREAT post! This topic is an ongoing battle/priority for me as a K-12 Social Studies Director. I shared your blog post on Twitter and it seemed to get a lot of interest.

    1. Thanks Kerry! It seems the Common Core causes people to miss the forest from the trees. Elementary social studies is vital!

    2. Agreed! And... speaking of elementary social studies... check out this recent ASCD feature!