Monday, April 14, 2014

New Massachusetts Social Studies Standards Are Long Overdue

As a social studies teacher educator, I spend a considerable amount of time helping future teachers navigate the Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework (which I will refer to hereafter as the social studies standards). Despite the conservative Fordham Institute’s recent praise for the standards (they gave them an A-), the honest truth is that Massachusetts' social studies standards are in need of a major revision. The current standards do not address the the academic needs of students. Rather than having students analyze and evaluate evidence, the social studies standards focus almost exclusively on having students "describe" and "explain" (analysis does not appear until the high school grades). In general, the document is a list of history and social science facts and lacks a strong emphasis on writing from sources (an important shift in the new Common Core) or using disciplined inquiry.

The Massachusetts social studies standards have a complex and political history. For a full background, read my previous post on its problematic development. In short, before 2003, Massachusetts had a social studies framework that emphasized U.S. history in the elementary grades and world history in the secondary grades. Influenced by the events of September 11th, Massachusetts revised its social studies standards to focus more on U.S. history across the grades.

There are dilemmas raised by the current content of the Massachusetts social studies standards. First, the heavy emphasis on U.S. history is problematic. As a long-time U.S. history teacher, I know the importance of students understanding the nation's past. Yet, in an increasingly globalized world, it is essential that Massachusetts' students better understand the world outside the United States and this requires significant study in world history, geography, comparative government, and global economics. It demands that students have a strong understanding of diverse cultural perspectives. Ideally, students would learn U.S. history integrated within larger global history courses. 

Second, social studies in the early elementary grades lacks content coherence. The curriculum is poorly organized and leaves teachers with minimal guidance on how to connect topics. Moreover, there is an unusual emphasis on folktales and stories about Americans (which seems much more appropriate for language arts), a heavy emphasis on patriotism and following rules (with no mention of democracy or activism), and a general lack of world history, geography, and civics. 

Third, the content in the standards are heavily Eurocentric, which does not reflect the growing racial and ethnic diversity of Massachusetts' students. The vast majority of historical people listed are of European decent. People of color are depicted in terms of a Black and White binary (there is limited inclusion of American Indians, Latinos, and Asian Americans). Numerous figures and events significant to the history of people of color are absent. There is no mention of slave revolts, sharecropping, Geronimo, Battle of Wounded Knee, Angel Island, the Zoot Suit Riots, César Chávez (is only included as an optional famous American in Grade 1), 20th century race riots, the Black Panthers, or Vincent Chin. As such, many students have a difficult time connecting to the material or worse find the social studies they learn in school culturally irrelevant.

Despite these flaws, my main contention with the current standards is not with its content. Rather, the standards prevent social studies from moving beyond fact-recall. The current social studies framework is predominately a list of names, dates, places, and events from history (with some integration of economics, civics, and geography, especially in the elementary grades). If Massachusetts takes the needed steps to revise its social studies standards, I would suggest they consider the following:

1. Future standards should focus on argumentation and inquiry, which will help transform social studies teaching and student learning. Content is important, but developing thinking is more important. Content is the vehicle for learning to assess evidence, develop arguments, and understand multiple perspectives. However, the exclusive focus on content (even with an uncertain high-stakes test in social studies) has resulted in teachers spending less time developing their students' thinking skills and more time covering an extensive lists of facts (which the breadth of the current standards make it almost impossible to cover). I have seen this in practice at the various elementary and secondary classrooms that I visit. More often than not, social studies lessons are focused on helping students memorize names, dates, places, and events (albeit, often in engaging ways). It is less common to see students engaging in historical, civic, geographic, or economic thinking or making arguments rooted in history and social science evidence. 

2. Future social studies standards should have content coherence and use a spiral curriculum design. In its current format, students rarely revisit similar concepts at deeper levels as they progress through the grades. Partially a result of the current curriculum being a jammed-packed content list, students may only "cover" certain content during one specific grade and never learn about it again. This is especially true for the elementary grades. For the most part, each grade's curriculum does not build on or connect to the previous or future year's curriculum. In elementary and middle school, there is little to no mention of argumentation (and when it is mentioned, it is to assess the arguments of others). Inquiry is absent throughout the document. Yet, there is substantial evidence from the research on social studies education that elementary and middle school students can engage in historical thinking and argumentation. Furthermore, Massachusetts may find it helpful to focus on understanding  community (family, city/town, state, nation, world) in K-1, as many other states do. This would help create a foundation for future learning in social studies. Currently, the early grades are a hodgepodge of holidays, symbols, folktales, and "famous Americans." There is little opportunity for making judgements or discovering through the social studies. The current social studies standards generally underestimate the cognitive abilities of young learners.

3. Teachers should be participating in the design of any new social studies standards and feedback should be solicited from teachers statewide. This would ensure more support and an stronger transition from the old standards. Social studies teachers in Massachusetts are already aware of the Common Core and many have taken professional development on the implementation of Common Core's language arts standards in social studies. This has rightfully caused many social studies teachers to become concerned that social studies is being "left behind" and marginalized in the curriculum (especially in Massachusetts, where the history and social science MCAS has been suspended for years). Additionally, Massachusetts has a large number of exemplary social studies teachers whose expertise is an asset. There are many social studies  teachers across the state who use inquiry in their classrooms and volunteers can be solicited from the secondary departments and elementary schools that are known for their innovative social studies practices. This is a moment to empower the state's social studies teachers. It could shift the growing sentiment that "social studies doesn't matter" to it being a crucial subject in students' college, career, and civic development. This has certainly been the case for science in Massachusetts, which continues to receive a strong spotlight on the state-level.

Massachusetts would not be alone in revising its social studies standards. Last year, in cooperation with the major professional organizations in history, geography, economics, and civics, the National Council for the Social Studies drafted “The College, Career, and Civic Life(C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards (C3).” C3 was designed to help guide states in re-writing their social studies standards by balancing new demands from the Common Core State Standards and core tenets of the various disciplines in social studies. This framework offers a strong foundation for building new Massachusetts social studies standards. This is the same process that the state is using to revise its science standards in light of the recently released Next Generation Science Standards (a science companion of C3). 

There are two paths for Massachusetts to take on social studies education: Stay on the current trajectory, where social studies students spend most of their time memorizing, rather than thinking, and the subject continues to be marginalized. Or, redesign the curriculum to support the growing need for students to become informed citizens who can construct arguments based on evidence and engage in inquiry and problem solving. This will require a shift in the state-mandated curriculum. Which path will it be? 


  1. As a 5th grade teacher that loves history, I agree that the state needs to revise their standards. While kids love learning about things like the Vikings, that is not the most critical thing I want my students to learn this year in class.

  2. Thanks for commenting Stacey! I encourage you (and others) to let DESE know that there is a need for new social studies standards (especially at the elementary level). Here is their contact information (choose Curriculum & Instruction: Literacy and Humanities):