Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Case for Elementary Social Studies Specialists

Elementary schools have traditionally been organized into self-contained classrooms where one teacher has the responsibility for all subject-matter areas. Although some have made the argument for departmentalization, I continue to support the self-contained elementary classroom. Although the research is relatively thin, some studies do show positive effects of self-contained classroom, including benefits for child development, increased instructional time, and possibly an increase in student achievement on standardized tests.

As a teacher educator, I have found stark differences across schools in the amount of social studies instruction elementary students receive. In some elementary schools, students learn social studies at least 3-4 times a week. However, these schools are becoming a rarity. Numerous scholars have documented that social studies continues to be marginalized as a school subject, especially at the elementary-level. Several studies have shown elementary social studies instructional time has dramatically declined over the past two decades. I have been in many elementary schools (especially in urban districts) where students receive absolutely no social studies or only interact with social studies content during language arts time (for instance, they have a unit based on a historical biography or non-fiction history text).

The steep decline in elementary social studies is certainly a symptom of an overwhelming emphasis on math and literacy in U.S. schools. However, under these circumstance, is it still the best idea to include social studies as a subject within the self-contained elementary classroom? Elementary teachers are expected to be experts in several different content areas. Yet, across the nation, elementary teacher preparation programs now include less instruction in social studies methods. In elementary schools, principals are forced to focus their attention on students' math and literacy (and sometimes science) test scores. Professional development for elementary teachers rarely focuses on social studies. Is it fair to expect the elementary generalist to teach social studies with so little professional development and so much pressure to focus on math, reading, and writing?

As a result of the decline in elementary social studies, I argue there is a need for elementary social studies specialists in schools. When I say "elementary social studies specialist," I am referring to a teacher in an elementary school who teaches social studies as a separate or special subject. Elementary social studies specialists would have a content background in social studies (history, civics/government, geography, economics, etc.) and a substantial preparation and continuing professional development in social studies pedagogy (including inquiry and culturally relevant social studies teaching).

The elementary social studies specialist would not be unprecedented. In fact, for decades, art, music, computers, and physical education have been taught by specialists. More recently, the science specialist has become more common in some districts (such as the Boston Public Schools) to increase the quality and quantity of science instruction. Why not add social studies specialists (especially in districts were social studies is short-thrift)? This would ensure that students were getting consistent social studies from a content specialist and, in schools where math and literacy have become the main focus, free up generalist teachers to focus on those areas. It may even allow generalist teachers to have an additional preparation period for collaboration with peers. Moreover, generalist teachers would still be encouraged to teach social studies within their classrooms, but they would also have someone in the building, with a background in social studies, who could be a resource.

Finally, elementary social studies specialists are not the ultimate solution to this problem. We need more social studies in school and especially at the elementary level. I am hopeful that social studies will eventually re-emerge as an important component of the elementary curriculum. When it does, elementary teachers will again receive a strong preparation in social studies methods (as they still do in some teacher preparation programs), regular social studies time in their weekly schedule, and social studies-related professional development. For now, social studies specialists may be a necessary stopgap measure.