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

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Teaching the Civil War on the 150th Anniversary

As we approach the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, it is important to teach about the death and destruction that was waged to ultimately end slavery. Despite the numerous competing interpretations of the American Civil War, Lincoln eloquently argued in his Second Inaugural Address that "One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war." By 1865, over 625,000 soldiers were dead and many more wounded, many cities and towns were leveled, and most importantly, the last American slaves were finally liberated on June 19th, 1865 (Juneteenth).

There are many excellent Civil War resources for teachers on Internet, here are some of the best:

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Victory for the Garfield High Seattle MAP Protest!

March 13th marked an important victory for educators that disagree with the nation's standardized testing obsession. Earlier this year, the teachers at Garfield High in Seattle protested the exorbitant number of exams their students are required to take by refusing the administer the MAP test. The teachers were not protesting all standardized tests. Rather, they argued the MAP test was flawed, wasted valuable instructional time, and did not provide meaningful feedback to teachers. As a result of the protest, the teachers faced suspension or other disciplinary actions. Eventually, the school district decided to use administrators and substitute teachers to administer the test. The New Yorker included an insightful piece on the protest and Dan Rather examined Garfield High through a television report back in February. Many schools and teachers unions sent letters of solidarity with the MAP Protest teachers. As a member of the Framingham Teachers Association Executive Board, we sent a letter of support. Meanwhile, many education professors, including myself, signed FairTest's Statement Against High States Testing. Inspired by the MAP Test Protest, students in Providence, Rhode Island, led a major protest of their state standardized test. Some parents across the country have decided to keep their children home on standardized test days in protest.

As more students, parents, and teachers across the country have joined in the protest against standardized testing, the national discourse has begun to shift slightly. Even Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a strong supporter of "data-driven" education, has softened his rhetoric on standardized testing, as was evident from his speech last month at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting.

Then yesterday, Seattle Superintendent José Banda announced that, starting next fall, Seattle high schools will not have to give the MAP test, while elementary and middle school teachers will receive more support on how to use MAP exam results to help better inform their instruction. Although this may not reverse the nation's troubling over-reliance on standardized testing, it is an important victory nonetheless. This will hopefully begin a shift in our national conversation on education from test data-obsession to improving instruction and poverty reduction.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hard Hat Riots

Most U.S. history students learn about the Kent State Massacre (pictured below), which occurred on May 4th, 1970, when four students at Kent State University were shot to death by National Guard gunfire. It became the subject of the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song "Ohio." However, many students do not learn about the related Hard Hat Riots in New York City (which occurred on this date 43 years ago). Four days after the Kent State shootings, anti-war protesters held a rally near City Hall to memorialize the four dead Kent State students. In reaction, hundreds of area construction workers met the protesters with American flags and signs that read "I support Nixon and Our Soldiers" and "America, Love it or Leave it." After a short period of time, the construction workers attacked the anti-war protesters, eventually spreading their violence to nearby Pace College (now Pace University). Over 70 people were injured and very few were arrested. Later, Nixon would meet with the construction workers at the White House, as this group represented a very public response by the so-called "Silent Majority."

The National History Education Clearinghouse has a link to an excellent website that discusses the verious perspectives of the Hard Hat Riots:

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Tale of Two Schools and the Failure of Education Reform

When most people think about Massachusetts, they envision Boston with its beautiful skyline, world-class universities and hospitals, sports teams, and of course Revolutionary War reenactors. Western Massachusetts, which is not so far from Boston, often feels like it is light years away. As a western Massachusetts native, who now lives in Boston, it is a place I love dearly. It is home to an eclectic mix of urban and rural, strong sense of community and diversity, and an interesting mix of college professors and the working class.

Since the days of Shays Rebellion, western Massachusetts has been long neglected by the powers-that-be in Boston. In fact, most residents in the eastern part of the state have little knowledge of Springfield beyond the Six Flags amusement park or the Basketball Hall of Fame. What they may not know is that Hampden County, which includes Springfield and Holyoke, is now the poorest county in Massachusetts with a per capita income of $24,718. Despite recent economic improvements nationwide, the unemployment rate there is still over 10%. Many of the former New England factory towns in the area struggle to revive their economies. Most people in eastern Mass. will also not know that Springfield was recently ranked the 12th most dangerous city in the U.S., with much of this violence spreading to Holyoke, a neighboring city, and, as featured tonight on 60 Minutes, local law enforcement is now using counterinsurgency methods to reduce gang-related crime in the area. To make matters worse, a devastating and incredibly unusual tornado destroyed much of downtown Springfield in 2011. Many of the buildings downtown remain in rubble. Since Springfield has its own media market (the Springfield stations are not carried on Boston cable), Bostonians almost never hear of the struggles faced by their fellow Bay Staters to the west. Needless to say, the state spends much more of its attention and resources on developing the economy and solving the problems in eastern Massachusetts.

I often peruse the online pages of the Springfield Republican to stay engaged in the local news of my hometown. Recently, I read this headline, "Massachusetts Education Commissioner on Holyoke's Dean Tech: Results Absolutely Disappointing; It's a Real Travesty." The reaction of the Commissioner of Education seems unusual, since two years earlier, it was his and the state's solution to required "the city put Dean Tech under outside management because school officials and staff have failed to turn around students' persistently poor academic performances." The "turnaround" company chosen was the Collaborative for Educational Services and it was paid over $600,000 a year to turnaround Dean Tech. As a result of these changes, there were dramatic changes for Dean Tech. Student enrollment dropped from 650 students to 530 students, while the school's faculty decreased from 160 to 121. After less than 3 years, there has been little change in test scores (which have been relatively unchanged since the first years of the state MCAS test) and the Collaborative for Educational Services, citing insufficient state money, terminated their contract with Holyoke. As a result, and forced by the state, the Holyoke School Committee has recently decided to transfer control to a new private operator, Project Grad USA out of Houston, Texas, who offer similar promises of turning the school around. Despite their website's glossy photos of graduating students, it is doubtful this private company will have any effect on Dean Teach.

Why am I choosing to use Dean Tech as a perfect example of the failure of recent so-called education reform? Over a decade ago, when I was an undergraduate at UMass Amherst, I first worked as a TEAMS tutor, then a student teacher, and later a substitute teacher at Dean Tech. In fact, from my experiences, I saw something very different in Dean Tech than the Commissioner of Education. Unlike the Commissioner, I spent everyday at Dean Tech. Instead of being a "travesty," I saw it as a transformational place that offered incredible hope to its students.

There is a reason why Dean Tech's test scores are so low. It is not an issue of "bad" or uncommitted teachers. Although I certainly witnessed a few teachers who should have retired earlier, the vast majority of the classrooms I observed had teachers who were incredibly dedicated and caring. The teachers had strong relationships with their students and they often worked hard to engage their students in the curriculum. I saw teachers convince more than one student to not to drop out of school. I witnessed this care on display during the annual teacher-student basketball game. During and after the game, the students seemed to view their teachers almost as an extension of their families. Although I do not recognize many of Dean Tech's current faculty (which I assume is exacerbated by all of the reforms enacted there in the past decade), I have to imagine much of this same school culture persists. It is not an issue of poor management. The principal was respected by the parents and students. Teachers were generally happy working there (many had spent their whole careers there). Despite Holyoke having a high crime rate, the school was relatively safe. There were rarely incidents of violence at the school. With over 600 students moving about the hallways during passing time, I was always amazed that in my time there I never witnessed a single fight. Although the school is not new, the physical plant was maintained and in relatively good shape.

The issue is poverty and the resulting segregation. According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, about 96% of Dean Tech's students are low-income, making it one of the most economically disadvantaged schools in the state. Since it is a vocational school, where students attend specifically to learn a trade, it is often a school that supports students that do not traditionally excel in school. From my experience, many of the students hated learning the traditional school subjects, but loved their shop courses (subjects not tested on the MCAS). With that being said, to continue in the shop programs students were required to pass their academic subjects. As a student teacher in history, I took this as a challenge. I made sure to teach many lessons on the connections between U.S. and Puerto Rican history (where many of my students' families came from), as well as historical lessons about technology and engineering (which connected to their trades). It was an amazing way to help students that, for all intents and purposes, probably would have dropped out of school. Moreover, about 40% of Dean Tech's students are labeled Special Education, which is more than double the state average and 97% of the students have been labeled "high needs" by the state, which means a student belongs to at least one of the following at-risk populations: low income, English Language Learner (ELL), or a student with disabilities. Moreover, Dean Tech is one of the most segregated schools in the state. Over 91% of students are Latino. Almost 70% do not have English as their first language and 30% are not proficient in English. The vast majority of students are Latino immigrants/migrants or the children of immigrants/migrants. The state highlights two main reasons for a needed takeover at Dean Tech: its poor graduate rate and low MCAS scores. It is true that Dean Tech had a 5-year graduation rate of 29.1% with a 46.3% drop out rate. Only 37% of students passed the MCAS, compared to 88% statewide. There are few schools in the state with this many barriers. Without Dean Tech, I can only imagine what might have happened to these students at non-vocational schools. Many Dean Tech graduates now have successful careers in the trades and contribute to the economy of western Massachusetts. It is unfair to judge Dean Tech on the same scale as traditional high schools, where for many college is the ultimate goal. In fact, not recorded in the data are the many drop outs that attend the night school program in Holyoke or the many others who took and passed the GED test (since for many of them a traditional high school diploma is not needed to attain a job in their trade).

Without a doubt, Dean Tech could be doing better. However, one thing that will assuredly not help improve the school are takeovers by private management companies. To better understand how Dean Tech can be improved, I would like to use the current school where I teach, a school located in another former factory town (albeit, in eastern Massachusetts), as an example. With 30% of students being low-income, Framingham High School has about a third the poverty level of Dean Tech. In 2000, only 58% of Framingham High's students passed the MCAS exam. The school was struggling. However, the reaction to poor MCAS results was quite different then what occurred at Dean Tech. First, teachers were empowered by the school district to solve the problems that plagued the school. No private companies were brought in to repair the school. Instead, the teachers were given more time to collaborate and participate in professional development. This time was not spent by paying outside companies to come in and tell the teachers how to teach. Rather, department heads were given the responsibility to lead their teachers in problem solving, seeking their own ways to improve learning. Second, a substantial number of social services were created to support those students that faced serious social and economic barriers. The school strengthened its ELL program and found a loophole in state law to continue bilingual education. The school created a medical center staffed with nurses and hired social workers and psychologists to be housed in the school's support center. They increased the number of special educators and support staff. They renovated the school building and upgraded the technology. They created numerous mentoring programs to help students that often fall through the cracks and continued to support an alternative high school for students on the other side of town. Finally, the school did not become obsessed with MCAS scores, but developed a culture where teachers worked together to improve instruction. Teachers were asked to co-teach at least one course with another teacher in their subject area, routinely share lesson plans, and observe their peers teach. Today, over 90% of Framingham High students pass the MCAS. It has one of the lowest dropout rates for immigrant students in the state and an overall drop out rate of only 7.3%.

Dean Tech needs these types of reforms if there is to be sustained improvements. Although these reforms might not produce results over night, it will make a positive difference. Due to its mission as a vocation school and its location in one of the poorest cities in the state, the reality is that Dean Tech may never have a reasonable drop out rate or high MCAS scores. Yet, it can continue to be a place where many students persevere despite the serious challenges of poverty and help find their students a meaningful career. I hope it is not too late to switch course and do what is right to save a very important place.

On This Cinco de Mayo, Let Us Remember the "Invasión Estadounidense a México"

On this Cinco de Mayo, I encourage everyone to watch Mo Rocca's piece from today's CBS Sunday Morning on U.S. expansionism and what it means to Mexico. Rather than discuss the 1862 Battle of Puebla, which is the Mexican victory over France celebrated on Cinco de Mayo, Rocca discusses a far more important topic, the defeat of Mexico by the U.S. during the "Mexican War," known in Mexico as the "Invasión Estadounidense a México," (translation: U.S. Invasion of Mexico). In this war, which was instigated by the U.S. as part of the larger strategy of Manifest Destiny and "conquering" the West, the U.S. would gain about 55% of Mexico's territory through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Furthermore, it was the first U.S. war to have widespread protests, especially in the northern states, including the protests by Henry David Thoreau leading to his imprisonment (which he wrote about in "Civil Disobedience") and a passionate House speech by freshmen Congressman Abraham Lincoln. 

Above: A map of the Empire of Mexico, circa 1835. 

The war and the subsequent territory-grab is rarely taught today in U.S. classrooms. Yet, it may be one of the most important events in U.S. history. This event can help explain to students why so much former Mexican land is now part of the United States and why Latino culture is ingrained in the culture of places like California, Texas, and Arizona. It explains a change from the defensive to offensive use of the American military in the mid-19th century, which in many ways persists today. It ultimately contributes to students' understanding of the Civil War, which is rooted in the expansion of not only territory, but also slavery, after the war. Rather than thinking about Mexico once a year on May 5th, or worse, banning the teaching of Mexican American Studies altogether (as has been done in Arizona), I encourage history teachers to regularly integrate the U.S. Invasion of Mexico and other Mexican American historical events into their curricula. This will truly help students realize that Mexican and Latino history is American history.


Saturday, May 4, 2013

Boston Civil Rights Field Trip

I recently led a group of 115 students on a field trip where we visited several civil rights-related sites in the city of Boston. To help students visualize the past, each student was given a photograph packet with images from Boston between 1950-1990. The JFK Library, where we normally begin our trip, was closed due to a recent fire. As a result, our field trip began at Carson Beach on the South Boston/Dorchester line, where students learned about the race-related tensions that broke out there in 1977. We then proceeded up Day Boulevard and to the top of Dorchester Heights, where we discussed the numerous protests in front of South Boston High School after Judge Arthur Garrity ordered forced busing in 1974 to achieve racial desegregation of the schools. Beforehand, to better understand the historical context, most of the students had viewed the "Eyes on the Prize" on Boston Busing in class. Along our route back to the bus, we also discussed the proliferation of racist graffiti that sprung up during that period, and walked by the Carson Tower apartments, where "Kill Niggers" was spray painted near the top of the building.

We then proceeded back down to the buses and traveled to Government Center. Students visited the site where the infamous photograph "The Soiling of Old Glory" was taken and we discussed the 1976 rally against forced busing that turned violent. Next, students walked to Boston Common, where in 1965 Martin Luther King led a march from Roxbury concluding with a speech and rally of 50,000 in support of the Voting Rights Act and against the resistance of the Boston School Committee to desegregate Boston's schools. We then traveled to the South End, where we discussed Boston's first Gay Pride Parade in 1970, established to commemorate the Stonewall Riots. Finally, we finished our field trip by discussing the numerous visits by members of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta's National Farm Workers Association to local union halls and Catholic churches in the Boston area and finally the increased Asian American activism in Chinatown following the 1982 racially-motivated murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit.

If teachers would like to replicate the Boston Civil Rights Trail field trip, below is the field trip guide, photograph packet, and Google Maps walking directions.

Resources: Boston Civil Rights Tour Guide and Boston Civil Rights Tour Photographs

Google Maps of the Field Trip Route:
Segment 1: South Boston Portion
Segment 2: Downtown Portion

Teaching About the Freedom Riders

On this date 52 years ago, the first Freedom Ride left Washington, D.C. on a bus ride to stop segregation on interstate buses. Scheduled to arrive on May 17th in New Orleans, violence prevented the riders from reaching their goal. Yet, this was a critical event in the struggle for civil rights in the 20th century. It exposed that the system of racism would be defended with violence. Pressed for time, many social studies teachers often give this event limited time in the U.S. history courses. Check out the excellent PBS-produced documentary commemorating the 50 anniversary of this important historical event. The teacher's guides offer numerous documents and resources for U.S. history teachers.

Resource Link: