Friday, April 01, 2005

The Headline: "Social Studies Losing Out to Reading, Math"

Education Week is one of the professional journals I have on alert, meaning I get an e-mail with the table of contents of the latest issue when it comes out. This is called awareness service, and a few other terms. Larger academic libraries often set up such services for their faculty. I have something set up for myself on a smaller scale. Whether I get to it right away is another thing given all the other things I have to do (notice I got to this two weeks later), but at any rate, I do try to keep up with professional reading as part of my job. Since I am an educator, education is one of my areas of interest.

I am not a fan of high stakes testing or the No Child Left Behind Act, which I think simply forces schools to teach to a test at the expense of other things that are important to have a well rounded education to make an informed and active citizen in our democracy. But I won't go into that debate. I just wanted to point out this little article:

Title:Social Studies Losing Out to Reading, Math.
Authors:Manzo, Kathleen Kennedy
Source:Education Week; 3/16/2005, Vol. 24 Issue 27

Abstract:This article reports that social studies task force appointed by the Maryland state schools superintendent is studying the "state of social studies" education statewide, as well as nationally, in order to craft recommendations for strengthening the teaching of the subjects there. Schools in Illinois had already begun paring time allocated to social studies to make way for as much as 160 minutes daily of reading, when the legislature scrapped the state test in social studies. Squeezing social studies in the elementary grades is likely to leave many students unprepared for the history courses they will encounter in middle and high school, and to meet graduation requirements in the subject, according to Jesus Garcia, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, which is based in Silver Spring, Maryland.
I am a firm believer in that saying by Santayana about those who fail to study history are bound to repeat it, but even if I did not believe in that, taking out social studies is not the way to go. We constantly hear on the news and the media how our young people are doing poorly in general knowledge, how they lag behind in math and science when compared to the rest of the world, and how they lag behind in knowledge of geography, a subject part of social studies. I think one example of this shameful situation is found in the results of the 2002 National Geographic Global Geographic Literacy Survey (latest one available). The link leads to an article with highlights of the results. I don't think you can be an educated citizen if you lack a knowledge of your own country and its history along with a knowledge of your neighbors around the world. If your nation is sending troops abroad, you should at least be able to point to a map to where those troops are being sent. And it helps to know a bit of our history to understand how history today is being made.

The Education Week article points out that research shows teachers will tend to spend more time on items tested on the high stakes tests, and history is not one of those areas. As a result of cuts in teaching social studies, some students would not be exposed to it at all until they were sophomores in high school, if at all. This means students will not be prepared for the history courses in high school required for graduation, and as a former high school teacher, I know that more often than not I had to do remedial teaching to compensate for deficiencies students brought because they were not addressed in middle school or earlier. Cutting back is not going to make it easier. But I do wonder, would graduation requirements eventually change? A lot of the model for graduation requirements is based on college preparation, being ready for college. If schools teach more to the test because reading and math are seen as the only important things, and not that they are not important, but if that is the case, would they down the road simply say areas like social studies are no longer required? Would they become electives? And further down the road, would colleges change their entrance requirements to have less social studies and more math for instance to compensate?

But more importantly, what does a situation like this say about how our society values a good civic education? We have heard about the lack of voter participation, about apathy of young people to vote, so on. True, there was more voter turnout this time around, but it was all thanks to the 2000 debacle, and even with that, a lot of people that could have turned out to vote did not. And midterm elections usually have dismal turnouts anyhow, more often than not because people do not even take the time to be informed about local issues. Social studies, not just history, but government courses, serve to instill a sense of the need to participate in a democracy. I find it ironic that people around the world fight to get a democracy. Other nations have great voter turnout, and a nation like the U.S. which is a beacon to others has to struggle, basically beg its citizens to vote. Now, we could debate about special interests and who really funds what, but without education, things cannot change. The few will continue to pull the wool over everyone else's eyes as long as they see a lack in education, and taking social studies out may be a way. After all, how can one appreciate the democracy that the Founding Fathers built if one does not even hear about them? How do we know we really are protecting the Constitution if we don't even read about it? Just some questions to ask next time you think about how great testing for scores can be.

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