THE BLOG
11/11/2013 08:04 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Campaign to Add Citizenship to the Common Core Standards

In earlier posts I argued that a serious flaw in the skills-based national Common Core Standards that are supposed to prepare students to be college and career ready is preparation for active citizenship in a democratic society. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) is trying to address this with what they call a C3 framework. "C3" stands for their somewhat awkwardly named College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: State Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History.

The NCSS is battling to ensure the teaching of social studies in an era when students and teachers are constantly being assessed based on student performance of high-stakes standardized reading and math tests. Because of pressure to prep students for the test, social studies instruction is being pushed into the corner, if it is taught at all.

In an article in the September 2013 issue of the NCSS journal Social Education, NCSS president-elect Michelle Herzog, the History-Social Science Consultant for the Los Angeles County Office of Education, charged that social studies is being marginalized by "the loss of instructional time" in elementary schools and the "narrowing of instruction in response to multiple-choice high-stakes testing" (219). Herzog also believes that the constant test prep-test cycle is undermining the natural curiosity that children and adolescent have about the world around them, curiosity that social studies always promoting. In a companion article, NCSS executive director Susan Griffin expressed concern that "economically strapped states" were actually using the Common Core Standards as a way of saving money by cutting back on social studies and other non-mandated subjects (220).

According to the NCSS, their goal with the C3 framework is to "enhance the rigor of the social studies disciplines," "build the critical thinking, problem solving, and participatory skills necessary for students to become engaged citizens," and "align academic programs in social studies to the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies."

The NCSS frameworks are based on the principle that preparing students for civic life is an essential component of education in a democratic society and is as vital as providing them with the academic skills needed for college and careers. But in addition, since "inquiry is at the heart of social studies" and the field is inherently interdisciplinary, social studies is a valuable arena for supporting the growth of the type of "deep and enduring understandings" promoted in the Common Core Standards.

Social studies teachers, including me, and our professional associations, also believe our preferred pedagogy or methods of instruction, fit right in with the demand that teachers emphasize higher order thinking and literacy in all the content areas. Best practice in social studies classrooms centers on "the use questions to spark curiosity, guide instruction, deepen investigations, acquire rigorous content, and apply knowledge and ideas in real world settings." It also promotes literacy because in social studies classrooms students are constantly reading, questioning, analyzing, comparing, discussing, debating, and drawing conclusions about, primary source documents from the past and present and then writing about, editing, and presenting their ideas.

Kathy Swan, an associate professor of social studies education at the University of Kentucky and the project director of the C3 framework argues its greatest contribution to educational dialogue is "the addition of civic readiness to the national conversation around student preparation for college and careers . . . [T]he C3 Framework makes taking informed action an essential skill that should be practiced by all social studies students in a vibrant democracy" (222).

The next conversation, according to Swan and the NCSS leadership, will be over assessment. As with see with reading and math, they become the focus of instruction because students are being tested, pre-tested, and retested, and then tested again. Unless social studies knowledge and skills because part of the testing program, they will not be taught. Unfortunately, this becomes a very contested area because many educators and parents feel students are already being tested too much.

Additionally, in social studies as well as in the sciences, there is a lot of debate over exactly what should be taught. In my own scholarly work, I emphasize the historical and contemporary role race and racism played in shaping the United States from slavery, through Jim Crow, to 21st century residential segregation and income inequality.

I have also written about how capitalist industrialization as a transformative force has had many negative consequences including displacement of populations, technological unemployment, environmental degradation, imperialism and war as industrial nations fought for raw materials and markets, and all the problems associated with globalization. Based on past curriculum debates, I am sure many state education departments would shy away from giving these topics the importance in a history curriculum that I argue they should receive.

As early as 1835, Alexis De Tocqueville in his book Democracy in America observed that in the United States democracy and racial equality were incompatible and that "the freer the white population of the United States" becomes, the more it will impose inequality on other groups.

I do not believe that the white and black races will ever live in any country upon an equal footing. But I believe the difficulty to be still greater in the United States than elsewhere. An isolated individual may surmount the prejudices of religion, of his country, or of his race; and if this individual is a king, he may effect surprising changes in society; but a whole people cannot rise, as it were, above itself. A despot who should subject the Americans and their former slaves to the same yoke might perhaps succeed in commingling their races; but as long as the American democracy remains at the head of affairs, no one will undertake so difficult a task; and it may be foreseen that the freer the white population of the United States becomes, the more isolated will it remain.

Science content may be even more controversial than history. Evolution is central to our understanding of biology including the evolution of human beings and a multi-billion year old universe to our understanding of the formation or galaxies, solar systems, and planets, including the one we inhabit. However many states want these taught as opinions rather than as scientific facts. During the last two decades, Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia have all been involved in prolonged legal battles over whether and how evolution is taught.

In 2008, a misnamed "Louisiana Academic Freedom Act" was introduced into the state legislature. It claimed that "the teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy," and since "some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects," they should "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories." A modified version was eventually passed and signed into law as the Louisiana Science Education Act.

More recently, the Oklahoma State Legislature considered a bill that would require teachers to question both biological evolution and global warming.

In December 2008, an article in Scientific American co-written by Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education charged "it is clear why the Louisiana Science Education Act is pernicious: it tacitly encourages teachers and local school districts to mis-educate students about evolution, whether by teaching creationism as a scientifically credible alternative or merely by misrepresenting evolution as scientifically controversial. Vast areas of evolutionary science are for all intents and purposes scientifically settled; textbooks and curricula used in the public schools present precisely such basic, uncomplicated, uncontroversial material. Telling students that evolution is a theory in crisis is--to be blunt--a lie."

It may be that the prospect of an active, informed, educated citizenry is so frightening because it would begin to question how the United States ended up with so many elected officials who are not only ignorant about science and history, but are willfully ignorant and want to impose their ignorance on the rest of us.