07/07/2010 01:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

History's Not History Yet

New York state schools are governed by a seventeen member Board of Regents appointed by the Governor and approved by the State Legislature. You would expect its members to have some experience with and commitment to public education. Well, they don't.

The first problem is that only affluent people who don't have to work for a living at a regular job can serve. Regents are unsalaried and are reimbursed only for travel and related expenses. Merryl H. Tisch, the current Chancellor, has been on the Board of Regents since 1996. Tisch is on the boards of a number of Jewish charities and taught first grade from 1977 to 1984 at private Jewish religious schools. However, her main educational connection is as a member of the Board of Directors of the elite private Dalton school in Manhattan. Her resume shows no public school connections. In fact, according to Board member Roger Tilles, who represents Nassau and Suffolk Counties, he is the only board member with children in public schools, and his family lives in the affluent community of Great Neck. Tilles, another "philanthropist," is a lawyer and Director of Tilles Investment Companies.

This group of people, which includes philanthropists, lawyers, business people, and academics -- but as far as I can tell, no lifetime public school teachers and only one public school parent -- makes educational policy for the five million children living in New York State.

It is this Board of Regents in all its wisdom that recently decided social studies, history, and civic education are not important in elementary and middle school. It voted to eliminate statewide tests in fifth and eighth grade that established social studies standards for New York State. There is also concern that the Board of Regents will eliminate the 10th grade global history exam.

As an active member of the Long Island Council for the Social Studies, I was asked to help disseminate the letter of protest they sent to the Board of Regents. It was sent June 16, 2010, but as of June 30 they had no reply.

Dear Chancellor Tisch,

We write on behalf of the Long Island Council for the Social Studies Executive Board representing over 1,100 teachers and administrators in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, We urge you to reject the recommendation to eliminate the grades 5 and 8 Social Studies assessments.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that a republican society cannot survive without "informing the discretion" of its citizens in the core values of history and civic responsibility. The social studies sequence is sequential and developmental. American core values are the focus and emphasis of the history and geography taught at grades 3, 4, 7 and 8 upon which the assessments are based. Additionally, the assessments at grades 5 and 8 sequentially develop student abilities to think critically by focusing on summarizing and interpreting information. Critical analytical skills are essential to engaging students in civic responsibility and these skills begin in the foundational early grades. Destroying the foundation could result in the rotting of the system from within.

The state exams in grades 5 and 8 insure that every child, despite their economic background, receives equal exposure to the core values of history, geography, economics and civics. This insures the goal of higher standards for all.

Across the nation, social studies as a common core subject of the early grades has lost its identity. It has been absorbed in the skill and drill emphasis of mathematics, capitalization, vocabulary and grammar. Jonah has "swallowed the whale." LET THAT NOT HAPPEN IN NEW YORK STATE! New York State has been the model for the nation because of its sequential testing program in Social Studies. This respect gives New York students a competitive advantage in jobs and admittance to universities. Let us not jeopardize that respect.

Eliminating the grades 5 and 8 assessments is a short-term solution to New York's economic problems because of the heavy opportunity costs involved. It is a temporary fix that would have long-term destructive consequences for the children of New York State.

Sincerely yours,
Gloria Sesso and Brian Dowd
Co-Presidents, LICSS