Social Studies Fail Again, With Help From Secretary Duncan

06/02/2011 05:10 pm ET | Updated Aug 02, 2011

I've been a social studies methods instructor and member of the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS) for several years now. So, I recently flipped through the current issues of Theory and Research in Social Education (TRSE) and Social Education, two NCSS flagship journals. I say "flipped" because these are not always cover-to-cover readings.

I noticed that the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan typed out a little piece on the necessity of social studies for a "well-rounded education." Before I even get to the article, I need to confess something. I taught all subjects as an elementary classroom teacher, so I did not develop a specific allegiance to social studies until graduate school when I became a methods instructor. I also tend to root for the underdog. Social studies, as far as subjects go, has been and continues to be marginalized.

At one point, I was excited about advocating for social studies. I did what I could to support it with a team of peers and mentors during graduate studies, and I continue to do so in my newer role as an education faculty member. I make the annual pilgrimage to NCSS, see all these presentations, democracy this democracy that, and yet I see very few results from my perspective. Are these conferences then an elephant graveyard, so to speak, where big ideas go to die? This is all very frustrating, which is eroding my resolve to defend the discipline.

Social studies persists in receiving very little traction. I just don't understand then the advocates' reasoning behind consistently consorting with those that seek to further marginalize it. This brings me back to Duncan's brief essay. The magazine itself consists of the Secretary's piece, followed by responses from prominent NCSS leaders who appear critical of the Department's handling of social studies over the last several years, particularly at the elementary level. So, was this an opportunity for NCSS and Social Education to invite Mr. Duncan to take a position and then starkly contrast that with largely critical retorts? Perhaps.

But how could Mr. Duncan possess even the slightest temerity to underscore the need for social studies while enacting policies that continue to relegate it? He begins the piece by blaming No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for the curricular narrowing that has taken place. An expansion of priorities for math and reading instruction leaves little time for anything else. Mr. Duncan then extols the changes being made to NCLB and the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA) by the current administration, such as focusing interventions on low performing schools and increasing accountability measures with more tests. I fail to see the connection to social studies.

The essay then morphs into a self-esteem session for social studies educators, addressed to them directly: "You are creating contributing and responsible citizens," and "we need your help" in this. And for what assistance does Mr. Duncan humbly request? Help is needed in "creating assessments that test the full range of what students know and can do." So, that's it: he needs educator support to create tests?

It sounds to me like Race to the Top and other Department of Education policies amount to something akin to extortion or some kind of curricular hostage crisis. That is, we'll support social studies instruction, as long as it's tested. We'll release instructional priority for social studies, but we'll tell you how to teach it and test it. There is no escape from accountability. Or, at least the Department's definition of it.

Mr. Duncan's basic understanding of what test-based reforms are doing to individual schools and school systems is, to borrow an Internet meme, an epic fail. Do not presume to fluff up the esteem of social studies educators, to tell them how important they are to our democracy and all of that, only to set very strict and unreasonable limits on what kind of social studies is permissible. Additionally, this whole "can't beat them, join them" attitude of social studies advocates does little to endear folks like myself who feel that our strident support of the discipline is being squandered.

As a social studies methods instructor, I feel like a fool every time I teach the course, observe student teachers who are currently taking and have taken the course, and then experience the unreasonable limitations to actually practicing or witnessing effective social studies instruction, let alone any instruction at all in many cases. Don't make a fool out of me or other social studies advocates by pretending that we even have a remote chance of increasing social studies teaching within the current reform climate. Offering Mr. Duncan the opportunity to hold social studies hostage in one of the discipline's prominent publications is foolish enough.