Education Week reports that social studies experts from at least a dozen states are meeting with leaders of content-area groups in Charlotte, NC this week to discuss how to raise the profile of that subject in today’s math and reading-heavy classroom. We share their deep concern about the low priority given to social studies―and in fact will be out soon with some new data on this. We’re glad to see an organized, state-based effort coming together to address the problem.
But this effort’s focus could use some refinement. Kathleen Swan, the University of Kentucky professor who is organizing the discussions, says they are not intended to lead to CCSS-style common standards. That’s fine, indeed preferred, as long as this effort presses states to address the chief weakness shared by almost all current state social studies standards: a lack of specificity with regard to the knowledge students need.
Unfortunately, the group (unnamed as of yet) seems to be on track to avoid any press for specificity. Evidenced by the fact that their sole product so far is a one-sentence definition of social studies―so concerned with inclusiveness that it contains 11 commas. They are being showered with advice to avoid any mention of specific events, people, or ideas because of the criticism that met the attempt to create national U.S. history standards back in the mid-90s.
But that’s the wrong lesson to learn from that controversy. I should know because, at the time, I was working for those standards’ funder and chief critic―former National Endowment for the Humanities chairman Lynne Cheney. Those standards attracted Cheney’s ire, along with that of countless historians, President Clinton’s secretary of education, and the entire U.S. Senate, not because they were specific but because they got so many of the specifics so horribly, horribly wrong. The authors of those standards were intent on importing a rigid, deeply revisionist version of U.S. history into classrooms nationwide. Recently, new Texas history standards attracted a similar volume of criticism for pushing a different but similarly problematic version of history for use by schools in that state.
The goal of any effort to set history or social studies standards for one state, a consortium of states, or the nation should not be to avoid specifics. It should be to get the specifics right—and to introduce students to informed perspectives on any topic that may remain in dispute. We can agree on 99% of the events, people, and ideas students need to learn about in Kindergarten through 12th grade. We just have to have the courage to acknowledge it. And to deal intelligently with the 1% of topics that present a challenge.