Saving social studies
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 10, 2005
Educators seek stronger state focus on subject

JJ Hensley

Social studies was once the foundation of public education in America, but educators say topics such as history, civics and geography are increasingly overlooked in favor of the testable trio of reading, writing and math.

"There's no state social studies test, and obviously it sort of takes a back seat, but there comes a time in the balancing act that you have to step back and make sure the kids get a well-rounded education," said Suzan DePrez, director of science, social studies and world languages with Mesa Public Schools.

Tom Horne has recognized that, and the state's schools superintendent said the department hopes to reverse that trend in coming years

"We're going to move it back the other way," he said.

Horne says it's one of the most important issues his office is working on.

"Students, when they grow up, are not just going to be employees, they're going to be citizens, they're going to sit on juries, they're going to vote," he said.

And starting as early as fall 2006, those students are going to learn a selection of subjects such as Greek, Roman and American history while still in elementary school. It might sound like a lot for little minds to absorb, but Horne is confident it can be done in a way that complements the assessment material.

"There are schools called content-knowledge schools that have proven you can teach students about Greek, Roman and U.S. history and they love it," he said.

That should be welcome news to Syd Golston, dean of students at Alhambra High School in Phoenix. Students need a curriculum that is both integrated and relevant to succeed, and it's up to administrators and educators to provide that, she said.

"If you go into an English class and they say, 'Let's write this essay on how to pick a good pet,' I think, 'Good Lord, no, how to pick a good president' ," Golston said. "Relevance is very important."

Golston is a board member of the National Council for the Social Studies and said the obsession with state assessments such as AIMS and the federal No Child Left Behind legislation has left kids in the dark when it comes to certain aspects of their country and its history.

"The reason we have public education is because we needed an informed citizenship," she said, because at least some of America's citizens voted from the country's earliest days.

"Now, it's a bag o' facts," Golston said, and teaching kids to recite facts limits conceptual exercises instructors can do. "Those are not performances on our state standards, they are facts. Various people in the Bush administration think social studies should be the glorious history of their United States. We need the rigor of variety we've never seen before, and that doesn't happen with the bag o' facts. Any time you ask kids to regurgitate facts, it's less time they can be thinking."

Time is something often brought up when it comes to education. There's not enough in the day, some say, to teach everything kids are required to learn, which is how social studies got pushed to the side in the first place.

Horne recognized that, and the state Department of Education began the task of putting social studies standards into grade-school levels a while ago. However, it's hard to get a consensus on how to make it work. The department's first crack at new standards met with resistance from educators who felt like it loaded more onto an already crowded agenda.

"There was quite a bit of concern, especially from the K-3 teachers, that the standard proposed is very different from what's been in place," DePrez said. "Some of the objectives asked for students to explain very high concepts at a low grade level."

For instance, the third-grade standards in world history required students to identify the achievements and contributions of ancient Greece that influenced the modern world and describe the beginnings of democracy in ancient Greece.

"When teachers read standards documents they see, 'This is what my kids have to leave my class knowing' ," DePrez said. "From the implementation of NCLB, the last couple of years . . . obviously, there's extreme pressure to make sure you, as a teacher, and you as a school do what you can to meet those objectives."

As always, parents can help, Golston said; they can read newspapers with their kids, talk about the impact of stories like the Terri Schiavo case and relate it to the three branches of government. With the summer months on the horizon, those opportunities are endless, she said.