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February 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 5

Trends: Social Studies / The Standards Are Coming

      Writing national standards for student learning has reached full pace. By the end of 1994, state and local social studies curriculum planning committees will be able to consider four sets of standards, one each for civics, geography, history, and social studies. If the National Council for Economic Education finds the money, there should be a fifth by 1995.
      None of the projects has a final document that a local committee can read. All are somewhere in the process of writing, seeking feedback from reviewers, and revising.
      Judging from current drafts, the standards documents will differ in important ways. For example, all but the social studies group's standards focus on a separate academic discipline. Also, some projects place singular emphasis on content (what students should know and be able to do) while others consider content hand in hand with assessment and teaching.
      The current draft of the history standards, for example, focuses on content in U.S. and world history. It favors chronology and divides U.S. history into 10 historical periods (for example, colonization and settlement, 1585–1763). It provides several content standards for each period and identifies five themes (for example, politics) that run through all periods.
      The social studies standards do not specify chronological treatment of history; consequently, no historical periods are given. Ten major themes are identified: culture; time, continuity, and change; people, places, and environment; individual development and identity; individuals, groups, and institutions; production, distribution, and consumption; power, authority, and governance; science, technology, and society; global connections; and civic ideals and practices.
      The social studies project devotes a good deal of space to assessment and teaching. Three sample assessments and classroom vignettes illustrate each theme, one for early grades, middle grades, and 12th grade. Assessments are performance-based, and vignettes describe what the writers judge to be exemplary theme-related teaching.
      A draft vignette for middle grades that accompanies the first theme, culture, describes a class studying American life before European contact. A student notes that the class is using the term “Indian” in a general way, as though cultural differences among tribes were unimportant or did not exist. The teacher seizes the opportunity. First, she has the class examine Maya Angelou's Inauguration poem, which named distinct tribes (Pawnee, Apache, Seneca).
      The class then divides into research groups; each studies a different tribe—its geographic region, architecture, and technology—before and after contact. The research groups record information on data-retrieval charts and, later, share what they learned. Finally, students apply what they've learned, making a new class rule to avoid generalizations of the sort that prompted their study.
      The group that, in 1991, produced the 665-page curriculum guide, Civitas, heads the standards work in civics. While this long and involved book has not been particularly influential with either teachers or publishers, I believe the standards writing effort will sharpen the focus of that work. Twenty-two exit standards for the 12th grade have been identified, and they are grouped under five “organizing questions:” What is government and what should it do? What are the foundations of the American political system? How does the government established by the U.S. Constitution embody the principles and purposes of American democracy? What is the relationship of American politics and government to world affairs? What are the roles of the citizen in the American political system?
      Developers of the geography standards face the opposite challenge. They already have a set of tremendously influential standards in the “five themes of geography” developed by the Joint Council on Geographic Education in 1984. Initial speculation was that writers of the new geography standards, believing that less is more, would stay the course and simply reiterate the now 10-year-old themes. To the contrary, they've identified 18 geography standards specified in three grade-level blocks—K–4, 5–8, and 9–12. Further, the standards are explained almost exclusively in performance terms in an attempt to emphasize the interaction of geographical understanding and higher-order thinking.
      The standards efforts also vary in their funding. As Figure 1 indicates, three projects are funded by the federal government; only the social studies project is not. Economics is searching.

      Figure 1. Who's Doing What in the Social Studies

      Trends: Social Studies / The Standards Are Coming - table

      Social Studies





      DeveloperNational Council for Social Studies, 3501 Newark St. NW, Washington, DC 20016.National Center for History in the Schools, University of California at Los Angeles, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., #1610, Los Angeles, CA 90014.Center for Civic Education, 5146 Douglas Fir Rd., Calabasas, CA 91302-1467.Geographic Education Standards Project, 1600 M. St., NW, Suite 2611 Washington, DC 20036.National Council on Economic Education, 1140 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036.
      Funding$70,000$1.6 million$780,000$700,000none
      Funded byNCSS federal government and National Endowment for the Humanitiesfederal government and Pew Charitable Trustsfederal government and National Geographic Society
      Some observers worry about the disintegration of school learning in the name of high standards. The education director of the Business Roundtable, Christopher Cross, visited the geography standards project and was “amazed” to find the project rolling along as if geography would be taught separately from economics, history, and art. The social studies standards effort is the one project concerned about integrating teaching and learning, drawing content from history, the social sciences, and the humanities, although other standards project directors acknowledge the need to integrate.
      This multitude of standards for one school subject reflects the century-old territorial battle among the university disciplines and between these separate disciplines and the integrated school subject called social studies. An alternative to the separate standards route that the projects are now taking would have the several disciplinary groups produce their own content standards, as they are now doing, after which the social studies group could do its work, sifting, sorting, articulating, and integrating. This is the work local curriculum committees will have to do anyway, and I feel certain they would appreciate the help.
      End Notes

      1 C. T. Cross, (April 21, 1993), “Education Standards: A Matter of Time?” Education Week, p. 30.

      Walter C. Parker has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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