Commentary: NJ needs to fix the way it teaches social studies

If you heard someone complaining about “standards,” I wouldn’t blame you for assuming the topic of conversation was the Common Core.

The Common Core State Standards have found themselves at the middle of a national firestorm. Republican candidates for president spent the winter tripping over each other to try and distance themselves from the standards. Education and union activists on the left tirelessly rail against them at state board meetings and before study commissions.

But there’s another set of standards in New Jersey — the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards (NJCCCS). Less is said about them, but they are even more problematic. In the social studies, they are the prime impediment to high-quality civics education.

On the face of it, this wouldn’t seem to be the case. The purpose and vision of the NJCCCS is fine. They aim to develop “civic minded, globally aware, and socially responsible” students. Students will learn how to “make informed decisions … based on inquiry and analysis.” Best of all, students will “exemplify fundamental values of American citizenship through active participation in local communities.”

If the standards actually achieved these lofty goals, they would indeed lead to great social-studies education in New Jersey. Unfortunately, they do just the opposite. They demand a history-centric approach to social studies and make it difficult or impossible for well-meaning educators to lead students through the types of experiences that will make them civic-minded citizens.

There are two key problems. The middle- and high-school standards are written chronologically. They are also overwhelming in their breadth and detail.

There is a marked difference between the standards at the elementary level and the high-school level. The P-4 standards are organized by theme: civics, government, and human rights; geography, people, and the environment; economics, innovation, and technology; and history, culture, and perspectives. A course designed around these themes could easily pick and choose various people, stories, and events from history to help students explore their meaning.

In high school, however, these themes are submerged beneath a chronological structure. Standard 6.1 (U.S. History: America in the World) is broken down into 16 eras from “Colonization and Settlement” to “Contemporary United States (1970-Today).” The four themes, which formed the essential structure of the elementary school curriculum, are now fragile threads woven through each era. These thematic connections are tenuous at best, and the message is clear: Teach history and incorporate the “other” elements of social studies as an afterthought.

Further complicating things is the sheer multitude of topics to be covered. The standards are broken down into Cumulative Progress Indicators. In theory, these indicators should build one upon another. Hence the name. In reality, they are discrete topics that students deal with in turn. And they are endless.

In United States History, there are 192 Cumulative Progress Indicators (CPIs). New Jersey requires two years of United States history, which means that in each year a teacher is expected to lead students through roughly 100 CPIs. If these were tasks like “List the names of the first four presidents of the United States,” or “Describe the causes of the Civil War,” it would be do-able. A diligent teacher could overload his or her students with information, using a rote-learning approach to pour knowledge down their throats.

Instead, the standards ask students to do things like, “Compare and contrast the foreign policies of American presidents during this time period, and analyze how these presidents contributed to the United States becoming a world power,” or “Relate the creation of African-American advocacy organizations (i.e., the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to the United States Supreme Court decisions (i.e., Plessy v. Ferguson) and state and local governmental policies.”

Both of these are excellent topics of study. They require critical thinking, and they encourage students to think about important elements of United States history. Moreover, they deal with critical concepts in civics — foreign policy, hegemony, advocacy, the role of the Supreme Court in society. But is it reasonable to think that these goals could be accomplished in one or two 40-minute periods? A week would be a more realistic timeframe, and I wouldn’t blame a teacher for using two weeks to really dig into each of these tasks.

But there’s the rub. There aren’t two weeks. There isn’t a week. There’s a day, more or less. The language of the standards suggests that students are engaged in deep thought about critical issues in American history.

The reality of the classroom is that teachers are engaged in a headlong rush from September to June, trying to cover as much ground as possible. They inevitably fail to teach everything. But what is inevitably lost in the rush is the ability to dig into important themes, deliberate questions, think critically, and develop the skills required of active, engaged citizens.

There is a simple solution. Rewrite the standards.

Quality social studies education requires discretion. You don’t expect a student to read every one of Shakespeare’s plays, let alone every book ever written by a British author. So why should we expect students to learn everything that happened from the country’s founding until today?

The standards should emphasize two things: important themes and critical moments in history. There are a few topics that should be required of every history course, but they should be few in number. The decision of what else to explore should be left up to the local school district, the teacher, and the students.

Only by paring down what is required can we give students the freedom to really explore social studies and develop the skills needed to be responsible citizens. Instead of focusing entirely on history and simply pointing out moments in civics, economics, and geography, we need to emphasize themes of civics, economics, and geography — and deliberately use history to help students understand them.

Brian Rock is a social studies educator in East Orange, where he is the vice president of the East Orange Education Association. He also serves as the vice chair of the National Education Association’s Democratic Caucus and was a senior fellow with C-SPAN in 2015.


NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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