New York has a serious social studies problem. A few years ago cuts were made due to the economy. One of the causalities of the cuts was the 5th and 8th grade social studies exams. If you look at the New York State social studies curriculum that means that the very first social studies test these students will take is the Global Regents. For those unfamiliar with New York standards, the Regents are state exams taken in high school that all students need to successfully complete high school. All students graduate with a Regents diploma, some with a Regents honors or higher. Global is also a two year course beginning the freshman year of high school. These cut-backs to the test diminishes the importance of social studies.
Let’s look at social studies at the elementary level. If students in the testing grades are constantly feeling the pressure to pass the English Language Arts Exam and the Math Exam, why should they care about social studies? And to look at the flip side of the coin and the point of view from the teachers and administration, why should they care about social studies? Who has time to teach about the Pilgrims or World War I if I need my students to pass the ELA? I can’t say I blame the teachers that feel that way. Until I saw the new Common Core aligned exams that rolled out this year.
The new exams placed a great emphasis for cross curricular teaching. This would mean teaching literacy through a content area. For many teachers this is a new idea. When most of us were still in school we had separate notebooks for math, reading, social studies, science, etc. Teaching the content through literacy would essentially eliminate the need for most of those notebooks. With many teachers not feeling up to the task of truly integrating content through literacy, social studies has for the most part been avoided. If you have a conversation with an elementary student today about basic American history you will find that student to be unable to follow (at least in my personal experience, I do not mean to overgeneralize).
This new cross curricular emphasis on the test meant that the students lacked background knowledge for some reading passages and extended response questions. With all of the test preparations done it still was not enough. The students lacked necessary background knowledge that would have been solved with more social studies in the classroom. The state sent a message to the teachers, students and parents a few years ago essentially discounting social studies. Now it’s time to bring it back.
Social students is not just important for the test, but for life. Nobody should go through life without a working knowledge of history. Often in various political debates today, you see some comment about someone ending up on the wrong side of history. As citizens of the world it is essential to learn from history’s mistakes and not repeat them. Without a cross curricular approach to literacy that allows teachers to make time for social studies, we might just see some of our former students repeating mistakes that should have been learned from in history.