We may be hurtling toward implementation of common core educational standards for Language Arts and Mathematics standards . . . but when it comes to social studies and science, the hare’s not even in the race. The National Research Council is working on science standards, and various social studies organizations are talking about the idea, without (it seems to me) a lot of enthusiasm or urgency. No one relishes the inevitable squabbles over evolution, or state’s rights, or whose history’s on first. And frankly, school districts and teachers are still struggling to chew and swallow the standards they’ve already signed on for.
Do these still missing pieces matter to implementing the common core?
In the elementary grades, I’m not sure they do. In most cases the same teacher will cover reading, math, history and science, and the best teachers will figure out ways to integrate these subjects both to improve student skills and to pique student interest. One of the most persuasive criticisms of No Child Left Behind, to my (history teacher) mind is that relentless focus on math and reading scores drove other subjects from the curriculum.
In this regard, the Common Core seems to promise improvement. To quote from the standards themselves:
In K–5, the Standards follow NAEP’s (the National Assessment of Education Progress) lead in balancing the reading of literature with the reading of informational texts, including texts in history/ social studies, science, and technical subjects.
Beyond elementary school the picture becomes more complicated. The standards further note that
In accord with NAEP’s growing emphasis on informational texts in the higher grades, the Standards demand that a significant amount of reading of informational texts take place in and outside the ELA (English Language Arts) classroom. . . . Because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes . . .
A whole world of potential conflict and confusion lurks behind this bureaucratic prose. Who’s responsible for teaching what. Who will be HELD responsible for teaching what?
Don’t get me wrong. I think students need much more practice reading texts, and writing about texts, analytically. But if you read the Common Core supporting literature, you’ll mostly find references, say, to English classes reading the Gettysburg Address.
English teachers can’t bear this burden alone. If improving students’ analytical reading and writing skills becomes a higher priority, social studies teachers must come on board. This means that social studies teachers will need to start assigning, and grading, more essays and papers.
Many social studies teachers already do this; certainly all who are successfully teaching Advanced Placement Classes spend a lot of time reading essays. But often history teachers avoid these time-consuming assignments, especially for “regular” classes. Videos, simulations, class discussions, multiple choice quizzes devour less teacher time. Students prefer them as well.
Moreover, social studies teachers often feel unprepared to address the composition issues that (trust me) plague almost all student essays. I remember one colleague – a good teacher, by the way – telling me that “if I can figure out what they’re trying to say, that’s good enough.”
Except that it’s not. One of the most dangerous signals we can send students is that they only need to write precisely and grammatically in English class.
And this brings us around again to those much maligned tests. If history teachers know that they will be evaluated, in part, on how well their students can tackle a document-based question, then they’ll probably teach this critical skill. But if they can kick it down the hall to the English department . . .
After all, it’s a “Language Arts” test these student will take, right?
For what it’s worth, I don’t really consider this an argument against the common core standards. If accountability is shared across departments, English and Social Studies teachers might find valuable new ways to collaborate, as they have in many schools. But we have to get the design, and the incentives, and the training right. That – catch a theme here – will take time, commitment and resources.