Opening a new front: the common core creeps toward social studies

In my last blog posting I talked about common core math standards – and acknowledged that I was operating outside my area of expertise. I especially appreciated (and in some cases replied to) comments from math common core supporters. Dialogue is always welcome on this blog. That’s what we’re here for.

Today I’m posting an article that reports on the coming social studies standards. They’re not coming very fast, by the way. As Chester Finn (president of the Fordham Institute, which has largely supported the Common Core) explains,

Welcome to the social studies follies. We might thank the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) for ensuring—so far, anyway—that this jumble is not portrayed as “national standards” for social studies. Instead, it’s the beginning of a “framework” for states intending to re-think their own academic standards in social studies, a hodge-podge part of the K-12 curriculum.

It’s not the actual framework, however. That is promised for sometime next year. What we have today is a six-page “vision” of a “framework for inquiry,” whatever the heck that is supposed to mean.

So where’s the folly? Turns out we’re back to the same old, same old process versus content debate.

The cumbersome, inscrutable title is the first clue that something is not right: “Vision for the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3): Framework for Inquiry in Social Studies State Standards.”

The second clue is implicit in its opening paragraphs:

The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework, currently under development, will ultimately focus on the disciplinary and multidisciplinary concepts and practices that make up the process of investigation, analysis, and explanation which will be informative to states interested in upgrading their social studies standards. It will include descriptions of the structure and tools of the disciplines (civics, economics, geography, and history) as well as the habits of mind common in those disciplines. The C3 Framework will also include an inquiry arc—a set of interlocking and mutually supportive ideas that frame the ways students learn social studies content. This framing and background for standards development to be covered in C3 all point to the states’ collective interest in students using the disciplines of civics, economics, geography, and history as they develop questions and plan investigations; apply disciplinary concepts and tools; gather, evaluate, and use evidence; and work collaboratively and communicate their conclusions.
The C3 Framework will focus primarily on inquiry and concepts, and will guide — not prescribe — the content necessary for a rigorous social studies program. CCSSO recognizes the critical importance of content to the disciplines within social studies and supports individual state leadership in selecting the appropriate and relevant content.

Did you spot the missing words? I’ll bet you did. They are the verb “know” and the noun “knowledge.” As best one can tell, the present social studies project cares not a whit about whether kids end up with any of the familiar “knowledge” of social studies. “What is the Declaration of Independence?” “What does the Bill of Rights do?” “What is the Emancipation Proclamation?” “When was World War I, why was it fought, who won, and what were the consequences?” “How many senators does your state have and what are their names?” “Where is Taiwan? Why is Burma called Myanmar?” “What was the ‘Cultural Revolution’ and what were its effects on China and its people?” And on and on and on.

We do a lousy job of imparting that kind of information to our students today. If the drafters of this “vision” have their way, we’ll do even worse tomorrow.

Read those two grafs again. Try to find the words “know” or “knowledge.” They’re MIA. Yes, the CCSSO hedges its bets by declaring its own commitment to “content.” Well and good. But what about the “known experts” (sic)—unnamed, albeit “known”—who are drafting this “vision”? What do you suppose is their view of “content,” let alone “knowledge?” Dim, I’m pretty sure.

This could turn out to be simply awful. Somehow, it feels even worse in the week that we observe Thanksgiving.

While I share this concern, I’ll offer a weak defense for the “framework” writers. Students DO need more social studies process skills: reading maps, interpreting documents, and hey, just reading and interpreting any nonfiction materials and figuring out what they’re supposed to say.

My fears about students’ basic reading, writing and analytical skills have led me to sympathize with what the common core language arts standards writers were trying to accomplish in their partial shift away from literature. But just as many English teachers are horrified that students will now be assigned the verbal equivalent of junk food, I worry that a “skills” focus will make schools complacent about students’ already abysmal knowledge of their own history and government.

The only good news about a content-free social studies core is that we’re not yet mired in debates over federalism, or the relationship of church and state, or the history of the Confederacy. That treat is still to come.


  1. Kanekoa

    A problem with education, is too many on the side lines who are not teachers, and bringing worthless ides to the table.

    Let teachers work, and lead to their strengths, quit monitoring, and holding them accountable to some new crazy strategies.

  2. Carolyn Sharette

    Our school, and thousands of schools across the country, adopted E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Curriculum precisely because there is a need, in our opinion, for content knowledge STANDARDS in education. Meaning that we need to decide what children will LEARN and KNOW in each grade. In History, for example, students learn about topics each year that build upon topics they learned the previous year. By the time a student is in the 5th grade, they can tell you the important facts, dates, players and events of the Civil War (they began studying it in 2nd grade) AND the important facts, dates, players and events of the Civil Rights movement. They can also explain the connection between these two vitally important movements toward freedom, and that there was a century between them and give you some ideas as to why.

    It is clear from looking at successful college applicants who are admitted to Tier 1 Universities that the factual knowledge is the foundation for a student to be able to apply the logic and rhetoric skills needed to really be considered “educated”. Disregard of content – of facts and information – and disregard of the need to memorize it and know it well so you can analyze it and use it – is perhaps the largest academic weakness of the American system. Teachers and administrators nationwide have been tricked into joining the “anti-information” movement, which essentially believes that factual knowledge is not important – it’s “critical thinking” that we should focus on.

    In reality, critical thinking cannot happen without a broad base of factual knowledge, learned and understand at a level of mastery that makes it available to the student to compare, contrast, infer, conclude, and synthesize. Our elementary schools fail to provide this base, and our students suffer terribly in upper grades for their lack of mastered content knowledge.

    Core Knowledge Schools have provided this for 2 decades. More can be learned at Many charter schools were opened with Core Knowledge as their impetus.

  3. Rick Bates

    20th Century thinking vs. 21st Century thinking.

    Which do we need to prepare students for?

    Yes, there needs to be a base knowledge of important core content. Do they honetly think – during the process of teaching critical skills – that social studies teachers are not going to teach what the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, or the Emancipation Proclimation are? Seriously?

    That said, there is a whole lot of content that is being crammed down students throats…that can easily be taken out of the curriculum, because as we enter a new century, they can easily look it up. Why do I as an adult need to memorize how many votes it takes to overide a Presidential veto? If the issue ever comes up, I will find out on CNN….if I care to find out. Where exactly is Taiwan? I can find that out on my cell phone quicker than any teacher can roll down his wall map, find the right page, and point it out to me. I can be speaking to a citizen of Myanmar, one that remembers when it was called Burma, and carry on a conversation with him on any number of social media links. He can even become my “friend”.

    20th Century thinking vs. 21st Century thinking.

    Which do we need to prepare students for?

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