Recently the National Assessment of Educational Progress released a report detailing the low level of proficiency among American students in their knowledge of United States History. Yikes! How is it that our students can know the intricate ins and outs of The Jersey Shore and not know basic American history? As I read the newspaper reports and watched the news clips, I reflected on my journey as a teacher of American history and of status of social studies in American schools today. Where did we go wrong? More importantly, what can we do to move forward?
While attending a recent dinner, a gentleman at my table was talking about the lack of historical knowledge our students have today. He looked at me and said, “Well, it is your fault. You are not teaching our kids what they need to know.” Though I will admit my first instinct was to defend my ability as a teacher and my knowledge of our past, I chose to listen to his thoughts in more detail before offering my response. What he was really trying to say, I learned, was two-fold. First, our students are not given enough time in the school day/school curriculum to learn adequate history, and second, history is often misdiagnosed as a drill-and-kill subject that stands alone.
We are in the age of high stakes testing and accountability. One of the unfortunate byproducts is that schools often focus only on the “tested subjects.” In many states, now including North Carolina where I teach, social studies is not tested at any grade level. When schools and teachers feel the pressure to improve test scores, the tested subjects get the attention. History and other subjects are ignored in the test prep books and standardized assessment reviews. When your school’s percent proficiency in reading and math are the standards by which your school (and often your teaching) is measured, everything else is treated as if it doesn’t matter. However, these other subjects do matter a great deal.
Social Studies is a foundation builder. It provides the framework for building well-educated citizens who have the ability to think, analyze, and be informed citizens. It helps develop an appreciation for great literature, art and music of our past and provides a window into the souls of amazing people. I am always in awe of the connections my students have made about Lincoln’s leadership by comparing Lincoln’s first and second Inaugural addresses. The exercise helps them learn about the historical complexities of the Civil War. But it also improves students’ ability to read, think, and analyze as they connect the facts to the overarching theme of the period.
Often students (and adults alike) see history as facts that are to be memorized and repeated with no connections to other subjects or to our lives today. Our social studies classrooms are not places where the teacher dispenses disconnected facts and information, but rather they are places where students are given background information to explore and make connections. Socrates put it best when he said, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” In order to help our students be successful and to help our schools increase our proficiency in all subjects, we must embrace the ideas of teaching the “big picture” and helping students connect across curriculum.
We talk about our desire to reform and improve. However, if we really want a revolution, we have to become facilitators of learning across the board. Social Studies provides one of many avenues to enhance student learning beyond the tested subjects.
Jennifer Facciolini is the North Carolina Teacher of the Year. She teaches social studies at Midway High School in Newton Grove, NC.
Read Arne Duncan’s article in the May/June Social Education, The Social Studies are Essential to a Well-Rounded Education.
Read the Secretary’s remarks to the Arts Education Partnership National Forum, The Well Rounded Curriculum.