Common Core meets the reform agenda

March 28th, 2013

Earlier this week, the American Enterprise Institute hosted an all-day conference examining how the Common Core State Standards fit into the larger reform movement in education. Panelists came together to discuss whether the Common Core initiative complements or conflicts with the school reform agenda that many states are already pursuing, and new research was presented by education leaders such as Deven Carlson (University of Oklahoma), Ashley Jochim (University of Washington), Robin Lake (Center on Reinventing Public Education), Michael McShane (AEI), and others. 

Panelist Peter Meyer of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute took a close look at the history of history and social studies standards in his report, wondering “whether we will ever see Common Core State Standards in social studies.” He writes:

In his brilliant history of American education,The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, E. D. Hirsch captures the inherent–or so it would seem–urge to a have a common curriculum, which includes a common history–if we were to be a single country. It is an argument for a national self-identity not unlike an argument for an individual identity. “Not just Webster,” Hirsch writes, “but all of our earliest educational thinkers argued that precisely because we were a big, diverse country of immigrants, our schools should offer many common topics to bring us together; if schools did so, they felt, we would be able to communicate withone another, act as a unified republic, and form bonds of loyalty and patriotism among our citizens.” E Pluribus Unum. From the many, one. . . .

Of note . . . is that history and social studies, as part of the core course of studies in our public schools, were always seen as nation-building and citizen-making endeavors. In fact,citizenship education was one of the main missions of the National Council for the Social Studies, which was formed in 1921. Even today, according to the NCSS, “the primary purpose of social studies is to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.” . . .

But almost from the beginning, the new discipline had its detractors. In 1924 Ross Finney, who headed the Committee on the Teaching of Sociology for the American Sociological Association, wrote in The School Review about a recommended social studies course called Problems of Democracy:

Emphasis on the sore spots in society has a certain morbid effect on the minds of young persons. It makes them imagine that they ought to be agitators, radicals, reformers, philanthropists, social workers, or something of the sort. It tends to fill their heads with queer immature ideas, with increased danger that they may fail to function normally in the staple relations and fundamental institutions of society. And that is likely to do far more harm than good.

The debates on social studies continued through the 1920s and 1930s, but by the 1940s the social studies curriculum had become an accepted hodgepodge of subjects, focusing less and less on traditional history and geography. During World War II, historian Allan Nevins wrote in The New York Times Magazine that requirements in American history and government were “deplorably haphazard, chaotic, and ineffective.”

By the 1980s, history requirements in most schools had dwindled to trivial levels. In a 1988 national test, only a minority of high school seniors showed even a general sense of the chronology of events in America’s past or were familiar with the Declaration of Independence. In at least half the states, high school students needed only a single year of U.S. History to graduate.

Read more about the history of social studies in America and Meyer’s thoughts on the prospects for Common Core Standards for social studies here—and check out the other papers from the Common Core conference here.

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