To: Regent Anthony Bottar
From: Kate Gross, President of Central New York Council for the Social Studies
RE: Regents’ Consideration of the proposed Social Studies K-12 frameworks
The Central New York Council for the Social Studies has worked diligently for the last two years to both monitor and participate in New York State’s adoption of the Common Core and the corresponding development of new curricular requirements for social studies K-12. We listened to the concerns of many different constituent groups – teachers, school district administrators, college professors, community leaders, and of course, students. Many people examined the proposed frameworks in their various stages, raised valid questions about how social studies fits into the general graduation and testing schemata, and offered their professional expertise generously to improve the proposed curriculum. We recognize that the process has been both vigorous and engaging. Teachers across the state have amply participated in the process- everywhere from local social studies departments, through professional organizations and conferences, and even at community forums and state-level meetings. We are hopeful that this work created a broad consensus that social studies instruction is essential for college, career and civic readiness, goals often touted by the leaders of our state. What we now recognize is that the implementation of new social studies standards will have a profound impact on the students of New York State, and we wish to continue the collaborative conversation in this vital stage of the process.
Social Studies teachers are very open to the Common Core. It is what we do in our classrooms every day. Students spend much time in social studies analyzing informational texts and primary sources, perfecting evidenced-based arguments and synthesizing diverse data in a multidisciplinary way. These are the skills to develop and promote and we are eager to embrace the role we in social studies can play in this shift to more rigorous learning. That said, several concerns have been raised within our ranks that warrant consideration.
First, the Regents and the Commissioner need to confirm through formal regulations that 4 years of social studies will be mandated, with two of those years being Global History and Geography. We have long-held our position that a college, career and civic ready education is a global education. As we look at the most recent developments around the globe, from the Ukraine to the Central African Republic; from banking crises to climate change, students must be exposed to the international dynamics that shape their lives. This is only achieved with a foundation of global history and geography. Our state would make a profound mistake to create space for students to avoid curriculum this essential to their future and to our state’s position as a leader in 21st century education.
Second, while the proposed frameworks provide a strong sense of content and concepts students will master, they offer little insight into the assessments that will frame the benchmarks and pedagogy that shape instruction in classrooms across NY. At this time, no formal information about the tests exists to help school leaders plan for the professional development, resource acquisition and curricular articulation that must accompany this shift. While it is admirable that the intent is to allow the field to develop resources and assessments, we know all too well that similar efforts by other disciplines to prepare for the Common Core have been deeply flawed. A concrete vision of the assessment models to be used for Regents exams and an understanding of how it differs from the current testing regime is essential to generating the actual changes that these shifts in common core instruction seek. The “inquiry arc” is improbable if the curriculum continues to be a laundry list of historical information that is drawn from for multiple choice questions and oblique essays. The perennial problem of “content coverage” versus “deep learning” will persist. As all of us know, backwards design is the only way to create meaningful curriculum and to establish clear expectations that truly challenge old paradigms and raise standards. To have no insight into these assessments at this point, we fear will allow for schools to change very little about their approach and therefore negate the effort to push towards higher levels of student achievement.
Along these lines, the content is still driving these frameworks. As social studies teachers, we love our content and can find innumerable ways to make it relatable to students. However, the frameworks as proposed leave little room for the practice of some of the Common Core skills and standards that we assumed would drive the changes. Social Studies teachers and students would love to have more time and opportunity to study topics of student choice, to engage in authentic assessment, to grapple with demanding texts and to develop advanced writing tasks. Granted, rich material is a part of all of these processes, but the frameworks still contain high levels of detailed content that make it difficult to see where content can be “sacrificed” in favor of more experiential or sophisticated learning. Social Studies teachers are eager to do mock trials, independent research papers, community service projects and historic simulations with primary materials. Where? When? Emphasizing which skill? The frameworks do not clearly answer these questions. For Common Core standards to reign in the classroom, we need the “green light” to pursue the kinds of instruction that yield meaningful learning. We are still looking to NY’s education leaders to clear a path toward teacher empowerment in this regard.
In fact, the proposed vision in the frameworks seems to mirror an “AP model” which has the potential to create huge disparities for schools that struggle to meet students’ basic educational needs. As suburban teachers in our membership reviewed the proposed frameworks, there was widespread comfort and satisfaction that their schools would adjust nicely to these new curricular patterns. For those of us with AP courses in our school, the content and concepts were familiar and the infrastructure is in place to make the required adaptations of our current practice. But others of us – especially from poor urban and rural districts - looked at these frameworks and wondered where the time, resources and support would come from to implement these changes. Teachers who work with all kinds of struggling or disenfranchised students found little relief or inspiration in the new expectations, often noting how difficult it is for their students to succeed in social studies under the current guidelines. Teachers of students with severe learning disabilities or students who are not native English speakers or students who come from extreme poverty and isolation fail to see how moving to a more “elite” curriculum is meaningful or useful. All students can learn, but why does it all have to be the same material or the same way? Social Studies teachers want to connect their students to a rigorous curriculum while still honoring who their students are and celebrating their unique abilities and identities. Again, the ability of teachers to do this in the context of shifting curriculum and standards is uncertain. There is not a “one size fits all” model that has ever worked in public schools and it has been difficult for educators in certain educational communities to learn of yet another “mold” (in the form of the frameworks) that they will likely not fit. Social Studies education has the ability to empower, celebrate diversity and unify students when done properly. We worry when the curriculum may serve to further divide our communities along socio-economic and cultural lines, even when confident that this is an unintentional outcome of this particular process.
The critique being what it is, a new venture in New York State Social Studies is far from hopeless. Most educators see this as an opportunity to invigorate instruction and to create meaningful dialogues around content and pedagogy. We are thrilled to engage in the hard work of bringing these frameworks off the pages and in to life in our classrooms. It is clear that this will require all hands on deck: leaders at SED, curriculum specialists at BOCES and in individual school districts, team leaders and department chairs in schools across the state. We must also engage community members to build up this curriculum and enrich it with local history, authentic learning opportunities, and community connections that speak to our larger purposes as social studies educators. We hope that the State will continue to work with groups like our own to ensure that the curriculum is being adopted fully and smoothly, as we are in a position to assist in these efforts through our own professional development opportunities and collaborative conversations. As assessments and materials come forth, we stand ready to help teachers understand new expectations and adapt their classrooms to meet their students’ needs.
We trust that the great transparency, collaboration and thoughtfulness of this process will continue. Social studies in New York State can only be strengthened by the attentive and constructive process that has brought us to this point. We are delighted to be moving forward and are prepared to assist in every effort to achieve great outcomes for all of our students.