According to a recent report by the Center on Education Policy, 44 percent of school districts nationwide have made deep cutbacks in social studies.
In an age of high-stakes assessment, today's teachers must place more emphasis on federally mandated, state-tested subjects like reading, mathematics, and science. This means they have less time to teach other subjects, such as social studies. This problem, most evident in the elementary grades, seems to be an unintended consequence of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Enacted in 2002, NCLB requires states to measure student achievement in reading and math, thus tying school performance reports and financial incentives to testing results. While re-authorization efforts will hopefully rectify some elements of the legislation, the current law does not require any instruction in elementary social studies.
According to a recent report by the Center on Education Policy, 44 percent of school districts nationwide have made deep cutbacks in social studies, art, and music in favor of subjects that must be tested according to federal law.
This is by no means the fault of teachers. They are doing their best to maximize classroom time for benefit of students. As awareness of this situation grows, parents must speak out to administrators and local school boards and express their concerns. A decreased emphasis on social studies in many of our schools has a direct correlation to a decrease in the knowledge and understanding children must have to be responsible citizens of our communities, our nation, and our world.
The good news is that social studies is a subject that can be easily supplemented at home. Regardless of whether social studies instruction is decreasing at your children's school, it is important for you as a parent to take the initiative to teach your children critical aspects of becoming an engaged and knowledgeable member of society.
Teaching children core social studies subjects (history, geography, economics, and civics/citizenship) is essential to civic competence. It is also essential for the maintenance of a democratic society. Research has made it clear that parents who are actively involved in their children's learning at home help their children become more successful learners in and out of school.
So what can you do? You can be an active participant in your children's social studies instruction. Here are five ways you can support this instruction at home, no matter how much your children are learning at school:
1. Talk about the holidays, especially public holidays like Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Presidents' Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day. These days mean much more than a day off of work or a 'white sale'! Discuss the meanings of these holidays, the people and events they celebrate, and how they impact our lives today.
2. Take every opportunity you can to explain to your children about our civic rights and responsibilities. When it's time to vote, explain the importance of this right and critical responsibility. Remind them that for most people in our history especially women, people of color, and the poor this was a hard won right. If you are called to jury duty, teach your children about how our justice system works.
3. Discuss with your children the topics you learn about while reading the paper, surfing the web, or watching the news. Then ask them for their opinions on political, social, and economic matters. Listen, ask probing questions, and compliment them on their reasoning. Challenge them, too, to wonder about what is not being talked about on the news. Model an interest in current events and public life. Always remember that you are their first and best teacher.
4. Visit monuments, memorials, libraries, parks, and other public spaces. Explain that "we the people" pay for these things through taxes. Question the names and events that are memorialized and ask "Who do you think that was?" or "Why do we remember this event?"
5. Learn together about the history and geography of your community, state, and country. Now is a great time to purchase a globe, atlas, or wall map for your home if you do not already have one. Refer to these frequently as you discuss history and current events.
It is unfortunate that our children are receiving less and less formal education in social studies, especially in a nation that prides itself on its history and its government. But parents can make a difference. Home is where children form their attitudes toward learning. And it is at home where children first learn the values they will carry throughout their lives.
Kevin P. Colleary, Ed.D, teaches education classes at Fordham University, including history, philosophy and elementary social studies methodology. A published author and frequent speaker regarding elementary social studies teaching and learning, Dr. Colleary is also an author of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill TimeLinks, an elementary social studies program for Grades K-6.