social studies

Among the many arguments raging—and more than a little mud-slinging—around the Common Core State Standards, perhaps the most arcane involves the blurry border between academic standards and classroom curricula.

Begin with the fact that neither term has a clear definition. Most people hazily understand that standards involve the destination that students ought to reach—i.e., the skills and knowledge (and sometimes habits, attitudes, and practices) that they should have acquired by some point in their educational journey. Often it’s the end of a grade (“by the end of fifth grade, students will know how to multiply and divide whole numbers”), sometimes the completion of a grade band (“by the end of middle school…” or “during ninth and tenth grade”).

Curriculum, on the other hand, is what Ms. Robertson teaches on Tuesday, in week 19, or during the “fourth unit,” and it generally consists of scopes and sequences, actual lessons, textbooks, reading assignments, and such.

Over a stated period of time, curriculum combined with pedagogy, properly applied by teachers and ingested by students, is supposed to result in the attainment of standards.

But it’s blurry. Standards range from vague to specific and from few to numerous. Curriculum ranges all over the place, from a forty-seven-minute lesson to a yearlong, even multi-year scope and sequence.

In general, in the U.S. in 2013, states prescribe standards, at least in core school subjects, but they rarely prescribe curricula, which are typically the responsibility of districts, schools, and/or teachers. On the other hand, some states do recommend model curricula, and some determine which textbooks may and may not be used (at least when state dollars are involved in their purchase). At the local level, too, decisions about curriculum may be centralized or left to the discretion of individual teachers—and this often varies by subject and grade level. Sometimes, curricular decisions get made when the district acquires a “reading program” (in essence, leaving it to the publisher) or when a school signs up for AP World History, the International Baccalaureate, Saxon Math, or Core Knowledge.

Further complicating the picture, some teachers cherish their autonomy in matters curricular and balk at anything imposed or “scripted,” while others yearn for orderly lesson sequences and materials prepared by others.

Into this murky territory come the Common Core standards for English and math, and as expected, they are faulted from both directions. On the one hand, they are criticized as too prescriptive, too much like a “national curriculum,” hence a violation of local control and teacher autonomy. On the other hand, they are faulted for not being accompanied by well-aligned curricular materials, scopes and sequences, or even lesson plans that teachers can use when struggling to convey this sometimes-unfamiliar material to their pupils.

The latest curricular dust-up associated with Common Core involves Appendix B of the English standards, which is, in essence, a long list of readings, selected by those who built the Common Core to illustrate the sorts of passages (fiction, non-fiction, poems, etc.) that students should be able to read with understanding at various points in the K–12 sequence. (If you haven’t viewed it with your own eyes, you can do so here.)

It’s labeled “Exemplars of Reading Text Complexity, Quality and Range & Sample Performance Tasks Related to Core Standards.”

Its purpose, say its compilers, is “primarily to exemplify the level of complexity and quality that the Standards require all students in a given grade band to engage with. Additionally, they [the passages and titles] are suggestive of the breadth of texts that students should encounter in the text types required by the Standards. The choices should serve as useful guideposts in helping educators select texts of similar complexity, quality, and range for their own classrooms. They expressly do not represent a partial or complete reading list.” (Emphasis added.)

Note that the many titles on this list, and the passages selected from them, are not part of the Common Core standards themselves. They are meant to exemplify and suggest—and it’s such a long list that no school system, teacher, or student could conceivably assign, or read, everything on it during thirteen grades. (I doubt that anybody anywhere has read all of everything on it.)

To the extent that I’m familiar with these works and authors, it’s an impressive list: diverse, eclectic, and well stocked with familiar classics but also with much else drawn from sundry genres. See for yourself.

The problem is that, like any list of books, stories, poems, or plays, it contains plenty of items that will be viewed as controversial or inappropriate by individuals and groups on myriad grounds: ethnic, religious, political, moral, and on. I suspect there’s nothing on the list that’s completely inoffensive to everyone in America. (The Wizard of Oz is there, for example, and it contains witches. Thurber’s “The Thirteen Clocks” may alarm those who are superstitious about numbers. As for Walt Whitman, he is said to have been fond of other men. Let’s not even talk about what Oedipus did.)

The big recent dust-up involves The Bluest Eye, a novel by the Nobel Prize–winning African American author Toni Morrison, a short excerpt from which appears on page 152 of the appendix, intended for eleventh graders. (It’s there along with Poe, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Melville, Bronte, Shakespeare, Keats, etc.)

I find the excerpt complex, demanding, and a bit obscure, but not offensive. You may disagree. Still, there’s no denying that the book as a whole, while praised by many for its literary merit, also contains parts that can fairly be termed “adult literature.” To some people’s eyes, they’re pornographic, unsuitable for school kids of any age.

People differ in these matters: as to what they regard as obscene, what is appropriate for students of various ages, and what schools should expose them to. (Recall the contention over whether school libraries should have The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on their shelves.)

Let’s be clear, as Diane Ravitch showed in The Language Police, that when you scrub every library, every reading list, every textbook, and every test item clean of everything that could offend anybody for any reason, you end up with the boring pablum that dominates so much of today’s curriculum. One reason American kids don’t read much is because what remains for them to read is so dull. Is it any wonder the Internet is more beguiling?

Yet the policy dispute remains: If a state adopts the Common Core standards, is it requiring, recommending, or even hinting that its public school pupils should (or must) read all—or any—of the items that are listed and excerpted in Appendix B?

The short answer is no. Appendix B isn’t part of the standards and nothing on it needs to be read by anyone. The choice of curricular materials remains entirely within the province of the state, district, school, or teacher, according to standard practice in that locale.

When Debe Terhar, who chairs the Ohio State Board of Education, noted that Appendix B had made it onto the website of the state education department, she questioned whether anyone in that agency had actually read the works on that list. Of The Bluest Eye, she said “I don’t want my grandchildren reading it, and I don’t want anybody else’s grandchildren reading it.”

Unlike the Arizona district that recently banned a different book on the Appendix B list, Terhar was not calling for the Morrison book to be outlawed in Ohio. But she doesn’t think it’s appropriate for the state in any way to endorse—or even appear to endorse—the book for classroom use, even in the eleventh grade.

Toni Morrison, the ACLU, and various commentators promptly jumped on Ms. Terhar, accusing her of censorship and worse.

But let’s go back to basics. When Ohio adopted the Common Core standards for English language arts, it did not adopt Appendix B. The standards themselves contain a shorter list of illustrative readings that does not even mention Toni Morrison. (That list—for grades 6–12—can be found on page 58 of the standards.) But that list, too, is only illustrative of the kinds and levels of reading that the standards are supposed to be applied to; it is not a list of titles that teachers must assign or kids must read.

Perhaps the Common Core authors should have been more prescriptive. E.D. Hirsch, who knows more about curriculum than anyone I know, finds much to praise in the standards but faults them for not setting forth a “coherent,” content-specific curriculum.

You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. Maybe Hirsch is right and the standards should spell out exactly what kids should learn, which is apt to include what they should read. But the Common Core doesn’t do that. Which means it’s wrong to attack Ms. Terhar for objecting to one entry on a list that is not, in fact, part of the standards. To her eye (and the eyes of more than a few other responsible adults), that particular book isn’t suitable for teenagers. But nothing in the Common Core says they have to read it. For better and for worse, such decisions remain where they have always been in American education.


By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

No, I’m not suggesting that social studies kill people, but the recent emission by the National Council for the Social Studies of “guidance for enhancing the rigor of K–12 civics, economics, geography, and history” does have this in common with the agreement that the U.S. and Russia reached in Geneva on Saturday regarding Syria’s chemical weapons: both are termed “frameworks” and neither will do any good unless many other people do many other things that they are highly unlikely to do.

Abraham Lincoln

The Syrians must itemize, declare, and dismantle their chemical weapons. All of them. Fast. Who really thinks that’s going to happen?

And for the College, Career and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards to have any positive influence on this woebegone realm of the American curriculum, states and districts (and textbook publishers, teachers, etc.) must supply all the content. For this framework is avowedly, even proudly, devoid of all content.

Nowhere in its 108 pages will you find Abraham Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King (or Martin Luther), a map of the United States, or the concept of supply and demand. You won’t find anything that you might think children should actually learn about history, geography, civics or economics.

Instead, you will something called an “Inquiry Arc,” defined as “as set of interlocking and mutually supportive ideas that frame the ways students learn social studies content.”

Got that? Here’s an example of how it works. Turn to table 23 on page 49. This has to do with “causation and argumentation” and purports to be part of the inquiry arc as applied to history, in particular to “dimension 2,” dubbed “causation and argumentation.”

By the end of grade 2, “individually and with others,” students will “generate possible reasons for an event or developments in the past.” (That event might be World War I, or it might be the day grandma dropped the turkey on the floor.)

By the end of grade 5, they will “explain probable causes and effects of events and developments.” (Let me tell you what happened after Susie smacked Jamie.)

By the end of grade 8, they will “explain multiple causes and effects of events and developments in the past.” (Actually, she said she hit him for two reasons.)

And by the end of high school, they will “analyze multiple and complex causes and effects of events in the past.” Now we’ve moved from “explain” to “analyze,” and we’ve added “complex.” But, as throughout the entire document, there is no content whatsoever. No actual history.

Sure, one could build good stuff on this framework. But one could also build trash. Or nothing.

The publication of the “C3” framework (that stands for “college, career, and civic life”) is not, however, a neutral act. It is, in fact, a damaging act for American education. In struggling (on multiple pages) to insist that it is “aligned” with the Common Core state standards for English language arts, it demeans the Common Core and complicates the work of those trying earnestly to implement it. And by enshrining “twenty-first-century skills” within social studies, it puts a further squeeze on actual content and reduces the odds that kids, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, will emerge from school with anything like the knowledge they need to be effective, productive citizens and participants in the nation’s shared culture, civic life, and public discourse.

As Rick Hess wrote,

Most college graduates can’t identify famous phrases from the Gettysburg Address or cite the protections of the Bill of Rights. If our ‘national experts’ can’t bring themselves to come out and just say ‘Kids should know when the Civil War was,’ it’s not clear that an ‘inquiry arc of interlocking and mutually reinforcing elements’ will help kids find out.

But console yourself with this thought: If and when C3 takes over social studies, the chemical-weapons problem will recede in everyone’s mind, for tomorrow’s citizens won’t have a clue where Syria is or what they’re fighting about.


A study out of Britain’s Institute of Education (IOE) has found that children who read for pleasure made more progress in mathematics, vocabulary, and spelling between the ages of ten and sixteen than their peers who rarely read. In fact, the study found that whether or not a child likes to read is a greater predictor of classroom success than parents’ educational levels.

A Chicago Tribune article follows Jailyn Baker, a teenager in Chicago, on her seven-leg, hour-and-a-half-long commute to the Josephinium Academy, her school of choice and one of the few private schools in the city that her family can afford. Her story illustrates not only the lengths to which folks will go to exercise school choice but also a great irony: Jailyn lives closer to Indiana, a state that has one of the “most liberating” school-voucher programs in the land, than she does to Josephinium; were she living in Indiana, she would be eligible for a voucher worth nearly $6,000, which could allow her to attend a private school that she didn’t have to torture herself to get to.

Kudos of the week go to Jeb Bush, who—in what seemed like a moment of frustration—struck back at Common Core critics: “If you’re comfortable with mediocrity, fine.” He followed his comments, made at an appearance in Washington in support of Louisiana’s school-voucher program, by calling opposition “purely political.” Read more here.

A month after publishing two pieces blasting the National Council on Teacher Quality’s (NCTQ) methodology for evaluating ed schools’ primary reading programs, Valerie Strauss has granted column space in her Answer Sheet to a group letter defending the NCTQ. Written by the Wisconsin Reading Coalition’s Steven Dykstra and signed by many scholars, the letter states that the detractors’ criticisms are largely political innuendo and are a distraction from the real issue: “the need to improve the effectiveness of teacher education in the United States.” What’s more, it asserts that the NCTQ was right to promote the alphabetic approach to learning to read over the “guessing” approach—one that has been scientifically invalidated but is still commonly taught in teaching colleges. This letter is a powerful vindication and a worthy read.

According to Thomas Cousins of Purpose Built Communities in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the standard approach to addressing the issue of poverty—a “scattershot” method of pouring money into individual issues plaguing the poor, “as if there is no connection between a safe environment and a child’s ability to learn”—is not working. Rather, he highlights his organization’s success with a comprehensive-investment strategy in a small, geographically defined area: a public-housing project in southeast Atlanta, which has seen violent crime go down by 90 percent since 1993 and employment among those on welfare increase from 30 percent in 1995 to 70 percent. Their success has prompted the group to make an attempt at scaling up to other area—and we wish them luck.

This study reports on the first large-scale, randomized-control trial measuring the educational value of field trips. In 2011, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in Arkansas and, because of the high demand for tours, the authors were able to randomly select student groups to go. They matched participating groups with control groups based on similar grade level and demographics. In total, almost 11,000 students in grades K–12 at 123 schools were involved. About half of the students took a field trip to the art museum. They received a one-hour tour in which they viewed and discussed about five paintings. (Some had additional time in the museum.) Several weeks later, the authors gave a quiz to both the participating and control groups. Even after such a modest exposure to art, the results were pretty staggering: First, participating students were able to recall a great deal of information from their tour, showing that exposure to art and culture can be an important tool to relay content information to students. Second, participants demonstrated a greater ability to think critically about art—the authors showed students a painting they had never seen before and asked them to write about it. Third, they showed greater historical empathy and tolerance (measured by asking the child questions about whether he or she imagines what life was like in the past or tries to imagine what a figure in a painting is thinking) than the control group, concepts not necessarily related to art alone. Finally, participating students were more likely to use a free coupon to bring their families to the museum. It’s important to note that all of these effects—critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance, and interest in art museums—were much greater for students in rural schools, students in high-poverty schools, minority students, and young students. Advantaged students saw smaller effects, if any, perhaps because their parents already provide them with culturally enriching experiences. Even if based on a one-hour experience, these findings could have larger policy implications: Museums across America report a steep drop in school tours as districts reduce field trips due to lack of funds and other reasons. But this study shows that even a modest exposure to actual art can have some lasting effects.

SOURCE: Jay P. Greene, Brian Kisida, and Daniel H. Bowen, “The Educational Value of Field Trips,” Education Next 14 (1).

Many of today’s reform critics see standardized testing as education’s greatest evil, arguing that it forces a dull, routinized and stifling learning culture. However, in this new book by William J. Reese, a professor of educational-policy studies and history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, we learn that pen-and-paper exams were, in fact, created in order to reform an uncreative and stifling system—one characterized by testing via “public exhibitions” of well-rehearsed oratories and parades. Reese centers his story on how education reformers Horace Mann (Massachusetts’s first secretary of education) and Samuel Gridley Howe (a member of the state’s School Committee) fought tooth and nail to bring about this transformation. In 1845, the School Committee issued the first written test at Boston’s grammar schools and towns outside of Boston—and the results were abysmal. Nearly half of the test questions were left unanswered, resulting in extremely low average scores: The highest scoring subject was grammar with 39 percent; history reaped an embarrassing 26 percent. (Unfortunately for Howe, parents blamed Howe for this miserable showing and voted him out at the next election.) More than a century and a half later, the testing wars continue. Indeed, Howe’s fate may be on the minds of officials who fret about the failure rate that is apt to follow the new Common Core–aligned assessments. The rest of us, however, should at least understand that these issues aren’t new.

This collection of case studies from the Center for Reform of School Systems’s Donald McAdams and the Broad Foundation’s Dan Katzir, intended for use in school-board-training institutes, explores the strategies used by twelve governance teams to implement major, district-wide reforms in nine of the nation’s largest school districts (four of which won the Broad Prize for Urban Education), during the 1990s and early 2000s. After one chapter on each of the teams, the authors dive into an analysis of which strategies worked best and why. In Houston, for example, the school board’s shared vision of a decentralized system helped empower schools to work together with community and business leaders in their areas. However, in Aldine, just a few miles north of Houston, board members centralized most of the decision-making. McAdams and Katzir note that, while some management styles worked well for some school boards, no single method was best for all of them. But through the case studies, one can discern four main characteristics of success that other reform-minded school boards might usefully consider emulating: Boards should pick a superintendent whose reform agenda aligns with theirs, strive for cohesion at all times, and—importantly—pay attention to the political environment of the district and community. While these may not be ground-shaking conclusions, they are presented clearly and thoughtfully. The cases are fast-paced and comprehensive in their retelling, and the book is replete with insightful observations worthy of reflection in districts looking to start their own reforms.

In this week’s podcast, Michelle defends Toni Morrison, Mike laughs social-emotional learning out of the room, and both consider the possibilities of the “tablet revolution.” Dara takes us all on a field trip.

The greatest failing of education reformers in the U.S. this past quarter century has been their neglect of governance and structure—widely regarded either as politically impractical to touch or as too boring to get anyone interested. Yet the very structures and governance of our K–12 system often prevent other badly needed changes from taking place, enduring, or succeeding.

Recent months, however, have seen some cracks in the governance glacier with a spate of new books, articles, and conferences on the topic—meaning this set of reform challenges is no longer taboo to discuss or to tackle.

In an earnest effort to advance this crucial conversation, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute—in partnership with the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution Press—is pleased to present Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century: Overcoming the Structural Barriers to School Reform, edited by Paul Manna of the College of William and Mary and Patrick McGuinn of Drew University.

This important volume should be on the desk or bedside of every serious education reformer and policymaker in the land.

Featuring chapters by education scholars, analysts, and battle-scarred practitioners, it closely examines our present structures, identifies their failings, and offers some penetrating ideas for how governance might be done differently.

All serious reform victories begin with battles over ideas. In that spirit, we urge you to spend some quality time with this book. Overhauling our dysfunctional education-governance arrangements is a key priority for us at Fordham—and will inevitably loom among the hottest and most consequential issues for all serious reformers in the years to come.

By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

No, I’m not suggesting that social studies kill people, but the recent emission by the National Council for the Social Studies of “guidance for enhancing the rigor of K–12 civics, economics, geography, and history” does have this in common with the agreement that the U.S. and Russia reached in Geneva on Saturday regarding Syria’s chemical weapons: both are termed “frameworks” and neither will do any good unless many other people do many other things that they are highly unlikely to do.

Abraham Lincoln

The Syrians must itemize, declare, and dismantle their chemical weapons. All of them. Fast. Who really thinks that’s going to happen?

And for the College, Career and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards to have any positive influence on this woebegone realm of the American curriculum, states and districts (and textbook publishers, teachers, etc.) must supply all the content. For this framework is avowedly, even proudly, devoid of all content.

Nowhere in its 108 pages will you find Abraham Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King (or Martin...


Note: This post is part of our Netflix Academy series. See background, and links to other educational videos worth streaming, here.

Constitution Day is Tuesday, which is an excellent opportunity to teach children about our nation’s founding (a subject required for study by the Common Core state standards).

That gave me an excuse to dig into the Netflix and Amazon archives to find videos that might be available that could help elementary school children learn about our founders, the Revolutionary War, and the big ideas of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

Unfortunately, there’s not much. Most of what’s online is a better fit for older students—probably middle schoolers—such as several of Ken Burns’ excellent documentaries.

But thanks to the wonderful animated shows Liberty’s Kids and the classic Schoolhouse Rock!, all is not lost.

As always, if I’ve missed something good that’s on Netflix or Amazon Prime, please let me know in the comments section below.

Best videos on George Washington and the American founders available for streaming

1. Liberty's Kids

Liberty's Kids