Forgetting history: State shouldn't leave social studies behind

Last summer, the Maryland State Department of Education held "Educator Effectiveness Academies" for all public elementary and secondary schools across the state. The purpose of these academies was to provide professional development for teachers about the new Common Core State Standards for mathematics and English/language arts. Invited to participate in these meetings were principals, along with representatives from English/language arts, mathematics, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Notably absent were history and social studies teachers. This is not unusual, given the traditional place of these disciplines at the bottom rung of the academic priority list. However, anyone who carefully reads the common core standards will realize that the exclusion of these teachers is misguided.

History and social studies are indeed an integral component of the common core, which posits an interdisciplinary approach to literacy. The common core standards address the persistent myth that only English teachers are responsible for teaching literacy by stating that "college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature," and that "these standards also ensure students are being prepared to read, write, and research across the curriculum, including in history and science." They note further that this is best achieved "by ensuring that teachers in other disciplines are also focusing on reading and writing to build knowledge within their subject areas."

This concept of disciplinary literacy — advanced literacy instruction embedded within content area classes such as history and social studies — is the driving force behind the common core standards for English/language arts.

Since the early 1990s, there has been a surge in research around history education. Much of this research has focused on how students best understand history, and it has set in motion a movement to change how history is taught. At about the same time, the federal government introduced a large grant program to fund improvements in history education, the Teaching American History Grant (TAH) program. As a requirement of these grants, local school systems had to form partnerships with universities, museums and historical societies. These partnerships helped to bring together awareness of the recent research on history education with the work of pedagogy experts in the school systems. Combined with an infusion of money heretofore unseen in history education, this led to a paradigm shift in history instruction.

The research on history education has focused on how students typically engage with historical texts as they attempt to develop interpretations of the past in the ways professional historians might. This involves the careful analysis and interpretation of complex text such a primary and secondary source documents, maps, images and other forms of data.

Just 10 years ago, the idea of a teacher using a primary source in the classroom was considered a novelty. Now, primary sources have been fully integrated in the educational lexicon of social studies instruction. These federal grants have also launched professional learning communities of teachers who have developed high-quality instructional materials. With names like "historical investigations" and "history labs," these materials have become ubiquitous in American history classrooms and prime examples of the disciplinary literacy advocated by the common core.

The common core standards for English/language arts call for an increased emphasis on informational text. Most of this comes from disciplines outside of English. The curriculum in most secondary English/language arts programs has traditionally been driven by the use of literature or literary texts, and a focus on narrative writing. In contrast, informative and argument writing form a larger proportion of the writing standards in the common core. This is exactly the kind of writing that is the key to success on Advanced Placement exams in history. (The Document Based Question on AP exams requires students to engage in the close reading and analysis of text in order to develop an evidence-based argument.)

If the states that adopt the common core standards in English/language arts interpret them correctly, history and social studies stand to benefit greatly from a renewed emphasis on the critical thinking skills considered essential to these disciplines. Long ignored or marginalized by the focus on tests of basic reading skills without context, history and social studies should be seen as the one of the primary subjects needed to meet the challenges of the common core and its forthcoming assessments.

Here's hoping that the Maryland State Department of Education sees fit to include these teachers in next summer's Educator Effectiveness Academies.

Mark J. Stout is past president of the Maryland Council for the Social Studies. His email is

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