Advocating for the Social Studies

The Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies works steadily to promote the social studies in the classrooms of Massachusetts Schools. Here is a recent exchange of letters between Norm Schacochis, President of MCSS and the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, Mitchell Chester, Ed.D

May 1, 2012

Dear Commissioner,

Recently NEA President Dennis Van Roekel stated in an editorial the following:

“Under NCLB, students as young as six or seven years old are subjected to weeks of preparation for high stakes tests. Because math and reading are the dominant testing subjects, history, civics, music, and art are squeezed out of the school day. For the last 10 years we have shortchanged countless children because of NCLB’s overemphasis on standardized multiple choice tests. Or as Gary Miron, professor of education at Western Michigan University, wrote, ‘The bigger problem is a more serious type of cheating – one that’s perfectly legal and apparently acceptable. Students are being cheated of a broader education’…”

The Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies (MCSS) and its representatives have appeared before you and the Board numerous times over the past few years, representing the local voice on the identical issue that Mr. Van Roekel and Mr. Morton speak, and we have yet to hear your voice on this matter. Your silence speaks volumes.

Here we are in another election year and most students’ civics education will consist of yet another overview of the electoral process and then civics education will be ignored while more and more social studies are squeezed out of the normal school day. While most high schools (state and nation-wide) maintain a traditional three-year History requirement for graduation, it is in grades 1-8 that Social Studies is increasingly pushed aside and/or taught by disinterested specialists of other disciplines. A society that is kept ignorant is the most poverty stricken and easily controlled society, and therefore the danger of a lack of social studies and civics education is indeed a grave one. Once again, we ask that the state of Massachusetts be the educational leader it claims to be by instituting a required numbers of hours per week of Social Studies instruction for grades 1-8.

Commissioner Chester, we are still waiting to hear your voice and the voice of the Board in response. How long do you intend to allow this cheating to continue?

Sincerely,
Norm Shacochis
President – MCSS

To which the commissioner replied.

May 21, 2012

Norm Shacochis, President
Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies

Dear Mr. Shacochis:

Thank you for your letter addressing the importance of history and social studies in K-12 curricula. I would also like to thank you and your colleagues from the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies

for your consistent, articulate public comments to the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

As an educator and citizen, I share your belief in the importance of history and social science in the curriculum, as do Education Secretary Paul Reville, Board Chair Maura Banta, and the members of the Board. In each of the past two state budget cycles, the Board sought appropriations that would enable our work on a history and social science MCAS assessment to continue and that would also fund supports for students who struggle to pass such assessments. Unfortunately, the ongoing recession and resulting revenue shortfall have severely limited our state’s ability to respond to such priorities.

In your letter you request that the Board mandate specific time to the teaching of history and social science. Massachusetts has a long history of “local control” and it is neither within our purview nor

appropriate for the Department to mandate how many hours schools must devote weekly to teaching individual subjects.

I assure you that our Department is and will continue to make social studies an integral part of our work. Teacher teams are currently developing, under the Race to the Top initiative, 100 preK-12 model curriculum units and curriculum-embedded assessments to support high quality instruction. Twenty-?ve of these will be in history and social science. MCSS members actively participate on several of the Model Curriculum development teams and will be piloting units in their districts. We believe that their work will demonstrate clearly how the Massachusetts history and social science standards can be combined with the literacy standards for history and social studies of the Common Core State Standards to create effective instruction.

Model curriculum units for social studies, along with accompanying resources and tools for formative assessments at the classroom level and interim/benchmark assessments across grades and subjects (including History / Social Science), will be integrated into a comprehensive teaching and learning system. Another component of the system is an online “digital library” where social studies will also feature prominently through our strategic partnership with WGBH in Boston. We have helped WGBH align digital media resources to the Massachusetts frameworks, which teachers can access through PBS

Learning Media website (formerly Massachusetts Teacher‘s Domain). The Department reviews history/social science questions for High School Quiz Show, and has collaborated with Massachusetts educators and WGBH to pilot an online professional development course developed through the Teaching American History program.

Our long-standing involvement in Massachusetts Student Government Day, which for 65 years has brought students from around the state to the Massachusetts State House to model the processes of government for tomorrow’s leaders, and our ongoing efforts to encourage and enhance service learning opportunities in districts attest to the importance that the Board and the Department continue to assign to social studies education. It remains a vital part of a well-balanced curriculum in our schools.

The thoughtful commentary offered by members of MCSS to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education does not fall on deaf ears. We appreciate hearing from you, and from your colleagues, and we agree that a robust curriculum that includes sustained history and social science instruction is essential to the work of public schools in Massachusetts. We will continue to work with you to present our schools with compelling history / social science alternatives as a hedge against narrowing the curriculum.

I encourage you to continue this important dialogue with Julia Phelps, Associate Commissioner for Curriculum and Instruction, and Susan Wheltle, Director of the Office of Literacy and the Humanities.

Sincerely,

Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D.
Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education

PDF Copy of the Commissioner’s letter

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