President’s Message – June 2012

June 2012

We are the voice of Social Studies education in Massachusetts, but it is gratifying to learn that we are not without some supporters out there. Here is a recent editorial from the Lowell Sun:

U.S. history lessons getting short shrift

With the state pouring $3.2 billion a year into the Massachusetts public school system, it’s fair to say that present-day students have basic resources to be smarter than any previous generation.

But what do Massachusetts students really learn in the classroom? And what should they be learning? When it comes to U.S. history, the answer is not much.

One would think that a basic education for any living and breathing American citizen would include learning about how the nation was founded, where the people came from, why they came here, and the significant events that have shaped our heritage and culture. Americans have always identified with a pioneering spirit, rugged individualism and the ability to come together in a time of crisis and need, whether to help others or to defend our freedoms from domestic and foreign threats.

It’s ironic that immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship must study U.S. history and become familiar with the U.S. Constitution and how our three branches of government — executive, legislative, judicial — operate. Immigrants must pass a 100-question exam and recite the Pledge of Allegiance before citizenship is granted. Could all U.S. middle-school and high-school students pass the same citizenship test if it were given to them today? That is highly doubtful. Why? Because more and more schools in Massachusetts and across the country have eliminated history, civics and social-studies programs.

Educators say money is a factor. Certainly, budget reductions have forced school leaders to make tough decisions in recent years, but the elimination of history and civics classes are not wise choices. We can see a direct correlation in the rise of ethnic fragmentation and disintegration of America’s “melting pot” principle because of it. The national motto, “E Pluribus unum” — one from many — is being diminished and forgotten.

In some U.S. public school districts, students are being taught Mexican history, Spanish history, African history and Chinese history to the abandonment of learning about the struggles and successes of their own land. We don’t teach Irish, Italian or Greek history in Massachusetts public schools as a requirement, do we? Of course not. Young people should learn about different world cultures, but not at the expense of neglecting the fundamentals of the American experience.

In 2009, the state’s Department of Education, upon first agreeing to establish an MCAS history exam, backtracked, saying the $2.4 million implementation cost was problematic. Today, in 2012, the proposal still sits on the back-burner as Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester and Education Secretary Paul Reveille spend millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top funds for other “visionary” and somewhat untested uses [charter schools? – N. Shacochis].

Isn’t it time to do the right thing and make an investment where it will count — teaching students to become productive citizens?

A recent independent poll commissioned by the Pioneer Institute found that state legislators (64 percent), teachers (63 percent) and parents (59 percent) agree that an MCAS history exam should be established. And by overwhelming margins, ranging from 88 percent to 97 percent, all three groups agree that every Massachusetts public school student should study our nation’s founding and history. They see the need. Why don’t Chester and Reveille see it?

We’ll leave you with this thought and a comment: Massachusetts is one of nine states that doesn’t require students to study U.S. history. How can we be a leader in learning with such a dubious distinction?

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I invite one and all to forward this editorial to your local legislators, school administration, and to the DESE, Comm. Chester, Secretary Reveille, and anyone else you feel can help us lift SS education off the “endangered species” list.

In spite of the current plight of SS education in so many systems, the focus issue for my term as president will be simply this: with all the challenges we face as a Social Studies community, we must remain positive…constructive…and pro-active. There is a great deal to address in trying to maintain the integrity of Social Studies education, but we can not lose sight of what brought us into this career in the first place. A love for the Social Studies and a desire to pass that zeal on to generations of students. So let’s begin there by never losing sight of that determined energy. I was struck by the words of Donald Perreault, this year’s NEHTA Kidger Award winner, when he stated that “history happened in the everyday.” We need to constantly remind our students of that of course, but also remind ourselves of it as well. It is our everyday efforts in the classroom, in the professional development of our craft, and in voicing our role before the local school committees and state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that we must continue to have impact.

The determination of staying positive and constructive is not a stance of innocence. Make no mistake about the very serious fact – we have a daunting task ahead of us. In the Panel Discussion at NERC 43, one panelist after another related tales of distress, with states and regions increasingly marginalizing social studies education, and yet each of them found moments of great success and potential in the everyday efforts that classroom teachers were putting forth for students everywhere. However if we do not remain positive and determined, who will? We have so much to be proud of, why not be positive about what we do and what we offer. So let us pledge to be constructive and pro-active this year and beyond, so that Social Studies education grows in Massachusetts. Let’s continually remind the DESE that we are considered the leader among all the states in education and we are a significant part of the reason for that!

If we maintain this philosophical approach, then completing the other initiatives becomes far easier. Some points of emphasis for this coming year:

  • Increased membership in MCSS! We are the voice throughout the state for Social Studies Education. Help us speak for you. Join us (you can do so online at the MCSS website) and get your colleagues to do the same, no matter the grade level or college or school system.

  • The new and user friendly MCSS website – it’s up and running, so please 1. Make use of it and 2. Contribute to it. Using this website places answers to your questions at your fingertips, as well as access to many other useful and beneficial sites.

  • Create as many chapters as possible of the Rho Kappa Social Studies Honor Society which NCSS is establishing this year. All other disciplines have such honor societies and the social studies do not. There will be information on this on the MCSS website in the near future.

  • Communicate regularly with the DESE and your local legislators about Social Studies education. It is surprising how much they are not aware of, and they do appreciate hearing from you. Let them know what you are doing in the classrooms statewide, and let them know what they can and need to do for us to insure continued delivery of the best product around.

All this and NERC 44 (April 8,9,10, 2013) are on our horizon. This all makes for a busy year but one in which we can realize great progress in Social Studies education. Please join us in that venture.