Letter to Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

To: DESE – February 28, 2012
From: Norm Shacochis, President-elect, Mass. Council for the Social Studies (MCSS)

The current General Assembly of Virginia is considering a law to eliminate third and fifth grade Standards in Science and Social Studies (Senate Bill 185). This legislation on the surface appears to be a positive move toward acknowledging the pitfalls of so much standardized testing of students, but unfortunately the tone of the legislation points to other motives. The rationale stated for this change is that by eliminating the focus on Science and Social Studies testing, teachers and schools can focus more on the basic skills of reading and math. What it clearly does is pave the way for elimination of Social Studies (as well as Science) instruction in those grade levels. If we want to hide behind the “that won’t happen” mask, that is a very dangerous and misguided place to go.

Another recent national controversy erupted in the case of a teacher using questions about slavery in a math word problem exercise. The teacher was applauded for the interdisciplinary approach, but chastised for her choice of content matter. Lost in all of this is the danger of a school system seeing this as an opportunity to count such interdisciplinary moments as seen in that math class as SS instruction. Your school systems which currently have teachers assigned 4 classes in their own discipline and 1 assigned class in history/social studies flirt with this very issue. Might they simply have the math teacher teach all math classes, weave in some civic issues into the word problems, and call it SS instruction? The answer is “yes”, that is what is going to happen. One school system in Massachusetts proposed at the end of last school year that all middle school Social Studies teachers be eliminated, and that all other “primary discipline” teachers take a 45-hour course in teaching Social Studies (a series of bi-weekly 2 hour classes!) during the fall semester of this year and that would make everyone comfortable with teaching Social Studies. Thankfully, wiser heads prevailed, primarily due to teacher resistance, not administrative recoil.

We no longer are here pleading for a re-institutionalization of the History & Social Studies MCAS. We argued for that exam in order to help prevent the further marginalization of SS instruction. The exam is not in place not for any educational reason, we all know that. Let’s please allow us to cut right to the chase. The DESE needs to take one simple step – yes another in a long line of state mandates, but this is not about to have the financial impact that so many other state mandates have had. Very bluntly – require that SS instruction be required for a minimum of 160 minutes/week in grades 2-5, 200 minutes/week grades 6-8, and for a minimum of 3.5 full years at the high school, which would then incorporate the state frameworks recommendation of a semester elective for all students in civics & economics. If this is not instituted, we will see the further disintegration of Social Studies, and at some point down the road, there will be a push to catch up on Social Studies education, and it will be very expensive to do so – financially and educationally.

Lastly, I have attached an article I recently wrote to my local paper (Marshfield Mariner) responding to a citizen’s concern regarding the lack of civic education in the public schools. In it, I cite the national concern, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, from Diane Ravitch, from Geoffrey Canada, for this matter, as this is not a Massachusetts issue alone. However, if Massachusetts wishes to proudly wear the crown of the leading state in education, it is time it takes the lead on this issue. Rather than allow Social Studies education to continue to be marginalized, this Department must take these necessary steps to reinforce Social Studies education in the public school classroom today.


“Recently Mr. Parkis wrote expressing his dismay regarding the outcome of the vote on Marshfield’s new high school. While we stand on different sides of that issue, I applaud his concern about the lack of civic education in schools. Please note “in schools” and not “in the Marshfield schools”. A few points…

We have spent the last 2 years pleading with the Massachusetts Dept of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) about the lack of a History/Social Studies MCAS exam in the commonwealth. The reason for my concern – and that of my fellow Massachusetts Council for Social Studies (MCSS) members – is that since the state removed that MCAS exam, we have seen a drastic reduction in History/Social Studies education in the state. There are at least 35 middle schools in Massachusetts where no social studies is taught at all, and many others where it is taught by non-certified teachers from other disciplines (i.e. a math teacher may teach 4 math classes and 1 social studies class). A frightening number of school systems have openly opted to focus on the tested disciplines.

As vice-president and now president-elect of the MCSS, I have spoken to the DESE as have many of my colleagues about this concern, but the board has yet to approve any measure to reinstate the History/SS MCAS, and thus reinforce the importance of social studies education. We attend monthly meetings, are allowed 3 minutes to speak, and then are promptly ignored.

Virtually every school system has in its mission statement some wording referring to its commitment to developing participating citizens, but such a lack of commitment on the part of the state allows every system to abandon its own mission statement, as many do, to concentrate on the tested subject areas (Math, English-Language Arts, Science).

This is not a problem that is limited to Massachusetts. At the recent National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) Conference in Washington DC that I attended, the plight of Social Studies education was a significant concern throughout the entire nation. Only 20% of 4th graders, 33% of 8th graders, and 41% of high school students nation-wide are taught any civics. Increasingly, students in elementary grades receive Social Studies instruction less than twice a week, for less than 60 minutes total for the week. It is no wonder that few people go the polls, no matter the election level or issue. Diane Ravitch made reference to this issue in her keynote address; Geoffrey Canada made reference to it in his talk, and Maureen Connolly from the Southern Poverty Law Center focused on this very issue in her presentation.

This is real, and it threatens much more than a simple class elective for high school students. The concern over a lack of civic education is genuine. There is nothing to be gained by any constituency here other than the entire population of students who need to receive such an education. (Full disclosure – I am a retired History teacher, Dept. Chairman, and my son does teach at Marshfield HS, but he teaches telecommunications, not History/Social Studies). This is not a reach for teaching jobs but simply an expression of concern for the lack of civics and Social Studies education in our public schools. I can only urge everyone to express this concern to their local school officials, state legislators, and to their own children/students.” (letter to Mariner, December 2011)

Norm Shacochis
Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies (MCSS)

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