Testimony to the Department of Education

Testimony by Robert Kostka, MCSS member and President 2011-2012, to Board of Primary and Secondary Education, January, 2012.

Last year, someone from the Mass. Council for the Social Studies appeared before you every month to emphasize the importance of including Social Studies as an MCAS tested subject. Though your rhetoric was supportive, the net result was that due to financial considerations, the test was once again postponed, this time with the caveat that we will have to start from scratch, designing a new test. All of us in the social studies community knew what that meant. If there is no money to implement a test that currently exists, what chance is there that such funds would miraculous appear to design a new test in addition to making the test operational?

In the last year I have heard literally dozens of times from principals, superintendents and school committee members around the state the simple truth: if it’s not tested, it’s not important enough to fund in an economic crisis. Social studies departments across the state are being cannibalized to support “tested subjects.”

At a time in our history where knowledge and understanding of history and government are essential as we make historic decisions about our future, fewer and fewer students in this state are being taught history and civics by trained social studies teachers. In cases too numerous to document, social studies teachers across the state are being replaced by teachers of other disciplines on the absurd premise that “anyone can teach social studies”. I know of one school district that has required all of its middle school teachers to take a weekly two hour course designed to have them all certified in social studies by the end of the year. So we have math, ELA and science teachers being required to take a course in a subject that they don’t want or care to teach so that they can now legally teach outside of their specialty. Consequently, in addition to large class sizes, lack of resources and degradation of their health care coverage, they will now be teaching one or two classes in a subject that doesn’t interest them. And we wonder why we have trouble attracting the best and the brightest to education?!

But this is not about them or even the social studies teachers who cannot find jobs teaching what they love. It’s about the kids and, equally important, our democratic society. The concept that a snapshot course can miraculously transform a math teacher into a math teacher slash engaging social studies teacher is ludicrous. So what do we get? Someone who how has learned enough facts that they can repeat them back to their students who will then puke them back on tests, absent the nuances, significances, excitement and contradictions of history. All the things that make social studies engaging and exciting are lost on our students, creating a dread for the subject that not only should be interesting but, is vital to the survival of our democracy. So what do we currently have? Little or no social studies in elementary school. Twenty minutes a week is not having social studies! Middle school students being taught by teachers trained in other specialties who cannot possibly engage in the material in a way that attracts students’ interest. We now have bored, sullen students entering high school listing social studies as their least favorite course. These high schools are cutting elective courses in social studies to accommodate more remedial drilling in testable subjects. Civics is an elective course throughout the Commonwealth, if it’s offered at all, yet it was to create an educated electorate that the concept of free public schools was conceived of in the first place.

We in the social studies community are nothing if not pragmatic. We understand that there is little we can say that will miraculously produce the necessary revenue to implement the social studies MCAS as a mandate. We have tried and failed to convince you to prioritize civic education through testing at the state level. The DOE, however, can consider requiring an exit exam in civics for all graduating seniors. It could perhaps fund some pilot programs designed to require at least one semester of civic education for all of our students as they reach voting age. If the Board of Education doesn’t take civic education seriously enough, how can we expect underfunded schools to?

As our political discourse deteriorates into increasingly more hollow partisan bickering, our students need the skills and, equally important, the interest to sift through the competing claims and arrive at a solution that serves our democracy’s interest. That has always been hard because it requires nuanced thinking and reasoning. Without quality civic education, it’s impossible.

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