Letter to DESE June ’12 (in response to Commissioner Chester’s letter)




Ms. Julia Phelps, Associate Commissioner for Curriculum and Instruction, DESE

Ms. Susan Wheltle, Director of Office of Literacy and Humanities

Massachusetts Dept. Of Elementary and Secondary Education

75 Pleasant St

Malden, MA 02148-4906


Dear Ms. Phelps and Ms. Wheltle,

In his response to my April letter, Commissioner Chester directed me to communicate with you rather than himself on the matter of Social Studies instruction – or rather the lack of it – in the state of Massachusetts. Both you and I know that Social Studies instruction is diminishing at an alarming pace, simply because schools are placing all their energies into instruction on what will be scored and reported, the MCAS subject areas of Math, ELA, and Science.

Commissioner Chester shields the department from any responsibility in the marginalization of Social Studies instruction with the statement “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.” This contradicts the creation of the State Frameworks in the 1990s, in which schools were told what to teach and when to teach it. So 15 years back ‘local control’ was not to be, but today it is a ‘long tradition’. Such a shameful and empty argument.

Ah, the Frameworks. Remember how they were supposed to be designed to do away with local systems ignoring instruction in many disciplines? My grand-daughter is in 5th grade and goes to a school w/ a Social Studies-Science block. She states that all they ever study is science except for studying the Pilgrims around Thanksgiving. She has studied the Pilgrims at Thanksgiving in Grade 3, Grade 4, and again in Grade 5. Exactly what the Frameworks were intended to address! But no matter State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, it’s under local control, so it is okay.

Commissioner Chester also cites the creation of 25 curriculum units in History and Social Sciences as another indicator of the Department’s support for Social Studies instruction. I disagree. You are supporting the development of a curriculum which you allow NOT to be taught. The support of Student Government Day, another citation by the Commissioner, is a one day event involving perhaps 500 students. I took part as a teacher for many years, and agree it is a great day. A day. That’s it. Let’s not dare to claim a day for about 500 students state-wide as “see, we support Social Studies instruction.”

I have spoken before the Board several times as have many MCSS members regarding the plight of Social Studies instruction in this state. I would welcome the opportunity to sit and talk personally with either or both of you to determine a path that could stabilize Social Studies instruction in our school systems. I am not the only individual and the MCSS is not the only organization noticing the trend in Social Studies instruction. Please note the following 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. 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?

I look forward to a productive dialogue. Having worked on an MCAS Development Team, I am familiar with the efforts, quality, and sense of values that can be evidenced in the work of the DESE. I look toward that collective effort to address this issue, not a “it’s not our problem” head in the sand response. The DESE is better than that. My proposal had been simply to call on each system to guarantee certain seat minutes of instruction in the Social Studies (see my February 2012 statement to the Board) and that has been deemed to be “not in our purview”. This is not what we – the DESE, MCSS, or the Social Studies – are about. The Social Studies teach us about responsibility, civic duty, and active participation in our society. No MCAS tested area does that, and it is the one area that the DESE is allowing to be eroded from daily instruction in our public schools.




Norm Shacochis -President, Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies (MCSS)


601 Main St.

Marshfield, MA 02050

781-834-4097 [h]

781-507-6687 [c]



Comm. Mitchell Chester

Education Secretary Paul Reville

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