“No Child” Leaves the Social Studies Behind

Moving past the usual alarmist anecdotes, a new study by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) offers hard evidence that the social studies are being squeezed in America’s schools by test-driven pressures imposed by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

English Language Arts (ELA) and Math—the two subjects that are regularly tested under NCLB—are taking up an increasing amount of student time. In a survey of 491 school districts they found that 58 percent increased the amount of time in the elementary schools allocated to ELA, and 45 percent increased the time devoted to math.

Given a finite amount of time in the day something has to go, and as often as not, it turns out, the social studies lose. The CEP found that over the past five years 36 percent of the departments surveyed decreased the time allocated to the social studies, more than science (cut by 28 percent of school districts), art and music (cut by 16 percent), and even lunch (cut by 20 percent).

And these were not small cuts either. On average, students in the surveyed school districts devoted 178 minutes per week to the social studies (a third less than ELA, which gets 503 minutes, and half the time for math, which averages 323 minutes). It is quite worrisome then that the districts cutting time on the social studies, trimmed an average of 76 minutes per week. School districts cited because students in at least one school were failing on the tests were cutting back even further. More than half of these districts (51 percent) cut the time allocated to the social studies, and by an average of 90 minutes per week.

School administrators interviewed for the report noted a number of creative solutions they are trying to balance these curricular shifts, but historians will find little comfort in them. Many in the discipline remain uneasy about the integration of history into the social studies; so it is troubling to read school officials suggest that they now want to integrate the social studies into the reading and math curricula.

The findings in the CEP report validate the AHA Council’s decision, made reluctantly this past January, to support adding history to the areas of assessment under No Child Left Behind. Following on policy alerts from the National Council for History Education, Council concluded that, “if history is to be a high-priority subject in the public-school curriculum, then it must be assessed and evaluated.”

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  1. Larry Cebula

    We historians are between the devil and the deep blue sea here. The devil is the idea of including history in NCLB. Doing so would result in standardized history curricula written by Bush-appointed Liberty University graduates and a standardized test to which our schools would teach. Sample question: “Discuss the deep Christian commitment of the Founding Fathers. List three ways in which they modeled the Constitution on the Ten Commandments.”

    The Deep Blue Sea is the quiet erasure of history from the public schools—which is what has been happening. And it is not just history! Art, music, PE, everything is being cut back or thrown overboard to make room for the NCLB subjects. My first-grade son lost his afternoon recess this year to make room for NCLB preparation.

    I guess that I agree with the AHA decision to court the devil and try to get him to dance our tune. But a better strategy is to oppose NCLB altogether.

  2. Gabriel Reich

    When caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, as Larry Cebula aptly put it, both choices can seem equally bad. The pragmatist in me agrees that we need to call for the addition of history to the growing list of subjects to be tested in order to preserve it as an essential school subject. But how will history be tested? If history can only be preserved by creating cheap and often barely valid history exams then what are we preserving? I think the question is how can historians and those of us in the history/social studies education field get a spot at the table and have some say in HOW student achievement in history is tested. I’d suggest we follow our colleagues in Great Britain (and more recently in Canada) and talk about the substantive issues of the discipline rather than allow ourselves to be goaded into another culture war battle that we probably will not win.

    I don’t really swim well, so when caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, I’ll argue with the devil. He can be tricky, but he has been known to listen to reason.