July 30, 2007
By Robert B. Townsend
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.”