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Can social studies fix The Achievement Plateau?
Social studies alone won’t upend The Achievement Plateau, but it might save our democracy.
As of 2018, only 13 states administered statewide social studies tests.
All 50 states administer statewide exams in math and reading in grades 3 - 8.
Public schools don’t operate exclusively to “teach to the test,” and state tests strongly influence the structure of local districts and the curriculum taught in their schools.
In the School District of Philadelphia, the largest in Pennsylvania, we have 8 people in the literacy department, 5 in the math department, and just 2 in the social studies department.
At my school, we have clearly-defined times for teaching math and literacy. When staff from the central office visit, no one asks to see the social studies or science classes — “instructional rounds,” as they’re called, focus exclusively on math and reading. When principals are gathered for professional development, what do we focus on? Yep, math and reading.
State tests shouldn’t be drivers of change in education, and they do indicate what we value in our education system. Even for those states that administer social studies exams, only one does it in all tested elementary grades: Tennessee. Most just test students in one or two grades.
That tells me that districts, principals (myself included!), and teachers are not prioritizing teaching social studies in any meaningful way.
And that makes me worry about the knowledge and critical thinking skills of Americans. I worry that we might have avoided the awful attack on the Capitol if the rioters had a robust knowledge of U.S. history, a deeper understanding of our democratic institutions, the ability to seek multiple sources of information to insulate against bias, or simply understood that it was a criminal act.
Shawn Rosenberg, a professor of political science and psychology & social behavior at U.C. Irvine, published a paper (long read) and gave a subsequent talk in which he argues that modern democracies are doomed because citizens lack the proper skills to fulfill the duties required of them. He writes, “…democratic governance in America (and elsewhere) has not been successful in creating the citizenry it requires. Thus it is left with citizens who lack the requisite cognitive and emotional capacities to assimilate its cultural definitions and norms, to function in its institutional organizations and to participate in its public sphere.” [You can read Politico’s (much shorter) summary of his points here.]
Prioritizing social studies instruction in every grade could help produce the citizens democracy requires. As Daniel Willingham, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, writes, “…factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning.” Moreover, students with a large base of knowledge “find it easier to learn more — the rich get richer,” meaning social studies instruction would support our plateaued achievement in literacy.
If teaching social studies could save our democracy and help end The Achievement Plateau, why aren’t we doing it? I’d love your thoughts on this — you can comment if you subscribe or just email me directly if you don’t — and I’ll explore the topic more in a future post.
Finally, a quick note on subscriptions: I started this newsletter because I’m frustrated with the current state of public education, know we can do better, and really like writing — not to make money. And Substack encourages writers to offer paid subscriptions. I tried to set the price at $1/month, and they have a price floor of $5/month and $30/year. I’ve been trying to think of ways to provide $30/year in value, and frankly I just don’t think I’m worth that much
! But my students are. So I’ve decided to donate 50% of every subscription to my school. That said, I’m humbled you’re even taking the time to read this, so please feel free to do so without subscribing. And if you’re enjoying it, please forward it to other potential readers. Have a restful-yet-active MLK Day.