Spotlight: Social Studies Squeeze

Spotlight: Social Studies Squeeze

Date Published:
Thursday, July 14, 2011

School-age children are introduced to a wide-variety of educational material ranging from mathematics to science. But all subjects are not created equal — or rather, they’re not given equal time in the classroom.

Social studies, which encompasses disciplines including history, government, anthropology, economics and geography, get short shrift in American elementary and middle schools.

UNC Charlotte education professors are examining the roles national and state educational policy and teacher perceptions play in the decline of social studies education.

“People in the community need to be aware of what their students are and aren’t getting,” says Tina Heafner, associate professor of social studies education. “We have to address a generation of students that are growing up with a minimum understanding of social studies.”

The social studies squeeze was documented in a 2007 Center on Educational Policy’s study following the implementation of the national No Child Left Behind legislation, as well as in a nationwide study from Brown University’s Center on Education Policy in 2008. The former study indicated that math and literacy instruction increased an average of 141 additional minutes of class time per week, whereas social studies and science instruction declined an average of 75 to 90 minutes.

Decline Linked to Lack of Testing

Outside of these reports, very little research has been published on the issue. That’s where UNC Charlotte researchers Heafner; Paul Fitchett, assistant professor of social studies education; Tracy Rock, associate professor of elementary education; and Amy Good, associate professor of elementary education, come in.

Some argue that the preservation of democracy could be at stake if something is not done to elevate the status of social studies in our schools.

In conjunction with researchers from five other North Carolina universities, the group conducted a five-year, statewide study to evaluate the impact high-stakes testing on social studies instruction in the elementary grades. Overall, their findings indicate that if a content area is not tested, while other areas are, that content area will be devalued and marginalized.

In North Carolina this could be very bad news for social studies — the subject is not tested in elementary and middle school, and state mandates recently ended testing in civics, economics and history in high school.

Fitchett and Heafner wanted to find out whether North Carolina was an anomaly. They gathered data that clearly indicates North Carolina is not alone — the decline is a nationwide phenomenon.

The researchers say the decline began in the late 1980s with the movement to standardize curriculum.

“Standards and associated testing with the standards created a climate where teachers are facing a constricted workplace environment,” Fitchett says. “They don’t feel they have the autonomy to decide how to structure the day.”

Why Save Social Studies

As the body of literature on the social studies squeeze grows, so does the literature about the importance of social studies and why it must be preserved and strengthened in America’s schools.

Without a robust social studies curriculum in elementary and middle-school grades, students don’t have the requisite skills to understand the subjects they encounter in high school; thus, the students and their teachers are set up to fail.

Moreover, some argue that the preservation of democracy could be at stake if something is not done to elevate the status of social studies in our schools. A democracy relies on citizens to understand and evaluate information about complex domestic and international issues, and react accordingly. High quality social studies instruction helps students develop these skills, say social studies proponents.

Advocates for social studies education are raising concerns with lawmakers during a time of budget constraints and intense partisanship, but their cause is worthy and change is possible, they say.

UNC Charlotte researchers have done a great deal to advance the cause, providing data to inform future policy decisions. They agree that as long as standardized tests exist, social studies should be tested just like any other subject, and teachers should be granted the time to plan engaging lessons and to take advantage of professional development opportunities to hone their skills in the content area.