Is Boston’s school district eliminating history department as part of Common Core?

Rome Coliseum (EPA/Alessandro Di Meo)
Rome Coliseum (Alessandro Di Meo/EPA)

The Boston public schools district found itself in the position of having to issue a public statement denying that it was eliminating its history and social studies department after someone posted on the Web that it was and the news went viral in the education world. Historians assumed it was true and rightly flipped out.

What happened?

According to Eileen de los Reyes, deputy superintendent of academics, the school district is, for the first time in many years, reorganizing its academic departments to make them more inter-disciplinary and to help implement the Common Core State Standards. As part of the reorganization, job positions are being rewritten across the various departments and dozens of people are being asked to reapply for their jobs. People in the history department did get notices but they weren’t the only ones.

Part of the online buzz was that history and social studies were being absorbed into a new uber-humanities department. In fact, the departments of history, English-Language Arts and world languages are coming under a new humanities umbrella for purposes of better coordination, she said. Likewise, a new science umbrella will include science, technology and engineering, while a new “specialized learning” umbrella will include special education and English Language Learners.

There has been some concern among history and social studies educators that the job posting for a new director of humanities and literacy includes qualifications relating directly to English Language Arts and Specialized Instruction but not to history and social studies:

Required:

• Masters degree
• At least three years elementary or secondary teaching experience in an urban setting
• Humanities and/or Literacy and Administration license.
• ESL or Special Education Licensure or proven field experience working with teachers to meet the needs of English Language Learners or students on IEPs and a willingness to pursue licensure.
• Deep knowledge of the Common Core State Standards in Humanities & Literacy and the implications of the shifts in content, K-l2
• Knowledge of adult learning theory
• Strong communication skills
• Demonstrated ability to collaborate with partners to meet the goals of district-wide initiatives
• Demonstrated leadership ability in content and system-wide reform
• Demonstrated success in developing and training others in curriculum and instructional strategies
• Strong presentation skills and facilitation skills
• Interpersonal skills to work with principals, teachers, coaches and academic superintendents to clearly communicate and implement district wide MACF aligned curriculum
• Excellent technological skills to create efficient systems for communication
• Experience analyzing data and using data to drive instructional plans
• Exemplary communication and organizational skills
• Experience with grant and budget management
• Current authorization to work in the United States. Candidates must have such authorization by their first day of employment

Here’s the statement from Interim Superintendent John McDonough, posted on the district’s Web site:

Q: Is BPS really eliminating its history and social studies department?  

A: No. There is a lot of misinformation circulating online and I want to set the record straight.

History and social studies is remaining as a single department. It is not being eliminated or folded into English language arts, which is also its own department and sits alongside history in our organizational structure. Both are crucial. They will remain as distinct departments, just as they do today.

History and social studies teachers will continue to teach history and social studies in our schools. Despite what you may have heard, English teachers are not being asked to take over the teaching of history and social studies.

Instead, we are improving and coordinating the use of instructional materials throughout all subject areas. This means we will improve our ability to support English teachers who wish to take advantage of historical lessons in their classes, and for history and social studies teachers who wish to take advantage of literature that frames an understanding of historical content. This is different than eliminating one course and asking another subject to take it over. This is about coordinating our curriculum at all levels and connecting the dots for students. To help us do this successfully, we are bringing these areas together under the humanities umbrella. This allows us to maintain separate history and social studies, English language arts and world languages departments while aligning ourselves academically to promote interdisciplinary cross-collaboration. This was one of the major recommendations offered in the academics review we requested this spring from the Council of the Great City Schools.

We could have done a better job explaining our thinking from the start. Some of the confusion may have come from an earlier decision to hire an assistant director for history and social studies. This did not lead to a clear understanding of our priorities and mission, so we have decided to make that position a director-level position. Our history and social studies department will have the right staffing support to be successful.

Let me be very clear: History and social studies remain a vital part of our organization both centrally and in our schools, as do the community partnerships in these areas that our students enjoy. History and social studies teachers will continue to provide a core element of instruction for students in history and social studies courses. It is not being folded into ELA. ELA is a different department.

We all share the same mission: to eliminate achievement gaps. Only by ensuring every student clearly understands our past and the present can he or she truly help build a great future. This means all students must have access to geography, economics, government, history, civics and much more. All students must develop an understanding of civic engagement, cultural awareness and have the tools to think critically about our community. We value all of these things and – especially based on some of the online feedback we have seen – we know you do, too.

History and social studies instruction is not going anywhere in BPS. The history and social studies department is not being eliminated or folded into English language arts. I am sorry that so much misinformation has circulated so quickly online. I hope this helps us correct the record so we can move forward.

John McDonough
Interim Superintendent

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · May 26