More Clout Sought for Social Studies in U.S. Law

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 29, 2006

RICHMOND -- With unprecedented requirements for annual testing in reading and math, a 2002 federal law put a premium on student achievement in those subjects. But some Virginia educators contend that No Child Left Behind has left a vital field behind: social studies.

This week, the Virginia Consortium of Social Studies Specialists and College Educators launched a campaign here to get its educational niche a more prominent place in the law as Congress begins to consider revisions in the coming year. The group aims to include social studies test scores in federal formulas used to rate schools.

As the law now stands, the group said Tuesday, subjects such as history, government and geography sometimes get short shrift while schools increase time spent on reading and math.

"[We] feel that it's time to speak out to emphasize the role that social studies plays in the education of the total student," said Terry LaRocco, a social studies curriculum coordinator for a Roanoke Valley school system who is president of the consortium. "Our society is neglecting skills and content that teach students about how they have been shaped by their past and their social environment, and how their history and society will impact their future."

The group's members, including many social studies department heads from Northern Virginia school districts, contend that the federal law has led elementary and middle schools to reduce social studies lesson time. They also said many teachers have been given less time to prepare students for state social studies tests because those assessments are not factored into the federal ratings.

"Principals tend to schedule us first because they don't think we need as much time to prepare and because the other areas might be interpreted to be more important" in the federal ratings, said William F. Brazier, Loudoun County's social science instructional supervisor. "What we're concerned about is the message that might be interpreted within the school."

Some national data support the group's argument.

The Center on Education Policy, based in the District, reported in March that elementary schools have reduced instructional time for subjects other than reading and math in 71 percent of school districts surveyed.

Social studies lessons were cut the most, according to the survey. One-third of the districts reported that elementary schools have reduced social studies instructional time "somewhat" or to "a great extent."

The U.S. Department of Education said school systems are free to decide how to structure their lesson time. "We think that all subjects are important," said department spokeswoman Jo Ann Webb, "but I think it's certainly important to note that if a child doesn't learn to read well and comprehend what he or she is reading, then [the student] cannot possibly do well in other subjects."

The law requires testing of all students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Starting with the 2007-08 school year, schools also will be required to test students in science.

Some social studies experts fear that their field will lose money if it is not included in the federal mandates.

Judy McConville, a curriculum specialist for Alexandria schools, said a recent federal grant of nearly $1 million has helped train local social studies teachers. But that money soon will dry up, and McConville worries about whether another funding source will emerge.

"Someone said to me, 'Are you going to apply for another grant?' and I said, 'It's easier said than done' " McConville said. "I can apply, but it's so difficult to get one."

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