Don't be shy! Extra Credit welcomes questions from students, parents, teachers and anyone else puzzled or curious about schooling in Montgomery County. No questions are too small for our friendly investigator.

Dear Extra Credit:

How can we get MCPS to acknowledge and respond to the catastrophe that is befalling social studies? Nationally and locally, social studies has been pushed off the school agenda and student schedules as high-stakes testing for reading and math have taken over. While MCPS has an official social studies curriculum for elementary school, it is simply not being taught in many classrooms, in part because there is no social studies testing. The tiny time block for social studies gets squeezed out by assemblies, testing, field trips, etc. Then, in middle and high school, reading comprehension takes a nose dive, because kids don't have the most basic knowledge about the world (history, geography, culture, politics) that is needed to understand what they are reading.

Susan Katz Miller

Takoma Park

Social studies and history teachers have been complaining about this since low reading, writing and math scores in the 1980s inspired a national movement to raise achievement in those basic skills. The idea was to make reading the focus of kindergarten through the third grade, with an uninterrupted two hours every morning for language arts. Math was also important, the theory went, but social studies, health and other subjects had to be shoved into a closet until the fourth grade, so that everyone would be reading well enough to tackle those subjects in fourth grade.

It didn't quite work out that way. Programs that were successful in teaching reading to second- and third-graders noticed what some called a fourth-grade slump. Some educators blamed this on social conditions, such as the neighborhood distractions that seemed to affect boys at that age. Others, particularly University of Virginia education and humanities professor E.D. Hirsch Jr., said the earlier reading programs lacked the emphasis on history and culture that would allow fourth-graders to pick up quickly the meaning and significance of the new words they were encountering. Hirsch designed an elementary school program called Core Knowledge that many elementary school principals say has helped their students.

Martin Creel, program supervisor for pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade social studies in Montgomery County, says he agrees with the premise of your question. "Social studies time on the elementary level is being edged out" by the emphasis on reading and math in the No Child Left Behind testing system, he said.

"But I don't agree with the underlying assumption that time is the main issue," he said. "We have been working to pull social studies content and reading/language arts content together at the elementary level, and to a lesser extent at the secondary level," so that reading and social studies can be taught simultaneously.

You note in a part of your letter that parents at some elementary schools, such as Woodlin, Piney Branch and Luxmanor, have created a geography program for third- through fifth-graders, which Creel applauds. It would be sad not to provide a strong social studies program in kindergarten through the eighth grade so that Montgomery students are ready for high school history and government Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses that are among the best in the country.

Correction: As further proof I need bifocals, I read an e-mail wrong and credited a question on compensating teachers in the Sept. 16 column to Betsy Devlin-Foltz when it was actually submitted by Dori Reinhalter.

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