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Social studies education facing ‘crisis’ as class time is slashed, departments closed

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It’s no secret that for years Social Studies (as well as the arts, science and physical education) have been given short shrift in many public schools around the country as academic emphasis has been placed on math and English Language Arts, the subjects for which there are high-stakes standardized tests. Now, Gorman Lee, president of the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies, is warning that social studies education is facing a “serious civic crisis.”

The state council is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit educational organization that advocates for social studies education. It is an affiliate of the National Council for the Social Studies, which serves as an umbrella organization for elementary, secondary, and college teachers of history, civics, geography, economics, political science, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and law-related education.

On March 22, Lee posted a message on the Massachusetts council’s web site that warned of a “serious civic crisis” facing social studies education and that urged social studies educators to reach out to legislators to inform them of what is happening and schedule a statewide Advocacy Day.

Lee’s message discusses the reduction — and in some cases elimination — of Social Studies departments at many schools, and he notes that in “some elementary schools, social studies instruction has been reduced to no more than 20 minutes per week” so that classes can spend more time on what are considered core subjects.

Here’s the message from Lee, who is the K-12 director of Social Studies in Braintree Public Schools:

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s decision to indefinitely suspend the History and Social Science MCAS in 2009 has placed social studies education in a high risk of marginalization in K-12 public school districts across Massachusetts. The problem has only exacerbated with increased emphases of English language arts and mathematics in the Common Core State Standards that was adopted in 2010. Therefore it comes to no surprise that once school districts have started to face budgetary constraints, social studies is now among the subject areas first on the chopping block.
There have been recent concerning reports of K-12 school districts reducing social studies departments in order to secure support to “high stakes” subject areas, despite the promised commitments to uphold civic ideals and to prepare students to become active and productive adult citizens as described in their mission statements. Many school districts have begun to merge social studies and English language arts departments into a Humanities department, where the social studies curriculum takes a secondary role to support the English language arts curriculum. In some schools, teachers whose primary subject area is other than social studies have been assigned to teach one social studies class; it is now apparent that “highly qualified” is no longer applicable when it comes to social studies. In some elementary schools, social studies instruction has been reduced to no more than 20 minutes per week so that classes can spend more time for instructions in literature, mathematics, and science.
If we continue to allow social studies education become marginalized in our K-12 schools, our students will continue to graduate from high school with limited knowledge and understanding of their nation’s heritage, government, economy, and role in international affairs. The deterioration of a rigorous social studies curriculum will limit our students’ appreciation of community and national identity. The absence of a comprehensive K-12 social studies education will deny our students crucial learning opportunities to learn and apply higher-order critical thinking skills to address and find solutions to real world problems and issues.
We would like to hear the current status of the K-12 social studies program in your school district. Please go to our online survey and tell us what’s happening in your school district and building. The results of the survey will be collected on March 31, 2015. or you can email me at
Social studies educators must unite and let our elected representatives know that social studies education is facing a serious civic crisis. As President of the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies, I am recommending that we coordinate a statewide Advocacy Day, where K-12 social studies educators schedule a meeting with their respective elected representatives at their local offices or at the Massachusetts State House in Boston.
If you are doing a special project with your students, I strongly encourage you to invite your elected local representatives to your classroom and showcase what students are learning in social studies classes. It is our civic responsibility to express our collective concerns to our legislators and enlighten them on the importance and necessity to support and promote a strong K-12 social studies education in our public, charter, and private schools across the Commonwealth.
We need your help!
Gorman Lee, Ed.D.
Mass Council President