Update April 20, 2012
Since writing this post two years ago, really before we had a clear idea of what the Common Core would look like, I’ve been won over. The Social Studies Literacy pieces of the Common Core document really do encourage quality instruction in history and social studies.

We still have to see how these literacy skills will be assessed but the document can help us do good things in our classrooms. If you’re looking for some helpful resources, head over here.


I spent last Saturday as part of the Kansas Council for the Social Studies board of directors helping to solve all of the world’s problems. (We still have some work to do on that whole Mideast thing.)

But one of the issues that we did spend a considerable amount of time discussing was the idea of national Common Core Standards. The goal of the Common Core movement is to create more uniform expectations for the nation’s students in the form of common content standards. The first public drafts of math and language arts have been released with other content areas, including Social Studies, to follow.

The question we addressed on Saturday was a fairly simple one.

Are common core standards good or bad for history and social studies instruction in the state?

Given that the Kansas BOE has already signed on to the Common Core Standards initiative, it may be a moot point.

Our response? Maybe.

A major concern is that a common set of standards might become just a very long laundry list of specifics without any concern for thinking skills. So maybe . . . if the focus is on using information rather than on just a long list of dead guys without context.

Maybe . . . if, as Rees M. suggests, the standards are:

broadly written to describe the kinds of tasks that a student should be able to do, then yes. By this, I mean the ability to locate and evaluate the strength of evidence, analyze that evidence by reasoning using widely accepted tools and then arrive at conclusions based on the reasoning. This is what critical thinking is all about.

The problem is that it seems that any set of possible Common Core Social Studies Standards will not focus on the idea of thinking skills but on very specific content. A possible rationale for this?

Easier to test and measure. Easier to compare kids. Easier to compare schools and measure “progress.” “Progress” equals federal funding. The result?

Teaching only to the specific details required so that “progress” is made and so the money is delivered on time. Less engaged kids, less true learning. One district administrator summed it up fairly well when he said:

Kids don’t remember when school was fun.

The problem is that we know that history is more than just a collection of facts. It’s nuanced and complicated and messy and confusing and it changes whenever we discover a long-hidden scrap of paper.

And we also understand that it’s difficult to teach that sort of history, let alone measure that sort of learning. I once heard the comment made about that sort of history:

If it counts, it can’t be counted.

It took me a while to noodle that one through but I finally got it . . . it’s easy to measure the easy stuff.

The irony?

If we want history and social studies to be “important” in the grand scheme of the present education environment, it must be tested. And right now, in the grand scheme, history and social studies are not important.

The state of Kansas still doesn’t have a social studies content specialist at the Kansas State Department of Education. At many K-6 buildings in Kansas, social studies and history is taught, if it is taught at all, less than 60 minutes a week.

So . . . a rock and a hard place. Jump into the Common Core movement and sacrifice what we know is good for kids or resist and risk being literally left at curb?

Maybe we should have focused on that Mideast problem instead.

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