Recent Challenges and Achievements:


Margaret A. Laughlin

NCSS confronted several key challenges in the period from 1982 to 1995. At a time when dramatic changes were taking place in the world and a new political climate in the United States was raising questions about the future of social studies education, NCSS was called on to serve as a voice for social studies teachers on major educational and other issues. After a number of past efforts to clarify the definition of social studies and articulate the requirements of social studies programs, NCSS reached a milestone with its publication of Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, a user-friendly framework for social studies teaching that seemed likely to have a widespread impact. The period was also one in which NCSS attempted to reach beyond its traditional sources of membership, seeking to make a stronger contribution to social studies at the elementary level, and to expand its international presence. Overshadowing attempts at widening the scope of its activities were fluctuations in membership and financial revenues, which were a cause of concern in the early 1990s.

A Changing World
From 1982 to 1995, the world experienced the falling of the Berlin Wall; the breakup of the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia; the Gulf War; the end of apartheid in South Africa; the events in Tianamen Square; major international conferences focusing on women, population, and the environment; global economic changes; acts of national and international terrorism; completion of "the Chunnequot; between France and England; continued international cooperative space projects; an increase of immigration to the United States; and changing U.S. demographics and family structures.
As professionals, social studies teachers reflected on ways to help young learners grasp the significance of these events and assess their impact on individual lives. Teaching social studies during these years was no simple task. Teachers often looked to NCSS for direction in resolving a range of professional issues related to the rapidly changing, interdependent world.

NCSS sought to reflect the views of the profession through its publications, especially through its journals Social Education, Theory and Research in Social Education and Social Studies and the Young Learner; its newsletter, The Social Studies Professional; its bulletins; and special publications, including position papers and major academic contributions, such as the first Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning, edited by James P. Shaver in 1991, which provided a comprehensive overview and analysis of research in social studies education. (The tables accompanying this article provide examples of the range of issues covered by NCSS publications.) NCSS also attempted to serve as a voice for the social studies community through a range of resolutions presented and adopted by the members of the House of Delegates, the elected NCSS delegate assembly that provides direction to the NCSS Board of Directors through the discussion and passage of resolutions at the annual meeting. These resolutions dealt with both social and professional issues.

The minutes of the delegate assemblies from 1982 through 1994 show that several substantive social issues were addressed. The general tenor of the resolutions passed was liberal. Some examples of the positions adopted in these resolutions were opposition to school prayer in 1982 ("Minutes of the 26th Delegate Assembly," 295); a condemnation of acts of violence against human rights in 1983 ("Minutes of the 27th Delegate Assembly," 295-96); a recommendation in 1984 that the United States remain a member of UNESCO ("Minutes of the 28th Delegate Assembly," 337) followed by one in 1987 that the United States fulfill its legal obligations to the United Nations ("Minutes of the 31st Delegate Assembly," 221); support in 1989 for a Supreme Court decision protecting symbolic free speech; advocacy in 1989 of the passage of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child during the 1989-90 session of the United Nations General Assembly ("Minutes of the 33rd Delegate Assembly," 229-30); and support in 1992 for social justice, focusing on issues of racism, other forms of discrimination, and social equity ("Minutes of the 36th Delegate Assembly," 195-96).

Addressing more specifically professional concerns were numerous resolutions aimed at strengthening various social studies curriculum content areas between 1984 and 1992 ("Minutes of the 28th Delegate Assembly," 337-38; "Minutes of the 29th Delegate Assembly," 224, 226; "Minutes of the 30th Delegate Assembly," 222, 224; "Minutes of the 32nd Delegate Assembly," 252-53; "Minutes of the 34th Delegate Assembly," 265-66; "Minutes of the 36th Delegate Assembly," 195-96). Other resolutions focused on requiring four years of social studies course work for high school graduation in 1983 and 1990 ("Minutes of the 27th Delegate Assembly," 294; "Minutes of the 34th Delegate Assembly," 265); on recommending in 1987 the development and acceptance of three scope and sequence models to help curriculum development efforts1 (Minutes of the 31st Delegate Assembly," 219); on reaffirming academic freedom in 1986 ("Minutes of the 30th Delegate Assembly," 224) and intellectual freedom in 1994 ("Minutes of the 38th Delegate Assembly," 235-36); on recommending in 1986 that task forces be established to develop guidelines, policies, and/or position statements for early childhood/ elementary education ("Minutes of the 30th Delegate Assembly," 222); on examining ways in 1988 to increase minority representation within NCSS and the profession ("Minutes of the 32nd Delegate Assembly," 253); on recommending in 1989 the inclusion of practical classroom teaching ideas for K-12 teachers in Social Education ("Minutes of the 33rd Delegate Assembly, 227-28); on recommending in 1991 that NCSS assume a visible role in advancing the integrity of the social studies in light of Goals 2000 ("Minutes of the 35th Delegate Assembly," 251); and on supporting a reduction in class size in 1994 ("Minutes of the 38th Delegate Assembly," 235).

Setting the Standards for Social Studies
Between 1982 and 1994, NCSS continued its traditional efforts to clarify the definition of social studies, define the purpose of social studies and articulate the requirements of social studies programs.
Historically, definitions of social studies have been many and varied. Over time, each has helped to provide direction for social studies programs. Most social studies educators would probably agree that a generally accepted goal of social studies programs is the attainment of a civic competence which recognizes local, national, and international citizenship responsibilities. Given the demands of our changing society, helping young people to learn problem solving and decision-making skills is a prerequisite for civic competence.

The most recent (and probably not the last) definition of social studies is provided in the social studies standards.

Social studies is the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence. Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world (Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies 1994, vii).
This definition continues to promote the primacy of civic competence and the need to help young people become effective citizens by developing the requisite skills and acquiring the necessary information from many disciplines and perspectives for effective decision making. The definition also recognizes that civic responsibility extends beyond the individual to the global society.

Five years before NCSS published the social studies standards, it issued a more controversial publication, Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century: A Report of the Curriculum Task Force of the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools. This document was a joint project of the American Historical Association, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, NCSS, and the Organization of American Historians. The report noted a lack of coherence in social studies at all levels. It suggested a framework and structure for social studies curriculum development by giving emphasis to history, geography, and government as organizing disciplines. Articles in support and critical of Charting a Course appeared in two issues of Social Education ("Charting a Course: Continuing the Debate" 1991; Epstein and Evans 1990).2

In 1994, the NCSS curriculum standards, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, attempted to provide a broader framework for organizing the social studies curriculum. The publication identified ten disciplinary and interdisciplinary interrelated strands representing key concepts in the seven social science disciplines and interdisciplinary strands. Most social studies educators are likely to agree that these overarching and interconnected strands represent key learning requirements in social studies content. The ten strands to be addressed at each grade level are presented in Figure 1, The Ten K-12 Social Studies Strands.

One or more strand is likely to receive a greater emphasis at a particular grade level and less attention in other grades. What is important is that each strand is properly addressed in the course of the K-12 social studies program.

The standards document is a landmark for several reasons. First of all, it provides an overall umbrella for standards in the social studies. The document is user friendly. It identifies performance expectations and shows linkages among the strands. It describes two or three classroom activities for the early grades, middle grades, and high school for each of the ten themes. These vignettes provide a starting point for selecting and creating learning activities.

Second, the Standards are valuable to state and local district curriculum development efforts. The national standards developed for civics and government, geography, and United States and world history relate well to the NCSS standards and the discipline-based standards should be able to find a "home" within the NCSS standards. The development of national standards for economics is currently underway. It is important to keep in mind that a single social science discipline does not meet the broader vision and more encompassing strands of the NCSS standards.

Third, the NCSS curriculum standards are a vehicle for developing meaningful social studies assessment instruments to assess important student learning in social studies.

Fourth, the ten strands provide a vehicle for staff development as teachers use the standards, acquire new information about the teaching/learning process, and develop new instructional units, etc. Implementing the NCSS standards provides the framework for developing an exciting and worthwhile social studies program.

Finally, the standards provide a means for K-12 educators to communicate with one another and with other publics (e.g., parents, school boards, colleagues, community members) about the importance of social studies as a core subject and as an important part of general education course work for all students during their K-12 learning years.

The standards have met a wide demand for curriculum guidelines in social studies. Because of the demand, the publication was reprinted within a year of its first appearance. Future NCSS publications showing educators how to apply the standards are planned.3

Expanding the Scope of NCSS
Between 1982 and 1995, NCSS reached out to new potential groups of members, notably among elementary teachers, and educators in other countries.
Social Studies Education at the Elementary Level
In an attempt to contribute to the teaching of social studies at the elementary level, in the fall of 1988 NCSS launched a new quarterly publication Social Studies and the Young Learner, which was developed to meet the expressed needs of K-6 teachers. The journal, which is published four times a year, offers both theoretical and practical examples of teaching ideas which are useful to many teachers in various settings. A "pull out feature" provides background information and includes several learning-related activities to help students learn the content and concepts addressed. Like Social Education, Social Studies and the Young Learner has departments with special features, including book reviews, a media corner, teacher's round table, teacher resources, and a perspectives section.
There has been some preliminary discussion about launching a special publication targeted to middle school social studies teachers, but thus far no funds have been available to begin publication of another NCSS journal. Many hope that this unmet need will be addressed by NCSS in the coming years.

International Conferences
To reach out to social studies educators in locales other than the United States, NCSS organized three international conferences between 1988 and 1994 in cooperation with other social studies oriented associations. These international meetings were well attended by both NCSS members and representatives from other nations. The first international conference, held in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1988, focused on the Pacific Rim nations. The second, held in Miami, Florida, in 1991, provided a forum for discussing issues related to the Caribbean, while the third and most recent international conference in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1994 examined issues related to the environment. The fourth and next international conference is planned for Sydney, Australia in 1997. Its theme will be issues related to education for responsible citizenship.

Online Services
NCSS has joined the information revolution by creating an information service, NCSSOnline, on the Internet's World Wide Web at A smaller "message board" was also established earlier on the America Online information service in the Teacher's Information Network area.
These endeavors allow users to obtain information about NCSS and its mission; listings of national, regional, state, and local meetings and workshops; and information about publications, membership, and curriculum standards. NCSSOnline also allows instant access to up-to-date schedules and information about the NCSSAnnual Conference. Social studies educators who use America Online can also engage in discussions with colleagues about topics of particular interest to them.

Less sophisticated, but eminently useful, is the ability to contact NCSS via electronic mail at

NCSS Reorganization
Recently, the NCSS committee structure was reorganized with a view to rationalizing the committee system, standardizing the criteria for committee membership, and reducing the number of committees by consolidating some of their functions.
Within NCSS there are several committees to advise the Board of Directors. Membership is by appointment, with several recommendations coming from the House of Delegates and the three constituent groups, the College and University Faculty Assembly, the National Social Studies Supervisors Association, and the State Social Studies Supervisors Council. Individual NCSS members may apply to be appointed to serve on a committee.

The committee structure enables a number of members to be active participants within the governance structure of NCSS. The criteria used in making appointments to committees include professional responsibilities, geographic location, and involvement in local, state, or NCSS activities. Committee members include members representing K-12 education, district and state social studies supervisors, college and university faculty, and others who are NCSS members. Committee members serve three-year staggered terms and meet during the annual meeting.

Committee members are encouraged to submit program proposals on behalf of the committee for the NCSS program for the following year. These presentations enable the broader membership to become aware of the actions and/or activities of the committees and to offer appropriate recognition to committee members. Committees often propose resolutions for consideration by the House of Delegates. Among the present NCSS committees are archives, assessment, awards, curriculum, membership, nominations, publications, research, teacher education, and others.

The terms of the elected NCSS officers were changed to ensure a smoother operation and officer changeover. Leadership terms begin on July 1 each calendar year and extend to the following June 30. Election procedures have been revised several times to enable members to have information about the candidates, so that voters are able to make more informed choices. A relatively low number of NCSS members actually vote in the election, though attempts are being made to encourage them to vote in greater numbers.

Continuing Concerns
NCSS membership since 1982 has fluctuated greatly. It is currently lower than five years ago in 1990, but seems recently to have begun to increase again.
At present individual NCSS members are encouraged to invite a colleague to join NCSS as a part of the "each one reach one" current membership recruitment effort. Members who do so are recognized for their efforts at the annual NCSS meeting. The future seems promising in terms of increased individual, comprehensive, and student memberships. Retaining current members while adding new members, especially elementary teachers of social studies and ethnic/racial minority members, and providing additional services to members, will continue to be a challenge for the organization in the immediate future. While NCSS is the largest professional social studies organization in the world and its membership reflects the overall teaching population, it needs to continue its efforts to diversify and expand its membership.

Closely related to the membership statistics has been the question of declining financial resources. Reduced income in the period of decrease in membership created budgetary and financial problems for the organization. The headquarters staff has been reduced and reorganized, other cost-cutting measures have been taken, and plans developed to meet a deficit. On the positive side, beginning with the Nashville conference in 1993, NCSS conference attendance has increased fairly substantially, and this has brought in additional revenues to help reduce the debt. New membership drives are underway. Many NCSS leaders are hopeful for the future.

Toward the Next 75 Years
Within NCSS there are major efforts to propel the organization forward in terms of reducing divisiveness, making NCSS more inclusive of educators and academic disciplines, and creating strong connections with social-science-oriented discipline groups. With the publication of the standards, NCSS has become more closely linked with the content disciplines, and has a new opportunity to serve as the umbrella organization for the social studies academic disciplines.
Throughout the past 75 years NCSS has developed as an organization by serving the social studies community. It has reflected the profile of the social studies profession. NCSS has been engaged in a range of professional issues involving academic freedom, censorship, scope and sequence, curriculum development, textbook controversies, and others. NCSS will need to provide leadership for the social studies profession on the cutting edge of current critical issues facing education such as assessment, curriculum content, changing school populations, and other school reforms that are already on the educational and political agenda. It is important that NCSS and its members be travelers in time, playing an active personal and professional role in the process of change. The future is ours to shape.


1Readers are encouraged to examine the ongoing issues of scope and sequence by reviewing Social Education of November/December 1986 and October 1989 for a discussion of the three recommended scope and sequence models.

2Readers are encouraged to read articles included in Social Education in November/December 1990 and January 1991, which offer several perspectives on the recommendations contained in this report.

3The first publication in this series will be a series of articles reprinted from various professional journals that are intended to assist K-6 teachers and curriculum developers use the standards in their teaching and curriculum development efforts.References"Alternative Scopes and Sequences." Social Education 53, no. 6 (1989): 375-403.Bragaw, D. H., ed. "Scope and Sequence: Alternatives for Social Studies." Social Education 58, no. 7 (1986): 484-542."Charting a Course: Continuing the Debate." Social Education 55, no. 1 (1991): 24-28.Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century -A Report of the Curriculum Task Force of the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1989.Epstein, T. L., and R. W. Evans, eds. "Reactions to Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century." Social Education 54, no. 7 (1990): 427-46.Expectations of Excellence-Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. Bulletin 89. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1994."Minutes of the 26th Delegate Assembly." Social Education 47, no. 3 (1983): 291-96."Minutes of the 27th Delegate Assembly." Social Education 48, no. 4 (1984): 291-96."Minutes of the 28th Delegate Assembly." Social Education 49, no. 4 (1985): 333-39."Minutes of the 29th Delegate Assembly." Social Education 50, no. 3 (1986): 220, 222, 224, 226, and 228."Minutes of the 30th Delegate Assembly." Social Education 51, no. 3 (1987): 220-22, 224, and 226."Minutes of the 31st Delegate Assembly." Social Education 52, no. 3 (1988): 217-22."Minutes of the 32d Delegate Assembly." Social Education 53, no. 4 (1989): 252-56."Minutes of the 33d Delegate Assembly." Social Education 54, no. 4 (1990): 227-31."Minutes of the 34th Delegate Assembly." Social Education 55, no. 4 (1991): 264-67."Minutes of the 35th Delegate Assembly." Social Education 56, no. 4 (1992): 250-52."Minutes of the 36th Delegate Assembly." Social Education 57, no. 4 (1993): 193-96."Minutes of the 37th Delegate Assembly." Social Education 58, no. 4 (1994): 199-205."Minutes of the 38th Delegate Assembly." Social Education 59, no. 4 (1995): 230-38."National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools." Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools, 1989.National Council for the Social Studies. Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1994.Shaver, J. P., ed. Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1991.

Margaret A. Laughlin is a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay where she teaches a combined K-12 social studies methods course, and other graduate and undergraduate courses in curriculum and foundations.