Social Education 64(1), ©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Social Studies Education:
A Challenge, A Choice, A Commitment

Richard Theisen

Before I begin my planned address this evening, I want to take a moment to comment on the Civic Assessment results which were released on Thursday, November 18, by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The assessment was based on multiple choice and directed response questions in these areas: civic knowledge, intellectual and participatory skills, and civic dispositions, or “habits of the heart,” as de Tocqueville called them.

The overall performance of students in the 4th, 8th and 12th grades clearly indicates that there is room for significant improvement. Unfortunately, many of our current students will have graduated before widespread changes in course content, pedagogy, and staff development can be fully implemented. The results suggest that many students do not fully understand or value the core qualities of a democracy. Judge Learned Hand’s comment earlier in this century is particularly relevant. He stated, “I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men/women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.”

The good news is that the assessment results do not completely reflect the recent effort most states have made to significantly raise the standards in civic education. When the next assessment occurs in five years, the standards will have been fully implemented and scores should improve. More importantly, the NAEP Civics Report will encourage a national dialogue on the nature and value of civic education. The content of civics courses will change as well as the teaching strategies. It is an opportunity to focus attention and support on one of the most significant aspects of public education.

The task of addressing the limitations in civics education will not be easy because the scores, in part, reflect the cynicism and lack of political efficacy among our adult population. However it is a task we as a nation ignore at our own peril.

The Quality of Education

The challenge for you and me is to help every child we teach reach his and her potential. As Michael Hartoonian, a past NCSS president, suggests, we need to help them “become producers, not just consumers in our schools. The end result of an education isn’t just to make you better off but to make you better. In the end, our wealth is what we can be, do, and know, not what we own or possess.”

The task facing social studies education today is multifaceted. A song sung often during the sixties, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”, has some relevance in this setting. The song in many ways had a literal meaning during the Vietnam war, but it also has some application to social studies in a figurative sense as we end the twentieth century. If we do not reinvigorate the content knowledge and pedagogy of the young coming into the field, it may have a literal interpretation as well. The field needs to flower again much as it did in the sixties and seventies.

The leaders from the New Social Studies, as it was called at that time, are nearing the end of their prolific careers. They left their mark on social studies education, and defined what they thought the proper role of social studies ought to be in our society. The structure, content, and pedagogy of their curriculum projects were remarkably different from the curriculum of the forties and fifties—the time when those of you my age were on the other side of the desk in our nation’s classrooms. The content options for students were significantly modified. The academic basis for social studies courses was broadened to include all of the social sciences. For some, this was a radical restructuring, since it meant that even the names of departments had to change in some instances.

The controversy over the definition of social studies is not a settled issue even today. However, the definition has been broadened significantly to include the behavioral sciences and other areas, often to the dismay of some of our colleagues who teach history and geography. The value of the ferment of the sixties and early seventies was the creativity and government support it spawned. New teachers like myself were able to participate first hand in the excitement of curriculum development. I remember well the intensity of my participation in a four-week summer program entitled “Teaching Controversial Issues,” which was based on the curriculum work of Jim Shaver and his colleagues at Utah State University.

There were numerous opportunities for young and not so young classroom teachers to participate in staff development that had real substance and meaning. But this required a habit of the mind that too many of our colleagues in the classrooms across the country simply did not have time to develop. More specifically, they did not have the time to ask, why am I doing this activity, how does it fit into class objectives or goals, and what will it do to address the citizenship goals that are the core reason for our existence?

When you are doing “900 shows a year,” an issue Stuart Polansky addresses in a book with that same title, questions of why and other philosophical questions get very short shrift for very practical reasons, most of which relate to school system structure and community value systems. School systems are slowly beginning to acknowledge that time to plan, to reflect, to revise, to collaborate with colleagues, to ask the “why are we doing this?” questions is just as important to quality education as is actual student contact. This movement must be encouraged. The quality of the education students receive is influenced more by this factor than virtually any other.

Curriculum projects such as “Man: A Course of Study,” the “Taba Curriculum Project,” the “Analysis of Public Issues Program,” “Exploring Human Nature,” and many others that I have not mentioned were exciting for a new teacher, which leads to my reason for this focus on the past. We have a change rolling through the ranks of the teaching professional which is historically unique—a wholesale turnover of personnel in K-12 classrooms. Some of you with a twinkle in your eye will be moving on to another part of your life next year, others have already done so, and many will be retiring in the near future.
We must find a way to provide new teachers in social studies classrooms the exciting options and intellectual challenges we had when we began teaching. We must feed the natural optimism of our young colleagues. They are not as patient as we were and will not tolerate the inflexible structure, unwarranted criticism, and low pay we have endured. Nor should they.

We must find ways to improve pre-service education. Comprehensive certificates which entitle teachers to teach all social studies courses must be seriously reconsidered. Teachers cannot teach what they do not know. We know that is true, and so do our students. For example, an introductory course in micro and/or macro economics does not qualify one to teach an economics course. I know because at one time I was in that position. Trying to teach the difference between the concepts of a change in quantity demanded and a change in demand is always difficult. Fortunately for me, I had a bright young teacher down the hall with a major in economics who was extremely helpful; but not before I had utterly confused my class.

Perhaps it is time to consider certification by discipline or even a liberal arts degree with a major in the social sciences as a requirement for entry into our profession. However, that is for the future, the very near future I hope. Today we need to address the needs of our colleagues in the field.

If we want quality social studies education, we must have three significant changes in the system. First, summer study programs similar to those provided by the Education Professional Development Act of the late sixties and early seventies must be reinstituted. This would provide our younger colleagues already in the classrooms with the same opportunities we had. They deserve no less.

Second, we must change the factory style structure of our schools. Currently, for all practical purposes, the only behavior recognized contractually is student contact time. Time to reflect and revise or collaborate with colleagues is seldom recognized in teacher contracts. Instead, we collaborate over lunch breaks or after students have left for the day when our minds are tired and our energy is depleted. We cannot do our best unless teaching schedules and structures are changed. Even from a basic human health perspective, our current schedules are absurd. All of you who are classroom teachers know what I am talking about. The factory model which is being used is incompatible with the concept of educational excellence.

Third, we have to find a way to restore some civility to the dialogue about education issues. Actually, we need to move the discussion from the current monologue by ideologues with political agendas to genuine conversation where active listening is valued. Harsh, strident criticism of educators has done little to improve the quality of education. It has, however, been very effective in undermining and destroying teacher morale.

There are other significant needs that must be addressed and I am confident they will be. There is, after all, a certain cyclical nature to all of this, whether you look back to John Dewey, Harold Rugg, or the “New Social Studies” of the late sixties. Educational change occurs, critics heave unrelenting criticism, and it is followed once more by educational change, usually in that order. Fortunately, it is hard to destroy the idealism and optimism of educators.

Social studies teachers are active participants in defining a society’s common good. They are on the cusp of social change. Working with young minds provides the opportunity and responsibility for human growth. The growth of young minds is feared by those who are locked in the past, while it is nurtured by those of us who believe in the ultimate value and good will of our youth. The dialogue about whether we ought to conserve and pass on only the traditions and content of the past, or focus on John Dewey’s and Harold Rugg’s concepts of education, is always controversial. But the controversy will not turn the clock back to the good old days. It will not stop the change in values, traditions, and perspective that will inexorably occur.

The only real questions are how fast change will occur and how we will adapt while maintaining core principles: core principles like those embodied in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I recently purchased a childrens’ book entitled “A Children’s Version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” that captured the essence of those principles. I was struck by the simple yet powerfully illustrated adaptation of the principles, particularly the statement that “people have duties toward the place where they live and toward other people who live there with them.” We must work as teachers to ensure that principles like this are not lost as we race into the future.

When Harold Rugg, one of the early activists in NCSS, developed and published textbooks which encouraged critical evaluation of public policy issues and, more importantly, discouraged unthinking acceptance of authority, he was harshly criticized and his books eventually were removed from schools and taken off lists from which purchases could be made. “Man: A Course of Study” received a somewhat similar treatment in the
seventies. The national history standards controversy of the recent past is another example of what can happen when social studies critics decide to attack what they perceive as wrong-headed attempts to teach social studies to their children. Unfortunately, it is also true that in the past many of these attacks were filled with inflammatory rhetoric, personal political agendas, or purposeful misstatements of reality. Honest, open dialogue on real issues was generally not the goal of critics. And, in some instances, a scorched earth policy of destruction with little regard for truth and reality occurred.

These are episodes from our past we would perhaps like to forget. I list them because I believe that in some ways we have met the enemy and he is us. We as an organization of social studies teachers must engage critics in constructive dialogue about substantive issues. We can no longer turn the other cheek and politely concede the arena of public opinion to our critics. We put ourselves in serious peril if we continue this posture. NCSS will soon be engaging in a significant public relations program. We must become proactive and vigorously promote social studies education.

As social studies teachers, we are especially qualified to defend our work when it is wrongfully criticized. Misstatements, or false charges which are not answered, tend to become realities in the minds of those who hear them. Those who represent us, whether they be subject matter organizations or teacher unions, must not only be proactive but reactive. The record must be set straight when people and foundations use their public office, media position, or academic status to search out and destroy public education rather than engage in constructive dialogue.

Young teachers too often leave the field after four years, and I can understand why they do. They cite salary, working conditions, lack of control over decisions that affect their teaching, and lack of respect as prime reasons for their decision. If we want to attract the best and brightest, and keep them in the classroom, we need to do a number of things, but one certainly is to stand and be counted when public education is attacked and teachers are scapegoated. We as social studies teachers know what to do in those circumstances and how to do it. We teach history, we teach civics, we teach social studies as an examination of public policy issues. We encourage students to develop and defend positions on public policy and controversial issues. We do not teach them to avoid conflict or to seek it, but to address it as it occurs. We need to practice what we teach and I know we can do it.


The Means of Education

We have an important role as social studies teachers in helping students define the common good and we need the teaching materials that will make it possible. Now, it is certainly true that electronic communication has opened a door behind which riches beyond belief exist for classroom teachers, but several issues still need to be addressed. Access to limitless information which can be used in the classroom still requires the skill to decide what to use, a skill pre-service teachers are hopefully being taught. It also requires the time to examine the vast array of materials and translate them into usable classroom materials that incorporate the standards we are expected to teach and that are compatible with the pedagogy that we know and use.

Certainly at the elementary level, where teachers have to teach all the subjects, and also at the secondary level, major publishers are very influential. Textbooks are still widely used. They have improved from the bland, pictureless products I read as a K-12 student, but too often the changes are superficial. Substance is too often shallow, case studies are not used often enough, creative use of materials is seldom suggested in the activities section, and perhaps most seriously, textbook content reflects the perspectives of conservative censors—and occasionally liberal ones too. How else would you explain the fact that a recently published American government textbook chose to put a detailed reference to the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court case in a footnote of approximately five lines in small print at the bottom of the page. That 1972 Supreme Court decision on abortion is one the most contentious decisions of this century and deserves appropriate coverage. I have taught constitutional law as an elective class for quite some time, and to have that case hidden in the footnotes clearly suggests the censors have been successful. We are not the only victims. Our science colleagues from Kansas have their own recent case of censorship.

Perhaps we ought to teach pre-service teachers not to use textbooks, but rather, to develop their own materials. This is not meant to be a facetious suggestion, at least not for secondary social studies teachers. Elementary teachers really do not have that option or, if they do, it is extremely time consuming given their teaching load. Frankly, I think the only answer to this situation in the long run is to find a way to free ourselves from the controls of textbook adoption states, since publishers respond to the supply and demand forces that those states represent. Another more realistic option is to increase the influence of NCSS on the publishers of social studies textbooks. Our national standards are certainly one example of the impact we can have.

If we want to play a role as teachers in helping students define the common good, we need to insist that staff development for social studies teachers contain a significant exposure to the content we are teaching. If we teach courses with a political science emphasis, we ought to have staff development which features the governor of the state or the chief law enforcement officer, or the editor of a local newspaper. If we teach economics, a seminar with a staff member from the Federal Reserve or the chief economic officer from one of the local corporations would be very useful. The examples are endless. We need to have an ongoing dialogue with the practitioners in the fields, and not just with those who match our politics. The dialogue would give us a growth experience that would quickly be transferred to the classroom. Beyond that, it has an effect that is similar to that which one experiences when one has the extended responsibility of taking care of one’s child while one’s spouse is at work. You love your children but you do develop a hunger for conversation with an adult. Similarly, we are dedicated to our students, but we need the intellectual stimulation that practitioners in the field can provide.

As a first year teacher in 1966, I was committed to the concept that quantitative evaluation of my impact on student knowledge and skill development was essential. In fact, I was frustrated that the same cause and effect relationships that I had studied as a chemistry major were so hard to determine in social studies. Test validity and reliability (in other words, does my test actually measure what I taught and is it free of bias?) were very important. They still are, but I am now convinced that the precision I was seeking was unrealistic and not unlike the situation in the field of economics, where attempts to precisely quantify relationships have been emphasized excessively. The precision the pure sciences provide cannot be replicated in student assessment. Human behavior is too variable. We can test and measure, but we must always identify the limitations of our test instruments.

In many respects, student assessment has become an obsession in this country. Critics of public education and social studies often do not see assessment as a tool to improve education. Too often, they selectively use the results as verification of their preconceived position that educators are lazy, incompetent, or controlled by their union—positions which, incidentally, are not supported by the annual Gallup Poll survey question that asks parents to grade the schools their children attend. Much has been written about the misuse of testing and assessment by a wide variety of people. We teachers need to read it, in order to better understand the strengths and limitations of the assessments being used. We need to have a better understanding that enables us to differentiate between politically motivated misinterpretations of results and interpretations that help us identify the strengths and weaknesses of our teaching. Experts such as David Berliner, Gerald Bracey, Peter Shrag, and Richard Rothstein have written extensively on the topic.

Social studies teachers must participate in the test development process. The activities of the Michigan Council for the Social Studies are an example of social studies teachers organizing and bringing their professional expertise to bear on the type, style, and substance of tests that are given to measure the social studies knowledge of students. We should use their experience as a model.

Student assessment is often a “Catch 22” situation for social studies educators. If student knowledge in social studies is not assessed at the state or national level, we are not given serious consideration when state and federal funding initiatives are being considered. However, if those tests are high stakes tests with every district’s performance printed in the local newspaper, they end up receiving an inordinate amount of time in the classroom. And when that happens, the concept of local control of the curriculum is lost. The tests will drive the curriculum. In addition, the style of test has a high impact on the teaching strategies that are used. In my more cynical moments, I begin to wonder if the goal of this type of testing in reality is to place a straitjacket on the creativity of teaching. I do know that one quality seriously missing in this entire area is trust.

Finally, if student performance on tests is also used to determine teacher salaries, the stakes have been increased. This is being done in limited form in Denver and Minneapolis; in other areas, such as Florida, it is state mandated. Too often, cause and effect relationships, student motivation, local conditions, economic class, and other variables are not controlled when testing is used for this purpose. If an instrument can be developed which can accurately, with all variables controlled, measure the effectiveness of teachers, we would support it.

If social studies teachers want to be participants instead of observers in those decisions that affect social studies education, we need to encourage our new teachers and experienced colleagues to be activists in our state and national organizations—not just members, but members who act on their ideas to improve social studies education. The publications, conferences, and national leadership this organization provides are examples of the work of activists in the field who care about the direction social studies education is taking. It doesn’t take wealth, influence or perfect knowledge to be a leader. Nor is it a requirement that you be a supervisor or college teacher. In fact, I believe our success in the future depends on K-12 classroom teachers stepping forward and doing their share of the national leadership. We can no longer defer to our department chairs, district resource teachers, or college educators. They have done an excellent job and are certainly committed to social studies education. More K-12 classroom teachers need to become candidates for the NCSS Board of Directors and to run for the presidency of NCSS. We have only had five K-12 NCSS presidents in the entire history of this organization. K-12 teachers also need to become the chairpersons of committees and play other leadership roles here and at the affiliate level. We are all pursuing the same goa#151;providing the best social studies education we can to the young people we teach. When classroom teachers do not pursue these leadership positions we lose the benefit of their talent and expertise.

I would like to end my comments with a reference to a topic near and dear to my heart as a social studies teacher—citizenship education. As a teacher who has taught courses on citizenship, one of the questions I have had to face is how to address the layers of cynicism and lack of political efficacy that exist in this country. Social studies bears the prime responsibility for preparing politically efficacious citizens. Teaching traits of good citizenship will not alone make it happen. However, practicing it in our classroom, school, and community is one way of addressing the issue of political efficacy—the belief that what you do will make a difference. The NCSS guidelines on student government are one example of what we can do to address this issue. There are numerous other examples of effective citizenship education in this country. The NCSS Board is currently considering a broadbased initiative which will address the whole area of civic education.

Civic education is always an interesting challenge. I recall team teaching with two of my colleagues. Our three classes operated as a community within the larger school community. We had developed all the components that an effective community would need, including a newspaper, governing body, and the essential political action skills. We were moving along nicely until one day our principal appeared at our door out of breath and quite frantic. He explained to us that the superintendent had angrily called him and asked just who had taught students that it was appropriate to walk into his office, demand to have a meeting with him, and then threaten to vandalize the boys bathroom on the second floor if he didn’t arrange to have an outside area set aside for student smokers. Well, yes, we knew the student, and yes, we knew he was working on this community project; but, no, we had not given him this fairly radical and counterproductive advice. The principal was satisfied that we would take care of the problem and life went on. The teaching strategy we used was successful, even if fairly high risk in nature, since student behavior is never entirely predictable.

I think more of us need to creatively engage in challenging and sometimes controversial civic education. We also need to make connections with our local city councils, school boards, and other governmental institutions. We can work with those bodies, as my colleague Don Skoglund and other teachers across the nation have, to actually engage students in the process of government. They can be ex officio members of these governmental bodies and, in some instances, voting members. We ultimately want to teach the concept that participation is not a privilege but a duty. Voting is only the very smallest part of that responsibility. A healthy democracy requires participation in the civic life of the community, whether it be school, neighborhood, or the larger society.

I will close by thanking and recognizing each of you for the work you do with young hearts and minds around this country. Teaching is a noble profession. And teaching social studies involves an immense responsibility, which results in an equally significant sense of accomplishment when it is done well. We have an important mission, the education of children and young adults for citizenship in this country. Each social studies educator in this audience deserves recognition for the enthusiasm, idealism, and commitment that you bring to your work each day. I salute you and the many talents and skills you bring to your classrooms. I also salute you for the caring hearts you bring and share. Thank you.


Richard Theisen is President of National Council for the Social Studies.