A Critique of the NCSS Curriculum Standards

 

Anna S. Ochoa-Becker

In the early 1990s, National Council for the Social Studies took on the awesome, if questionable, task of designing curriculum standards for the social studies to give direction to improved practice in our nation’s schools. This task was challenging and demanding, fraught as it was with political dynamics. Moreover, it was a questionable task because the setting of standards (and these were called “standards” rather than “guidelines”)1 by a national organization may contribute to conformity and uniformity in its implicit assumption that one set of standards fits all schools. Thus, the standards can mitigate against creativity at the local level. While some may argue that local decisions about curriculum are likely to be parochial, the alternative curriculum designed by national fiat is not compatible with democratic education. Do the members of NCSS really support the same curriculum for all young people in this diverse nation? I hope not.

Regrettably, the NCSS Standards that resulted from this effort, titled Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies and issued in 1994, promoted a conventional social studies curriculum based on selected concepts derived from the social science disciplines—a limited view of social studies that was advanced by Edgar Wesley in the 1930s2 and guided most social studies curriculum projects in the 1960s. Yet, this orientation is both outdated and ineffective when analyzed either analytically or practically. Consequently, the Standards do not lead! They follow! On the cusp of the millennium—with the United States and the world facing immense global and domestic issues—we must do more, much more, than define and limit social studies to the social sciences.

In the next few years, those chosen to provide leadership for NCSS will hopefully revise or replace the 1994 Curriculum Standards. Certainly, they should. This makes it an opportune time for social studies educators to offer their thoughts on how this curriculum effort might result in standards more dynamic and appropriate to the first decade of the twenty-first century.3

What follows is a limited critique of the current standards. It offers three major criticisms that the author believes are central to preparing a more effective democratic citizenry:

1. The NCSS Standards minimize and all but ignore the importance of controversial issues for citizens of democracy.

2. The NCSS Standards give insufficient attention to important intellectual processes—such as critical thinking, data analysis, evaluation of evidence, consideration of values, and decision making—that are vital if individuals are to participate effectively in a democratic society.

3. The NCSS Standards give insufficient attention to citizen participation, social action, and service learning. Without such abilities, citizens of a democracy are rendered mute and self-governance is seriously compromised.

These three criticisms touch the core of social studies curricula designed to heighten democratic citizenship, and they must be addressed in any effort to support teachers and schools as they create meaningful social studies programs for local school districts throughout the nation.

 

Controversial Issues

Controversial issues are not salient in the ten themes set forth in the NCSS Standards. While social issues are mentioned briefly and on occasion exemplified, the term “controversia#148; barely appears in the document. This oversight is startling in a society where concern for civil rights is receding, the debate over abortion has broken the limits of civility, and the U.S. role in world affairs is persistently on the griddle.

Furthermore, the future will undoubtedly be fraught with new and unpredictable controversies, some involving problems that may threaten the very survival of the planet. While the NCSS Standards mention such important issues as peace, human rights, and ecology, the sections on Performance Expectations give scant attention to either their controversial nature or the intellectual processes needed to address these issues. Rather, they place their emphasis on the social sciences as the core of knowledge for social studies curricula.

To illustrate, the first seven themes of the NCSS Standards could easily be labeled as follows:

 

Theme 1 Culture could be called Anthropology

Theme 2 Time, Continuity, and Change could be called History

Theme 3 People, Places, and Environments could be called Geography

Theme 4 Individual Development and Identity could be called Psychology

Theme 5 Individuals, Groups, and Institutions could be called Sociology

Theme 6 Power, Authority, and Governance could be called Political Science

Theme 7 Production, Distribution, and Consumption could be called Economics

 

These seven themes constitute the core of the NCSS Standards. Themes 8, 9 and 0 are more holistic and potentially dynamic than the first seven. Theme 8 deals with Science, Technology and Society, Theme 9 with Global Connections, and Theme 10 with Civic Ideals and Practices. Although the presentation of these themes highlights a number of important public issues, the standards provide inadequate guidance for teaching the controversial dimensions of these issues or promoting the critical thinking skills that students need to evaluate them.

The descriptions following each theme of the standards, which include questions used to illustrate the possibilities for particular themes, are themselves telling. One example is presented here:

 

5 Individuals, Groups and Institutions

Students may address such questions as: What is the role of institutions in this and other societies? How am I influenced by institutions? How do institutions change? What is my role in institutional change?4

 

None of these questions, which typify those posed in connection with the other themes, directly raises a controversial issue. On their face, most of these questions appear to call for bland encyclopedic responses. The question, “What is my role in institutional change?,” for example, appears to be unanswerable without a context to give it meaning. Certainly, it is conceivable that a strong teacher might revise these questions to be more controversial. However, the Standards do not provide such an example. These questions seem to be derived from the content of the disciplines rather than from the realities and complexities of modern U.S. society or planet-wide concerns. I believe we can do much better than this.

This document makes the artificial claim that its version of social studies is holistic, integrated, and inclusive of the humanities as a source of knowledge. Yet, as written, it reduces social studies to little more than the social science disciplines. These disciplines certainly contribute insights related to controversial issues, but they cannot ensure that the knowledge they provide is either sufficient for understanding social issues or will help citizens to improve societal and global conditions. Many other knowledge sources are needed to address important public issues. The social sciences need to be seen as the means and NOT the ends of learning in social studies.

Educators also need to recognize that social science knowledge tends to be conservative, since it is derived from the past or, perhaps, from the fleeting present. Scholars in these fields of study understand their limitations. The social sciences can and should have an important presence in social studies curricula, but it must also be understood that their usefulness is circumscribed. Citizens of a democracy need to be able to identify emerging and new problems, collect and validate knowledge, analyze contrasting viewpoints, and wrestle with evidence and values in order to contribute to the welfare of democracy. This is more, much more, than the social sciences alone can provide.

Just as importantly, the NCSS Standards ignore the tentative nature of knowledge, and the revision of knowledge that occurs with each consecutive wave of research. Social science findings are not final truths. Rather, they represent what is accepted as true in a given discipline at a given point in time. Recent reinterpretations of Columbus’s encounter with the Americas offer a poignant illustration.

It seems clear that the framers of the NCSS Standards were consensus-driven and dedicated to creating the appearance of unity within the social studies community. They responded to a mantra often heard in the profession, namely, “How can we expect the public, the schools, and governmental agencies to respect what we are doing if social studies educators cannot agree?” However compelling this mantra may be, appearances of unity cannot hide the reality that social studies educators do not all agree, and points of view that dissent from this mirage of unity should not and cannot be swept under the rug.

If the NCSS Standards were meant to improve the public image of the social studies, it is hard for this long-time observer to conclude that they have done so. Social studies still does not receive its just deserts in classrooms and schools. In trying to please politicians, the public, and their perception of their teaching constituency, the framers of the NCSS Standards distorted the nature of the field. However, the NCSS leadership cannot be faulted for denying access to the process of developing standards; they were open to input from anyone (this author included). Nonetheless, the results they arrived at are synthetic and shortsighted. The NCSS Standards mirror the predispositions of the educational establishment in avoiding controversies that challenge social and political values and practices. Writing curriculum standards must be more than a political popularity contest.

 

Intellectual Processes

Intellectual processes are an integral part of what is needed to prepare citizens of a democracy. How we think, evaluate information, and make and justify decisions are just as substantive as concepts of production or authority. These intellectual processes are not entirely ignored by the NCSS Standards; they are referred to in the narrative and sometimes combined with Performance Expectations. However, why these processes were not accorded the status of a theme within the NCSS Standards is inexplicable. On the infrequent occasions when problem solving, use of evidence, and decision making are discussed, it is usually in a general sense and without specific illustration.

Unfortunately, the lion’s share of the Performance Expectations presented in the NCSS Standards limit students to describing and comprehending selected pieces of conservative knowledge. At times, they do climb to the levels of analysis and evaluation, but these are evident mostly in an Appendix, “Essential Skills for Social Studies,” where parts of an earlier NCSS document were inserted.5 The limited presentation of intellectual processes, in combination with the minimal attention given to controversial issues, deny the sine qua non of authentic democratic education. Undoubtedly, the framers of the NCSS Standards intended to reaffirm the overarching goal of citizen education. But they did not achieve this goa#151;not for a dynamic democracy existing in a global age.

Students need to learn how to examine truth claims—for example, “The Crusades were fought more for economic than religious reasons. Is this statement true and how can we find out?” Questions like this can serve as the basis for investigation and help students expand their intellectual capabilities. Our developing citizens also need to probe questions of contemporary public policy ranging from “Should the U.S. contribute troops to United Nations forces when human rights are being violated?” to “Should Congress raise the minimum wage?” to “Should we set up new rules for the playground?” These questions require investigation into truth claims and a vigorous consideration of competing values if thoughtful responses are to result.

 

Participation in Society

Neither citizenship participation nor social action gain much momentum from the NCSS Standards. And this in the face of poor voting records on the part of our nation’s citizens, who may alternately be captivated or turned off by slick media presentations of political candidates and issues. Democratic citizenship entails making a sincere attempt to understand public issues and requires the ability to support one’s position using evidence, reason, and values. We all know that it takes intellectual strength to address controversy in an honest manner and to keep one’s head in the midst of heated debate. These skills of citizenship must be nurtured in students for the preservation and well-being of our democracy. But their development is not well supported by the NCSS Standards.

With regard to social action, the NCSS Standards do offer some support for service learning. Service learning can result in important insights and be very satisfying to students. However, we must remember that service learning in and of itself (working in a soup kitchen, reading to the blind, and the like) does not necessarily foster ideas for fundamental social change that challenge the status quo. It may supplement, but cannot replace, the development of skills that equip citizens to deal with the pressing problems of a society.

In Conclusion

This article has presented three criticisms regarding the 1994 NCSS Curriculum Standards, arguing that they do not give sufficient attention to (1) controversial issues, (2) higher level intellectual processes, such as critical thinking and decision making, and (3) citizenship participation and social action. Conversely, the author believes that the current Standards give too much emphasis to the social sciences and attempt to demonstrate that the field of social studies is unified when it is not. The author calls on social studies educators at all levels to take an active role in shaping the revision or replacement of the current NCSS Standards in order to better prepare the next generation of our democracy’s citizens.

As I finish this article, I resist a temptation to specify the nature of a new curriculum document that should characterize future NCSS Standards. However, my main purpose in writing this piece has been to foster vigorous and open dialogue on the most effective curriculum directions NCSS can provide to the field. Such dialogue, informed and sustained, is imperative if stronger social studies programs are to emerge. Furthermore, we must all recognize how much standards matter. The current educational and political obsession with testing favors it as the solution to issues surrounding learning and curriculum. Documents such as the NCSS Standards serve as the strongest tool in the arsenal of test makers. And, the results of testing matter in very important ways. They matter to teachers who must teach to the test; to principals, superintendents, and school boards whose budgets and professional reputations will be affected; and to students in terms of graduation, college admission, and the abilities they bring—or do not bring—to the office of citizen.

Consequently, I invite your thoughtful responses to this article, and welcome those that may enrich and challenge mine. I continue to nurture the hope that the next set of curricular directions that NCSS presents will be stronger and more consistent with the need to build a more vigorous and democratic citizenry. Perhaps next time, we can muster the courage to make it clear that all of us do not agree. Most importantly, next time the social studies profession must lead, not follow!

Notes

1. The term “standards” is more definitive and prescriptive in its meaning and connotations than the term “guidelines,” which suggests directions but does not convey a mandatory meaning.

2. Edgar Wesley, Teaching Social Studies in High School. (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1937).

3. The author of this article holds a set of beliefs about the goals of social studies and has a distinct but informed bias. A fuller treatment of these views is found in S.H. Engle and Anna S. Ochoa, Education for Democratic Citizenship: Decision Making in the Social Studies (New York: Teacher’s College Press, 1988).

4. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D.C : NCSS, 1994), xi.

5. This Appendix is drawn from part of a report of the NCSS Task Force on Scope and Sequence. See “In Search of a Scope and Sequence for Social Studies,” Social Education 53, no. 6 (October 1989), 376-385.

 

References

Aronowitz, Stanley, and Henry A. Giroux. Education Under Siege. South Hadley, Mass: Bergin and Garvey Publishers, 1985.

Hess, Robert D., and Judith A. Torney. Political Attitudes in Children. Chicago: Aldine, 1967.

 

Anna S. Ochoa-Becker is Professor Emeritus in the School of Education at Indiana University and a past NCSS president. The author invites criticism and comment from the field to be sent via regular mail (School of Education, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47406) or via e-mail to Ochoa543@aol.com.