The NCSS Curriculum Standards:

A Response

 

Susan Adler

In the spring of 1992, the NCSS Board of Directors approved the creation of a Task Force on Standards for Social Studies.1 The decision to convene this task force was not an easy one. The board was aware that bringing a group of ten or eleven educators together for extended periods of time would be costly, and that the NCSS budget was tight. More important, however, were the sociopolitical questions suggested by the very idea of “standards.” The definition of standards was then, and remains now, an ambiguous one. Would standards suggest a uniform national curriculum? How specific should a set of curriculum standards be? To what extent might standards, an idea that states were beginning to tie to accountability, undermine powerful social studies teaching and learning?

On the other hand, the rush to create standards on the part of education policymakers caused many on the board to fear that if we did not make our own statement about social studies teaching and learning, others would speak for us. Congress had already funded history and geography groups to produce a set of standards. And other disciplinary groups allied with social studies, most notably civics and economics, were getting ready to create their own sets of standards. Most of the board members at that time believed that if NCSS was to serve the field, it was important for NCSS to have a voice at the political table. The board decided that NCSS should provide social studies teachers, curriculum developers, and policymakers with a set of curriculum standards that would represent its perspective.

Nearly ten years have passed since the Standards Task Force held its first meeting in Bloomington, Indiana. Since its release in 1994, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies2 has been an NCSS “bestseller.” NCSS has been happy to find that its standards have had a real impact. They have served as the foundation for the development of Teacher Education Standards adopted by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teachers (NCATE), thereby influencing the preparation of both elementary and secondary teachers. The NCSS Standards have become the basis of a three-year project with the Annenberg Foundation and WGBH (Boston Public Television) to produce a video set of best practices in social studies. The standards have also influenced the development of state standards, the work of textbook publishers, and our joint efforts with the National Staff Development Council.

It may, however, be time to revisit the standards. The 2000-2001 Board of Directors has discussed whether and how to revise, update, and supplement the existing document. Professor Anna Ochoa-Becker’s “A Critique of the NCSS Curriculum Standards,”3 published in the April 2001 issue of Social Education, has provided us with a way to renew this important dialogue about social studies curriculum standards.

By presenting a response to Dr. Ochoa-Becker’s critique, I am hoping to clarify what the standards were intended to be and to set us on the road toward possible revisions or supplements. As one of the members of the eleven-person task force that developed the curriculum standards, it is admittedly difficult for me not to feel defensive. I remember all too clearly our first meeting in Bloomington. I remember the spartan dormitory rooms we stayed in, as we thought about how well funded the history standards writing group was. I remember sitting around a table agonizing, along with some of the best minds in social studies, about just what it was we were to do.

“What are standards anyway?” we asked ourselves. “What should they look like? What would be useful for classroom teachers, meaningful to policymakers, and representative of the diverse individuals within NCSS?” We took long walks. We argued. We giggled; even grown-ups get silly when frustrated. We left Bloomington knowing that we had an enormous amount of work to do. And the task force did work very hard over the next two years. Dr. Ochoa-Becker knows that and has applauded our efforts. The challenge now is to continue those efforts. While I disagree with some of Dr. Ochoa-Becker’s assertions, I do agree with her main point, that dialogue is crucial and now is the time to begin these important discussions again.

In her recent critique, Dr. Ochoa-Becker offered essentially three criticisms. She asserted that the current NCSS Standards

Overall, Dr. Ochoa-Becker argues that Expectations of Excellence is a conservative document representing little more than a conventional view of social studies. She argues, as well, that the very process of standard-setting carries with it the danger of promoting conformity and uniformity in social studies curriculum and teaching. Interestingly, the task force members discussed each of these concerns among themselves and argued about them. They were important issues then, and they remain important issues at this time.

I would like to address Dr. Ochoa-Becker’s criticisms, although not necessarily in the order she presented them. I begin with the concern that a set of curriculum standards implies a uniformity of curriculum, and, implicitly, that NCSS served as a player in an accountability movement that many of us see as counter to good social studies teaching and learning when it is taken to extremes.

Early on, the task force agreed that the standards document would not be designed to serve as a prescriptive curriculum. The standards were intended “to guide social studies curricula, teaching, learning tasks, and assessment” (p. xvii). The document recommends that the standards serve as a “starting point” (p. 15) for the development of curriculum. That is, specific curricular decisions should be locally determined. The term standards was, and remains, the jargon of the day. We clearly used the term to gain admission to the national discussion. But rather than provide a detailed list of content, such as that which is found in the history standards,4 NCSS made a deliberate decision to provide a framework for curriculum development, not a detailed curriculum.

Indeed, the teachers with whom I have worked in curriculum-writing workshops over the years are sometimes frustrated by the lack of specificity of the NCSS Standards. Most of the time, however, that frustration is followed by the excitement of active engagement in the task of curriculum development. Rather than constrain the creativity of teachers, the NCSS curriculum standards can provide, and have provided, a mechanism for thoughtful reflection and dialogue about professional practice and for releasing creativity.

Is the document, then, a conservative document offering little more than “a conventional social studies curriculum based on selected concepts from the social science disciplines?”5 Seven of the ten themes clearly have their counterparts in specific disciplines, and teachers of social studies courses in history or economics can find strands that obviously relate closely to their teaching. In fact, the task force did try other ways of organizing standards. For a while, for example, we played with the idea of “Seven Cs”—themes such as citizenship, community, culture, and so forth. “Seven Cs” might be catchy, but, ultimately, we came back to social science and history-related themes.

Perhaps the document is conservative, in the sense of building upon several strands with which teachers of specific disciplines such as economics, geography, or history are comfortable. The social science disciplines, after all, do provide useful lenses through which to look at and understand the world. Human questions such as “Where have we come from?”, “How do we live together in groups?”, and “How is the physical world organized?” do form the foundation for the social sciences and history, but they also form a major part of the foundation for social studies. The Standards Task Force took the position that the essential concepts of the social sciences and history are important. But we also sought to make clear that social studies is more than those essential concepts. We sought to do this in several ways that underscore rich citizenship education.

First, by keying performance expectations to other related themes, we attempted to show that the strands or themes are interrelated. “To understand culture, for example, students need to understand time, continuity, and change; the relationship among people, places, and environments; and civic ideals and practices” (p. 15). Our intention was to encourage teachers, and other curriculum developers, to become aware of, and highlight, this interrelatedness. Furthermore, we intended that the NCSS Standards be used holistically. Whatever lens you are using for your particular curriculum, the broad scope and sequence should look at the ways in which each perspective, theme, or lens contributes to seeing the whole. And that whole is citizenship education, an idea I will return to soon.

Another of Ochoa-Becker’s criticisms is that the NCSS Standards pay insufficient attention to intellectual processes that underscore rich citizenship education. Dr. Ochoa-Becker finds the fact that “processes were not accorded the status of a theme within the NCSS Standards inexplicable.”6 In fact, intellectual processes permeate and are crucial to each theme. We did not want to fall into the false dichotomization of content and process. The two work together and need each other. Hence, the performance expectations for each of the ten themes are described through a choice of words intended to convey the importance of intellectual processes. Students are expected to speculate, examine, analyze, interpret, and so forth. In this way, we hoped to convey that it was not enough to learn information, or even to understand important concepts. Rather, the NCSS Standards are intended to promote social studies teaching and learning that engage students in developing, applying, analyzing, and evaluating knowledge.

As a member of the standards writing task force for the State of Missouri (I did wonder, in the mid-nineties, if I had been condemned to some sort of standards-writing purgatory), I am aware of the role that such language played in the development of its social studies curriculum frameworks. That meant, in turn, that testing in Missouri is not focused on multiple-choice trivial pursuit. Could the NCSS Standards make clearer the importance of process skills? Could the NCSS Standards be more informative about what subskills the various process skills entail? That is, could they identify what kinds of thinking are involved when solving problems, when making political or economic decisions, or when investigating factual claims presented in campaign debates? Absolutely! But intellectual process skills were never minimized in the original document. The importance of going beyond simply “describing and comprehending selected pieces of conservative knowledge”7 is a crucial part of the document.

Ochoa-Becker criticizes the NCSS Standards for ignoring the importance of controversial issues and giving insufficient attention to citizen participation and social action. This omission, her argument claims, minimizes the role that social studies should play in citizenship education. In fact, the goal of citizenship education is intended to be at the foundation of the NCSS Standards. The theme 0 Civic Ideals and Practices is not the tenth theme because it is least important, but rather because it is most important. This theme embodies the goals of citizenship and is, or should be, what we are all aiming for. Decision making is at the heart of the NCSS Standards:

Social studies should not dictate to students what the solutions should be to . . . dilemmas [which pit our most cherished beliefs against one another], but it should teach them how to analyze and discuss those dilemmas within the context of the civil discourse required to maintain a democratic society” (p. 9).

By the time students complete high school, a curriculum based on the NCSS Standards would, for example, have engaged students in analyzing “the causes, consequences, and possible solutions to persistent, contemporary and emerging global issues . . .” (p. 136). Students would have demonstrated the ability to “construct a policy statement and an action plan to achieve one or more goals related to an issue of public concern” (p. 139). Learners would have been engaged in constructing “reasoned judgments about specific cultural responses to persistent human issues” (p. 111). Indeed, an analysis of the performance expectations makes clear the expectation that students gain the knowledge and skills necessary to engage in civic discourse around issues and dilemmas of public concern. Could the standards in future editions give more emphasis to controversial issues within each of the ten themes, as Dr. Ochoa-Becker proposes? Certainly. Such a revision should be given serious consideration.

The standards imply the need to engage in civic action. They are intended to provide the foundation necessary to mindfully engage in such action. The call to action in the standards document, however, is muted. There is no clear statement about standards for such action, a matter deserving consideration when they are reexamined in the future. Other NCSS publications do build on the standards to provide teachers with ways to connect academic skills and content to community experiences and social action. The bulletin Building Bridges: Connecting Classroom and Community Service-Learning in Social Studies8 demonstrates how service-learning activities rooted in the NCSS Standards can connect the community and the classroom.

The NCSS curriculum standards have served a number of important functions. They have provided teachers and curriculum developers with a framework from which to engage in professional discourse and to develop curriculum that moves well beyond (but does not exclude) important concepts from the social sciences. They have provided a clear and distinct NCSS presence and voice in such areas as teacher certification and National Board Certification. They have provided a statement about the nature of social studies, while still maintaining—in fact, expecting—that curricular and instructional decisions be made locally. But these standards are neither static nor perfect. What is needed now?

At the 2000 Annual Conference, the NCSS Curriculum Committee was asked to recommend revisions, changes, or additions in the NCSS curriculum standards. Committee members responded that these standards have only begun to take root and recommended that no changes be made at this time. To make drastic changes, they felt, would throw the field into disarray. Personally, I agree with the importance of “staying the course” and would rather see supplemental materials, built around the existing standards, continue to be developed. On the other hand, we must not back off from a serious discussion about next steps.

Are there changes that must be made in order to provide greater leadership to the field? How, for example, might the role of, and expectations for, the discussion of controversial issues and civic action be highlighted? What revisions might make this more clear? Are there additional publications that might provide recommendations to teachers and others about ways to focus more attention on social issues or persistent public problems in “standards-based” ways? Bulletins such as Building Bridges and the Handbook on Teaching Social Issues9 are examples of such publications. Should NCSS provide guidance on assessments related to the standards?

I invite readers to continue the discussion that Dr. Ochoa-Becker has promoted and to provide input to the Board of Directors as it deliberates over the possibility of revising and perhaps extending the NCSS Standards. I hope you will join the conversation.

 

Notes

1. I was a member of the Board of Directors at the time and, once off the board, became a member of the Standards Task Force. Much of my understanding of the intentions and expectations behind the work of the Standards Task Force comes from personal experience. The Task Force was chaired by Dr. Don Schneider of the University of Georgia. Task Force members, and NCSS generally, owe a debt of gratitude to Don for his hard work and incredible patience.

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

3. Anna Ochoa-Becker, “A Critique of the NCSS Curriculum Standards,” Social Education 65, no. 3 (April 2001): 165-168.

4. National Center for History in the Schools, National Standards for History (Los Angeles, Calif.: National Center for History in the Schools, 1994).

5. Ochoa-Becker, 165.

6. Ibid., 167.

7. Ibid.

8. Rahima Wade, ed., Building Bridges: Connecting Classroom and Community through Service-Learning in Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 2000).

9. Ronald W. Evans and David Warren Saxe, Handbook on Teaching Social Issues (Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1996).

 

Susan Adler is the immediate past president of National Council for the Social Studies and associate professor at the School of Education, University of Missouri—Kansas City.