Standards in Social Studies

Susan Adler, a former member of the NCSS Board of Directors and the NCSS task force established to develop social studies standards, is well qualified to address the topic of the Standards. She presents a clear picture of the background, the meaning, the development, and the application of curriculum and performance standards, along with what NCSS standards can and cannot do.

L. M. H., Editor

Outcomes, quality, standards — these appear to have become key words in education in the 90s. In order to sort through the language of reform in curriculum, educators need to examine what these words mean and how they might affect classroom teachers. This article will examine one of those terms — standards — with a focus on NCSS’s efforts to develop standards in social studies. But first, some history.

The Background

In 1983, with the publication of A Nation At Risk, Americans heard the call for the development of “more rigorous and measurable standards.” Since the release of that report, policy makers, educators, and a variety of constituent groups have entered the debate about how the United States ought to raise the level of curriculum standards and student achievement. The rhetoric of the debate and efforts toward curriculum improvement were further accelerated by the publication of America 2000, in 1991. This report, issued by the Bush administration, with the support of the 50 state governors, was another challenge to raise the level of educational quality and achievement by the year 2000. Included among the six major goals presented in this document was the development of “world class standards” in math, science, English, history, and geography.
Meanwhile, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) began its work on the development of national standards in mathematics. Following a process involving diverse constituent groups, NCTM (1989) published a set of curriculum standards for mathematics. The work of NCTM served as a model for both an end product, a set of standards, and a process, one of consensus building.

What Are Standards?

Standards are statements about what students ought to know and be able to do as a result of instruction. They serve as guides for making decisions about curricular scope and depth. Thus standards serve as criteria for making judgments about why, what, and how to teach and learn. These decisions are, of course, crucial ones. Learners today are confronted with an information explosion of enormous proportions. Schools and teachers cannot teach everything, nor could students learn all that could be known. Standards, then, serve as the framework or guidelines for making choices.

Social studies standards address what is unique and essential to the social studies program. They can help to answer the following questions:

• What content, themes, characteristics and perspectives are essential to the social studies
• What intellectual, social and other skills should social studies help to develop?
• How might democratic ideals be fostered and practiced?
• What persistent public issues should be addressed?
• What characteristics are essential to effective social studies?

The Development Process

In 1992 a task force of social studies professionals, appointed by the Board of Directors of NCSS, began to develop a set of standards in social studies. This group included elementary, middle and high school teachers, state and local district supervisors, and university professors. In the summer of 1992 this group began the task of developing social studies standards by producing a draft document for review and discussion. This initial draft was presented at the 1992 Annual Meeting. Following that meeting, interested teachers, supervisors, and others were
invited to comment on the draft.

In January 1993, the Task Force met again to process this feedback and to develop a second draft. Following another round of review and comment, the Task Force met in August of 1993 to develop a third draft which was presented at the 1993 Annual Meeting. Using the reactions gathered following this meeting, the Task Force met in January 1994 to prepare the final draft for approval by the NCSS Board of Directors. This protracted process of review has served as a mechanism to assure widespread input, and to achieve the consensus necessary for approval and implementation.

NCSS Standards

The NCSS Task Force focused on developing Standards which would reflect the complexity and integration of knowledge which today’s learners must grasp. At the same time, they believed it necessary for learners to understand the different “ways of knowing” that the several social sciences and humanities offer. The Task Force thus made an effort to attend to the disciplines which contribute to social studies, as well as to provide an umbrella for the integrative potential of these several disciplines. With this in mind, standards were organized into the following themes:

• Culture
• Time, Continuity, and Change
• People, Places, and Environments
• Individual Development and Identity
• Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
• Production, Distribution, and Consumption
• Power, Authority, and Governance
• Global Connections
• Science, Technology, and Society
• Civic Ideals and Practices

Within each of these themes is a global statement describing what students should experience in effective social studies programs; i.e., “Social studies programs should include experiences which provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity” (See Figure 1.). This statement serves as the “curriculum standard” and as the introduction to the set of “performance indicators.” The curriculum standard is a statement of what must occur programmatically in the formal schooling process. The performance describes an outcome which results from effective curriculum and instruction and, thus, is one measure of the success of the program.

Each curriculum standard ends with the statement “so that the learner can...” and thus leads to a set of specific statements of what students should be able to do as a result of instruction in this domain. For example, a performance indicator which follows the statement of the culture standard tells readers that the learner should be able to “compare ways in which different groups, societies, and cultures address similar needs and issues.”

Each curriculum standard is presented at three levels: early grades, middle grades, and high school. While the curriculum standard, the broad statement, remains the same for each level, the performance indicators vary. Under the study of culture and cultural diversity, for example, it is expected that young children should be given the opportunity to understand likenesses and differences as they apply to the human population. By the middle years, learners can be helped to understand cultural variations and should begin to develop the social and scientific vocabulary to describe and distinguish those differences. At the high school level, students can be asked to identify cultural variations and posit reasons for their existence based on their growing social scientific knowledge.

Although the ten curriculum standards are presented separately, each with its own set of performance indicators, the standards are interrelated. To understand culture, one must understand time, place, power, and institutions. To understand time, students must understand place, culture, production, and authority. The entire set of standards is meant to be seen holistically, and represents the scope of what students should experience in the study of social studies.

Instruction and Assessment

Each curriculum standard, with its accompanying performance indicator, is followed by “episodes” or “classroom snapshots” which are intended to provide images of what the standards might look like in action. These instructional vignettes provide concrete examples of how the standards might be operationalized. Each vignette is a “look” into a classroom where teachers are empowered to design and implement effective social studies lessons.

Since the Task Force was committed to the idea that assessment is embedded in learning situations, each vignette includes examples of assessment tasks. These tasks focus on performance assessment in which students are expected to demonstrate some form of competence. They provide examples of how teachers, parents, and others can determine what, in fact, the learner knows and is able to do.

How The NCSS Standards Might Be Used

In the social studies alone, there are a number of projects underway to develop curriculum and performance standards. National projects have begun in history, geography, civics, and, possibly, economics. These standards efforts will help to clarify what particular content is to be learned within each of these fields. The NCSS standards can serve as an “umbrella” under which each of these standards would find a home. The NCSS standards provide the over-arching curriculum framework for K-12 social studies.
Ideally, the NCSS Standards will be used by state and local districts as they design effective social studies programs. Individual teachers and groups of teachers can also use the standards to develop school and/or classroom level curriculum. Using the appropriate grade level standards, teachers can consider what they need to do in order to assure that their students can meet the performance indicators. It is hoped that the Standards will provide the framework for reviewing and possibly revising or restructuring the social studies curriculum at all levels.

What the NCSS Standards Cannot Do

As all teachers know, standards by themselves can be meaningless. Without essential instructional supports, they may be little more than empty words. For standards to have any meaning, students and teachers must have safe, clean, and decent environments in which to learn. Adequate books, materials, and supplies must be available to all students. Teachers must have opportunities for intellectually rigorous, stimulating, and challenging preservice and inservice education. If we are not committed to the best public education for the least, the lost, and the neglected among our children, then our efforts at standard setting will do little to improve education.

Parts of this article are taken from draft of the Executive Summary which will accompany the NCSS National Standards in Social Studies.


Focus #1
Performance Expectations: A,D

The first grade class has been studying Families and has just finished a bulletin board entitled, “Many Kinds of Families.” Wilhelmina Tomashek has led the discussion about how families have changed; about how many families today include something other than the mother, father, and children.

Ms. Tomashek then discussed family wants and needs and had the students make a classroom book using pictures the students drew and cut out of magazines. The students related these wants and needs to the environment/ temperature/climate. They made a chart which displayed wants and needs during cold and warm weather which related to the weather unit the students were doing in science. In group murals, the students displayed what families might need and want in the future. The group murals will be assessed in terms of their responses to wants and needs related to natural environments.

About the Author
Dr. Susan Adler is an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Chair of the Division of Curriculum and Instruction, and current President of the Missouri Council for the Social Studies

Figure 1. Excerpt from the Social Studies Standards

Culture Early Grades

Social Studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity, so that the learner can:

Related Themes


Performance Expectations

a. explore and describe commonalities and differences in the ways groups, societies and culture address similar human needs and concerns;
b. give examples of how experiences may be interpreted differently by people from diverse cultural perspectives and frames of reference;
c. describe ways in which language, stories, folktales, music, and artistic creations as expressions of culture influence behavior of people living in a particular culture;
d. compare ways in which people from different cultures think about and deal with their physical environment and social conditions;
E. give examples and describe the importance of cultural unity and diversity within and across groups.