The Need for Social Studies

On January 10, legislators in the Wisconsin Assembly introduced Assembly Bill 617, calling for “the Department of Instruction to establish model academic standards.”  The bill is timely as the debate over the Common Core State Standards has been heating up in Wisconsin and other states.  I have no problem with people debating whether or not standards should be created by the federal government or the state; in fact, I think it is a discussion worth having every now and then.  My issue with AB 617 lies with the trend of ignoring or overlooking social studies.

In the past few years, there has been an emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in education and the workforce.  The WI Department of Instruction has pages devoted to STEM, as do the US Department of Education and the White House.  The Department of Education rationalizes its focus on STEM by arguing that if we don’t push it, the US will not stay a “global leader.”  The White House wants to increase the amount of STEM teachers by 100,000 because they need quality teachers to help prepare students for the “high-paid, highly-rewarding fields of [STEM].”  I understand that as we rely more and more on computers and our technology rapidly improves, we need people to work in those fields.  I also know that American students lag behind their peers in the OECD PISA rankings in math and science. The White House also has a good point about how those jobs can be high-paying.  What I do not understand, however, is the lack of attention given to social studies (or at the university level the humanities and social sciences).

Social studies consists of the following fields: behavioral sciences, economics, geography, history, and political science.  These are the areas in which students learn about themselves and how to relate with others.  In these courses, students begin to understand topics like human rights, globalization, and the roles of international organizations and NGOs.  Teachers like me work to ensure students become globally aware and to appreciate and understand different cultures and belief systems in the world.  Social studies classes are where students learn about civic engagement and what it means to be involved in the public sphere.  Students also see how different types of political and economic systems work (or don’t work).  Understanding where we come from and what has happened before us, can help us avoid the mistakes of the past and make wise choices for the future.  (As a side note, I recommend checking out the American Historical Association’s page, “Why Study History“)  It is through these fields that we can work to eliminate stereotypes, combat prejudice, and fight against extremism.  As a result, teaching social studies and other types of jobs in these fields can also be highly rewarding (not just STEM jobs thank you very much).  Social studies is clearly important to creating a better global society.  So why, when it comes to creating standards or training teachers, is social studies overlooked?

This brings me back to the debate over the Common Core and AB 617.  Go to the Common Core website and read the standards (or at least skim over them).  Did you notice that they only have math and English standards?  History/Social Studies has been lumped into the literacy standards along with science and technical subjects under the English standards.  The only content standards we have for social studies in Wisconsin come from the WI Model Academic Standards, created in 1998.  According to Kristin McDaniel, the social studies consultant at DPI, “the State Superintendent has decided to indefinitely pause social studies standards revision in Wisconsin.”  In AB 617, however, the authors of the bill would like DPI to create new social standards in 2020.  Social studies is given priority over only the arts.  Even though WI has already adopted the Common Core standards for both English and Math, the authors of the bill want new standards for math in 2016 and English in 2017.  Think about how much the world has changed since 1998 (the War on Terror, globalization, BRICS, etc.), and yet, social studies teachers in WI will continue to use outdated standards.  Once again, we see that STEM wins out over social studies.

Here are a few questions I have for the authors of AB 617:

1. Since WI has new (as of 2010) standards for math and English, why not have DPI create new standards for science and social studies first, and then reexamine math and English?

2. What are you (and your Democratic colleagues) going to do to support and promote social studies education and programs in WI?

3. Why are all twenty-two authors/sponsors of the bill Republicans?  What about the bill was unappealing to your Democratic colleagues?

Thanks for reading.

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