It hasn’t been easy for Andre Mountain to convince people on why social studies matters, but he hopes recent changes in state education policy will help make his case.
For about a decade under No Child Left Behind, schools and districts were graded solely on math and reading scores, putting other subjects like science and social studies toward the bottom of the priority list. In 2012, Georgia replaced NCLB’s accountability measure with the College and Career Readiness Performance Index, which weighs scores in social studies, science and language arts just as much as reading and math.
Teachers are now expected to boost performance in these previously neglected areas while battling a history of low scores and indifferent attitudes toward the subject.
With the renewed state urgency on social studies, Mountain, the social studies coordinator in Richmond County, has launched an initiative to provide more training for teachers so they have better tools to increase achievement. He said changing mind sets will take time but hopes the attention will help students realize the subject mattered all along.
“We need social studies because it actually gives students the opportunity to apply their reading skills to things that are real,” Mountain said. “It makes them better decision makers, it helps them go out into the real world and understand how the world works and how things came to be.”
Along with one-on-one help for teachers, Mountain said group trainings will focus on lesson planning and strategy. It will also help teachers apply real life scenarios to social studies content, which covers world and U.S. history, geography, government, and economics.
Shaun Owen, the state program coordinator for social studies, said such an effort is needed statewide to offset the consequences from years of neglect. Owen said districts across the state previously had virtually no training in the subject and out of 180 districts, only 24 (including Richmond County) have social studies coordinators.
“Under No Child Left Behind, in all honesty, I think social studies got left behind,” Owen said. “This is my 19th year in education, and this is the biggest thing I’ve seen in social studies is the CCRPI. We are now on the same playing field as the other subjects.”
ACROSS THE NATION, 36 percent of schools decreased time for social studies in response to the pressures on reading and math achievement under NCLB, according to a 2007 study by the Center for Education Policy. At the same time, a Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools study found only one third of Americans can name all three branches of government while less than half know that a 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court carries the same legal weight as a 9-0 ruling.
Significant progress has been made in recent years locally, but big gains are still needed. In 2013, 58 percent of high school students passed the U.S. History End of Course Test, compared to 34 percent in 2008. Seventh grade social studies made some of the largest gains over the years, jumping to 63 percent passing in 2013 from just 10 percent in 2008.
Mountain said increased professional development can help further these gains, but some institutional changes are needed.
One challenge remaining at the middle school level is having teachers assigned to teach social studies who don’t have an interest in the subject or don’t feel strong with the content. In the departmentalized middle school system, teachers are broken into teams to teach either math, language arts, socials studies, science or reading. With smaller staffs from budget cuts, some teachers are forced to split their time teaching social studies and another subject.
BILLTERRANCE STREETMAN, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Hephzibah Middle School, said he is one of only two social studies teachers at his school who don’t have to split their time on other disciplines. His subject is also allotted only 50 minutes a day, half of what is dedicated to math.
Derrias Priestley, a sixth-grade teacher at Murphey Middle School, said students coming to him from fifth grade have often missed out on social studies time because it was spent on reading or math remediation in preperation for standardized testing.
“When I spoke to these kids, they’d tell me ‘We didn’t do a whole lot of social studies before,’” Priestley said. “We have to make up for that now.”
In kindergarten through third grades, the recommended seat time for social studies is 30 minutes, compared to 120 in reading and 70 minutes in math.
Cheryl Jones, assistant superintendent for elementary schools, said this schedule was put in place in the early 2000s to meet the requirements of a federal reading grant that required more instruction time for reading. She said with the district’s needs being largely in reading and math, it hasn’t changed.
But she said teachers are trained to incorporate social studies and science content in other subjects. To make up for lost social studies time, they may read a Hernan Cortez biography or a book about American history during reading class.
GOSHEN ELEMENTARY School Principal Charlie Tudor said in response to the state’s new emphasis on all subjects, he tweaked the elementary schedule to allow for more social studies and science time. Like fourth and fifth grades, he departmentalized third grade this year so students have more equitable time in all subjects.
On a recent afternoon, Goshen third grade teacher Lance Axon, who teaches social studies, science, writing and health, had his students focus on the achievements of the first black Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, during a writing assignment. He also had them write the three branches of government to incorporate social studies into writing skills.
He said with renewed urgency on the subject, expectations from teachers have changed. But it’s a welcome one.
“Social studies was just always low on the totem pole,” Axon said. “I totally felt like it was being pushed off the map...I’ve treated it the same way for 15 years because it’s my favorite subject. Now others are seeing that we need it.”