Update: This story was updated June 4 with information on the timeline for revising the history and social studies frameworks.
For history and social studies teachers in California, the Common Core State Standards are welcome allies in their struggle to liberate their subject from a decade of inattention and irrelevance.
They are encouraged that the new standards stress the importance of research and analytical skills and elevate the importance of historical documents in reading comprehension. They feel valued as colleagues once again.
“Common Core gives us permission to finally teach history and not pretend it is another English class,” said Andrew Pegan, an 8th-grade history teacher in the Compton Unified School District. “That’s why I love Common Core.”
“I feel like we are emerging from the Dark Ages of educational policy,” said Ruth Moore, an 8th-grade history and English teacher at Santa Rosa Middle School.
Pegan was an instructor for and Moore was attending this year’s conference of the California Council for Social Studies in Oakland, where sessions like Pegan’s “CRITICAL History: Making History Relevant in a Common Core World” were prominent in the three-day program. Social studies and history teachers say they are encouraged that the creators of the Common Core, a set of English language arts and math standards that California and 42 other states have adopted, weave liberal doses of history and science into the standards’ approach to literacy and numeracy.
They add that what distinguishes the Common Core from previous standards is the emphasis on the skills that effective history teachers have taught their students when they have had the chance. These include nonfiction writing, citing evidence and making arguments, and comprehending “complex texts” to prepare students for life after high school.
“These are big changes in education, but social studies teachers are not seeing anything new,” said Martha Infante, a middle school history teacher in Los Angeles Unified and incoming president of the Council for Social Studies.
Infante and others add that the Academic Performance Index and the federal No Child Left Behind law squeezed history out of the curriculum in most districts during the past decade. They say that limited teachers’ ability to teach history the right way – and share its excitement.
Both history and science wasn’t a priority in the state and federal school accountability systems. Instead, results on the state math and English language arts tests were used to judge – and often punish – schools and districts. Knowledge of history was first tested in 8th grade. The common refrain – what gets tested gets taught – proved true. Both history and science, Infante and others complained, weren’t taught, particularly in elementary grades.
“Students arriving in middle school lacked civics and history knowledge,” Infante said. “I never saw anything like that when I started teaching in the ‘90s.”
“There has been a marginalization of social studies for quite a few years,” said Nancy McTygue, executive director of the California History-Social Science Project, a statewide network of history scholars and K-12 teachers offering training in history and social science. Students not only didn’t get content knowledge, she said, they weren’t exposed to nonfiction texts.
She found it puzzling and frustrating. “Why on earth would school leaders reduce instructional time for history, a text-dependent discipline, if they wanted to improve student literacy?” she asks in the introduction to “Teaching the Common Core,” a publication of the state history project.
Pegan said middle and high school history teachers found they had to do “History 101,” going over the basics of what students had missed. “I tried to do the history of Thanksgiving, but (students) had never even been given the fairy-tale version,” he said.
The old state English language arts standards’ focus on literature and fiction affected how history was taught beyond elementary school, Pegan said. “History became English Part II. History teachers were asked to teach history with standards that were meant for literature,” he said, substituting historical fiction for the use of original historical sources.
The Common Core has changed how reading and writing will be taught. The English language arts standards for grades 6 to 12 feature separate sections for using history/social studies and science topics and materials to develop reading comprehension and writing skills. An appendix features examples of how to integrate historical topics and documents, such as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in English classes. The history/social studies sections lay out ways, by grade, to analyze texts, use primary sources and develop arguments and points of view. Sample questions on the new Smarter Balanced test in the new standards include readings from history.
The Common Core more explicitly defines literacy as a shared responsibility. History and social studies teachers are welcoming this turn of events. “Hearing the new dialogue resonates with me. I sleep more peacefully at night,” said Moore, the Santa Rosa Middle School teacher.
The Common Core standards also can break down classroom walls and encourage English and history/social science teachers to work together. For the first time, Infante said, teachers in other disciplines are seeing through a social studies lens and collaborating. The connections, she said, make sense.
Last year, Infante said, she and an English teacher collaborated on an assignment that asked students to write a persuasive essay on whether John Brown was justified in leading a slave rebellion. In the English class, students read primary source documents: John Brown’s address to the court about to sentence him in 1859 and Colonel Robert E. Lee’s “Report Concerning the Attack at Harper’s Ferry.” In her class, they explored the causes and ramifications of the rebellion in depth. Students received credit for the essay in both classes.
Another class, taught by Jennifer Brouhard at Glenview Elementary School in Oakland, offered a glimpse of history thriving. Students were collaborating in small groups, using historical documents and gaining an intuitive understanding of life in earlier times.
On a recent morning, the 35 students in Brouhard’s combination 4th-5th grade class, one of three history classes she teaches each day, were studying slides of women at work in the Richmond Shipyards during World War II. It’s part of a year-long theme on economic forces that shaped America that Brouhard, who’s been teaching for 19 years, chose.
“What do you notice?” Brouhard asked about the first slide, the famous poster of Rosie the Riveter flexing her bicep below the words, “We Can Do It!” Brohard asked students at each table to talk it over and send a representative to the front to share thoughts.
“It shows she can do whatever men can do,” said 4th-grader Zachary Smith.
“How can you support your claim that men and women can do it?” Brouhard asked. A boy used a laser pointer to point to her biceps.
Brouhard, who does little lecturing during the two-hour class, explained that World War II was the first time that large numbers of women entered the workforce. African-Americans came to Richmond for the shipyards, too. Workers were employed in shifts to keep the shipyards running 24 hours a day; some lived in their cars, since there weren’t enough houses.
There was a photo of a woman welder, smiling. How come?
“Maybe to get more workers to come,” suggested 5th-grader Fiona Connelly. “Look how fun this work is. You can get money. Then they can build ships faster and win the war.”
“This is what historians do,” Brouhard told the class. “We start looking at these photos, primary sources, read oral histories and texts, then form your own ideas about this. Now you are getting some ideas – not enough yet.”
The next day, Brouhard said, she would ask the students to take all of their observations, with keywords, and write a short essay, making a statement with supporting evidence. She might use the slides as a lesson in multiple perspectives, suggesting different ways to interpret the photographer’s message.
“Students come in as 4th-graders asking, ‘What is the right answer?’ We haven’t built in thinking in younger grades,” she said. “We want them to ask, ‘What are these jobs? What do shipyards do, and why are they important?’”
At odds with state history standards
Teaching at Glenview, which allots history equal time with English, enabled Brouhard to escape the minimization of history that has occurred elsewhere and to teach in ways that the Common Core encourages. But such situations are rare in elementary schools, as is the type of collaboration that Infante shared in her school, she said. Many history/social studies teachers, while feeling validated by the new English language arts standards, also feel frustrated by the volume of history content they must get through each year.
The Common Core doesn’t dictate the content that history/social studies teachers should teach; California’s own history standards do that. Adopted in 1998 – before Sept. 11, the Iraq war and the election of President Barack Obama – they are outdated.
The state standards require covering more historical events, facts and details than most teachers want to cover (and most students care to memorize). They also are out of sync with the shift toward teaching reasoning skills over memorization emphasized in the Common Core social studies standards and the C3 Framework, a document published by the National Council for the Social Studies that provides guidance for state standards in history and civics.
California tried to bridge the gap in 2009 when it began updating the state History-Social Studies Frameworks, the extensive grade-by-grade curriculum guide for teaching the state standards. But the Legislature, looking for every penny to save during the recession, froze all funding for curriculum development and textbook adoption.
Six years later, the nearly completed document needs to be revised again, to reflect the Common Core social studies standards and to encourage a more engaging approach to civics education, said Tom Adams, the director of the state Department of Education’s curriculum frameworks and instructional resources division. Adams is hoping funding for the history frameworks will appear in the May revision to the state budget to pay for experts to sort through the 700 comments and recommendations that the department has received on the frameworks. (Update: Gov. Brown’s May budget includes $120,000 to hire history scholars to evaluate the voluminous public comment and submit their recommendations to the Instructional Quality Commission, which oversees academic standards work for the State Board of Education. Commission Chair Bill Honig reports that framework is on track for a May 2016 adoption by the State Board. The timeline for the work can be found here.)
Meanwhile, that leaves history teachers with two masters. The Common Core and the draft history frameworks stress exploring topics in depth, while the existing state history and social studies standards require covering a breadth of topics. Pondering the seemingly unanswerable, Moore asked at the history conference in Oakland, “So how do you reconcile the focus on the Common Core with the reality we have to deal with?”
Thanks for reading.
Can you help sustain our reporting?
Our team of journalists, editors, and fact-checkers do an estimated 440 hours of research every week to bring you the news on California education. That's a lot of work.