Arne Duncan’s Double-Talk on Social Studies and NCLB

Arne Duncan

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I don’t know if it was Sabrina’s shaming or my call to Homeland Security, but Arne Duncan just wrote about (gasp!) social studies.

Our bud, the Secretary of Education, wrote an article in the recent May/June 2011 issue of Social Education extolling the essential role of social studies in the classroom. Other present and past presidents of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), of which I am a member, also commented on Arne’s writing.

We all tend to be in agreement: Even though he seems well meaning, Arne has a bad tendency to cry alligator tears and blame everyone but himself.

He begins by acknowledging what we have been screaming about for years: that No Child Left Behind has created an environment where English, mathematics and science were given massive emphasis at the expense of history, geography, government and other social sciences. Yet even this admission is half-hearted. A particularly galling statement begins thus:

“Principals, particularly those at elementary schools, tell me that though they would like to allow ample time for social studies education, they feel constrained by pressures to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP). By sacrificing civics, economics, and history, these leaders have felt forced to neglect the long-term benefits of a well-rounded education, instead allowing less important, short-term goals to take over.”

Instead of a mea culpa for the narrow AYP standards, he blames administrators and districts for not allowing enough time—all the while pushing these same districts to standards that require all of their time (and then some). Apparently the AYP is such a sacred cow that any attempt to corral it is seen as a trip to the NEA/AFT slaughterhouse.

Furthermore, his praise of social studies is clearly tongue-in-cheek. While pushing for social studies to be elevated to its rightful place as an essential subject, he still harps on the importance of reading and math. Arne does this for almost a paragraph before he finally declares that marginalizing social studies “is not only misguided, it is educational neglect.”

To me, this is tantamount to thinking about that hot new office assistant at work while having sex with your wife. Sure, it gets the job done—it may even feel pretty good—but deep down, you know what you did was dishonest.

Not only does Arne pass the buck on the problem, but it seems that solutions are also hard to come by. He mentions the need to “fix NCLB so that school leaders do not feel forced to ignore the vital components of a good education.” No specifics.

He stresses President Obama’s plan to focus more on at-risk schools than in micromanaging good schools in the new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). No specifics.

New assessments that track for college and career readiness—no specifics.

More allowance for well-balanced curricula for districts—no specifics.

Where Arne does get specific are the very things that get his melon-head so excited: testing and giving teachers more work. He goes ga-ga, as he always does, for data-driven planning that targets strengths and weaknesses, especially with alignment to the Common Core standards in English and Math (kill me now). Yet he still has the nerve to call multiple-choice tests “mediocre” without questioning the data derived from said tests.

So who should fix this mess? According to Arne, we should.

Apparently, the Department of Education has a full plate pulling education dollars from children, creating ridiculous targets, adoring China like Mao in heat, all the while satisfying the needs of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Koch brothers, McGraw-Hill and Pearson like a veteran Thai call girl. There’s just no time to force states and school districts to create rigorous curricula and assessments that measure success in social studies.

Arne is urging us, the social studies teachers, to push local and state governments to create high social studies standards. He wants us to push for data-driven accountability in social studies. He wants us to reform assessments to make them authentic enough to base instruction. He wants us to test kids on a full range of social studies skills and strategies.

We do a lot of this already. We bust our ass creating meaningful and rich curricula and assessments for our children. The problem is the states don’t listen to us—and neither does Arne.

When social studies testing at the elementary level fell to only 10 states, he said nothing.

When social studies standards became a political hot potato in Texas, he said nothing.

When high school tests in New York are threatened with extinction, he said nothing.

A recent House bill threatening to cut 43 educational programs was introduced—including Teaching American History, a grant program that serves as the very incubator of innovation in social studies education that Arne seeks. The Education and the Workforce Committee found “no demonstrated results from the program…” Really. Tell that to the hundreds of students in New York City that benefit from trained TAH teacher-historians. Yet I have not heard a peep from our secretary.

That’s the problem.

Arne Duncan plays lip service to the social studies crowd using tried and true platitudes and pithy remarks. All the while, we see right through his game—to placate us while his dismantling of American education is complete.

If Arne is truly serious about establishing social studies’ rightful place in American education, he should be the one—NOT us—who is pushing the states and districts to make AYP contingent on social studies success, to make meaningful and rich social studies curricula and assessments, to hold schools accountable for success in history, geography, economics, government and social sciences.

We have been advocating this—for years. It is time the Secretary of Education to stop fence-sitting and finally get in the game of saving social studies in America.

Otherwise, his words are as authentic as the assessments he loves.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Arne Duncan’s Double-Talk on Social Studies and NCLB

  1. Do you really want more tests in social studies and for your value to be measured in terms of student test scores?

    • Of course, I wish there were no standardized tests to measure student success. But the point of the piece was to re-emphasize social studies as essential. For the time being, testing is how the ed reform clowns view subjects as essential. So it may come to more tests until we convince them otherwise.

  2. Or we could say, “Hell no!” to standardized testing. Do you have a guess as to how many hours of instruction will be stolen to worship at the altar of Pearson?

  3. Pingback: Bring Back Social Studies – From the Pages of The Atlantic | Mr. D's Neighborhood

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