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2017 Massachusetts Status of Social Studies Survey Summary

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Published on Wed, 06/07/2017

Rich Cairn, Emerging America, Collaborative for Educational Services, Northampton, Massachusetts

Completed mostly by secondary social studies teachers and by school and district administrators, the survey shows a robust social studies program at the secondary level across Massachusetts. Most districts offer some kind of civics course. A majority offer some sort of civic engagement project. Of some concern, however, there have been staff cuts in many districts in the past five years, though a few districts have actually gained staff. Some respondents noted that the major cuts in social studies positions occurred right after the 2009 cancellation of the Social Studies MCAS test, which occurred during a major economic recession. Those cuts have not been restored. (See “Social studies education facing ‘crisis’ as class time is slashed, departments closed.” March 31, 2015 Washington Post online repost by Valerie Strauss, based on a survey report by Gorman Lee of Braintree.)

What is highly disturbing in the survey is the high and growing number of districts that have all but eliminated the social studies in elementary schools. Most schools adhere to strict time allotments. Most elementary schools in Massachusetts allot less than an hour a week to social studies.

There is a still small but alarming trend of collapsing social studies into a humanities department combining English language arts and social studies. Though this might sound like a broadening of emphasis on literacy, American public education has little defined tradition of humanities departments at the K-12 level. Anecdotal evidence strongly indicates that this trend mostly represents an effort at cost-saving at the expense of social studies education.

Despite their concerns about a crisis of support for social studies at the elementary level, social studies educators are split in their support for a Social Studies MCAS test. Most oppose the type of standardized tests represented by MCAS as an ineffective and even harmful means to assess student learning. Even with these concerns, many social studies educators are resigned to the necessity of a social studies MCAS as the only means to get districts to restore the decline of the social studies. A significant number of respondents said they would support a more authentic form of statewide test or other assessment.

Support is quite strong for a new requirement for a civic action project. Indeed, most districts already have such a requirement. The great majority of social studies teachers support a requirement that students pass a civics course to graduate and that UMass and Massachusetts state universities require an additional year of social studies for admission. Again, most districts already have these requirements in place, yet the message must be clear to districts that social studies is vital and essential.

Summary of Data

Online survey conducted May 21 to June 2, 2017.

  • 109 respondents represented 86 school districts.
  • 82% of respondents were secondary social studies teachers. 34% were curriculum directors or other administrators. (As social studies supervisors or department chairs, some of these also teach). 7% were college faculty or simply concerned citizens.
  • Invitation to respond went to a list of more than 1,000 social studies teachers and school or district administrators including a notice in the Emerging America weekly History eNews which is reposted in the weekly e-blast of the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies. (To sign up for the History eNews, contact rcairn@collaborative.org.)

Civics Courses

  • 86% of school districts offer a civics or government course. 22% in 8th grade. 9% in 9th grade. 17% in 10th grade. 37% in 11th grade. 77% in 12th grade.
  • 55% of these courses are year-long. 39% are a semester or trimester.

Civic Engagement Projects: Community Service - Civic Action - Research Project

  • 62% of school districts require some sort of community service, civic action, or research project. (Some of these were actually only required in electives.)
  • 70% of these placed the requirement at 12th grade. 48% at 11th grade. 33% at 10th grade. 23% in middle school. And 5% in elementary school.
  • Many required community service (ranging from 16-25 hours in one or more years).
  • Some required research papers.

Time Designated for Social Studies in Elementary Grades

  • Half or more of classrooms grades K-4 get 40 minutes or less of social studies per week. (Ranging from 69% in K to 52% in grade 4.) (Based on 45 respondents.)
  • Nearly half (49%) of 5th graders get 40 minutes or less of social studies per week. 60% of 5th grade classrooms get an hour or less of social studies per week. Only 9% of 5th grade classrooms average an hour a day of social studies. (Based on 47 respondents.)
  • Even at 6th grade, just 38% of 6th graders get an hour or close to it of social studies every day. (24% of 6th graders get an hour or less a week of social studies.) (Based on 55 respondents.)

Humanities Absorbing Social Studies

  • 13% of middle schools have folded social studies into a humanities department.
  • 10% of high schools have folded social studies into the humanities.
  • 3% of districts have folded social studies into the humanities at the district level.

Overall Cuts in Social Studies Positions

  • 30% of school districts have made cuts in social studies positions in the past five years. 16% have added social studies positions in that period. 54% have kept staffing levels the same.
  • Declining enrollment and cuts across the board do explain some of these cuts. Yet some report stagnant social studies staffing despite growth in district enrollment.

Electives

  • Many districts report robust and popular offerings of electives.

 

Support for Increased Accountability for Social Studies and Civics

Divided:

  • “Require Social Studies MCAS Test.” 42% Support. 48% Oppose. 10% expressed no opinion/undecided.
  • “Require that students pass the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service Civics Test.” 50% Support. 38% Oppose. 12% expressed no opinion/undecided.

Strong Support:

  • “Require that students complete a Civic Action Project individually or as part of a class.” 70% Support. 19% Oppose. 11% expressed no opinion/undecided.
  • “Require that students pass a Civics course.” 88% Support. 9% oppose. 3% expressed no opinion/undecided.
  • “State universities raise to three years or more required years of social studies for admission. (Two years is current requirement.)” 91% Support. 5% Oppose. 5% expressed no opinion/undecided.

 

Selected comments from Massachusetts Secondary Social Studies Teachers show the range of debate:

MCAS Social Studies Test:

  • “History and social studies have been relegated to a lesser subject because of MCAS tested subjects.”
  • “I feel more guilty about students missing history than I feel about them having to take a fourth MCAS test.”
  • “NO MORE STANDARDIZED EXAMS!!”
  • “I don’t think standardized tests are good for any subject… The tests cannot and do not encompass everything students should learn.”
  • “If MCAS were skill-based, I would definitely support it.”
  • “I would like to see the ELA test changed to a humanities and civics test–one that incorporates both ELA standards and the revised social studies standards.”

Civic Action:

  • “Civic action must be considered part of any and all courses.”
  • "I love the idea of civics action project, as that would directly lead to engaged citizens who are aware of issues that directly matter to their lives.”
  • “Adding a requirement like this without adequate funding to support it (and the staff increases it would require) would be unreasonable and irresponsible.”

Civics Course:

  • “Should be required for graduation.”
  • “State requirements for history education either in the form of an MCAS test or civics requirement will compel school districts to focus on and support history education.”

U.S. Citizenship Test:

  • “The citizenship test… is focused on recall, and the questions are already known, so it would be easy to game.”
  • “Asking students to pass a citizenship test casts doubt on their status as naturalized citizens, and thus attacks a Constitutional right.”

Universities Require Three Years of Social Studies:

  • “Mass Core and our district already require three years of social studies.”
  • “It’s not how many years are required, but which courses… One semester HAS to be a civics course….

Rich Cairn

Director, Emerging America
Rich Cairn has directed the Emerging America program since 2006. Emerging America includes Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Program at the Collaborative for Educational Services, and the National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks of American History Institutes: "Forge of Innovation: The Springfield Armory and the Genesis of American Industry."