Pet Subject

Tests or no tests, Fariña says social studies is 'not optional'

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña in September.

If this was a history lesson about the current city school system, it might be titled, “The Future of Social Studies.”

Main events: A few years ago, when the state eliminated lower-grade social studies exams, and more recently when it started using students’ math and English test scores to evaluate teachers.

Also this April, when state policymakers adopted new social studies guidelines for the first time in 15 years, updating the information that students must learn and connecting it to the new Common Core standards. Those guidelines inspired new course maps that the city released Wednesday.

Big question: Will teachers embrace the new guidelines — which cover history, geography, economics, and government — even if younger students aren’t tested on them and the exams for older students won’t be updated for years?

Key figure: Chancellor Carmen Fariña, a champion of social studies who years ago created a curriculum based on that subject that was used citywide. Fariña gave her position on the big question Wednesday, saying that she expects to find students learning social studies at every school because “they need to learn this, not because there’s a fifth-grade test.”

“This is not something that’s going to be optional,” she added.

The state’s kindergarten-through-high-school guidelines, called the New York State Social Studies Framework, list the skills and information students should learn at every grade. The newly revamped guidelines add recent world events, condense and rearrange material, and put a Common Core-inspired emphasis on literacy and critical-thinking skills.

After the backlash over the rollout of the Common Core math and English standards, state officials have been careful to point out that the new social studies guidelines say what students should learn, but leave it to districts and schools to decide what materials and methods to use.

Still, the state has commissioned a group of teachers to create new model social studies units for every grade that will include guiding questions, key documents, and projects to test students’ understanding, said S.G. Grant, dean of the graduate education school at Binghamton University, who is helping lead the project. The units should be ready next June, he said.

Meanwhile, the city gathered about 40 teachers this summer to help update its social studies course outlines for kindergarten through eighth grade to match the new state framework. (City officials said high school outlines would come later.)

The outlines show what information students must learn at different points in the year. For example, the fourth-grade outline says students should study New York’s geography in September, its Native American groups in October, and its colonial period through December.

The teachers also started revamping the packages of classroom materials that go along with the outlines. They found new historical documents, added more writing exercises, and redesigned lessons so that students research and debate more and listen to lectures less, said teacher Jeanne Powers, who helped create the materials.

“It’s about giving them activities that deepen their understanding,” said Powers, who teaches second grade at P.S. 22 in Queens.

City officials said they expect to complete the materials tied to the first social studies units this fall (each grade covers four to seven units per year). A full year’s worth of materials will not be ready until next school year.

All the recent attention to social studies, however, follows a steady decline of its stature in schools.

First, the federal No Child Left Behind law required state tests in English, math and science, but not social studies. Then, New York got rid of its own middle-school social studies tests. Now, some social studies teachers are rated on how well their students do on the annual math and English exams.

The result is that schools reserve less time for non-tested subjects like social studies, while some social studies teachers feel forced to carve out part of their class time to prepare students for tested subjects like reading, teachers say. Some history can be covered during reading class, they add, but not as thoroughly as in history class.

By high school, students must pass two history exams to graduate, though policymakers have proposed letting students who pursue a special diploma skip one of those tests. Either way, those exams won’t be tied to the new social studies guidelines until 2018, leaving teachers with less of an incentive to switch to them right away.

“Whatever’s tested is what’s going to be taught,” said Nick Lawrence, who teaches eighth-grade social studies at the East Bronx Academy for the Future. “Even if there’s a huge push against that idea, that’s what the end result is.”

Fariña rejected that argument Wednesday, saying that social studies can train students to analyze and reason in ways that will help them on the state tests. Also, students will have a hard time passing their graduation exams if they have never taken social studies before high school, she said.

But, she suggested, the value of social studies outweighs concerns about test scores.

“We have to teach social studies because it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”