This story about social studies instruction is part of a series about innovative practices in the core subjects in the early grades. It was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — One of the longtime goals of public education is to produce young people capable of participating in the democratic process. Experts say that requires regular and high-quality social studies lessons, starting in kindergarten, to teach kids to be critical thinkers and communicators who know how to take meaningful action.
Yet, as teachers scramble to meet math and reading standards, social studies lessons have been pushed far back on the list of academic priorities, especially in the early grades.
“Without social studies, we lose the civic mission of public schools,” said Stephanie Serriere, a former early-grade teacher who is now an associate professor of social studies education at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus. “Ultimately, we can’t prepare children for living in a rich, diverse democracy if we don’t expose them to the controversial topics inherent in our democracy.”
Time spent teaching social studies has declined in the last two decades, particularly since the 2001 passage of No Child Left Behind, which favored a focus on math, reading, and accountability as a way of addressing the country’s growing achievement gap between rich and poor children. Social studies in the early grades was especially affected by that legislation: kindergarten through second grade became reading, writing, and math crunch time in preparation for the testing that begins in third grade.
“Social studies is like the lima beans on the curricular plate of the elementary student’s day,” said Paul Fitchett, associate professor and director of curriculum and instruction for the doctoral program in education at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “Research shows that teachers coming from elementary ed programs feel the least competent in teaching social studies, compared to math, English language arts and even the sciences.”
Because social studies isn’t an academic priority in many states, teachers often receive inadequate training from teacher-prep programs on how to teach the subject; once they begin teaching in the classroom, according to the National Council for the Social Studies, teachers need continued professional development to allow them to master the skills of effective social studies instructions. Often, educators say, that training is lacking.
Because social studies teaching continues to be given short shrift, educators sometimes seek instructional help in the form of sessions organized outside of school.
On a rainy Saturday morning this spring, 40 teachers and school administrators sat on folding chairs in the basement of a Brooklyn school for an all-day workshop on how to talk about race in the classroom. Organized by Border Crossers, a nonprofit group that trains teachers, administrators and parents how to explore race and racism, the event was led by trainers Ana Duque and Ben Howort, both former teachers.
“I do this work because, as a former kindergarten through third-grade teacher, and as a parent, I learned that when children have the language to explain race and racism, good things can happen,” Duque told the group. “There’s something about race that’s so fundamentally uncomfortable in our culture.”
The workshop began with a discussion of racism from both historical and current perspectives, how it shows up in schools and classrooms today, why and how students of color were first denied equal educational opportunities, and how students of color continue to reap unequal opportunity from public education in the U.S. After lunch, participants split up into small groups and practiced applying the day’s lessons to various fictional classroom scenarios.
“Racism cannot be solved in a six-hour workshop,” Howort told the group. “But hopefully you’ll leave with a lot more questions, a sense of urgency to catapult yourself into new knowledge.”
When it comes to dealing with sensitive issues like race, class, equity, and gender, Duque, who teaches elementary school social studies curriculum development at Hunter College School of Education, said she wants her student-teachers to understand that social studies is not a skill to be practiced but rather an opportunity for inquiry and exploration.
“If you, as the teacher, come into the classroom trusting that children have knowledge about the world already, then they can build an understanding of the world with you, the teacher, to guide them,” she said.
When social studies aren’t part of the early-grade curriculum, she noted, the impact lasts through generations. “I’m finding that children don’t fully understand what’s happening in the world; they’re not given the time or space to process what’s happening because a) no one’s talking about it, and b) no one’s helping them connect what’s happening today to the systems and patterns of the past,” said Duque. “So now I’m seeing student teachers, products of No Child Left Behind, who never experienced rigorous social studies in their schooling either, so they don’t even know how to teach it. When I ask them to take part in inquiry, research or exploration, they don’t know how to do that.”
Experts recommend that, starting in preschool, students receive daily social studies lessons in order to fully develop the skills needed to become engaged citizens who are ready for college and careers. Common Core standards, however, tucked social studies into English Language Arts, relegating it to side-subject status rather than a discipline unto itself. That makes it even harder for teachers in the early grades as they work to meet Common Core standards while getting students test-ready for third grade.
“In kindergarten through second grade, teachers are focused on getting kids to read. Sometimes they’re using social studies as a reader — the word is integration, they’re integrating social studies into reading and language arts — and we’ve seen that done very poorly,” said Serriere, adding that there are some notable exceptions. “Most states either don’t test social studies, or the social studies test doesn’t really count toward adequate yearly progress.”
In an effort to bring social studies back and make it more coherent and challenging, the National Council for Social Studies in 2013 published the C3 Framework, an inquiry-based guide for states to use as a supplement to the Common Core standards. The C3 framework — the three Cs refer to college, career, and civic life — includes curriculums in civics, economics, geography, and history. Serriere said C3 is being used across the country. Critics say the framework waters down meaningful social studies instruction and fails to adequately inspire students to civic action.
Back at the Border Crossers training, Erica Davis, a workshop participant and assistant principal at a small New York City public elementary school, said she signed up for the workshop because it felt like important work. “But I’m positive that if we did this in my school, there would be blocks,” said Davis, who noted that discussions at her school about race and gender quickly become stiff and closed. And yet, she added, when conversations about race and other sensitive topics aren’t part of everyday classroom teaching, children aren’t prepared to handle difficult subjects.
“We don’t have these conversations in our schools. We don’t make it comfortable. For example, we freak out when kids use the N word but we don’t support them to have further conversations about it,” said Davis. “So anyone who’s moved through the American school system just isn’t equipped to handle these issues.”
As teachers and administrators progressed through the day’s work, the two trainers repeated a mantra: “How often are we willing to misstep, to misspeak?” Howort asked the group. “When having conversations about race, you’re going to step in it — it’s just going to happen. It’s a continuous learning process.”
Indeed, as teachers discussed sensitive subjects like the complex power dynamics within schools and classrooms or white teachers teaching students of color, for instance, tempers flared at several points in the day as participants struggled to find the right words to talk about these issues.
Social studies, said Serriere, is the place to incorporate sensitive conversations in the early grades. “If we listen to children and pay attention to what they’re bringing into the classroom, we realize it’s full of issues about race, class, gender, money — all those things,” she said. “So if we have an emergent curriculum in which we’re asking, ‘What’s on your mind? What isn’t fair? What bothers you? What could be improved in society?’ It might start very small, but I am confident, based on my experience in elementary classrooms, that all these issues are present in even the most homogeneous classrooms.”
Folding in difficult conversations about sensitive issues in the early grades is crucial preparation for delving more deeply into various social studies disciplines in the later grades. History, for example, with its accounts of wars, slavery, intrigue, and fierce battles for rights is full of social and ethical issues including religion, race relations, gender roles, cultural differences, and the merits of different political and economic systems.
As early as kindergarten, when children are at an age at which they like talking about themselves, students may begin discussing identity. “Any opportunity you can give them to talk about themselves [you should use], but in the context of some kind of social identity where you define it, give them some language,” said Duque. “Then they get an awareness of who they are within the context of other people.”
First- and second-graders are ready to discuss stereotypes, the ways in which people categorize each other, and they are also able to think about re-categorizing people based on a variety of criteria. “The world categorizes people based on race, and if we never challenge or address it, then kids assume that’s the right way to engage with the world,” said Duque. “Personally, I think all these issues should be part of early-grade curriculums. And it’s important that there is also an active, purposeful relationship with families so they are involved in the conversations.”
At the workshop, Howort wrapped up the day with a bit of advice: Once a teacher decides to take on sensitive issues in the classroom, it’s crucial to have a support system. “You’ve got to have allies as teachers, so when you mess up, you have someone you can discuss it with. Set up your system so you don’t burn out,” Howort told the group.
Social studies remains a low priority in many school districts and will likely remain so until districts or states mandate daily or weekly social studies instructional time, similar to English and math instructional time requirements, said Fitchett of the University of North Carolina. That may be a tough sell, he acknowledged.
“Social studies can tend to be a political hot potato,” he said. “It can ruffle a lot of feathers in terms of how it’s being used. But who doesn’t want children to be part of the democratic process? Who doesn’t want young people to be critical consumers of the world around them? Maybe I’m too optimistic here, but I think that — across parties — most people want that.”
This story about science instruction is part of a series about innovative practices in the core subjects in the early grades. It was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
Science could be considered the perfect elementary school subject. It provides real life applications for reading and math and develops critical thinking skills that help students solve problems in other subjects. Plus, it’s interesting. It helps answer all those “why” questions — Why is the sun hot? Why do fish swim? Why are some people tall and other people short? — that 5- to 8-year-old children are so famous for asking.
Young children are “super curious,” said Matt Krehbiel, director of science for Achieve, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping students graduate high school ready to start college or to pursue a career. “We want them to be able to harness that curiosity to help them make sense of the world around them.”
But science has long been given short shrift in the first few years of school. Most elementary school teachers have little scientific background and many say they feel unprepared to teach the subject well, according to a national survey of science and mathematics education conducted by a North Carolina research firm in 2012. Just 44 percent of K-2 teachers felt they were “well prepared” to teach science, according to the survey, compared to 86 percent who felt well prepared to teach reading.
Possibly as a result, the average first- through fourth-grade student spent just 2.5 hours per week on science during the 2011-12 school year, the last for which data is available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And that could be why just 38 percent fourth-grade students performed at or above proficient on the latest National Assessment of Education Progress for science, which was administered in 2015.
That’s a problem because careers in science, engineering, and math are some of the fastest growing (and best paid) sectors of the American economy. Such jobs made up 6.2 percent of all U.S. employment in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and that’s not counting healthcare jobs, which make up another 9.1 percent. If today’s grade school children aren’t science literate, they’ll have a much bigger hurdle to overcome when they try to enter those fields in the early 2030s.
But the Next Generation Science Standards, first released in 2013, could be changing all that. The standards, adopted in full by 19 states and the District of Columbia (another 19 states adopted very similar new standards), are meant to help teachers focus on the importance of learning science by conducting experiments, collecting and recording information, and evaluating evidence. Getting schools and teachers to begin effectively teaching to the new learning goals is a multi-year process.
“The reality of implementation is that it ends up being all over the map for a variety of reasons,” Krehbiel said. “Some [states] are moving forward great guns, others not so much.”
A new national science test and a new national survey, both due out in 2019, will show whether science achievement has improved and whether time spent on science has increased; in the meantime, the standards are definitely spurring some to action.
“When there are new standards, there is new attention put on what the standards are asking us to do,” said Cristina Trecha, director of the Oregon Science Project, an organization that provides science education training to rural and semi-rural teachers in Oregon, which adopted the standards in 2014. “NGSS is going to give us a reason to teach science.”
That’s been true for Redmond, Oregon kindergarten teacher Jennifer Callahan.
“We weren’t doing much at all,” Callahan said. “There was a curriculum, but in the time I’d been here, there was no training. It was whatever we came up with ourselves. It didn’t have as much weight as reading, writing and math.”
It does now.
On a Wednesday in May, Callahan’s classroom at the Redmond Early Learning Center, which houses all of the semi-rural district’s 400 kindergartners, was alive with scientific discovery. Callahan’s students were arrayed in a big circle rolling a ball across the rug to various classmates. After each roll, Callahan asked if it had taken a strong force or a gentle force to move the ball. Kids answered with a hand signal — one hand petting the other for gentle, a flexed bicep for strong — then explained their answer to their partner before Callahan called on a student to say what he or she thought.
Next, students matched images of scenes — a toy car being pushed up a ramp or two people tossing a ball, for example — with the correct word identifying the type of force depicted: strong or gentle. After practicing as a class, kids broke into small groups to sort more images.
At one table, four students worked together to quickly place all their image cards under the correct header.
“He didn’t put that much force,” said Lorenzo Glasser, 6, as he placed an image of a boy juggling a soccer ball with his knees under the word “gentle.” How could Lorenzo tell the boy hadn’t used much force? “It made it [the ball] go not that far,” he explained.
Lorenzo’s classmate, Scout Simonsen, also 6, said they were old hands at understanding forces. They’d been working on it “a long time, a few weeks,” she said. She threw her hands up in the air, seeming exasperated. “It feels like 5,000 years!”
Sorting done, the class gathered back on the rug to go through the cards as a group and tell each other how they got their answers. Then it was time to continue their ongoing experiment with forces by taking out their “pinball machines” — open cardboard boxes with elastic bands stretched across, which acted as launchers for tennis balls.
“If you pull the launcher back really far, the ball can go a long distance,” Heidi Variz, 6, reminded the class before they got started with the next step in the experiment. What would happen if they used a shoelace, instead of their finger, to activate the launcher?
Reese Homann, 6, wasn’t sure about this new development. She raised her hand. “I don’t understand why we have to use the shoelace to make it different,” she said. “That’s not what was on the video.”
“Good question,” Callahan said. The video the class had watched before they built their pinball machines “was just the beginning,” she told Reese. “But as we do new things, we learn more.”
Learning more by trying new things is what Callahan loves about the NGSS-inspired science lessons she’s running in her class this year. Today’s lesson on force comes from Amplify Science, a curriculum developed by educators at Amplify, a curriculum vendor, and researchers at the Lawrence Hall of Science, a public science center at the University of California, Berkeley. It’s one of three elementary school science curriculums Callahan is helping to pilot now that her district decided to re-commit to elementary science education.
Callahan has become a particularly fervent believer in the power of science education in her classroom. In 2016, she was accepted as a trainer for the Oregon Science Project. Along with 200 other Oregon educators, more than half of whom were elementary school teachers, Callahan spent the 2016-17 school year learning best practices for teaching kindergarten science. In the summer of 2017, she passed that training on to 19 of her Redmond colleagues who wanted to learn more about teaching science in their elementary school classrooms.
“I’m thrilled with NGSS because of all the hands-on opportunities,” Callahan said. Her students also learn the value of taking risks, making mistakes, and problem solving. “That higher level thinking … I don’t think we were really pushing that before.”
Getting students beyond activities like memorizing the stages of a butterfly’s lifecycle or learning the parts of a plant is just what NGSS is meant to inspire. The standards list scientific concepts and practices students should understand at the end of each grade level, as well as specific ideas they should know.
Compiled by state leaders, the National Research Council, the National Science Teacher Association, and others, the standards were warmly received by many educators when they were first released. Not everyone loved them though. Critics complained the standards overemphasize skills while relegating factual scientific knowledge to secondary importance. And some conservatives decried the standards’ references to climate change and evolution as so much political maneuvering.
But Achieve’s Krehbiel, formerly a high school science teacher in Kansas, believes the standards can make a positive difference for students.
“It’s all about kids being able to explain the world around them and being thoughtful about scientific information,” Krehbiel said. “If you teach in this way, kids will show an increased likelihood to pursue a career in science, see science as relevant to their lives and show an increased interest in science.”
Oregon educators are hoping that proves true here. The state, which ranked dead last for time spent on science in elementary school in 2009, is aggressively trying to get better. The Oregon Science Project was initially funded by a grant from the federal government and will continue with funding from the state and from professional development fees charged to districts. The state also published a science and math education strategic plan in 2016. Among other goals, the plan calls for increasing the time spent on science in elementary school to above the national average.
Trecha, of the Oregon Science Project, said the state’s focus is beginning to make a difference, though she acknowledges there’s still a long way to go. When speaking with teachers from all over the state, Trecha said she heard that some elementary schools don’t have science as part of their weekly schedule and many districts don’t have an up-to-date science curriculum, although having one is required by state law.
“We’ve asked [elementary students] to make things sink or float, but we haven’t asked them to make sense of it or explain it,” Trecha said. She said children should be asked to draw diagrams of floating objects, think about invisible forces like buoyancy, or wrestle with tricky concepts like density to deepen their understanding of why some objects sink and others float.
It’s also important to do a better job reaching all students, Trecha said. Black and Latino students and students from low-income homes tend to perform less well on the national fourth grade science assessment. That pattern holds true in Oregon. Just 14 percent of Latino students, 10 percent of American Indian/Alaska native students, and 23 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of low family income, scored at or above proficient in science in 2015. (Not enough black Oregonians took the test to accurately measure the group’s performance.)
In contrast, 37 percent of Oregon’s entire fourth grade population scored at or above proficient. These disparate outcomes persist through middle and high school, where girls also start to perform less well than their male peers.
Against that backdrop, improving science instruction in districts like Redmond, where 74 percent of K-3 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 18 percent are Latino, is especially important, Trecha would argue.
Back in Callahan’s classroom, Malachi Ballinger, 6, and Alyssa Akre, 6, are tugging on shoelaces now attached to their rubber band launchers and observing how the tennis balls react to the forces they are now exerting on them.
“When we used our fingers [the ball] went off the edge,” Alyssa said. That’s not happening with the shoelace tied to the launcher, so, she concluded, the force is “kind of less now.”
Next, it was time to take notes on their experiment. The notes are important, Malachi said as he carefully drew a diagram of his pinball machine, “because that helps us know stuff — know how forces move.” Besides, he added, taking notes is what scientists do “so they can remember.”
“[Scientists] always say what happens,” Alyssa chimed in.
“They say ‘because’ a lot,” added Kyah Higgins, 5.
So, that’s what scientists do, but what do they look like?
Laughing, Alyssa said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world: “They look like us!”