Social Studies Standards: Four Reasons for Optimism

The State Board of Education recently adopted new social studies standards that go into effect in the 2014-15 school year. We are excited to feature an educator’s take on the redesigned standards. Rich McKinney is a former geography teacher and currently the Assistant Principal at Whittle Springs Middle School and a Professional Development Specialist for Knox County Schools. 

Rich McKinney is a former geography teacher and currently the assistant principal at Whittle Springs Middle School.

By Rich McKinney

With great anticipation, my wife and I waited for our meal at a small café in Rome.  At the end of a three-week backpacking trip across Europe, we were finally sitting down to some long awaited, authentic Italian pizza.  I had ordered the “Quattro Stagioni” with ham, peppers, mushrooms, and cheese.  To my surprise, the pizza served to me hardly resembled what I had envisioned; it was divided into four quadrants and each quadrant had one of the toppings.  Despite the perfect setting and my great expectations, this was remarkably underwhelming.  So what went wrong?  The pizza was properly prepared and it had everything I had ordered, but it was not designed with cohesion in mind.  Each ingredient was disconnected from the others and as such there was no cohesive blending of flavors that make pizza such a culinary favorite.

Unfortunately, for many years, schools have approached social studies instruction in much the same way.  Although teachers have diligently prepared lessons and delivered quality content, the scope and sequencing of our social studies standards has lacked cohesion and has impeded many students’ progress toward fully understanding how classes in history, geography, economics, and government connect with each other.  In fact, many students graduate from high school knowing only a few random history or geography facts in isolation. In an attempt to fix this situation, Tennessee invited educators from around the state to analyze the scope and sequence of the state social studies standards and to redesign them in a way that creates a more logical progression- a progression that not only makes sense to students but also exposes them to the rigorous study that will prepare them for life after high school.

As a former high school social studies teacher and current middle school administrator, I see four areas that suggest student growth is on the horizon.

1.) Focus on document analysis – Without doubt, this is my favorite aspect of the standards redesign.  Having taught both Advanced Placement and regular courses, I have witnessed the difference in knowledge and engagement between students who are taught facts versus students who wrestle with documents until they have discovered, analyzed and evaluated the most relevant pieces of information.  By incorporating a heavy focus on document analysis from fourth grade onward, we will strengthen literacy skills and prepare students to think critically about the world in which they live.

2.) Improved background knowledge for K-3 students – Currently, students in early elementary grades are not provided with adequate background knowledge to fully prepare for a rigorous course of social studies instruction.  However, the new standards will allow students to build the required background knowledge that will aid them once they transition into the analysis of documents that they will encounter in the fourth grade.

3.) More logical flow for middle grades – Working in a middle school, I have the opportunity to observe social studies classes on a regular basis.  The teachers in my building do a great job, but the standards flow from sixth grade to eighth grade simply does not maximize the opportunity for students to succeed. By the end of sixth grade, students should have a firm understanding of how civilizations developed over time and gained the capability to explore the New World.  Then in eighth grade, students begin with a focus on the effects of European exploration on the American continent.  However, in between, students take a break from history and learn about world geography.  This disconnect is detrimental for far too many of our students.  Under the new format, students will move seamlessly from world history in sixth and seventh grades to United States history in eighth grade.  Along the way, students will simultaneously learn how geographical considerations influenced the politics, economics, and culture of each civilization being studied.

4.) Inclusion of civics in high school – Until recently, many school districts did not require civics instruction.  As a result, Tennessee students were graduating without understanding their rights and responsibilities as citizens, connections between government and the local economy, and how to explain political occurrences through the lens of historical analysis.  This renewed focus on civics instruction should allow students to incorporate what they have learned in history, government, and economics into an actionable approach to citizenship.

The world we are preparing students to enter is not static and school leaders must continuously evolve and reconsider the way we design and deliver standards.  As an educator in Tennessee, I am excited that we are currently modeling a dynamic approach to social studies for our students.