We Can Do Better

A plea to parents, the board and the administration to craft a more lively, international elementary school social studies curriculum

Dear fellow citizens and parents of South Orange and Maplewood, this editorial is a plea – addressed to you, and through you to the Board and the school administration. This Monday, the Board will consider a proposed revision to elements of the K-5 Social Studies curriculum. We cannot accept it. We must ask the administration to slow down, to pause, and to give our children the education they deserve.

Words, words, words – I will explain all. But first, from the heart – I love history and I love sharing it with kids. That is why I earned a doctorate in US History and have spent a quarter century writing and editing nonfiction books for young people, and sharing them in schools. I have probably met your children since I’ve spoken in every one of our elementary schools – sharing my passion for history. I know how excited young people can be when the past is a detective story and the hunt for clues takes them all around the world. But I am also a parent who has seen his son, entering 7th grade, subjected to a numbing sequence of Social Studies units on NJ geography, the Lenape, and the Founding Fathers, year after sleepy year.

When I heard the Elementary School curriculum was to be revised this year I asked to see it. Unlike English Language Arts, which is online, the Social Studies curriculum has never been posted. It took me months of begging to get to see it – and there on paper was the blueprint for the endless repetition my son, and your children, lived through: NJ, Indians, and Founders in 3rd grade, 4th grade, and 5th grade, followed by US history in 6th grade. I then looked at the curricular support materials for 3rd and 4th grade. They would be unacceptable if written by third graders. Here is one example: “Starting from early spring to late autumn, many Native American tribes moved around frequently, searching for things to eat…In California, the Foragers harvested acorns from oak trees and ground them into flour…Tribes grew corn, wheat, fruits and garden vegetables often using clever methods.” Have you ever heard of the Forager people? Did you know they grew corn and wheat – presumably in their down time when not out Foraging.

OK so the past was bad, I assumed that this year’s revision would be much better. No, the sequence has not been changed. The same relentless repetition of local and US history. If your children have been through elementary school, how many times did they get the American Revolution? The Lenape? The Constitution? Westward migration? By contrast, in our community which is 40% African American and increasingly both Asian and Hispanic, how many times did they study the history of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, or the Americas? How often did they have the chance to explore Ancient Egypt, China, India, Greece, or Rome? Not once in the past, and, if this revision goes through, not once now.

I have been told the administration feels hamstrung because teachers in elementary school have just one hour a week for Social Studies. But why should that time be devoted to repeating the same material? And neighboring school districts, such as Millburn, which have the same constraints, study Ancient Civilizations in elementary school. Indeed our revised Language Arts curriculum for 3rd grade includes Ancient Civilization. Why waste Social Studies time on a stand alone stub on the Lenape (which we are mandated to cover again in 4th grade) when we could blend history and reading in a dynamic cross-curricular third grade?

Parents, we can pull together on this and support the administration, which does indeed have a lot on its plate. Join me in asking our educational leaders to pause, go back to the drawing board, drop the repetition of the US history units and craft a 3rd grade ancient civilization Social Studies strand to interweave with and enhance global ELA.

Social Studies is a beautiful subject; it is the investigation of everything human beings ever did, to winkle out secrets and map out patterns. It is the playpen for question and debate. Our children deserve a curriculum sparkling with life, filled opportunities for new discovery. That is what a revised curriculum should look like – whether it involves one hour of teaching a week or one hundred. Please join me in insisting that the administration give our children that opportunity to explore the world, investigate the past, and develop the critical thinking skills of future citizens.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Marc Aronson June 16, 2012 at 03:30 PM
update: also up for consideration Monday is the purchase of 2nd grade support materials from the same company that gave us the Foragers who grew corn -- one more reason to ask the administration to pause and reconsider.
Morrisa da Silva June 16, 2012 at 07:48 PM
Who is responsible for creating the new curriculum and choosing the support materials ? Would that be the Social Studies Supervisor Mr. Preston? Who else is involved in this curriculum development.?
Andrew Lee June 16, 2012 at 08:25 PM
Thank you to Marc (and to Marina Bhudos) for caring so passionately about a balanced and excellent elementary curriculum for our schools. If you are a parent of a current or future elementary school student, you owe it to your children to write to the Board and Administration on this topic.
Marc Aronson June 16, 2012 at 10:27 PM
Judy hanratty is responsible for K-5, chris handles 6-12; judy also handles ELA for elementary grades. She has a lot on her plate -- which is why I suggest a pause to give her support and advice.
Amy Higer June 17, 2012 at 12:27 PM
I agree with Mr. Aronson that our elementary school social studies' curriculum has been bland and repetitive. The most disturbing aspect of how we teach social studies (and science) in our elementary schools is how little time we devote to it. This is largely due to the excessive focus on subjects tested by NJASK: math and ELA. Essentially, we are told there are only so many minutes left in the day to teach children about the world around them--both the social and the natural world--because our schools (and, if current legislation in Trenton is passed, soon our teachers) are beholden to raising test scores in two subjects. In addition to calling for a more rigorous and globalized curriculum, we should demand that social studies and science are given more time in the classroom. Both subjects should be taught every day. An inter-disciplinary approach may be the way forward. I have not seen the blueprint for the revamped curriculum (and it would be appalling if it was as narrow and mind-numbing as Mr. Aronson describes), but our community should push back against this broader trend to structure elementary school teaching and learning only around subjects measured by the standardized tests mandated by No Child Left Behind. An hour a week for social studies? That is poor education, even if we had an outstanding social studies curriculum. Would the author can to comment on what NCLB has meant for education in our community?
Morrisa da Silva June 17, 2012 at 12:51 PM
Thanks for the information Marc. I agree with your points about our current curriculum and our need to do a lot better. We can't keep passing up opportunities to improve our curriculum . It indeed sounds like Ms. Hanratty has a lot on her plate. We don't seem shy to employ consultants in other areas so why not do what we need to make the push to a much better scope and sequence for our Social Studies Curriculum.
Marc Aronson June 17, 2012 at 02:42 PM
We commissioned an audit of ELA when the administration saw that we needed that outside eye. So, yes, we use outside help in other areas, so why not here? While the revised K-5 curriculum has not been made public, I can share the existing Scope and Sequence on Monday and you will see that unsupportable and relentless focus on not merely US but extremely local subjects (and the same local subjects) year after year. While I agree in many ways with Dr. Higer about the broader issues, for now we have one day to consider one proposed revision within existing standards and mandates. And there the need is so clear I hope the Board and the Administration will recognize the need to pause and build a better plan. Please all come and speak out at the meeting, or in emails to the Board.
Marina Budhos June 17, 2012 at 02:51 PM
It also seems we are at such a dynamic crossroads that we can take advantage of: the 2009 NJ Social Studies Content Standards which do not call for such narrowly defined local study and Common Core can also help us out of this narrowness of focus. Too, we are a district that has committed to IB-MYP, which is all about interdisciplinary study and a global outlook. Seems a great opportunity to thoughtfully build backward to the elementary grades.
Kalani Thielen June 17, 2012 at 04:17 PM
Ms. Higer, Excellent point about the inter-disciplinary approach (a point you've made cogently in the past as well). It strikes me that, if we've got to focus on math and ELA, those subjects have natural case-studies in science and World History. After all, some of the biggest developments in math historically have come from explorations in science (e.g.: calculus/physics, geometry/"earth measurement", etc), and there's a similar story w.r.t. written language and accounts of history (naturally). Can you speak to the logistics of integrating curricula in this way? What needs to happen so that the math hand knows what the science hand is doing? Regards.
Andrew Lee June 18, 2012 at 02:59 AM
Marc, is there a reason why the ELA and math curriculum are public on the District's website, but the social studies curriculum is not? Do you know if it will be made public after the revision? I suppose we will learn the answers to these questions at the BOE meeting. I also wonder if there is a way to augment an ELA curriculum through social studies. Kids can learn to read and write through the study of history, geography, and culture.
Marc Aronson June 18, 2012 at 11:01 AM
I suspect that SS was not posted in the past b/c while there was a scope and sequence and supplementary materials, there was no fully spelled out curriculum in K-5. The proposed revision cannot be shown until adopted -- so I hear. I will bring the scope and sequence to the meeting. Especially since SS has so little time devoted to it -- 1 hour a week in elemetnary school -- I think it should be blended with ELA, so reading, writing, researching, and learning (including math and science) all weave together. That takes time to plan but it also matches the interdisciplinary approach of MYP.
Amy Higer June 18, 2012 at 01:48 PM
After communicating with board members I learned that part of the plan is to link the some of the ELA curriculum in grades 3-5 (a unit with a global focus) with the social studies curriculum. This seems to me to be a pragmatic and wise strategy, given the context of so little time available for teaching social studies. In light of this information (again, I haven't seen the blueprint myself) it makes sense not to judge the social studies curriculum in isolation. Further, apparently the curriculum will be reviewed and revised as it is unfolded, so there is no need for panic about any hard and fast deadlines here. To restate my initial point, it is important to advocate for a fantastic curriculum but the reality of our NCLB-driven school agenda makes implementing any ambitious curriculum change difficult: One hour PER WEEK, or 35 hours a year, is simply not enough time to teach social studies to young children adequately. I think this larger context of yearly testing and the high stakes involved for schools and teachers should be the primary focus of community concern.
Morrisa da Silva June 18, 2012 at 02:06 PM
"Further, apparently the curriculum will be reviewed and revised as it is unfolded" Can you explain exactly what this means and how this will work? And what of the substandard materials? This is what happens all to often when we look towards bettering our curriculum - we just nibble at the edges but make no real inroads and then we make these continual small revisions while simultaneously rolling out curriculum that just leave our teachers underprepared to deliver the material. Yes 1 hour per week of Social Studies is ridiculous and having some plans at interdisciplinary work through ELA is good to hear, but why should we have to accept a poor curriculum now and wait for some further revision and review later?
Amy Higer June 18, 2012 at 02:32 PM
We don't know it's a poor curriculum. We haven't seen it yet. And revising and reviewing a curriculum that is being implemented--to get teacher feedback, for instance--seems to me the best way to introduce a new curriculum. Pre-packaged and sealed tight is not. A curriculum is not a consumer product, but should be part of a process. I don't know if teacher feedback is part of this process, but if that is what is meant by a process of "reviewing and revising," I'm all for it. I may be misreading your message, Ms. da Silva, but there seems to be an underlying assumption in it about bad faith on the part of the administration. If that's the case, I don't think it's warranted. I'm all for healthy skepticism and vigilance, but given the vast improvement in the ELA elementary school curriculum that the administration introduced a few years ago, I'm not ready to jump to conclusions about the poor quality of a new social studies curriculum. I'm eager to see it, as I'm sure you are, and to let the conversation and debate take place over the plan itself, and not interpretations of it. Who knows? There may be many grounds for us to agree on how to strengthen it.
Morrisa da Silva June 18, 2012 at 03:00 PM
"I'm not ready to jump to conclusions about the poor quality of a new social studies curriculum." I have not seen it either but apparently Mr. Aronson has. Apparently the first thing he noted is that it is not exactly new - just a rehashing of what has been. His descriptions do indeed lead me to believe that there is much room for improvement and unless the district through it's board make that a priority it won't get done. If it weren't for Mr. Aronson and Ms. Buddhos there would be no debate at all. No one gets to see the curriculum until it is adopted and as you note we don't really know what is meant by" reviewing and revising". I would posit that the reviewing and revising should be done before adoption, with of course room for feedback and review as it is rolled out. And finally, you are misreading my message. I do not have an underlying assumption of bad faith at all.
Marina Budhos June 18, 2012 at 04:00 PM
Honestly all we are calling for is a pause in the process, particularly since we have this summer. In fact we don't want to make this a hard deadline crisis. We'd like to see our administrators supported to create a thoughtful weave. We'd like to give the Board and Administration a chance to articulate a stronger vision for social studies, which has been sadly neglected (unlike ELA). The both of us are thrilled that there is discussion of an ELA strand that will bring in more global material. But that does not help us with the fact that the social studies sequencing of repetitive units has not been tackled or even questioned--one hour or a hundred hours. That has to happen on the leadership level first. And so we are merely suggesting that we create a bit of breathing space to address the curriculum in a more thoughtful, deep, and comprehensive way.
Michael Paris June 18, 2012 at 04:08 PM
Morrisa, I too am grateful to Mr. Aronson and Ms. Budhos for raising this important issue. At the March BOE meeting, Ms. Budhos said that criticism is a form of respect, or words to that effect. I agree with that. It should also be said that both have played an active and constructive role in the broader debates over IB and deleveling over the past year. However, in cases in which I have had access to the same underlying information and documents, I found myself in disagreement with their interpretations. Specifically, in the past, it has been my opinion that they were too harsh in their criticisms of the district, and not cognizant enough of some of the district's recent accomplishments. Given that difference, it makes perfect sense to me that they supported the administration's harsher critics in the last school board election. None of this means that that I have been right and that they have been wrong, although of course I think so. It just means that reasonable people can disagree about both the current situation (and here, on K-5 social studies, everyone agrees that change is in order--in fact, that is why change is in the works) and about what should be done about it. On this issue, I think what Mr. Aronson is saying should be taken very seriously and also that his opinions are entitled to be given weight, given his expertise. But that doesn't mean that everyone else will, or necessarily should, come to the same conclusions that he does about it all.
Andrew Lee June 18, 2012 at 04:43 PM
I don't think anyone is alleging bad faith. We are talking about resources and leadership. In the last BOE election, every candidate advocated for a more balanced elementary school curriculum. This should be a big focus for the Administration. The more fundamental question to ask is why do we have only an hour per week for social studies? Does NCLB mandate, by law, that a school have only one hour, or is the one hour time allocation a result of trying move the needle on ELA and Math test scores?
John Davenport June 18, 2012 at 04:46 PM
The Social Studies department is not well run; that is obvious to all who have paid attention. I completely agree with you Marc. It is also crazy that elementary schoolers only have one hour per week for social studies; it should be at least three.
Marc Aronson June 18, 2012 at 05:16 PM
Friends: I wrote the Op-Ed for the reasons I stated in it -- I love Social Studies and believe we can do better for our children. I have no desire to revisit debates of the past, to enlame political divisions, or indeed to cross swords with anyone. Nothing would make me happier than to support Drs. Osborne and Wilson and their team. I just believe that it makes more sense to pause, develop a plan for a revised K-5 SS that feeds MYP, and then adjust as that is implemented, rather than to vote now on a K-5 SS plan not aligned with the international and interdisciplinary focus that the administration has brought to our middle schools. As to the time given to SS -- that is a much bigger matter and it seems practical to me to work within our given constraints first, rather than putting off reform until we can have everything we believe is needed.
Anna June 18, 2012 at 06:11 PM
Somewhere buried in there might be thoughtful comments about Mr. Aronson's point. It's hard to find them and this is a nasty comment, for no particular reason. The election is over. Neither you nor Mr. Aronson was on the ballot. If you want votes, run for office!
Amy Higer June 18, 2012 at 07:54 PM
I believe the answer to your question, Andrew, is the latter. The narrowing of the curriculum is the result of powerful incentives driven, but not mandated, by NCLB. This is a central point Diane Ravitch made in her recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. There are pockets of opposition forming against this insanity among educational leaders, including in NJ, but only pockets. I understand Mr. Aronson did not write his original essay to take on this much broader issue, but I wonder what we can really do with creating a robust and rigorous curriculum when our public school education is taken over by the narrow goal of producing test score gains in only two subjects. By all means, let's support creation of an excellent social studies curriculum for the hour a week we have to spend on social studies. But let's not give up the fight for better education by failing to challenge the broader structural constraints. Perhaps we can all work together on that one?
Michael Paris June 18, 2012 at 08:09 PM
Anna. I didn't intend to say anything nasty, and I don't think I did. I'm sorry you were offended, and I apologize if anyone else was. I merely wanted to point out that we all come at these issues from some particular political perspectives. That is inevitable, in my opinion, and it applies to everyone. I understand this effort as primarily a call for more process. But it is also a substantive claim--namely, that the BOE would be making a grave mistake were it to endorse the proposed social studies curriculum (which none of us, save Mr. Aronson, have seen) tonight, because, all things considered, we can and should do better than this. The claim is that "this," that is, what is proposed now, is not very good at all. So these are the issues to be decided: Should there be more process? Why or why not? Can what is being proposed now be defended as the best we can do under the circumstances? If there should be more process, what should that process look like? Who should be involved in it, why, and how? I don't have enough information to make an informed judgment on any of these questions, so I'll reserve judgment until I hear what the superintendent, the board, and other parents have to say about it.
Andrew Lee June 19, 2012 at 01:35 AM
@Amy Higer: Thank you for answering my question. Although I think test scores do have some value, I share your concerns. From what Board members said tonight, I think they understand these concerns.
Marc Aronson June 19, 2012 at 10:19 AM
THANK YOU To everyone who posted here in an engaged and thoughtful fashion, and, especially, to the administration. Last night Dr. Osborne decided to pull back the existing proposal for K-5 (I think it is actually K-4, one of the years had been discussed earlier) in order to revisit it in view of alignment with MYP. In other words they listened to us, to all of you, to the community, and he made the difficult right decision. As Marina said to the Board, this shows that we can all work together, we can row in the same direction, to craft the kind of education we all believe is possible. I look forward to helping in any way to craft a viable, inspiring, international, and interdisciplinary K-5 Social Stuides curriculum -- stay tuned.
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