July 17, 2008

Florida's 931 draft social studies standards: half a mile wide and two inches deep

Here's a look at the draft Florida social studies standards and benchmarks as a whole.

By the numbers

Let's first look at the scope of the standards, or rather the specific benchmarks in the draft (the more specific expectations of what students are supposed to be learning). By grade:

K 28
1 34
2 35
3 32
4 76
5 79
6 118
7 80
8 101
9-12 348

By subject:

Civics 49
Economics 123
Geography 163
American History 293
World History 188
Civics and Government 115

What is apparent is that the drafting committee stuffed too many benchmarks into each grade and subject. The standards may not be vague any more (with some exceptions I'll note below), but it appears to be impossible to teach or learn any of these benchmarks in depth. A total of 931 benchmarks at the level of "Evaluate the impact of U.S. domestic and foreign policies on international relations, both past and present, such as economic actions, military intervention, human rights, and humanitarian aid"? (That one is a draft civics/government benchmark for high school.) If this is an improvement on the "mile-wide, inch-deep" nature of the current standards as criticized by others, it is scant improvement. The number of specific benchmarks more than doubles in fourth grade (which has "Florida studies" as the theme), up to 76, or roughly one benchmark every 2.4 days if one assumes a 180-day school year calendar. The allowable time per benchmark doesn't improve in later grades, as the following table shows:

GradeSchool Days per Benchmark

While there is some natural overlap among topics, and teaching important methods issues (such as handling primary sources) should happen in the context of lessons about something specific, there is something unreal about the number of specific benchmarks, as if middle-school children studied nothing but history, economics, and geography. Many of the benchmarks provide an opportunity to some wonderful teaching, but I fear that the sheer number of them will lead to texts deadened even further than they are now, and if there is anything like a social studies FCAT based on the number of standards in this draft, it will simply be awful. We have gone from "three big ideas per year" in the new math standards approved in the last year to "the kitchen sink" approach in the draft social studies standards. I know why that's happened (the drafting committee spent an enormous amount of time trying to be inclusive), but it's still a problem.

Choices made in the draft

Any curriculum structure has to make choices, and while the presence of 931 benchmarks give the appearance that the drafting committee tried hard not to make choices (something Jonathan Zimmerman would certainly have predicted), the larger framework shows that there are important choices made, some of which are good and some of which are odd. While many of the public comments on elementary-level benchmarks submitted before yesterday focused on concerns that the benchmarks in younger grades were not age-appropriate, I have different concerns. (Some of the concerns about age-appropriateness are correct, but not all of them. More broadly, concerns about age-appropriateness miss some of the issues that a disciplinary specialist would notice.) I read the history standards/benchmarks in more depth, in part because... well, I'm an historian. Some patterns I noticed:

An "infusion" approach to the relationship between history and (other) social-science disciplines

In most grades, the benchmarks try to focus on everything at once (or everything the committee chose anywhere in the K-12 curriculum): history, economics, geography, civics/government. In fourth grade, the drafting committee focused on Florida studies, and it is only in fourth grade that the infusion approach appears to work. Everywhere else, it appears primarily scattershot. Infusion is very hard, and there are alternatives: pick one or at most two social-science disciplines to pair up with a history topic for a year, or at least one or two adjunct foci from a social-science discipline. Since second grade focuses on migration, geography would be appropriate. Third grade appears to be for ancient civilizations, where anthropology would be useful, ... and so forth. Infusion is very hard to accomplish in practice, and it tends to drive everyone nuts unless done very well. Twenty years ago, the Bradley Commission report expressed frustration that social studies watered down history. On the other hand, one geographer friend of mine is consistently upset that social studies short-changes geography (or so is his impression). Maybe the truth is that infusion is a risky way of teaching anything by attempting to teach everything at once.

An absence of anthropology

Though the standards have substantial and appropriate mentions of prehistorical societies and differences among cultures, there is nothing in the standards about either physical anthropology or cultural anthropology. (There is also nothing from sociology, but given the emphases already in place, anthropology seems the obviously-relevant missing subject.)

The insertion of primary sources in some grades but their omission in intermediate and middle grades

The presence of primary sources in the benchmarks is definitely something to make an historian smile. On the other hand, "primary sources" appears in only the kindergarten, first-grade, and high-school benchmarks. Are students supposed to ignore their existence in other grades?

The absence of writing

As far as I could tell, none of the benchmarks require that students master an argumentative/interpretive essay in history or any social science discipline. Given the emphasis on writing in fourth, eighth, and tenth grades, I am absolutely startled that the fourth-grade benchmarks in Florida studies completely omit writing. This is also a serious concern for me as a college professor, since I would like students to enter my classes already having written argumentative history essays.

Inclusion of social history

The benchmarks for history, and especially U.S. history, do a much better job of incorporating social history than in many other states or in the older standards in Florida. The emphases in the draft standards are in political, military, economic, and general social history.

The absence of cultural history, the history of childhood and youth, or other newer subfields

In contrast, some other areas are emphasized far less: cultural history (including intellectual history outside political philosophy) and the history of childhood and youth are the omissions that I found startling. Another possible choice not taken is to have more on the history of science and technology.

Ahistorical benchmarks in elementary history

One benchmark from first grade reads, "understands that history tells the story of people and events of other times and places," and the third-grade benchmarks on several classical civilizations ask students to "describe daily family life and social classes that existed in ancient" Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Mali. In none of these benchmarks is change central to the description of history as a field. I'm wincing at the idea that we should teach history as cultural tourism. A friend in graduate school realized that was a good part of his own motivation, but it shouldn't be the core of a history curriculum. Unless children understand that the study of history is the study of change, there is nothing that distinguishes history from other disciplines except that it's about the past.

Compartmentalized history benchmarks/absence of driving questions

Throughout the grades, most of the history benchmarks are compartmentalized by country/region and era. There are some notable exceptions that encourage comparative history, such as the following from world history standards in high school: "Describe the 19th and early 20th century social and political reforms and reform movements and their effects in Europe, Japan and the United States (e.g. Meiji Reforms, abolition of slavery in the British Empire, expansion of suffrage, and labor laws)." But the comparative questions are all cross-sectional (not crossing time periods), and the broad macrohistorical topics that cross time periods only appear in benchmarks in non-history areas (usually civics/government, at least by my impression).

Why should we care that "big picture" issues are overwhelmed by compartmentalized benchmarks, especially given my concern over the 931 benchmarks? Most of the high school history benchmarks are fine, if students had more than 2.1 class periods in which to explore each one. Since the metastasizing of benchmarks is already threatening to turn any Florida K-12 history course into the "one damn thing after another" framework that Elbert Hubbard's quip ridicules, why am I arguing for even more? I'm not arguing for more benchmarks: I'm arguing for more coherence, which the standards can accomplish by framing central questions to drive an entire course. (Framing central questions would also allow a logical choice of a social science disciplinary focus for a semester or year.) Great teachers will do wonderful things with the draft standards, but weaker and inexperienced teachers may well take these standards and figuratively drive nails through the skulls of their students with the attempt to "cover" this curriculum. If one purpose of a curriculum is to assist new teachers, or teachers with less expertise in a topic, with the exception of fourth grade, these draft standards fail to assist inexperienced teachers. Important overarching questions can dramatically improve these standards.

Options for redrafting Florida's social studies standards

Given the timeline, are there feasible fixes without having to rewrite the draft benchmarks entirely? There are some relatively easy steps that the drafting committee can take:

  • Write interesting, important history questions that can drive the high school curriculum for an entire semester or year. Since most of the high school history benchmarks are reasonably well written (even if someone is addicted to using "impact" as a transitive verb), it is the overall structure that can be tweaked with some interesting cross-period themes. (Figuring out how to write a good question on the political and cultural uses of the Declaration of Independence over time is left as an exercise for the reader. The same homework is assigned for other possible overarching questions.)
  • Match (other) social-science disciplines to a year's theme so that there are no more than two non-history disciplines per year. This may require rearranging some benchmarks, but for fourth grade and above, minor rearrangements will more than reward themselves in better coherence.
  • I would take the comments about age appropriateness of K-1 benchmarks at face value in terms of concepts (e.g., when to introduce timelines) but less so about topical substance (whose reception depends on the teaching).
  • Rewrite a number of elementary history standards to emphasize change and contingency.
  • Add writing to the methodological benchmarks/standards, and make sure primary sources appear more consistently across the grades.
Then there are the more difficult tasks:
  • Adding anthropology as a discipline.
  • Rewriting K-1 history standards to be coherent. (This is especially problematic for first grade.)
  • Deciding how to slim down the benchmarks so that the benchmarks that appear to demand in-depth study have enough time to allow in-depth study of each.
The last task is the hardest one of all, because it requires admitting that schools cannot cover everything we love in our own disciplines. But good grief, folks: 931 benchmarks? If that's not a mile wide and an inch deep, it's half a mile wide and two inches deep. Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy on July 17, 2008 4:03 PM |