- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 21, 2004

Like many educators on the front lines, Cynthia Mostoller takes the high ground in the debate about how — and how well — American history is taught in kindergarten through the 12th grade.

In reality, she is caught in the middle of an ongoing argument that pits public policy specialists against educators and curriculum specialists.

“Teachers are more immersed in the day-to-day excitement about bringing history alive to students,” says the eighth-grade teacher at Deal Junior High School in the District, who regards the fuss as theoreticians arguing among themselves.

Theoreticians, in her mind, would include the authors of the paperback “Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?” published by the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. The book sounds alarms about the teaching of chronological history taking a back seat to the more broadly based, less rigorously defined field of social studies.

A second book from Fordham, published last month, is titled “A Consumer’s Guide to High School History Textbooks.” It was authored by Diane Ravitch, long a proponent of curriculum reform, who often is joined in her quest by such teachers as Jana Eaton, a professional educator for 27 years who holds a doctorate.

As a member of a self-styled, informal contrarian group, Mrs. Eaton, who teaches high school in Kennett Square, Pa., and is one of the authors of “Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?” is in both camps. Contrarians, who number fewer than a dozen, are, by and large, members of the Silver Spring-based National Council for Social Studies (NCSS), which offers support to educators at all levels.

Unlike the council’s majority, her group wants to see more content — defined as more factual knowledge, more accurate texts and less relativism — in classroom teaching.

Children, in the contrarians’ view, are not being taught right from wrong and are given too dark a view of American history. They see the emphasis on building self-esteem and respect for multiculturalism — teaching tolerance of other cultures to the exclusion of crediting American heroes and democratic principles — as excessive at many levels.

“Teachers are taught progressive pedagogies based on little or no research,” Mrs. Eaton argues. “We have adopted a lot of what I call faddish approaches.” One of these, she says, is known as constructivism — having students “construct” their learning through projects and group work.

Contrarians aren’t against teaching critical-based thinking skills, as their critics have claimed, she says, but they worry that emphasizing the use of social studies to make good citizens in place of imparting knowledge puts the cart before the horse.

To make their case, the group points to an NCSS Curriculum Standards brief called “Ten Thematic Strands in Social Studies” that includes sections on Culture; Time, Continuity and Change; People, Places and Environment; and other broad categories they see as meaningless.

The catalyst for the contrarian argument, according to Mrs. Eaton, was the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that, in the group’s view, led many educators to smother the acts’ import by trying to understand the perpetrators. The issue has been aggravated by an overall squeeze on curriculum hours and resources brought about by the demands of the government-mandated No Child Left Behind education act, which emphasizes performance levels in math and reading.

“Rhode Island and Idaho are the only two states that lay out what we expect kids to know in social studies,” says Kathleen Porter, a former teacher who is a public policy specialist for the Fordham Foundation.

Susan Adler, director of teacher education at the University of Missouri and a past president of the NCSS, thinks some of the criticism is misplaced. “These debates show us how important social studies is,” she asserts. “I don’t want constructive criticisms to get lost in the politicized side of it. It’s knowledge and who controls the knowledge.” She agrees that many school texts are of poor quality but sees many teachers using them only as background by necessity.

“Kids have different ways of thinking today,” she argues, pointing to teachers who can get students engaged — and help them score high on tests — through computers that can access primary source documents in their history lessons.

Criticism of the thematic approach is a side issue — “a distraction”— says Peggy Altoff, a former NCSS board member and social studies coordinator in Carroll County, Md., who also has been a teacher in Baltimore city schools. She supervises social studies curriculum and instruction in Colorado Springs.

“My question to all of [the critics] is: How many classrooms have they been into lately?” she says. “Where is the data? They are people in academia, people with an agenda.”

Ruben Sepeda of Palmdale, Calif., a past president of the California Council for Social Studies, sees the controversy as a philosophical matter about how best to educate children to become effective citizens.

“The two camps share much more than they think, beyond the fringe arguments,” he says.

“Both sides want kids to know how society is organized, about the principles of American democracy and how other countries work so they can judge for themselves about ours, but we also want them to have skills in order to be able to think historically, which is chronological thinking, cause-effect relationships and multiple perspectives.”

“Nothing is easy to teach when it comes to social studies,” says James Morris, a biographer who teaches government and American political science at West Springfield High School. He regards the controversy as a constant because it involves subject areas about which people feel strongly, especially in grades kindergarten through eight. “I think everybody sees that it is necessary to teach content in the early grades, but, again, we are back to the same issue: What is the content that is important?”

“There is too much to learn,” says Lisa Freda, a teacher in the District’s John Eaton Elementary School who defends teaching about community in personal terms — a standard approach to social studies in early grades that contrarians criticize. “Generally speaking, education has to take a real hard look at itself. It’s 2004, and what are our goals and how do we get there?”

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