Social studies review: Politics or a push for better education?

What Georgia students learn in social studies could be changing, but some worry the calls for change are more about politics than education.

This week, the state Board of Education will set the parameters for a review of Common Core, a new set of national academic standards. That review was ordered by Gov. Nathan Deal, who also asked the board to come up with a social studies curriculum that teaches students the importance of American government, the country’s founding documents, citizenship, economics education and fiscal responsibility.

Common Core has been opposed by some Republicans and tea party activists as a federal intrusion into state oversight of K-12 education. Deal, facing a pair of Republican challengers as he seeks re-election next year, has been a supporter of the new standards. His call for a review, however, opens the door to a step away from them.

Deal and some other Republicans have expressed concern that Georgia students aren’t learning enough about the country’s founding and are not being schooled on fiscal responsibility.

That’s a message sure to resonate with many of the Republicans and tea party activists whose support will be key for Deal. Others say curriculum changes, if any are warranted, should be driven by educators.

“Periodic reviews of curriculum are certainly valid, and while we don’t think it’s a good idea to dictate too prescriptively from Atlanta, any review process might well begin with a presentation on what the schools are already doing now in this subject area,” said Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “Too often, legislative actions about schools are the result of anecdote and incomplete information.”

Deal said he wants to make sure the social studies curriculum fits Georgia.

“We have the opportunity to set some of the standards that are acceptable to Georgians in that portion of the curriculum,” he said. “I think it’s an important subject and it probably doesn’t lend itself to Common Core. It’s more appropriately addressed at the state level, and I thought we should at least start the process.”

There is no timetable for when the state board might make changes to the social studies curriculum.

Deal’s push echoes legislation introduced by state Sen. William Ligon, the Brunswick Republican who has emerged as one of the most outspoken opponents of Common Core. Ligon said Deal’s move would address “the shortcomings in the standards” guiding social studies coursework.

“I believe the standards need more depth, more context, and better sequencing for students to have a comprehensive framework of knowledge,” Ligon said. “Social studies encompasses several subjects, such as history, economics, and government, subjects that often need to be dealt with independently before students can grasp how these subjects relate to one another.”

He cautioned that he doubts the process will involve a “total rewrite” so it won’t be so overwhelming to teachers. But he said legislators should devote additional resources to implement the changes.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, feared a social-studies adjustment could be a “right-wing tea party assault” on education.

“My concern is that this would be overly politicized,” he said. “I’m concerned there would be an ideological approach to the curriculum. What do they mean when they say fiscal responsibility? I’m very skeptical.”

Georgia School Superintendent John Barge, who is running against Deal, said he has his own concerns about the social studies curriculum.

“I would like to see changes to our social studies standards, particularly in U.S. history,” he said. “Our history continues to expand, but the number of days of instruction have shrunk, leaving teachers with an inadequate amount of time to teach many very important years of history.”

Citing a lack of funds, most of the state’s school districts how have fewer than 180 days of academic instruction.

Georgia students have performed better in social studies than in math. In spring 2013, for example, just over 59 percent of those who took the end-of-course test in Math II met or exceeded the state’s standards. About 75 percent met or exceeded the standard in geometry, but only 37 percent did as well in coordinate algebra, a new course tied to Common Core.

Meanwhile, students performed well in social studies topic areas like U.S. history and economics. Nearly 73 percent of students who took the end-of-course test in U.S. history met or exceeded the state standard, and about 79 percent of test-takers met or exceeded the state standard in economics.

Social studies education begins at the outset of a child’s education in Georgia. Students learn about U.S. holidays, symbols and the Pledge of Allegiance in kindergarten. They learn about historical figures and begin studying geography in first grade.

By fifth grade, they start learning more complex history, such as the Civil War and Reconstruction. Students study Georgia history in the eighth grade. Civics and a deeper understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of the American system of government are layered on in high school.

At least one school district in the metro area, Atlanta Public Schools, will have some of its staff participate in a social studies review. The school board in Hall County, acting before Deal ordered a state review, decided to have a committee of parents, educators and others take a look at what students learn in such social studies topic areas as U.S. history, geography and economics.

The 13-member committee held its first meeting Wednesday. Members said they are concerned that students aren’t taught enough about geography or civil engagement, don’t learn how to balance a checkbook or how to respect the U.S. flag.

“What’s missing in K-8, there’s no discussion of the Pledge of Allegiance, flag etiquette,” said Alana Rochester, a stay-at-home mother who is on the committee.

Georgia’s standards do call for such topics to be covered during those years, but Rochester and others said the problem is students aren’t given an opportunity to go deeper into important subject material.

Dan Walker, an accountant who is also on the committee, said the students he encounters “don’t have a clue about the founding, the history of our country.”

“Something’s not getting across,” he said.

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