Squishiness Watch

by Robert Pondiscio
October 22nd, 2012

A “draft framework” for common social studies standards is scheduled for release next month.  If a report by Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz is any indication, they might be so devoid of curricular content as to be functionally meaningless.

“Social studies specialists have been working with state department of education officials and others to create standards in that subject,” Gewertz notes.  That means expert guidance on the history and geography subject matter children should learn in each grade–the seven continents and oceans of the world in kindergarten; Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt in first grade; the U.S. Constitution in second grade–right?  I mean that is the point of this exercise, isn’t it?   Gewertz’s blog post indicates those looking for specificity might be disappointed.

“Early signs suggest that you shouldn’t expect something that prescribes the specific issues, trends, or events that students should study, but rather describes the structure, tools, and habits of mind they need in order to undertake an exploration of the discipline, and offers states a frame for the content they choose.”

Just asking: If the “framework” for social studies takes a pass on detailing what’s worth knowing and contents itself instead with a squishy and unsatisfying description of the “structure, tools and habits of mind,” how–how exactly, please–will that be anything than redundant with the CCSS ELA standards?

The ELA standards strike a hammer blow for a content-rich vision of literacy in U.S. classrooms without detailing the content.  It’s a step in the wrong direction if social studies specialists are unwilling to begin to detail at least some of what that content should include.

Perhaps the authors of the draft framework would like to help themselves to the Core Knowledge Sequence for Pre-K to 8th grade.  It’s free for your downloading.  Take it.  Steal it.  Call it your own.



  1. I agree with your overall point — though I think that the difficulties disentangling social studies and politics will make it very difficult to reach agreement on any type of content, even at the early elementary level.

    But the U.S. Constitution in 2nd grade???

    Comment by Rachel — October 22, 2012 @ 11:18 am

  2. Why not Rachel? I’m not suggesting second graders watch Lawrence Tribe lectures, but I see no reason why second graders can’t begin to understand some basic functions of U.S. government, how laws work, and how our government is based on this thing called the Constitution. Second grade is not too soon for the idea of “We the People” to be discussed.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — October 22, 2012 @ 11:22 am

  3. Our local schools introduce the constitution for the first time in 5th grade – and I think this in and of itself is new – and as I have written before, they don’t seem to be doing too good a job of it. the kids surely have no idea that the British system was a parliamentary monarchy and why that bothered the founders.

    So yes, start early with the three branches of government (and maybe King George?). Then perhaps by 5th grade the kids will be able to absorb a little more.

    Comment by Matthew — October 22, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

  4. “…they might be so devoid of curricular content?”

    First, they’re a DRAFT. Second, they have not yet been made public for comment. Both indicate they’re not yet carved in stone. And third, they’re standards, and as some wise sage once pointed out to me (whereupon I indicated to him, I didn’t care) there’s a difference between standards (general) and curriculum (specifics).

    Beyond these parameters, does anyone remember the first time (1994) someone (Gary Nash’s group – UCLA) attempted to develop social studies/history standards? One word – D I S A S T E R.

    Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post “…complained that the standards were characterized not only by “ethnic cheeerleading and the denigration of American achievements” but by “the denigration of learning itself,” which he charged was the inevitable result of Nash’s desire to free children from “the prison of facts.” Without such mundane things as names and dates, said Krauthammer, it was hard to imagine that children would know much history, no matter how many activities they engaged in.” (1)

    “In January 1995, as the public controversy raged, the U. S. Senate passed a resolution (censure) condemning the history standards by a vote of 99 to 1. The lone dissenter, a senator from Louisiana, wanted an even stronger condemnation.” (2)

    (1 & 2) Ravitch, Diane, Looking Back, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2000, p.435.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — October 22, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

  5. I generally support the move toward standards, but one of my concerns is that — particularly when the decisions are made well away from the teacher/classroom level — it becomes very difficult to be disciplined about what can/should be left out, and the end result is lots of factual content and very little depth of understanding, and a push to introduce facts younger and younger.

    And my experience with seven year olds is that they still live in a pretty concrete world, and I have a hard time picturing a lesson on the Constitution that isn’t either really watered down, or focused memorizing things students didn’t really understand.

    Comment by Rachel — October 22, 2012 @ 7:54 pm

  6. It all sounds like the U.S. Congress over the past three years: get together, protect your backside, don’t pass anything helpful, and blame the other side.

    Comment by Cindy — October 22, 2012 @ 9:02 pm

  7. Charles Krauthammer??????

    Comment by Harold — October 23, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

  8. Harold,

    Thought readers might get a kick out of that.

    I’m not the one directly citing Krauthammer. Please revisit the footnote at the bottom of my post. And while you’re at read Diane’s pages 433-437 from Left Back. Again, please don’t shoot the messenger, but I do agree with her and most of the folks she references on the original effort at US history standards.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — October 23, 2012 @ 4:08 pm

  9. Geography of all sorts is easier for young children to comprehend and learn than what we think of as “social studies” is. Land forms, land use, trade, the basics of economic life — these are a better entree into social studies than history is. Historical background can be absorbed through language arts, but trying to get children to absorb the time relationships and connecting causes that are central to history should be saved for 4th or 5th grade.

    Comment by EB — October 23, 2012 @ 7:38 pm

  10. The classical curriculum starts history (as well as geography and the other disciplines) in first grade, with the ancient world and IIRC, the first step is creation of a actual (wall) timeline, which is then continued over the next three years; medieval, early modern and late modern eras. The whole cycle is then repeated, with increasing depth and analysis, in grades 5-8 and again, with emphasis on synthesis, in HS.

    The first third of the trivium, the grammar stage, establishes the foundational vocabulary, structure and dimensions of the discipline; the logic stage expands and deepens knowledge and explores relationships within it, and the rhetoric stage demands both deeper knowledge and the ability to construct/refute an argument based on it. The sciences follow the same pattern. It’s always seemed to me to be a sensible approach; I wish that my kids had had that.

    Comment by momof4 — October 28, 2012 @ 9:21 am

  11. I forgot to add that the literature follows the same timeline, as well.

    Comment by momof4 — October 28, 2012 @ 9:22 am

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