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Point: Let's meet the social studies standards challenge
By Ben Jones, South Dakota State Historical Society director
It’s no surprise to any of us that our civic education needs reforms. From Jay Leno’s joking to our national civics test scores, we’ve known for years our nation faces a grave challenge.
Many, including me, have previously stated that our nation’s civic challenges are rooted in our historical ignorance. Having taught at the Air Force Academy and at Dakota State, I have experienced bright students in my class who were unable to do college level work as they did not have command of basic American history.
So, in 2015, I organized several colleagues to sign a letter to the State Board of Education to say that more work was needed on those standards. Since then, I’ve served in various roles and kept working on this issue. I’ve researched and learned a great deal about what the root causes are. One of causes is the belief that learning history doesn’t need to be equipped with historical evidence, but in a skills-based model, students should think critically about history because the students can always google the facts. This is akin to asking students to do math without knowing their numbers and results in students’ frustration and all of us falling further away from the solutions.
Fast forward to today, I was glad to serve on the South Dakota Social Studies Standards Commission and believe these standards are a much-needed improvement and part of the solution. They are because the proposed social studies standards, just as math and English standards do, focus on key content early in a child’s education and re-introduces them with greater detail and complexity as the student gets older.
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Just as we design math instruction so first-graders can count in order to do arithmetic, and fourth-graders can do arithmetic in order to do algebra as ninth-graders, we need to introduce, in a simple and clear way, the things like the Roman Republic in the early years so high school students can understand why John Adams sought to design a better republic in order to avoid Rome’s calamity. Despite this approach in math and English, many are saying Rome is too difficult for youngsters to understand and there’s too much “rote memorization.”
But the educational research on this is clear, as the well-known educational researcher E. D. Hirsch wrote, “. . .the idea that there are ages for which particular topics are appropriate has no scientific support.”
With this in mind, the Commission’s proposed standards introduce the invention of democracy by the Greeks, the fall of the Roman Republic, and other key events that impacted the thinking behind the Declaration of Independence and the formulation of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Students then follow the American story along and learn how the American people have often failed and sometimes achieved to meet these high ideals.
Students will also gain increased appreciation for how rare, or as one might say, exceptional, our nation is due to the high expectations set by the framers despite their, and our, persistent human failings. With these proposed standards we’re taking the best opportunity we’ve had in a long time to help students do better and meet the civic challenge facing us.
Ben Jones is the Director of the State Historical Society, and former South Dakota Secretary of Education. He is author of the book “Eisenhower’s Guerrillas: The Jedburghs, the Maquis, and the Liberation of France.”