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An Opportunity for History and Civics

In 2008 Common Core surveyed 1,200 17-year-olds nationwide and found that:

  • 23% could not identify Hitler
  • 33% did not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech and religion
  • 57% could not place the Civil War within the correct half century

Statistics like these are routine fodder for late-night comedians. But this deep lack of knowledge is neither humorous nor trivial. Knowledge of the past helps us to put our lives and choices in an informed context. Understanding history helps us not only to situate the importance of our own time, but it strengthens our individual capacity to fulfill our responsibilities, and exercise our rights, as citizens.

The CCSS’s emphasis on the importance of using informational texts . . . opens the door for extensive use of historical documents, speeches, biographies, and other works. . . .

On December 8 Common Core released a national survey of schoolteachers. Sixty-six percent of grade 3–12 public school teachers polled told us that the curriculum was narrowing. According to a vast majority (81%) of elementary teachers, core subjects, including history, are being pushed out of the classroom, largely because of an invasive emphasis on reading and math skills. Seventy-seven percent of teachers said this narrowing was affecting all students, not just struggling learners. And 93% of teachers said that state testing was to blame.

The implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English Language Arts presents an exciting opportunity, and an ideal platform, for schools to address the problem of curriculum narrowing by infusing history and civics content into school curriculums in exciting and innovative ways. The CCSS’s emphasis on the importance of using informational texts (in addition to literary works) to teach research, writing, and communication skills opens the door for extensive use of historical documents, speeches, biographies, and other works that are excellent vehicles for providing students with a deep and meaningful understanding of history and civics. The CCSS also contains history/social studies literacy standards for grades 6–12. And the list of recommended texts, or exemplars, in the CCSS includes key works such as the Preamble to the Constitution, Gettysburg Address, Letter from Birmingham Jail, and Common Sense, along with numerous other key works that should be a part of all students’ education. Common Core has created CCSS-based curriculum maps that incorporate these key works and more into a tool for implementing the CCSS in all grades.

We should seize this opportunity to both infuse the “ELA block” with rich history and civics content but also to revitalize the teaching of the most important history and civics content in the social studies classroom.