Changing History

State aims to close Common Core social studies gap with new curriculum

PHOTO: Maura Walz
New Design High School social studies teacher Tad Donozo, right, coaching students before a U.S. history test in 2010. History classes and exams around the state could change if a new social studies framework is approved.

A two-year effort to reshape the state’s social studies curriculum is nearing its final phase. Like many historical shifts, this one has been fitful, messy, and fraught with tension.

For the first time in 15 years, the state has revamped its outline of the social studies skills and information that students should learn in each grade. Meanwhile, the state hopes to split a two-year survey of world history into two high school courses, which could drastically reduce the content on the related test — currently the most failed of the exams required for graduation.

The state’s Board of Regents is expected to vote on the course split and the new instructional roadmap in March.

The new guidelines, which follow earlier overhauls of math and English, incorporate parts of the Common Core learning standards. But while the guidelines have evolved substantially, some educators say they still do not adhere to the Common Core’s less-is-more ethos. Meanwhile, questions about the shape of future social studies tests and teaching materials have yet to be settled.

“We’re trying to create a document that will last awhile,” which specifies what students should learn while leaving them space to explore, said Steven Goldberg, chairman of an advisory panel that helped review and revise the guidelines. “It’s a tall order.”

Social studies 2.0

The state decided to retool its social studies curriculum soon after it adopted the Common Core math and English standards in 2010.

While the Common Core only offer reading and writing skills for social studies, the state hoped to apply the “fewer, clearer, and higher” philosophy of those standards to the social studies curriculum it has used since 1999. The result was a totally new document, called the New York State Common Core Social Studies Framework.

The framework fuses the Common Core’s literacy standards for social studies with New York’s five existing social studies standards: United States history, world history, geography, economics, and civics. And it overhauls how the standards are fleshed out and presented.

The current curriculum lists the myriad information students must learn bullet point-style. But the framework groups that content into major themes (no more than 12 per grade), followed by smaller concepts and case studies framed as student actions.

For example, a current global history unit on the ancient world simply states, “Expansion of Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, and Buddhism,” then lists some related questions. The new framework offers a paragraph-length theme about the rise of belief systems and a concept about their purpose, then asks students to “identify the place of origin, compare and contrast the core beliefs and practices, and explore the sacred texts and ethical codes” of seven such systems.

The framework also describes the literacy and critical-thinking skills that social studies requires, such as chronological reasoning and analyzing evidence. It draws from the Common Core standards (which outline literacy skills for social studies and other subjects) and the “C3 Framework,” which a coalition of states and national organizations designed to fill the Common Core’s social studies gap. New York was not part of the C3 group but borrowed from its approach to social studies, which favors high-level questioning (“Was the American Revolution revolutionary?”) over rote memorization.

The new roadmap “allows us to re-imagine social studies as a 21st-century discipline,” Greg Ahlquist, New York’s 2013 Teacher of the Year and a member of the framework advisory panel, said in an email. It “prepares students to be critical thinkers and … investigators and interpreters of the evidence.”

Cue the critics

The state education department hired a team of writers in 2011 to rework the social studies curriculum. That original group was led by Natasha Vasavada, an official at the College Board who was part of the team that wrote the Common Core standards.

The state also formed an unpaid advisory panel of about 20 teachers and academics from around the state to review the new framework and make revisions.

Even as they revamped the curriculum, some participants felt they had not gone far enough.

One of the writers, Sandra Schmidt, said her team tried to rearrange American history into socially themed units for the middle school grades and politically themed units for high school based on the argument that such a sequence would better suit students’ interests and abilities at those ages. But they were rebuffed, she said, because the state had decided that each grade would continue to focus on the same general topic (for example, the Eastern Hemisphere in 6th grade).

A panelist, William Gaudelli, said he tried lobbying for less content and more depth, but decided that the state mainly wanted to repackage the same material into a clearer format.

“It was always, ‘Take this old wine and put it into new vessels,’” said Gaudelli, a social studies professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who resigned from the panel in protest after one year.

When drafts were released in late 2012 and early 2013, some educators also criticized the framework. They said it packed in too much material, offered some clear-cut interpretations of complex historical events, and gave teachers too few choices.

The revised framework, which was released in December and is open for public comment through Monday, tries to address many of those critiques.

Some concepts were rephrased to force students to do the historical interpreting, and others were restructured to allow teachers to choose which case studies to teach. While the many “Students will” statements were added to offer more guidance, the number of concepts was reduced, according to Ahlquist.

“The work was constantly focused on narrowing the scope and trying to add depth,” he said.

But others say that problems remain.

David Sherrin, a social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School, said the framework’s 10 9th-grade units would require a half-semester each if students were given time to explore documents, read historical biographies, and debate, as Sherrin argues they should be. (His school has asked to receive a waiver freeing it from most of the state tests.)

“All of these things are wonderful to teach,” he said, “but they can’t all be taught.”

Kathy Swan, a University of Kentucky professor and lead writer of the C3 Framework, praised New York’s framework for describing the C3’s “inquiry arc,” a social studies model that guides students from asking questions to taking action. But she added that the framework contains so much historical material, it leaves students little time to pore over photographs, interview sources, create documentaries, or do other projects that mirror the work of actual social scientists.

“The breadth of curricular content currently outlined in the New York frameworks could limit the ability of teachers to go in depth,” Swan said in an email.

Coming soon

After several months of discussion, the framework group decided to split the 9th and 10th grade world history courses at the year 1750. Freshmen would study the first civilizations to the transatlantic slave trade, while sophomores would cover 18th-century empires to the present.

Under the state’s proposal, the Global History and Geography test — one of the five Regents exams required for graduation and the only one to cover two year’s worth of material — could assess only the 10th grade content. That change would lop thousands of years of history off the test. (The Regents could also decide to keep the two-year test structure or test after each year, but those options are considered unlikely.)

Several framework advisors said work on the new assessments will not begin until after the Board of Regents approves the framework. But they added that, if that happens in March, new Global History and United States History tests could be ready by 2017.

The state has also promised to release a “field guide” this spring to help educators implement the new social studies guidelines. This could include primary-source documents, model lessons, and instructional tips for each grade level.

But undoubtedly many teachers will be most interested in the new exams.

Several people suggested the College Board’s redesigned Advanced Placement U.S. History course and exam could serve as a model.

The new course shifts from a list of content to historical thinking skills, themes, and concepts students must learn. Beginning in 2015, the exam format will also change. For example, there will be about half as many multiple-choice questions, which will come in sets grouped around “stimulus material,” such as historical documents or a historian’s argument.

Nick Lawrence, a lead social studies teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future, a joint middle and high school, said the shape of the revamped Regents tests may prove more powerful than the wording of the framework.

“Our teachers are going to look to that exam for guidance,” he said. “And if it doesn’t reflect the new standards, then they’re not going to change their practice.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.