the youngest learners

How social studies can help young students make sense of the world

PHOTO: Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report
Two educators discuss how and when race, or racism, showed up in their classrooms at a Border Crossers training.

This story about social studies instruction is part of a series about innovative practices in the core subjects in the early grades. It was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter. 

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — One of the longtime goals of public education is to produce young people capable of participating in the democratic process. Experts say that requires regular and high-quality social studies lessons, starting in kindergarten, to teach kids to be critical thinkers and communicators who know how to take meaningful action.

Yet, as teachers scramble to meet math and reading standards, social studies lessons have been pushed far back on the list of academic priorities, especially in the early grades.

“Without social studies, we lose the civic mission of public schools,” said Stephanie Serriere, a former early-grade teacher who is now an associate professor of social studies education at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus. “Ultimately, we can’t prepare children for living in a rich, diverse democracy if we don’t expose them to the controversial topics inherent in our democracy.”

Time spent teaching social studies has declined in the last two decades, particularly since the 2001 passage of No Child Left Behind, which favored a focus on math, reading, and accountability as a way of addressing the country’s growing achievement gap between rich and poor children. Social studies in the early grades was especially affected by that legislation: kindergarten through second grade became reading, writing, and math crunch time in preparation for the testing that begins in third grade.

“Social studies is like the lima beans on the curricular plate of the elementary student’s day,” said Paul Fitchett, associate professor and director of curriculum and instruction for the doctoral program in education at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “Research shows that teachers coming from elementary ed programs feel the least competent in teaching social studies, compared to math, English language arts and even the sciences.”

Because social studies isn’t an academic priority in many states, teachers often receive inadequate training from teacher-prep programs on how to teach the subject; once they begin teaching in the classroom, according to the National Council for the Social Studies, teachers need continued professional development to allow them to master the skills of effective social studies instructions. Often, educators say, that training is lacking.

Related: Why students are ignorant of the civil rights movement

Because social studies teaching continues to be given short shrift, educators sometimes seek instructional help in the form of sessions organized outside of school.

On a rainy Saturday morning this spring, 40 teachers and school administrators sat on folding chairs in the basement of a Brooklyn school for an all-day workshop on how to talk about race in the classroom. Organized by Border Crossers, a nonprofit group that trains teachers, administrators and parents how to explore race and racism, the event was led by trainers Ana Duque and Ben Howort, both former teachers.

“I do this work because, as a former kindergarten through third-grade teacher, and as a parent, I learned that when children have the language to explain race and racism, good things can happen,” Duque told the group. “There’s something about race that’s so fundamentally uncomfortable in our culture.”

The workshop began with a discussion of racism from both historical and current perspectives, how it shows up in schools and classrooms today, why and how students of color were first denied equal educational opportunities, and how students of color continue to reap unequal opportunity from public education in the U.S. After lunch, participants split up into small groups and practiced applying the day’s lessons to various fictional classroom scenarios.

“Racism cannot be solved in a six-hour workshop,” Howort told the group. “But hopefully you’ll leave with a lot more questions, a sense of urgency to catapult yourself into new knowledge.”

Related: It’s time our educational institutions instilled some civic-minded values in students

When it comes to dealing with sensitive issues like race, class, equity, and gender, Duque, who teaches elementary school social studies curriculum development at Hunter College School of Education, said she wants her student-teachers to understand that social studies is not a skill to be practiced but rather an opportunity for inquiry and exploration.

“If you, as the teacher, come into the classroom trusting that children have knowledge about the world already, then they can build an understanding of the world with you, the teacher, to guide them,” she said.

When social studies aren’t part of the early-grade curriculum, she noted, the impact lasts through generations. “I’m finding that children don’t fully understand what’s happening in the world; they’re not given the time or space to process what’s happening because a) no one’s talking about it, and b) no one’s helping them connect what’s happening today to the systems and patterns of the past,” said Duque. “So now I’m seeing student teachers, products of No Child Left Behind, who never experienced rigorous social studies in their schooling either, so they don’t even know how to teach it. When I ask them to take part in inquiry, research or exploration, they don’t know how to do that.”

Experts recommend that, starting in preschool, students receive daily social studies lessons in order to fully develop the skills needed to become engaged citizens who are ready for college and careers. Common Core standards, however, tucked social studies into English Language Arts, relegating it to side-subject status rather than a discipline unto itself. That makes it even harder for teachers in the early grades as they work to meet Common Core standards while getting students test-ready for third grade.

“In kindergarten through second grade, teachers are focused on getting kids to read. Sometimes they’re using social studies as a reader — the word is integration, they’re integrating social studies into reading and language arts — and we’ve seen that done very poorly,” said Serriere, adding that there are some notable exceptions. “Most states either don’t test social studies, or the social studies test doesn’t really count toward adequate yearly progress.”

In an effort to bring social studies back and make it more coherent and challenging, the National Council for Social Studies in 2013 published the C3 Framework, an inquiry-based guide for states to use as a supplement to the Common Core standards. The C3 framework — the three Cs refer to college, career, and civic life — includes curriculums in civics, economics, geography, and history. Serriere said C3 is being used across the country. Critics say the framework waters down meaningful social studies instruction and fails to adequately inspire students to civic action.

Back at the Border Crossers training, Erica Davis, a workshop participant and assistant principal at a small New York City public elementary school, said she signed up for the workshop because it felt like important work. “But I’m positive that if we did this in my school, there would be blocks,” said Davis, who noted that discussions at her school about race and gender quickly become stiff and closed. And yet, she added, when conversations about race and other sensitive topics aren’t part of everyday classroom teaching, children aren’t prepared to handle difficult subjects.

“We don’t have these conversations in our schools. We don’t make it comfortable. For example, we freak out when kids use the N word but we don’t support them to have further conversations about it,” said Davis. “So anyone who’s moved through the American school system just isn’t equipped to handle these issues.”

As teachers and administrators progressed through the day’s work, the two trainers repeated a mantra: “How often are we willing to misstep, to misspeak?” Howort asked the group. “When having conversations about race, you’re going to step in it — it’s just going to happen. It’s a continuous learning process.”

Indeed, as teachers discussed sensitive subjects like the complex power dynamics within schools and classrooms or white teachers teaching students of color, for instance, tempers flared at several points in the day as participants struggled to find the right words to talk about these issues.

Related: Teaching kids how battles about race from 150 years ago mirror today’s conflicts

Social studies, said Serriere, is the place to incorporate sensitive conversations in the early grades. “If we listen to children and pay attention to what they’re bringing into the classroom, we realize it’s full of issues about race, class, gender, money — all those things,” she said. “So if we have an emergent curriculum in which we’re asking, ‘What’s on your mind? What isn’t fair? What bothers you? What could be improved in society?’ It might start very small, but I am confident, based on my experience in elementary classrooms, that all these issues are present in even the most homogeneous classrooms.”

Folding in difficult conversations about sensitive issues in the early grades is crucial preparation for delving more deeply into various social studies disciplines in the later grades. History, for example, with its accounts of wars, slavery, intrigue, and fierce battles for rights is full of social and ethical issues including religion, race relations, gender roles, cultural differences, and the merits of different political and economic systems.

As early as kindergarten, when children are at an age at which they like talking about themselves, students may begin discussing identity. “Any opportunity you can give them to talk about themselves [you should use], but in the context of some kind of social identity where you define it, give them some language,” said Duque. “Then they get an awareness of who they are within the context of other people.”

First- and second-graders are ready to discuss stereotypes, the ways in which people categorize each other, and they are also able to think about re-categorizing people based on a variety of criteria. “The world categorizes people based on race, and if we never challenge or address it, then kids assume that’s the right way to engage with the world,” said Duque. “Personally, I think all these issues should be part of early-grade curriculums. And it’s important that there is also an active, purposeful relationship with families so they are involved in the conversations.”

At the workshop, Howort wrapped up the day with a bit of advice: Once a teacher decides to take on sensitive issues in the classroom, it’s crucial to have a support system. “You’ve got to have allies as teachers, so when you mess up, you have someone you can discuss it with. Set up your system so you don’t burn out,” Howort told the group.

Social studies remains a low priority in many school districts and will likely remain so until districts or states mandate daily or weekly social studies instructional time, similar to English and math instructional time requirements, said Fitchett of the University of North Carolina. That may be a tough sell, he acknowledged.

“Social studies can tend to be a political hot potato,” he said. “It can ruffle a lot of feathers in terms of how it’s being used. But who doesn’t want children to be part of the democratic process? Who doesn’t want young people to be critical consumers of the world around them? Maybe I’m too optimistic here, but I think that — across parties — most people want that.”

Planning mode

As lawmakers consider major preschool expansion, Colorado providers want more than just extra seats

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

With Gov. Jared Polis’ proposal for the biggest expansion of Colorado’s state-funded preschool program in its 30-year-history, many early childhood educators are cheering the possibility of 8,200 new preschool slots for at-risk children.

But they’re also asking hard questions about how providers will find the staff and space to create new preschool classrooms, and whether state leaders will reshape the program to broaden its reach and intensity. Suggestions from the field include expanding the definition of at-risk, accepting more 3-year-olds, offering more full-day slots, and rewarding top-rated providers with more money.

These discussions echo debates about preschool quality and access nationally as more state leaders prioritize early childhood education, and as public preschool programs from New York to California attempt massive scale-ups.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

In Colorado, Polis’ preschool proposal hinges partly on his plan to offer free full-day kindergarten statewide. That’s because 5,000 of the new preschool slots would be funded with money currently earmarked for full-day kindergarten through a special pool of flexible early education dollars. Lawmakers likely won’t make final decisions on the full-day kindergarten and preschool expansion plans until late spring.

In the meantime, preschool providers are weighing the pros and cons.

One of them is Lynne Bridges, who runs a highly rated preschool designed to look like an old schoolhouse in downtown Pagosa Springs in southwest Colorado. It’s called Seeds of Learning and serves children from tuition-paying families and about two-dozen preschoolers who qualify for public dollars through the Colorado Preschool Program.

While Bridges is thrilled with Polis’ support for early childhood education, she’s frustrated, too, that the state’s preschool program doesn’t recognize top programs like hers with extra funding.

“It’s almost like this high-quality program I’ve created …. It’s my burden,” she said.

Bridges’ program holds a respected national accreditation and also has a high rating from the state through its Colorado Shines rating system. She fundraises constantly to fill the gap between her government allotment and the cost of providing preschool for her at-risk kids — the ones she said have the most to gain from a high-quality program.

“There’s only so much money to be had in a rural community,” Bridges said. “This shouldn’t be me laying awake at night trying to help these families.”

The $111 million Colorado Preschool Program serves about 21,000 preschoolers statewide — most of them 4-year-olds in half-day slots — as well as 5,000 kindergarteners in full-day programs. Most of the program’s slots are offered in public school classrooms, though some are in community-based facilities.

On average, providers get about $4,100 per state preschool slot, though the amount varies based on a district’s size, share of low-income students, and cost of living.

Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer at the Colorado Department of Education, said the state’s finance formula allocates preschools half per student of what’s earmarked for first- through 12th-graders.

That formula doesn’t account for preschool quality, she said.

“I guess you could take preschool funding out of [the Public School Finance Act] and fund it separately. That would be a big statutory change.”

A separate state program that provides subsidies to help low-income families pay for child care works the way Bridges wishes the Colorado Preschool Program did, but it’s governed by a different state department and set of rules.

Leaders in the suburban Westminster school district north of Denver, where three-quarters of preschoolers are funded through the Colorado Preschool Program, said Polis’ proposal fits with the district’s own plans to expand early childhood options.

“I’m all for it,” said the district’s Early Childhood Education Director Mat Aubuchon, of the state preschool expansion. “I’m just curious what latitude we’ll get as districts.”

Aubuchon said if the state funds more slots, he hopes more can be merged to create full-day preschool slots. Currently, state rules allow only a small fraction of slots to be combined.

In addition, he wants more leeway in the state’s primary eligibility criteria, which gives preference children from low-income families, those in unstable housing, or who have speech or social difficulties, among other factors.

“I would like to see a little bit more pre-academic stuff in there,” said Aubuchon.

For example, children likely to be at risk for later reading struggles, based on results from a pre-reading assessment, should be given greater consideration, he said.

Aubuchon said if Polis’ plan comes to fruition, he’d like at least 100 to 150 more state preschool slots — maybe more if districts get additional flexibility to make full-day slots. He said the district will likely be able to find space for additional preschool classrooms.

Christy Delorme, owner and director of Mountain Top Child Care in Estes Park in northern Colorado, would like more state preschool slots, too.

She knows some commercial child care centers aren’t happy about Polis’ preschool expansion plan “because it takes away those paying slots,” but said she thinks it’s a good idea.

“Most parents can’t afford child care,” she said. “The more kiddos we can get into early education programs the better off our society will be.”

Delorme doesn’t have the room for a new classroom at Mountain Top, but like Aubuchon, wants the option to create full-day slots for the children she’s already serving. Currently, the 10 children in half-day slots funded by the Colorado Preschool Program rely on scholarships from a local nonprofit to stay at Mountain Top all day. If they become eligible for full-day state slots, that scholarship money could be rerouted to at-risk 3-year-olds,

One challenge that many preschool providers will face if there’s a sudden influx of new state-funded preschool slots will be hiring qualified staff for new classrooms.

That very problem is what led Bridges, of Seeds of Learning in Pagosa Springs, to cut her program down from four classrooms to three a few years ago. Turnover was high and she couldn’t find reliable substitutes.

With the switch to three classrooms, she also raised wages. Today, a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes about $22 an hour, competitive pay in a community where her workers sometimes used to leave for jobs at the local Walmart. Today, Bridges has no problem with turnover.

Delorme, whose teachers start at $15 to $17 an hour, agreed that the field’s low pay makes it tough to find qualified staff.

“Education in general, it’s hard to recruit, but does that mean I wouldn’t want to expand my program because of that?” she said. “No.”

Race for mayor

How to help Chicago’s younger learners? Mayoral frontrunners skip a chance to say.

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang

The challenge of mending and strengthening Chicago’s network of care and education for its youngest residents defies instant solutions, but four candidates for mayor agreed Monday on one point: The city needs to care for its child care centers rather than imposing more burdens on them.

And the city should include those crucial small businesses, which often anchor neighborhoods, in its growing pre-kindergarten system.

Related: Why Rahm Emanuel’s rollout of universal pre-K has preschool providers worried

At a forum Monday at the University of Chicago on the topic of early childhood education, candidates addressed how city government can stitch together a stronger early learning system. Chicago’s mayoral election is Feb. 26.

Chicago is in the first year of a four-year universal pre-kindergarten rollout, and the city’s next mayor will determine much of the fate of the program. About 21,000 children have enrolled out of an estimated 45,000. And cost estimates are now north of $220 million, much of it federal and state money earmarked for early childhood expenditures. But the mayor can direct how that money is spent.

The forum attracted four candidates: former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas, state representative and former teacher La Shawn K. Ford, and John Kozlar, a University of Chicago graduate who, at 30, is the youngest candidate in the race.

Four candidates considered front-runners — Toni Preckwinkle, Susana Mendoza, Bill Daley and Gery Chico — didn’t attend. Nor did six more of the 14 candidates.

All of the mayoral candidates who answered said they would continue to support Chicago’s universal pre-K expansion but did not specify how.

The event was organized by Child Care Advocates United, a statewide alliance of child care providers who banded together four years ago when the state budget crisis was forcing many providers and child care agencies to cut back or close.

The central topic of conversation was how city government can build a stronger early learning system. Several questions revolved around issues faced by for-profit and nonprofit day care owners and preschool operators who are facing teacher shortages, budget pressures, and a churn of students. Some advocates say Chicago’s rollout of universal pre-K has made a operating a difficult business even more tenuous, as they lose children and revenue to Chicago Public Schools.

A Chalkbeat analysis of data published last week showed that public school preschool programs are at 91 percent capacity, while one in five seats at community-run preschools and centers is empty.

The candidates Monday offered different suggestions for alleviating the pressure.

Related: Care about schools? Read Chalkbeat Chicago’s voter guide to the mayor’s race. 

“We have to end this fight between Chicago Public Schools and (community) providers. It is killing an industry,” said Ford, a state legislator who described the budget pressures many providers faced under former governor Bruce Rauner, when Illinois did not pass a budget for more than two years.

A September report from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which tracks openings and closures among licensed daycare facilities, shows a loss of 3,400 licensed facilities statewide from 2010 to 2018.

“Chicago Public Schools cannot do (preschool) cheaper, and it cannot do it better,” said Vallas, also a former budget director for the city of Chicago, who has put out a detailed prenatal-to-preschool platform that starts with universal prenatal care and a detailed menu of services and supports for children birth to age 5.

“The challenge with the universal pre-K program that Rahm Emanuel and (schools chief) Janice Jackson rolled out is that there was no engagement with community-based providers,” said Lightfoot, who questioned the timing of the May 2018 announcement just weeks before a Chicago Tribune series cast a spotlight on a pattern of mishandling student sexual abuse cases in the K-12 system. “This program was ill-conceived and rolled out in spring to be a distraction to the sex assault investigation about to be unveiled by the Tribune.”

At the forum, held in the auditorium of the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, Vallas also spoke about creating incentives to entice more prospective teachers into the field, including grow-your-own programs that target parents.

He also described a system of startup grants and opportunity zones that would make it easier for new businesses to take root and tax breaks for providers who serve a variety of children well.

Ford advocated pressuring state legislators to increase reimbursement rates to providers, which could be used to increase teacher pay, and setting aside tax-increment financing, or TIF, dollars for early childhood businesses. And Lightfoot talked about converting some of the schools that Chicago has closed into job training and early childhood centers.

“The policy that has been rolled out is not equitable and not sustainable,” she said of Chicago’s universal pre-K rollout. “We need to work in partnership with our communities.”

Are you ready to vote on Feb. 26? Find everything you need at Chi.vote, a one-stop shop for the Chicago election — Chalkbeat Chicago is a partner.