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.”

leading the state

Three things we heard at a gubernatorial candidates forum on early childhood

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, and Lang Sias, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, spoke at forum on early childhood issues.

Stark differences in how Colorado’s two would-be governors plan to tackle early childhood issues were clear at a candidate forum Monday evening.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee, envisions free full-day preschool and kindergarten for all Colorado children — a sweeping and pricey expansion of what’s currently available.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lang Sias, who stood in for gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, said Republicans would focus public funds on narrower programs that benefit the poorest children.

Currently, Colorado funds early childhood programs for some of its young children. The state provides half-day preschool to 4-year-olds with certain risk factors, but the program covers only some of those who qualify. In addition, the state reimburses districts for just over half the cost of full-day kindergarten, leaving districts to pay for the rest or pass on the cost to families through tuition. Last spring, lawmakers expanded the state income tax credit for child care costs, but most families still need to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

Monday’s event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science represented a rare opportunity to hear candidates address early childhood issues, which are often overshadowed on the campaign trail by topics such as housing, roads and health care. While the forum highlighted some of the big early childhood ideas championed by each campaign, it also left plenty of unanswered questions.

Stapleton, Colorado’s state treasurer, was originally slated to speak at the forum, but backed out citing family obligations. Sias, a state representative from Arvada and a member of the House Education Committee, spoke in his place.

Polis and Sias didn’t debate each other at Monday’s forum, or otherwise interact. Polis went first, giving a short statement about his early childhood platform then answering several questions posed by moderator Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Sias followed suit.

The event was sponsored by Constellation Philanthropy, a group of funders focused on early childhood issues. (Constellation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Here are three things we learned from the forum:

The candidates have different ideas about which young children need help and how to provide it

In discussing his plans to create universal full-day preschool and kindergarten, Polis talked about using a public-private financing mechanism that’s sometimes called “social impact bonds.”

In this kind of financing — also called “pay for success” — private investors or philanthropists pay up front for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by reducing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Polis said if he wins in November, he’ll immediately “work out how to partner with philanthropy to create more early childhood education for all income levels.”

Currently a version of social impact bonds is being used to pay for full-day preschool for some students in the Westminster school district north of Denver, a fact Polis mentioned Monday. Still, the financing mechanism is relatively untested in Colorado’s education sphere and it’s unclear how it might be scaled to pay for something as ambitious as statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten.

When talking about the Republican ticket’s early-education priorities, Sias described early childhood education as “incredibly important” but “very inequitably distributed.”

“We want to focus our public spending on those who are least able to afford it on their own,” he said.

He cited a proposal for education savings accounts that allow families to set aside money tax-free for educational expenses, including early childhood education.

“We realize that is more focused on middle-class and above families,” he said, “but by targeting that money using that program, we feel we will have more available to target the folks at the bottom of the spectrum who really cannot avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Education savings accounts don’t typically work for low-income parents because they have no extra money to set aside for future expenses.

The candidates would take different approaches to strengthening the early childhood workforce

In a field marked by low pay and tough working conditions, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a chronic problem. The candidates had ideas about how to bulk up the workforce.

Sias advocated for a residency program to help turn out new early childhood teachers, similar to what he’s previously proposed to help address the K-12 teacher shortage. He said such programs are data-driven, helping retain teachers for longer periods and improving student results.

He also floated the idea of recruiting midlife career-changers to early childhood work — “folks north of 50” — and hinted that they would work in the low-paid field.

“Is that an opportunity to tap into … folks who would like to fill those spots who maybe don’t have the same set of issues that millennials do in terms of how long they want to stay and how long they need to be committed, and frankly how much they need to be paid?”

While some middle-aged people do enter the field, mediocre pay, a maze of state regulations, and the growing push to boost providers’ education levels could make it a tough sell.

Polis talked about creating partnerships with colleges to beef up the credentials of people who currently work in the early childhood field.

He said it’s important to “bridge the skills gap” for those whose hearts are already in the work. He didn’t address how he could dramatically expand preschool and kindergarten simply by focusing on the existing workforce, where turnover can be as high as 40 percent annually.

Neither candidate talked about how he would boost compensation for early childhood workers, whose median pay in Colorado is $12.32 an hour, Jaeger said.

Both candidates agree that Colorado can do much better by its youngest residents

When asked how Colorado is doing overall in supporting young children and their families, both candidates agreed that the state has a long way to go.

Sias emphasized that low-income children continue to be left out. Polis talked about the lack of uniform access to full-day kindergarten.

Both candidates expressed interest in working with bipartisan coalitions on solutions.

“There’s so many people in our state who want to do right by their kids,” said Polis. “It’s really going to take folks from across the spectrum coming together.”

Sias, who argued for a combination of business-minded acumen and public money for early childhood, asked the audience to partner with lawmakers in finding what programs work.

He said he and Stapleton are “more than willing to work across the aisle with folks that we like and respect, and have knowledge in this area.”

Early Childhood

Jeff Bezos says he will use his riches to open Montessori preschools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
A student in a Detroit Montessori program. Jeff Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The latest effort to improve early childhood education for poor children comes from the richest man alive: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The preschools, Bezos wrote, will be free for students and inspired by the Montessori approach, in which children direct their own learning in an environment that is prepared for them to explore. Montessori instruction has traditionally been available only in private schools, but new efforts to make the model more accessible have taken hold, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Bezos also signaled that he intends to apply his famously stringent standards to the new schools. The hands-on CEO reportedly still reads emails from Amazon customers and has been known to berate executives when the customer experience suffers. At the preschools, he wrote, “The child will be the customer.”

Much about the initiative is unclear, from what “tier-one” means to where, when, and how many schools will open. Bezos’s announcement did not acknowledge the current bipartisan movement to fund preschool more widely, so it’s unclear whether his network might ever seek public money or how it might interact with — or even crowd out — existing efforts to expand preschools.

It’s also not clear how much transparency to expect from Bezos’s effort, which he called the Day One Fund. A number of wealthy individuals, including Mark Zuckerberg, have organized their giving through a limited liability company, rather than a nonprofit. This approach does not require disclosing who receives grants and allows the organizations to give to political causes and invest in for-profit companies.

Research has pointed to long-run benefits of early childhood education programs. One recent study found that the benefits extended to multiple generations — the children of children who participated in the federal Head Start program were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

In addition to preschools, the Day One Fund will tackle homelessness, according to Bezos, who crafted his giving strategy after asking his Twitter followers how he should spend his wealth.