Social Studies standards review catalyzed by more than lessons on Islam

The inclusion of Islam in Tennessee’s social studies standards has grabbed recent headlines, but social studies teachers are more concerned about the volume of the standards — not the content.

Both issues are expected to be aired beginning in January when the State Board of Education begins its public review of the year-old standards.

“What I’ve heard from teachers across the state, regardless of grade level, is that there are too many standards for the time we have,” said Mark Finchum, a teacher at Jefferson County High School and president of the Tennessee Council for the Social Studies.

The board decided during the summer to bump up its review by two years to 2016 based on feedback from teachers, as well as the state’s new public review process for education standards, which was codified last spring by the Tennessee Legislature.

Last month, however, after some Tennessee parents and politicians began voicing concerns over the amount of time devoted to Islam being taught in seventh-grade World History, the board moved up the timeline even further — to January.

Laura Encalade, the board’s director of policy and research, says both concerns are driving the public review of standards that went into effect only last year. “It hasn’t all just been about the standards on world religion,” she said.

The seventh-grade standards in question require students to know basic facts about the Middle Ages, which include facts about Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Some parents have questioned why their seventh-graders were required to memorize the five pillars of Islam. Prominent government leaders such as U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn have criticized public school systems as being more concerned with teaching the practices of Islam than the history of Christianity.

“There is a big difference between education and indoctrination,” the Tennessee Republican said in a Sept. 8 statement.

To Finchum, however, religion is a non-issue. The real issues, he says, are the number and specificity of the standards.

“In ninth grade, we have 104 standards for World History and Geography and some of those are very complex. One of them on World War II, for example, covers half a dozen battles. So in my 45 minutes of the day, I can’t cover anywhere close to the material they want us to do,” said Finchum, who teaches ninth-grade social studies.

Finchum had understood that the current social studies standards were going to be more streamlined, emphasizing quality over quantity. Instead, he said, they became more specific.

Elementary school teachers are especially pressed, being asked to go in-depth on more topics than ever, but with less time to teach social studies than their middle and high school counterparts, he said.

Even in high school, social studies class time is the first to go during testing or for assemblies or field trips, according to Finchum. World History doesn’t have a state exam associated with it as do science, math and English Language Arts. Therefore, students’ mastery of the subject matter doesn’t impact schools’ accountability ratings. Even in the lower grades, where social studies is tested, the scores don’t count for the composite score that determines whether a school is in the bottom 5 percent of the state, and thus eligible for state intervention.

Finchum argues that social studies is as important as any other subject. He and his colleagues face the challenge of getting their students to learn multitudes of facts about the history of the world and then to be able to synthesize and think deeply about them — all in less than 135 hours a year.

“We do need historical inquiry, literacy and critical thinking, and to an extent social studies teachers have always done that, ” Finchum said of the new standards, which also emphasize document-based questions and answers. “But there are more and more expectations, and they’re not giving us the resources we need to meet them, because the main resource is time. I don’t foresee us moving to a 220-day school year.”

"I don’t see any need to reexamine standards now, because we’ve done it and done it. "

Mark Finchum, president, Tennessee of Council for the Social Studies

As for the content of the standards, Finchum’s main point of contention is, ironically, a slimming down on instruction of geography, which he says is crucial to understanding both the past and the present. Both the Tennessee Geographic Alliance and the National Geographic Association asked the State Board of Education to include more geography standards when they were being rewritten in 2013-14. In the past, Geography and World History were separate courses, while now they are combined in the ninth-grade year.

“Later on in the spring, we’re going to be talking about 9/11 and the War on Terror,” Finchum said. “You ought to know where Saudi Arabia is, how close Kuwait is to Iraq. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand the complicated relationship between those countries.”

Despite his concerns, Finchum said it’s too soon to revise the standards again.

“I don’t see any need to reexamine standards now, because we’ve done it and done it,”  he said. “People I’ve talked to have said, ‘Stop changing it around.'”

“It’s like a constitutional convention,” he continued. “Once you get started, you never know what’s going to happen.”