Proposed NYS 12th Grade Curriculum Needs Fixed

Today is the last day for the public to give requested feedback on the proposed NY social studies framework.  Please read this essay and the one below for our take on what sort of feedback the state needs and then write up your comments to the state (copy and paste to comments here, if you would).  Don’t say it’s up to someone else – it’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Proposed NY Social Studies Curriculum for 12th Grade Needs Fixed

The revised draft NY State Social Studies framework still requires way too much content, as described in the article on Chalkbeat and essay by Steve Lazar.  The only place where too much content is NOT the main problem is the proposed 12th grade curriculum, for Civics and Economics.  Even though the state’s curriculum for 12th grade won’t be tested, and therefore won’t be read by most teachers, it still frames “what should be taught” and deserves a critical look.

Students should learn and practice the skills and knowledge of participants in society in 12th grade.  The current draft gets the most important aspect of state curriculum right – it doesn’t prevent a good teacher from offering a good course. Instead of the 110+ content specifications of US History (11th grade) the 12th grade curriculum requires only 59 “Key Ideas”.  That means teachers can more deeply explore important issues if allowed a year to teach Economics and Civics.

Unfortunately, the proposed 12th grade framework rarely problematizes topics. Capstone social studies courses in a republic should speak to students as co-leaders of society – it should speak to all students, not just the comfortable.

Weird Mixture of Pontificating Plus …

Instead, the current framework sometimes pontificates at us with an odd mixture of smugness and sensitivity.  The document reads as though someone with a livelier mind has gone through and tried to revise a set of 1950s-era Republican banalities but still had to compromise with a representative of the old guard. For instance; 12.E4f Differences in wealth and incomes are an inevitable consequence of free markets because individuals make different choices, but gross inequalities reflect social, economic, and/or political distortions in society. The degree to which economic inequality reflects social, political, or economic injustices versus individual choices is hotly debated. The role that the government should play in decreasing this gap is debated as well.

The “Key Idea” begins with the pompous – rich people made good decisions, poor people made bad ones – but it immediately (thankfully) contradicts itself in the next clause – big inequalities are the result of “distortions” in society.  After this contradictory pair of “factual” assertions we’re offered the best two sentence of the entire 12th grade curriculum – acknowledging a lively controversy over inequality and the role of the government in responding to inequality.

Sometimes Just Pompous

Sometimes the curriculum simply asserts banality without contradiction; 12.G3b – Citizens have certain duties and obligations to support and serve the government, including legal obligations such as obeying laws, paying taxes, serving on juries, and registering for selective service.

The government is telling students they have a duty (whether moral, religious, or legal isn’t specified) to “support and serve the government”.  The revolutionaries who created the United States said that the government was made by the people to protect our rights and that the people always have the right to alter or abolish the government – the Declaration of Independence says nothing about the people having the duty to serve or support the government.

A similar misunderstanding of the basic relationship between government and people in a republic; “12.G2b Equality before the law and due process are two fundamental values that apply to all United States citizens and legal residents.”

According to the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights the right to equality applies to all men and to due process to all persons.  Who empowered the state curriculum to restrict the rights that – according to our founders – are inherent in all people?  In several places the curriculum treats rights as though the government can “extend” them or reduce them – directly contradicting a founding political principle of our nation.   And what does this “Key Idea” say to a student (one of thousands) who is neither a citizen nor a legal resident?

Which students did the curriculum writers have in mind?

The blunt assertion of non-rights of undocumented students brings up the question, “Who is this curriculum written for?”  Primarily it seems to be written for the comfortable.  The “Foundations of American Democracy” section doesn’t mention the founders’ perpetuation of slavery.  “Entrepreneurialism” gets at least 8 mentions in the Economics section – but literally not a single mention of poverty or class.  Sage advice is provided about calculating real return on investments – but there’s zilch about using government programs for the needy – a particularly terrible gap since those government programs could help New York students and their families ameliorate misery (and over 30% of NYC schoolchildren live in poverty).

Other Countries?

Speaking of children living in poverty, several times the curriculum mutters darkly about “other countries”.  But nowhere does it specify that students should compare European social democracy to our mixed-economy to a “purer” form of the much-lauded “free market”.  Odd, because these civics courses spread in the U.S. as a propaganda effort to contrast the U.S. and communist systems – as shown in the Cold War title, “The Economics of Free Enterprise in a Global Economy” (and this video).  Too bad, because considering the desired shape of our society in terms of actual examples would inspire the sort of imagination that a democracy requires in all of its future co-leaders.  And the clash of several philosophies embodied in social democracy and in “pure capitalism” overseas can also illuminate political parties’ philosophies in the U.S. that students need to understand to participate intelligently in our society.


To make the 12th grade curriculum much better, with minimal editing;

  1. Replace a few of the entrepreneurial “Key Ideas” with ones addressing poverty, class mobility, and government programs for the needy.
  2. Problematize the complexity of a government “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” but founded on slavery and genocide – a clash of rhetoric and reality that (arguably) continues.
  3. Fix the confusion about rights or at least acknowledge the controversy more often.
  4. In general – acknowledge controversy as often as possible!  Don’t require millions of schoolchildren to learn anonymous authors’ political perspectives on inflation, unemployment, or due process as facts.
  5. Bring back some big ideas.  Substantiate the mutterings about “other countries” with a “Key Idea” about how the U.S. compares to other industrialized nations in government and economics.  More clearly specify a balanced consideration of the political philosophies of the major political parties.  Get the students thinking!

New Draft Still Not What Students Deserve or Own Intro Promises

By Steve Lazar, as published in Chalkbeat (formerly GothamSchools) yesterday

When the state released a draft of the high school social studies framework last year, a group of social studies teachers I’m part of responded calling for revisions that build in more room for inquiry, depth, and choice.

I feared that the new framework would, like the old one, pressure my classroom to be places where trivial memorization trumped the higher level thinking, research, and writing skills we know our students need to develop to be ready for the next phases of their lives as citizens and college students.

A new draft of a Social Studies Framework, though far from what I hoped for, makes large steps towards our demand for inquiry, small ones towards choice, and some (mostly rhetorical) nods towards depth.

Since a deep revision seems unlikely now, I instead want to highlight some of the places where the latest framework supports good teaching in my classroom and others; point towards other places where meaningful improvements are possible; and lastly, begin to think about how a revised Regents exam could allow for students to experience inquiry, depth, and choice even if the framework doesn’t change.

Moves towards inquiry and choice
Within the content specifications, there are a number of places where the new framework encourages deeper thinking by juxtaposing historical events that together complicate cartoony narratives.

For example, when the framework asks that students consider “the Irish Potato famine within the context of the British agricultural revolution and the Industrial Revolution,” it is exactly the type of counter example I present to student to complicate the dominant narrative of progress typically associated with the time period. Similarly, a pairing of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Reaganomics is one I have used in U.S. history class to not only demand higher level thinking, but also to help students understand a fundamental division in U.S. politics today.

And while there are still examples of the interpretive work of history being done for students, as was the dominant case in the previous framework, this revision does a much better job of leaving the interpretive work up to students. A statement like, “Students will examine the growth of industries under the leadership of businessmen such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and Henry Ford and analyze their business practices and organizational structures, from multiple perspectives” perfectly captures the approach I take, where it’s up to students to ultimately determine whether these people were good for the country.

All three of these examples, and similar ones throughout the framework, are likely to encourage the type of sophisticated thinking we want for our students, and required by the Common Core.

Breadth at the cost of understanding and skill development
However, the framework’s overwhelming breadth of content will stand in the way of two of its expressely stated goals: pushing students to deeply explore the material and develop the research and writing skills dictated by the Common Core and the National Council on Social Studies’s C3 framework (of which I enthusiastically approve).
That’s why we responded to the hundreds of content specifications in the original draft with a demand for choice. And there are some places in the revised framework where we feel we have been heard. For example, the framework lists a number of 20th-century social movements, including LGBT, Native American, and feminist movements, and states that “students will deeply investigate at least one of the efforts above.”

This is the type of option I give to my students, so they have the opportunity to attain a deep understanding of movements that interest them, and to practice their research skills, while still becoming familiar with others as they listen to class presentations. I would like the social studies framework to build in more of these kinds of options.
Take the example of a key idea in the ninth-grade standards, which demands that students understand that “Classical civilizations … employed a variety of methods to expand and maintain control over vast territories.”
If the primary goal is this understanding, I can get students to that point by doing two case studies, perhaps of Rome and the Mayans. However, the “conceptual understanding” tied to that “key idea” says that “Students will examine the location and relative size of classical political entities (Greece, Gupta, Han, Maurya, Maya, Qin, Rome).”

Which is more important here? Is it the key idea, which could be accomplished by in-depth case studies of two civilizations? Or will it be the conceptual understanding, which demands students be vaguely familiar with seven different civilizations? Given the number of understandings we’re supposed to make sure students reach, only a class period or two can be devoted to this one.

In my opinion, spending one period each on two civilizations is a better use of my students’ time than 11 minutes each on seven. If I were to do the latter, none of my students would remember anything about the civilizations, let alone get to the deeper understanding about maintaining control over territory.

How a revised Regents exam could help
I hope the final framework will give school communities more choice about content so students have the chance to learn material in depth. But I recognize that the committee responsible for the framework faces demands for specific content from many different stakeholders. So I want to end by considering how revising the Regents exam for global studies and U.S. history could mitigate the effects of the long lists of content the framework includes.
The current Regents exam emphasizes memorization of trivial surface knowledge in its 50 multiple-choice questions, basic reading in its document-based essay, and discussion of some knowledge in its thematic essay. None of these capture the work historians or citizens do with historical knowledge, nor do the results tell me much about whether my students have the skills needed to be successful in future endeavors.

Both the recently revised U.S. History Advanced Placement exam and the International Baccalaureate test show that choice is possible within a highly rigorous and respected course. It is my hope that the new Regents exam will take a path between these two widely respected exams, where the emphasis is on historical thinking and 21st-century reading, writing, and research skills.

By eliminating endless multiple-choice questions that prioritize students’ ability to recall facts from a vast vault of superficial knowledge, a new exam could assuage my concern about the adoption of a new curriculum that continues to make social studies a discipline where knowledge is an inch deep and a mile wide. My students deserve a social studies education that prepares them to participate insightfully in our world.

Updates – End of Summer

We kept working on the struggle for a new NY Social Studies framework over the summer – sorry for the lack of updates.  Some key events since our last writing included;

  • Met with Regent Cashin and Deputy Commissioner Slentz regarding our critiques and proposals
  • Continued work on NYC “local measures” for social studies which further sharpened our understanding of what we need, and don’t, in terms of state curriculum and assessment
  • Participated in a special meeting of AFT Social Studies in D.C. which helped us develop state and nationwide contacts and provided an opportunity to strategize with Kathy Swan (lead writer of the C3 framework) and Susan Griffin (executive director of NCSS)
  • Continued to seek a place at the table and also a voice with people already at the table in several other ways

Our key demands remain that the NY State Social Studies Framework should prioritize inquiry, depth, and choice.  We see the C3 Framework as an excellent guide to making that happen and NY as a potential national model for meaningful and powerful social studies standards. 

We hope to post more soon – including ways of other folks continuing to get involved.  In the meantime, good luck to everyone in the new school year.