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Stocial Studies Getting Squeezed

Ohanian Comment: Schools not meeting their federal proficiency standards, drop social studies from the curriculum. I don't like federal imperatives squeezing out important subjects, but I admit to mixed feelings over this one. When I taught 3rd grade, I hated the social studies text and used E. B. White's Trumpet of the Swan as the basis of our social studies curriculum, including map study.

Kindergartners at Hillcrest Elementary School in Elgin sit in a semicircle and discuss ''reading strategies'' with their teacher -- using those words.

A second-grade bilingual class has a bulletin board dedicated to more sophisticated ''estrategias.'' And by third grade, even students in the lowest reading group flip through glossaries and talk about fluency and plans.

The heavy emphasis on reading has paid off for Hillcrest, which last year met all the benchmarks set up by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But Hillcrest Principal David Wedemeyer says there has been a cost: Hillcrest students don't spend as much time on other subjects like social studies as they have in the past.

It's a trend social studies teachers fear will occur in more schools now that the state has quietly dropped that subject -- along with writing, fine arts and physical development/health -- from the standardized tests used to measure schools.

'Only so many hours in a day'

''We only have so many hours in a day, so many days in a year,'' Wedemeyer said. ''We only have so much time for kids to master certain things, and society emphasizes math and language arts.''

Math and reading are the dual focus of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, which aims to have all U.S. students performing at or above grade level in those two subjects by 2014. Schools that don't meet an increasingly higher bar each year face sanctions, from allowing students to transfer out to being taken over by the state.

Illinois has long tested students in the social sciences, which include history, politics, economics, social systems and geography. But lawmakers voted in July to eliminate all state assessments not required under No Child Left Behind.

The change, made the same day the state budget passed, got little public notice.

'What you treasure, you measure'

Now that the state has stopped measuring progress in social science, schools struggling to meet the federal law's goals may be less likely to put scarce resources into teaching history or civics, said Hilary Rosenthal, a teacher and co- director at the Glenbrook Academy of International Studies.

''I think the saying is, 'What you treasure, you measure,''' Rosenthal said.

Until this year, fourth-graders and seventh-graders were tested in social science, and the state's high school exam also included the subject. An analysis of State Report Card data since 1998 shows little change in the average time elementary and junior high schools report spending on social science each day. But it also shows some individual schools failing under the federal standards have cut that time by as much as half.

At Hillcrest, the change has been small -- four minutes less a day now than five years ago. But Wedemeyer, who has been principal for seven years, said that, in the past, teachers carved out a specific time each day for social studies. Now, they're more likely to incorporate it into reading or writing lessons.

Last week, a bilingual class was practicing writing in English by completing a timeline of events in Martin Luther King Jr.'s life.

Such integration, if done well, is a great way to teach social studies at the elementary level, said Phyllis Henry, president of the Illinois Council of Social Studies.

Council wants tests back

The problem with dropping the social studies assessment, Henry said, is that it will be hard for schools to determine whether their integrated curriculum is working. And that means students will enter junior high or high school -- where history or economics are separate classes -- with vastly different backgrounds in the subjects.

Other states that have dropped social studies testing have seen the money and time spent on the subject plummet, Henry said. The social studies council is pushing for the Legislature to reinstate the Illinois tests.

Becky Watts, a spokeswoman for the State Board of Education, said Illinois schools still are expected to follow the state's standards for the social sciences, which have not changed.

''It's not an area that schools are going to ignore,'' Watts said. ''Schools are going to do the right thing.'' AP

— Nicole Ziegler Dizon
Chicago Sun-Times


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