High school social studies is about to change substantially, and that is wonderful news for New York students.
Last month, the Board of Regents moved ahead with changes to New York’s graduation requirements. If the changes get final approval in January, students will need to pass only one of the two social studies Regents exams — Global History & Geography and U.S. History & Government — allowing their fifth required exam to potentially come from another discipline.
Some social studies teachers throughout the state have been up in arms about these changes. But while I understand their first reaction, I think the anxiety is misplaced.
There is value in giving students, and schools, more flexibility in the pathways to graduation. Students have different strengths, and even as a social studies teacher, it always felt arbitrary to me that we had two required exams while science and math only had one.
I also see no reason to keep a student from graduating because they only scored a 64 on the poorly conceived Global exam, as that test assesses such a broad range of content that it prevents students from learning anything in depth for their first two years of high school social studies. I think back to the dozen or so students I had to call and tell they wouldn’t be graduating with their peers because they failed that exam, and wish they had also had this option.
Still, I understand how this change from the Board of Regents feels like just another move to de-emphasize social studies. Social studies teachers rightfully feel their subject is devalued compared to English, math, and sciences. No Child Left Behind emphasized English and math, and Race to the Top has raised the profile of STEM subjects. When the Regents eliminated the fifth and eighth-grade social studies tests in 2010, many of these teachers had their classes co-opted by prep for the English exams.
But in this case, the state paired the change with a decree mandating two years of global history, one of U.S. history, and half-year government and economics courses. This ensures that the conventional sequence of high school social studies courses will be maintained.
Much more significantly, I see here the opportunity many of us have been waiting for to reconceive social studies courses as sites to help students develop the skills necessary to be active civic thinkers and actively engaged in their communities. Schools and teachers can now remove the focus on memorization of too much random information simply to pass a test. Instead, we should emphasize questioning, disciplinary thinking, research, and civic action.
As I remember all the time I spent with seniors helping them memorize key aspects of the Byzantine Empire, but who could hardly read and write, I regret that their time wasn’t better spent by remediating those skills to give them a shot at college success. I think back to students who felt ostracized by the study of U.S. history as a story of what other people did, and instead could have gained practice as civic actors in their communities.
By spending less time running through content that is a mile wide and inch deep, more schools and teachers can now engage their students with authentic work in research through programs like National History Day, or through civic engagement with Project Citizen. Too many teachers have chosen not to participate in these in-depth projects that include public sharing of work because of the content demands of the Regents exams.
Many teachers are concerned that without the Regents exam to hold over their students’ heads, students (and schools) will no longer value learning history. But we shouldn’t need the Regents exam to convince our students history is important. We shouldn’t need any assessment to convince or students that learning is important. Let’s instead seize this flexibility as an opportunity to have students actually do meaningful work with history.
New York teachers don’t have to navigate this transition on their own. I am part of a group working to develop the Social Studies Toolkit being produced by the State Education Department in a collaboration between Binghamton University and New York teachers. The Toolkit will be released this summer with resources for teachers to use from kindergarten to senior year. New York is the only state to devote millions of dollars to a project focused on social studies, and it is the only project of this magnitude anywhere in the country.
New York is not taking a step back with social studies, but is rather poised to take a giant leap forward.