Arne Duncan and NCSS Leaders on Social Studies

The Social Studies are Essential to a Well-Rounded Education

Social Education 75(3), pp 124–12 ©2011 National Council for the Social Studies

Arne Duncan 

In his article, “The Common Standards Movement and the Role of Social Studies on the Internet” (Social Education, November/December 2010), C. Frederick Risinger praises the work of the NCSS in partnering with the Civic Mission of the Schools campaign to bring social studies back from the periphery of our schools’ curricula. I couldn’t agree with him more that it is time for a renewed national emphasis on social studies and citizenship education.

As social studies teachers, you live with the unintended consequences of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act every day. You understand that the law has created flawed incentives for states and school districts to narrow their curricula to English and math. This fundamentally misguided practice leaves out core disciplines that are essential to a well-rounded curriculum, including social studies.

To be sure, reading and mathematics are essential subjects. Students wouldn’t be able to learn about history and civics if they couldn’t read primary source documents and other texts. In addition to reading skills, they need a solid grounding in statistics and math concepts to grasp important principles in economics, geography, and the other social and behavioral sciences. But we absolutely cannot focus exclusively on reading and mathematics to the exclusion of other important disciplines, including social studies, as well as science, the arts, physical education, and others necessary for a well-rounded education. To marginalize social studies for the sake of reading and math is not only misguided, it is educational neglect. Educators and policymakers need to recognize that social studies is a core subject, critical to sustaining an informed democracy and a globally competitive workforce.

Unfortunately, under NCLB many school districts have undervalued the social studies. Principals, particularly those at elementary schools, tell me that though they would like to allow ample time for social studies education, they feel constrained by pressures to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP). By sacrificing civics, economics, and history, these leaders have felt forced to neglect the long-term benefits of a well-rounded education, instead allowing less important, short-term goals to take over.

President Obama and I reject the notion that the social studies is a peripheral offering that can be cut from schools to meet AYP or to satisfy those wanting to save money during a fiscal crunch. Today more than ever, the social studies are not a luxury, but a necessity. We need to fix NCLB so that school leaders do not feel forced to ignore the vital components of a good education.

President Obama’s plan to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will create a law that is fair, flexible, and focused on the schools most at risk, rather than micromanaging the schools that are doing well. That is why the president’s proposal to reauthorize ESEA calls for states and districts to focus the most rigorous federal interventions on the bottom five percent of schools, those most in need of reform. Schools in the bottom 10 percent will work with their local school districts on plans to improve. This will give most schools more opportunities to expand their curricula so that students have access to all of the core disciplines, including social studies, while making a place for all of the subjects necessary for a well-rounded education.

The president’s plan will continue to require schools to assess students as part of its fair and flexible accountability system. But this system will be significantly changed so that the social studies are no longer treated as second-class subjects. Under the plan, the new assessments will tell educators and parents if students are on track for college and careers. They will measure student growth and reward schools for producing significant growth, not simply whether or not they have met proficiency on an arbitrary achievement bar. They will identify huge disparities in achievement among student populations. But test results will be only one of multiple measures used to identify which teachers are most successful. Armed with valid assessments, schools will be in a position to provide teachers with meaningful professional development and career paths. And the data will be used to identify and reward the teachers and schools who are closing the achievement gap and whose students are on track for college and careers.

These types of assessments have been called for by the Connected Learning Coalition—representing 250,000 content-area teachers, administrators, and educational technology specialists, including those in NCSS. Their Principles for Learning acknowledge that assessment is part of learning. It is how teachers take stock of what is working and what isn’t. Instead of abandoning testing, we need to set higher standards and develop better assessments, those that go beyond the mediocre fill-in-the-bubble tests of today.

The Department of Education is supporting the work of states to create better assessment systems, aligned to the Common Core for English language arts and math for 2014–2015. But we also need higher standards and better tests for social studies. I urge social studies teachers to work together to encourage states and local school boards to develop high social studies standards based on themes and skills and to create authentic growth measures of student learning. In some states where the curriculum has been narrowed, teachers may even want to work with educational leaders to include social studies in their accountability system—as proposed by the president’s plan—making a bold statement about the importance of social studies as a core subject.

The challenge of how we assess student learning in social studies is critical because your goals for students are so much larger than any bubble test could measure. You are creating contributing and responsible citizens. You are unleashing initiative, creativity, and problem-solving. You can always test to see if students understand the founding principles of the U.S. Constitution or where the Great Lakes are, but there is no bubble test to see whether or not they are becoming curious and informed participants in our democracy. To be on track today for college and careers, students need to show that they can analyze and solve complex problems, communicate clearly, synthesize information, apply knowledge, and generalize learning to other settings. We need your help creating assessments that test the full range of what students know and can do.

I would also like to remind all education stakeholders that testing itself is not the end game. It is merely a tool, one method of raising standards and ensuring accountability. We know from research that access to a challenging high school curriculum has a greater impact on whether a student will earn a four-year college degree than his or her high school test scores, class rank, or grades. And we know that low-income students are less likely to have access to these accelerated learning opportunities and college-level coursework than their peers. The real objective is not to get students to score well on myriad bubble tests of content knowledge, but to help them all to become engaged and thinking citizens who are prepared for college and careers. The social studies play a critical role in creating civically competent young people who make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good and who contribute to an increasingly diverse, but interdependent world.

You know that. This is why you teach. It is why we need your leadership and expertise as we all work to educate tomorrow’s citizens. The greatest thinkers in nearly every society have concluded that a well-educated person needs to learn much more than math, science, and how to read in their native tongue. As James Leach, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities recently put it, a society that fails to study history, refuses to learn from literature, and denies the lessons of philosophy “imprisons [its] thoughts in the here and now.”

As social studies teachers, you have the key to set the prisoners free.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.

The Essential Role of Social Studies: Refections on Arne Duncan's Article

Social Education 75(3) ©2011 National Council for the Social Studies

NCSS President Steve Goldberg and Past Presidents Syd Golston, Michael M. Yell, Gayle Thieman, and Peggy Altoff

Social Studies is Essential for Literacy

—Steve Goldberg

The words of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about the need for renewed emphasis on social studies and citizenship education are certainly good to hear.

...what is the context for the skills instruction provided by our colleagues in these “more essential disciplines”? One cannot teach skills in an academic vacuum.

We would welcome educational policies that support his words.

The events of early May bring home the importance of restoring social studies to the forefront of the curriculum, where it rightfully belongs. The NAEP Report on Civics shows clearly that our students are not as well versed in the knowledge of our political system and its operations as we would like. Although the fourth graders in that assessment performed better than older students, will that be the case in the future, when instructional time in the elementary grades has been sharply reduced to allow increased time for literacy and numeracy? At the upper grades, especially in high schools that haven’t made Adequate Yearly Progress [AYP], students are pulled from the “unnecessary subjects” (that is, those not federally mandated for testing, like social studies) to prep for the high stakes tests of accountability. This is a travesty because it increases the ignorance of our students, our future voters and our future leaders, in the vital area of civics! What further proof do we need to restore social studies as a critical subject?

The Secretary writes of the essential subjects of reading and mathematics as providing the critical foundations of reading and computation so that our students can read documents and comprehend social scientific concepts. But what is the context for the skills instruction provided by our colleagues in these “more essential disciplines”? One cannot teach skills in an academic vacuum. In speeches at both NCSS in Denver and at state social studies conferences across the country and in my written articles in The Social Studies Professional throughout the year, I have stressed that social studies is an essential discipline for literacy. Through our efforts, students can analyze historical text; they can interpret graphs and charts of data relating to stock market fluctuations or election results; they can read a photograph or a historical painting; they can measure distances on maps. These are the literacy and numeracy skills that are necessary to function in the real world. We are much more than a core discipline essential to a well-rounded curriculum. We are as critical as reading and mathematics, because our charge is much greater.

In our classrooms, we provide a forum for discussion of the world in which we live, both the microworld of our communities and states and our nation, but also the macroworld that enables students to learn about the complexities of the human experience. The killing of Osama bin Laden and the revolutionary events in North Africa and the Middle East require social studies teachers to make sense of the world order. Who can provide the historic framework so that students can make informed decisions about their place in this ever-changing world? How old were they on September 11, 2001? Do they understand that the very social networking tools that define their daily lives provided the “under the radar infrastructure” for ongoing events that reverberate in the Islamic world?

We cannot relegate these discussions about geopolitics to high school classes. In our growing pluralistic society, children in the early grades need to be made more aware of the world in which they live so that they will be able to assume major decision-making roles as well informed citizens. A pervasive lack of knowledge in this country about foreign cultures and political occurrences threatens the very security of the United States as well as our ability to compete in the global marketplace and produce an informed citizenry. How ironic that the limited resources for education often result in the elimination of the very courses that instruct our students about opportunity costs!

There will have to be a real change in the mindset of our educational policy makers, who need to recognize that through their actions in local school board meetings, in sessions of state assemblies and senates, and in meetings in the chambers of the Capitol in Washington, they have unwittingly relegated social studies to a secondary and oftentimes tertiary role in the pantheon of the curriculum. We all believe in the humanist notion of a well-rounded Renaissance person, but until monies are restored to allow professional development and specialized programs such as Teaching American History (TAH) grants, Citizenship grants, Fulbright fellowships, and new federal funds for the promotion of geographic literacy and perhaps global studies, we will remain frustrated as we watch our students become less informed in the areas that are vital for the preservation of our free market economy, our participatory democracy, and our cultural literacy. Yes, we hold the key, and yes, we have the potential to really make a difference, but unless the educational climate in this country improves, unless the priorities for educational spending are adjusted, then we will remain impotent to effect the kinds of changes that are critical for our survival.

Steve Goldberg is President of NCSS. He is social studies department chairperson at New Rochelle High School in New Rochelle, NY.


Citizenship: The Ultimate Academic Application

—Syd Golston

Like poetry, Duncan’s words sound lyrical yet need critical interpretation so that true implications are revealed.

Duncan’s essay reads like poetry to the ears of a civics teacher—and by that we mean any teacher who brings politics and social issues and current events to her classroom, whether to small children or to high school seniors.

We love seeing the words “engaged and thinking citizens who are prepared for college and careers”—although we always want to expand that expression to read “engaged and thinking students who are prepared for college, careers, and citizenship.” We at NCSS have often made the case that all of our students will be citizens, whether or not they go to college or into any specific line of work. In adulthood, few of us will dissect a crayfish or solve a quadratic equation or quote Macbeth, but every year our country asks us to use our school skills and especially our social studies education to go into a voting booth and help to run our cities, our states, and our nation. Citizenship: it’s the ultimate academic application. 

Like poetry, Duncan’s words sound lyrical yet need critical interpretation so that true implications are revealed. The Secretary has called for testing that is deeper and more inclusive, but he has failed to mention excellent tests in social studies areas (civics, economics, geography, U.S. history, and world history) that already exist. The NAEP batteries are performance-rich tests—just the kind Duncan seems to support here. We have long requested that these valuable assessments be extended so that they test a much larger number of students, that they be repeated more often in social studies subjects, and that the results be reported state by state. This would require a relatively modest expenditure, an embodiment of the kind of small, targeted spending that this administration has said that it champions, that could really make a difference.

Other limited expenditures that are on the chopping block that mean a great deal to civics education aren’t mentioned in Duncan’s article: Teaching American History grants, Academies for American History and Civics, National History Day, and Close-Up Fellowships are some of these. These are programs with proven track records for student achievement in civics education. They merit support from this administration.

In all, we are gratified to see Duncan’s words…but also hoping that the administration can stand up for excellence in civics education where it already exists and is in peril.

Syd Golston was NCSS President in 2009–2010. She is an educational administrator, curriculum writer, and historian who has taught at all grade levels from 7th to college.


Where the Rubber Meets the Road

—Michael M. Yell


Social studies is at the center of a good school curriculum because it is where students learn to see the world—its peoples, places, cultures, systems, and problems; its dream and calamities—now and long ago. Social studies needs to be set deeply within the school curriculum from the earliest grades.1

—Walter Parker

This administration has stated that education is a priority in these turbulent times. Reading Secretary Duncan’s article, I believe that his heart is in the right place.

This narrowing will weigh heavily upon the students of today, as it has the effect of denying them a vital foundation in the social studies.

Unfortunately, I am not certain the same can be said about the administration’s Race to the Top program.

As a social studies teacher who has primarily taught history for much of my career, I am concerned with the effects of No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top on all of the disciplines of social studies, and history in particular.

I’ve wrestled with disappointment over the educational policies of this administration, which I do not see as significantly differing from the previous administration. I have to wonder how Race to the Top will help social studies teachers meet the goal of creating tomorrow’s active citizens when, as a consequence of NCLB/Race to the Top, social studies is being squeezed out of the curriculum?

Although Secretary Duncan obviously understands the narrowing problem, I do not see how Race to the Top changes this situation. In his article, the Secretary’s recommendation is for “social studies teachers to work together to encourage states and local school boards to develop high social studies standards…” Mr. Secretary, I have been involved in my state with the development of standards, as well in my district, and it is clear that such involvement really matters little when Adequate Yearly Progress and sanctions still remain for our schools. The view down here, where the rubber meets the road, unfortunately, is that what is tested is what is taught. What has been imposed from the top must be rectified from the top. So I would respectfully point out to Secretary Duncan that to rectify this narrowing phenomenon, we need leadership at the highest levels of this administration.

Whether talking to teachers in my district or those in other districts across our land as a past president of NCSS, the extent of that squeezing out, or narrowing, comes into focus: teachers who can no longer engage their students with long term creative projects, teachers who can no longer work between content areas and the arts to create exciting interdisciplinary educational opportunities for their students. This narrowing will weigh heavily upon the students of today, as it has the effect of denying them a vital foundation in the social studies. That foundation is, as Walter Parker writes, where students learn to see the world. From the perspective of the history teacher, the historical imagination can be kindled early with projects and interdisciplinary activities on such things as biographies, songs, and beginning to delve into the past. As good history teaching promotes reasoning about human affairs, questioning, understanding other perspectives, and interpreting evidence, is this a foundation on which we wish to skimp?

Finally, I, as many in the social studies field, have been struck by the apparent disregard of the relationship between poverty and educational achievement. There can be little doubt that children born in poverty begin school far behind their middle class cohorts in almost every conceivable area, and they continue to fall behind. Is it conscionable to punish schools in low performing/high poverty school districts because the teachers and principals in those schools cannot perform educational miracles with these children? Will this change because of Race to the Top? When President Obama spoke approvingly to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about the mass firing of the teachers in the Central Falls High School, it certainly didn’t appear likely.

1. Walter Parker (ed) Social Studies Today, Routledge, New York, NY, 2010.

Michael M. Yell was NCSS President in 2008–2009. He is a National Board Certified Teacher who teaches social studies at Hudson Middle School in Hudson, Wisconsin. He is also a blogger for


The Need for Authentic Assessments

—Gayle Thieman

As state and local policymakers develop valid assessments, as proposed by Secretary Duncan, I suggest they incorporate criteria of “authentic assessment.” Unlike traditional tests of factual recall, authentic assessments are designed to examine students’ performance on real-world tasks. Authentic assessments require active learning and involvement on the part of students who construct their own understanding and apply what they have learned. Students may use digital tools to interpret and evaluate complex information while considering multiple perspectives and alternative solutions. Students use ideas and methods of inquiry that are central to the discipline, e.g., doing the work of policy makers, historians, geographers, and economists. Tasks are open-ended and allow for collaboration and divergent thinking so that students may use multiple strategies to arrive at varied conclusions. Authentic assessments may require students to share their learning in global or cross-cultural contexts. As students submit work for feedback and revision, they reflect and set goals for their own learning.

…the U.S. Department of Education should provide incentives similar to those for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

The Connected Learning Coalition1 has developed Principles for Learning that offer a good foundation for authentic assessments linked to each principle. Successful models for authentic assessments already exist, such as National History Day, Project Citizen, and Washington State Classroom-Based Assessments (CBA’s). Each year secondary school students conduct research, analyze and interpret primary and secondary sources related to the annual National History Day theme, and present their conclusions through written papers, websites, performances or documentaries at the local, state, and national level to professional historians and educators. An independent evaluation of the program found that NHD students outperform their non-NHD peers on state standardized tests in multiple subjects, learn 21st century college- and career-ready skills, collaborate with team members, and are critical thinkers who can digest, analyze and synthesize information.2

Project Citizen, sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, helps middle and high school students learn how to influence public policy by working cooperatively to identify a local issue.3 They conduct research, evaluate alternative solutions to develop their own public policy solution, and create a political action plan to enlist support. Students develop a portfolio and present their project in a public hearing showcase to a community panel.

Washington state educators developed classroom based assessments and scoring rubrics, which require K-12 students to apply understanding of content and skills in civics, geography, economics, and history.4 Students use critical thinking skills as they investigate an issue or event, and develop a position, providing evidence for their conclusions. CBA’s are embedded in instructional units taught as part of the social studies curriculum; while teachers report the number of students who complete the assessments, they are not required to report students’ scores.

To encourage states and districts to develop policies and implement authentic assessments in social studies, the U.S. Department of Education should provide incentives similar to those for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). These incentives should reward states and districts which have already developed and require authentic performance assessments, such as Washington and Maine, and Oregon, which requires students to “demonstrate civic and community engagement and global literacy.” Consider allowing adequate performance on projects such as National History Day, Project Citizen, Mock Trial, Model UN, and Geography Bee to be included as valid evidence of students’ mastery. High-stakes multiple choice testing inhibits teachers’ adoption of innovative instruction and assessment strategies. Federal policy should redefine the expectations of a “highly qualified teacher” to include the capacity to design authentic means for students to demonstrate and apply their knowledge and skills. Furthermore, the assessment definitions in NCLB should be revised to accept assessments which use authentic demonstration of student work that is reliably scored with standards-based criteria. The challenge will be to bring the innovative authentic social studies assessments that already exist to scale; to accomplish this will require a partnership of federal and state policy makers and local educators. It CAN BE DONE!


  1. The Principles for Learning were developed by the Connected Learning Coalition, representing National Council for the Social Studies, Association for Career and Technical Education, Consortium for School Networking, National Council of Teachers of English, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and National Science Teachers Association.
  2. The information on National History Day evaluation details has been retrieved from
  3. Information on Project Citizen is available at
  4. Washington State Classroom-Based Assessments in Social Studies retrieved from

Gayle Thieman was NCSS President in 2007–2008. She is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University, specializing in social studies methods and instructional design and technology.


The Key Does Not Fit All The Locks

—Peggy Altoff

As social studies teachers, we may “have the key,” as Arne Duncan says, but our problem is that there is more than one lock, and the key does not fit them all.

Why, for example, do grant opportunities for states through Race to the Top fail to incorporate the core contents of social studies?

Secretary Duncan’s article speaks of the importance of the core contents of social studies in students’ lives, and of the role of social studies teachers, who have the key to preparing future citizens. However, social studies is being “locked out,” and one reason for this is that it is not included in the accountability measures or funding priorities of the Department of Education.

Current DOE programs and regulations discourage states and districts from including all four core content areas of social studies. Why, for example, do grant opportunities for states through Race to the Top fail to incorporate the core contents of social studies? Why has there been no support from DOE and major funders for the completion of Common State Standards for Social Studies, as there was for the Common Core Standards for ELA and Math? Why are states allowed to omit social studies from accountability programs if, as the Secretary states, “Educators and policymakers need to recognize that social studies is a core subject, critical to sustaining an informed democracy and a globally competitive workforce”?

Geography is one of the four core content areas of social studies, for which NCLB requires a teacher to be “highly certified.” But this content—along with history, civics, and economics—is omitted when the topics of funding and assessment are raised. Until these “locks” are addressed more substantively, the contents of social studies will continue to be marginalized by districts, states, and by the only national assessment that purports to measure progress in our content areas, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). One example of the funding issue is the failure of Congress to pass the Teaching Geography is Fundamental Act, a bill that would expand geographic literacy among K-12 students through grants for geography teacher training. The bill was introduced in 2005 and has yet to reach the floor for consideration, despite co-sponsors in each house. Other content areas have managed to secure some congressional funding but must fight for it each year during the annual “budget cut” debates. Under the most recent plan, funding for the Teaching American History grants program, which has supplied more than $1 billion over the past decade for school districts and their nonprofit partners, is being reduced from $119 million in fiscal year 2010 to $46 million in the current year.1

So, having a key to help prepare students for their role as citizens has always been in our hands, but until the government supports social studies by including it in regulations, legislation, funding, and accountability measures, the key will not be able to open the locks. We need more than rhetorical and moral support from our state and national leaders. We need the substantive support required to assure the success of our citizens in maintaining our democratic republic in the future.

1. Erik W. Robelen, “Federal History Grant Program Takes Budget Hit for Fiscal 2011,” Education Week, April 20, 2011.

Peggy Altoff was NCSS President in 2006–2007. She taught in Baltimore City, MD, and worked as social studies supervisor in District 11 in Colorado Springs, CO, and Carroll County Public Schools, Westminster, MD.

rne Duncan teaches a class at Falls Church High School

Arne Duncan teaches a class at Falls Church High School about the federal role in education, February 3, 2010. (Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education)

The Essential Role of Social Studies: Refections on Arne Duncan's Article

NCSS President Steve Goldberg and former presidents Syd Golston, Michael Yell, Gayle Thieman, and Peggy Altoff point out the effects that education policies have had on the social studies and call on our national leaders to change these policies.

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