NATIONAL SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS
The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) published its first “National Standards” document in 1994. NCSS started a re-examination of the standards in 2007, and the current National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (NCSSS) is dated 2013. NCSSS states that “the revised standards do not represent a set of mandated outcomes or an attempt to establish a national social studies curriculum.”
The NCSS standards “provide a framework for professional deliberation and planning about what should occur in a social studies program in grades pre-K through 12.” NCSSS distinguishes between curriculum standards and content standards. “Content standards ... provide a detailed description of content and methodology considered central to a specific discipline.... The NCSS curriculum standards instead provide a set of principles by which content can be selected and organized to build a viable, valid, and defensible social studies curriculum....” The NCSS standards therefore “address issues that are broader and deeper than the identification of content specific to a particular discipline.”
In short, the NCSS standards are general and broad in nature, in contrast to the other standards we have reviewed in individual disciplines – which are much more content specific. There does not seem to be any particular connection of the NCSS standards to those in economics, geography, history, and civics/government. In fact, these other standards are never mentioned in the NCSSS document.
A general criticism we have about the NCSS standards is that they lack a “standard.” That is, much of the content aims at student inquiry and making active comparisons. But in order to make meaningful comparisons, one must have a standard – a point of reference – as a base for study. Without valid criteria, all we have are sets of data, lists of characteristics, and multiple perspectives. It is necessary to start with a grounding culture – the common American culture – before one can begin to look outward at the various cultures of the world. The NCSS standards lack such a reference point, leaving the false notion of relativism as the main approach to understanding human beings and the world.
The NCSS standards are arranged by ten themes: (1) Culture, (2) Time, Continuity, and Change, (3) People, Places, and Environments, (4) Individual Development and Identity, (5) Individuals, Groups, and Institutions, (6) Power, Authority, and Governance, (7) Production, Distribution, and Consumption, (8) Science, Technology, and Society, (9) Global Connections, and (10) Civic Ideals and Practices. Some of these represent traditional subjects in social studies (i.e., history, geography, economics, government), while others are more multi-disciplinary.
In a somewhat confusing arrangement, each of the ten themes is covered in five separate chapters of the standards: (1) the themes, (2) the purposes, (3) learning expectations for early grades, (4) expectations for middle grades, and (5) expectations for high school. There is a fair amount of redundancy among the various chapters, which adds pages but not necessarily new information. We will consider each theme separately.
*Culture is defined as “the socially transmitted beliefs, values, institutions, behaviors, traditions and way of life of a group of people; it also encompasses other cultural attributes and products, such as language, literature, music, arts and artifacts, and foods.”
*NCSSS states the purpose of learning culture: “By recognizing various cultural perspectives, learners become capable of understanding diverse perspectives, thereby acquiring the potential to foster more positive relations and interactions with diverse people within our own nation and other nations.” This begs the question: how do we define positive relations and interactions? What is positive in one culture (e.g., stoning an adulterer) may be quite unacceptable in another.
*There is no problem with the idea of learning about other cultures. We live in a global society with many cross-cultural interactions, and students should learn about this diversity. However, the standards do not list any specific cultures that should be studied. One is left with the impression that any culture is appropriate for study, so just choose some that interest you. When studying cultures, one needs a fixed point of reference – and that is our commonly shared U.S. culture. Understanding our American society and its governance, ideals, and principles is a prerequisite to learning about other cultures.
*The word multicultural is used but never defined. However, multicultural studies typically start with the premise that all cultures are equally valid. Cultural equivalence is a false concept; some cultures have better values and precepts than others. The focus in American social studies should be on our country’s dominant culture, which has as its heritage Western civilization and the Judeo-Christian tradition.
*We cannot be sure whether the NCSSS writers intend “multicultural” to mean simply “many cultures” or else “equal validity for all cultures.” Based on the current emphasis on multiculturalism in American schools, however, we suspect they mean the latter. There needs to be clarity on this issue.
*Assimilation of immigrants into the dominant American culture should be stressed, but NCSSS seems to emphasize cultural preservation instead. For example, immigrants who seek citizenship should become proficient in the English language, American history and traditions, and the American form of republican government. If immigrants want to retain some of their cultural identity, that is fine, but if they want to become citizens they need to assimilate into American society. The words “adaptation” and “assimilation” are each mentioned once in the standards, but there is no elaboration on their significance.
2. Time, Continuity, and Change.
*This is the history theme. History should be the central component of a social studies curriculum, yet here it is only one theme out of ten! This is arguably the weakest section in the NCSS standards. It is almost totally devoid of useful content, and it abounds in generalities.
*One must ask: where is the history in these standards? For example: neither world nor U.S. history is mentioned; no names of any historical figures are listed; no places (cities, countries, geographical sites) important in history are documented; no events critical to history are described; no significant dates in history are cited; no general eras in world or U.S. history are considered.
*The main emphasis in this section seems to be on student inquiry rather than on knowledge of history. Content knowledge is a prerequisite to inquiry; the main emphasis in K-12 history should be on learning history. Instead, numerous “learning expectations” ask students to study different interpretations of historical events, gather a variety of primary and secondary sources, use historical methods of inquiry, and evaluate the impact of past people and events. Without the appropriate background knowledge, such activities for most students become exercises in futility.
*With the NCSSS guidelines, districts and teachers are left alone to choose whatever history they want. There is no grade level sequence or any kind of guidance whatsoever. It is obvious that the “Time, Continuity, and Change” theme contains little useful material. While it is not our intent to suggest detailed content, we can list several topics that should be emphasized:
a. The development of Western civilization should be stressed – Greece, Rome, Israel, western Europe, the United States. This is our heritage, and it has resulted in the most advanced and accomplished society in history.
b. The great story of the American past should be told honestly. Yes there are flaws and shortcomings, but overall the U.S. is and has been the fountain of hope and the beacon of liberty for the world. American exceptionalism is real, and a history curriculum should reflect that. Any honest study of American history would highlight the way that American ideals inspire political and social advances and self-corrections over time. By being true to the vision of the Founders, genuine human progress has been made.
c. Patriotic themes of America’s past should be highlighted. Instruction should impart a sense of civic pride at the obstacles overcome, the passion invested, and the blood and tears spilled to build a nation.
d. The focus should be on major events and their effects and key people and their contributions. There is a tendency in modern texts to devote considerable space to the lives of ordinary people and disadvantaged groups, including minorities. While some of this is appropriate, the most extensive coverage should go to those events and persons that most influenced historical developments and societal progress.
e. A common theme in many U.S. history texts is victimization of minorities (Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans), the impoverished, and women. Clearly, not all people have received equal protection under the law or equal opportunities, but the reforms and remedies that have helped all groups in this country are inspired by the truths set forth in our founding documents. Policies espoused to combat this alleged victimization (e.g., government welfare, redistribution of wealth, progressive taxation) have not always worked very well. Nevertheless the story of America, if told fairly, is that the United States has been and still is the land of opportunity for many people – a beacon of liberty.
f. America is a society that relies on personal responsibility; it provides its citizens the opportunity to succeed based on their innate abilities. Social justice should mean equal opportunity, not equal outcomes forced by government.
g. Religious faith and virtue, particularly in the Judeo-Christian tradition, are the foundation for America’s past and current success. This truth is typically downplayed in history texts, allegedly to uphold the so-called “separation of church and state.” Any serious American history will make the distinction that the First Amendment was intended to prevent the establishment of a national church or denomination, not the removal of religion and religious influence in the public arena. The fact is that most of America’s Founders were dedicated Christians, and our system of government is largely based on the Bible and its precepts.
3. People, Places, and Environments.
*This is the geography theme. Students study physical geography, including such topics as where people and places are located, world regions, physical features of Earth (landforms, bodies of water), population and migration patterns, geographical tools (maps, globes, geospatial technologies), and climate and weather.
*There is extensive coverage of environmental geography, with a number of vague, non-specific learning objectives. Topics include land and water use, natural resource policies, human interactions with the environment, and climate change over time. There is no indication that the NCSSS writers have a bias in favor or against activist environmental policies; the learning expectations are so general that one cannot discern any particular trend. However, we suspect that the writers have in mind a more activist model of environmentalism – with emphasis on such themes as a more primitive lifestyle, reduction of man’s use of natural resources, development of “green” energy sources, reduction in greenhouse gases, globalism, and sustainability. There is certainly no coverage of the environment in terms of man’s responsibility to be a good and responsible steward of God’s creation.
*There is more emphasis on content knowledge, and less on inquiry, as compared to the “Time, Continuity, and Change” (history) section. There are, however, more inquiry expectations in the high school section, where students are asked to formulate research questions, research and analyze historical issues, use primary and secondary sources, and compare different interpretations of a period or event.
4. Individual Development and Identity.
*This theme explores human behavior and development. Topics include physical growth and change, basic needs of people, learning patterns, various influences (culture, institutions, family/parents, peers, groups), individual choices and goals, values and beliefs, and mental health.
*A major deficiency of this section is the lack of any component on moral philosophy. How do we know what is right and wrong? Are there cross-cultural standards of moral conduct – a universal human moral sense? The overall message of this section is that a person’s development may be influenced by any number of factors. Unfortunately, the standards do not guide the student as to which influences are better, which choices and goals are more appropriate, or which values and attitudes one should strive for. In short, the student is left to decide which pathway in life is best for them; it’s a matter of choice, and one choice is apparently just as good as another. This is values clarification based on postmodern relativism; it confuses students and leads to moral ambiguity.
*Students learn that (1) “family, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and institutional affiliations contribute to individual development and personal identity,” (2) “perception, attitudes, values, and beliefs [influence] personal identity,” (3) “individual choices are influenced by personal and social factors,” and (4) “each individual has personal connections to time and place.” Nowhere does it say that students should acquire their basic value system at home (from parents) and in their faith community. Schools need to reinforce traditional Judeo-Christian values and precepts, which are most likely to lead to well-adjusted adults and citizens.
*When discussing human development, particularly values and ethics, one would think that religious faith and training would enter the picture. Not so in these standards. You won’t find a single mention of God, church, pastor, or spiritual leader. Most parents want schools to reinforce traditional theistic beliefs, and educators can be most effective by following this path.
5. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions.
*This theme explores interactions between individuals and groups or organizations. This section has considerable overlap with theme #4. Several types of institutions are referred to – schools, families, religious organizations, government agencies, financial institutions, and civic groups. As in other themes, the learning objectives are rather general, but overall the material to be covered seems reasonable.
*Students explore the impact various institutions have on their lives. The focus is on using group interactions to develop cultural diffusion, foster cooperation and competition, establish rules and norms, and encourage socialization and assimilation. Thus the learning is directed at using groups and institutions to attain positive goals, although the details of how this can be accomplished are lacking. Students should also learn the types of groups and organizations they should join, as well as the types they should avoid.
*Students look at conflict and how to deal with it. For example: (1) “understand the impact of tensions and examples of cooperation between individuals, groups, and institutions, with their different belief systems,” (2) “understand examples of tensions between belief systems and governmental actions and policies,” (3) “investigate conflicts between expressions of individuality and group conformity,” and (4) “evaluate how groups and institutions work to meet individual needs and promote or fail to promote the common good.” The implied objective is for students to learn how to resolve conflicts and differences in a peaceful manner, but no specific approaches or methods are listed. As part of this, students need to learn when compromise is needed to reach the best solution. However, it is not appropriate to compromise on principles of ethics or morality.
6. Power, Authority, and Governance.
*This is the government theme. The main focus, as it should be, is on government in a constitutional democracy. We prefer the term constitutional republic (government of the people through elected representatives), but you won’t find the word “republic” in the standards. Students “will learn how people in democratic nations organize in groups and attempt to cooperate and resolve conflicts for purposes such as establishing order and security, and seeking social justice.” They will learn “the basic elements of government in the United States: executive, legislative, and judicial authority.” Thus while the focus is properly on how governance works in the U.S., details are left to curriculum writers and teachers.
*Students “will understand fundamental principles of American constitutional democracy (including those of the U.S. Constitution, popular sovereignty, the rule of law, separation of powers, checks and balances, minority rights, the separation of church and state, and Federalism).” These are all topics that students should study, but specifics are lacking. For example, what should be taught regarding church/state “separation,” a concept not present in our nation’s founding documents? Or how does one protect minority rights, when a basic principle of democratic government is that the majority rules?
*Students “will understand fundamental values of constitutional democracy (e.g., the common good, liberty, justice, equality, and individual dignity).” These values are important, but where do they come from? Completely lacking is any mention of the fundamental document expressing American values and precepts – the Declaration of Independence. Also lacking is any mention of God or Judeo-Christian values, despite the fact that the Founders based the American system on principles of truth found in the Bible. Some important topics are missing from the list of “values,” including individual rights (to life and the pursuit of happiness/property), religious freedom, limited government, national sovereignty, moral character, and responsible citizenship. Also, in America we stress equality before the law and equality of opportunity, but not equality of outcomes.
*Students also study “the ideologies, political cultures, structures, institutions, and processes of political systems that differ from those of the United States, and compare these with the political system of the United States.” Presumably the curriculum should emphasize ways in which our constitutional republic form of government is superior to others, although this is not stated explicitly.
7. Production, Distribution, and Consumption.
*This is the economics theme. Topics covered include scarcity, wants and needs, personal economic choices, economic incentives, money and prices, saving and borrowing, exchange and allocation of goods and services, income and employment, financial institutions, interest rates and inflation, competition and trade, market failure, and government policies.
*The main emphasis (as it should be) is on a market economy. The word “capitalism” is not used, however, and there is no explicit statement that a market economy works better than a command economy (e.g., socialism).
*To dispel the myth that trade requires a winner and a loser, the win-win nature of voluntary exchange should be discussed.
*The important concept of creation of wealth is never mentioned; this needs to be clearly explained to counter the common belief that wealth is not created but simply transferred (or redistributed).
*Students “compare and contrast market economies with other types of economies” and they “analyze various methods for allocating scarce goods and services at the state, national, and global levels.” The advantages of capitalism and the free market should be emphasized when comparing different economic systems.
*The moral aspects of a market economy are barely considered. For example, a common belief is that greed is the essence of capitalism. This is not true; pursuing one’s own self-interest is not immoral, but rather it can enhance competitiveness and help meet the needs and wants of others. Capitalism is consistent with Judeo-Christian principles such as the rule of law, honesty, cooperation, self-sacrifice, altruism, delayed gratification, and a willingness to risk.
*Adam Smith wrote on the theory of moral sentiments. To him the free market would only operate well if the participants were virtuous enough to practice such things as honesty and justice. This parallels the Founders: citizens in a functioning representative system must have virtue, and the participants in a free market must also practice virtue. In both cases, the absence of virtue leads to collapse and the imposition of control from above.
*Redistribution of wealth by government is not mentioned, even though it is an important economic consideration. There should be discussion of the positives and negatives associated with “social justice” considerations. For example, does long-term government assistance discourage individuals from seeking education and employment? Do government policies regarding women and children discourage traditional marriage and at-home child-rearing? What effect does massive government assistance have on federal and state budgets and the national debt? Is personal responsibility still a fundamental American principle?
*There is no discussion of goods and services provided by the government versus those provided by the private sector. Obviously, some services are best supplied by government (national defense/security, police/fire protection, roads/bridges, et al.). There should be consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of having certain services provided by the private sector as compared to government (K-12 and college education, job training, electric power, communications systems, family services, housing, agriculture, parks and recreation, et al.).
8. Science, Technology, and Society.
*This is a theme that is of increasing importance in today’s fast-paced world. The relationship of science/technology to society is covered somewhat in history, geography, and science classes, but NCSSS has chosen to make it a separate theme.
*Science and technology are given reasonable definitions: “Science is based upon the empirical study of the natural world and technology is the application of knowledge to accomplish tasks.” The word “empirical” means relating to experiment and observation, and this has been a traditional way to describe scientific inquiry. This theme does not get into the philosophy of science, demarcation criteria, or the methods of science. This is probably for the best, since these topics are complex and often controversial.
*This rather curious statement is made in the introduction to this theme: “Students examine scientific ideas and technological changes that have surprised people and even challenged their beliefs, as in the case of discoveries about our universe and their technological applications, as well as the genetic basis of life, atomic physics, and other subjects.” What beliefs are the writers referring to? Are these beliefs about how nature operates or personal beliefs about religious matters? If the latter, then this becomes a controversial issue that needs to be considered neutrally and objectively. What discoveries do the writers have in mind? The Big Bang, for example, implies a beginning to the universe, and a beginning implies a supernatural Designer/Creator. This is another controversial issue that, if taught, must be dealt with objectively. And what about the genetic basis of life? The origin of the information in the genetic code cannot be explained by any naturalistic/materialistic mechanism. Thus, did life really come about by naturalistic processes, or did it have an intelligent origin? The lack of specificity in the NCSSS “framework” leaves a lot of ambiguity.
*The NCSSS writers ask: “How do we balance the possibilities and advancements in science and technology against ways in which they may conflict with existing beliefs, ethics, and values?” Unfortunately, the standards offer no clues about specific values or technological issues. Also, there is no guidance about how controversial issues should be handled. Questions like this involve religious issues, and as such they must be taught objectively so that the educational effect is religiously neutral.
*Learners “ask and find answers to questions about the impact of science and technology in the past and present, and in different places and societies.” This is a great subject, but the lack of specific details results in a topic that could go in a lot of different directions.
*Students “identify the purposes, points of view, biases, and intended audience of reports and discussions related to issues involving science and technology.” This is another great subject, listed as usual without specifics. Scientists and technologists can be biased, just like anyone else, and discussing this topic could be quite useful for students.
*A major deficiency in this section is the lack of any historical grounding for the development of modern science. Early scientists discovered that the universe is orderly and can be studied by observation and experiment. They believed that this order came from God. Thus science began with a teleological model (design and purpose are present in nature), but it evolved over the years into a materialistic endeavor (nature is all there is). Students need to understand what science and technology can and cannot do, and they need to explore the ethical and moral questions that advancements in technical knowledge create.
9. Global Connections.
*The theme of globalization touches on several disciplines, including geography, economics, government, and technology. This section covers a number of important sub-themes for students to consider.
*One sub-theme is the rapid pace of expanding global connections: “Global connections are rapidly accelerating across cultures and nations, and can have both positive and negative effects on nations and individuals.” The standards correctly emphasize that globalization creates issues that people and nations need to resolve – hopefully in a peaceful manner: “Describe and explain conditions and motivations that contribute to conflict, cooperation, and interdependence among groups, societies, and nations.”
*Another sub-theme is human rights: “Identify concerns, issues, conflicts, and possible resolutions related to issues involving universal human rights.” As in most other topics, the standards lack specifics in this area. For example, where do basic human rights come from? Which human rights should be protected? How does one distinguish basic human rights from cultural preferences? What can be done to chastise nations and groups who neglect basic rights?
*An important consideration is national sovereignty: “Analyze the relationships and tensions between national sovereignty and global interests, in matters such as territorial rights, economic development, the use of natural resources, and human rights.” This topic could benefit from more content details. For example, how do treaties and trade agreements provide benefits but also cause countries to cede some degree of sovereignty? Is it acceptable to use foreign laws to influence a country’s court decisions? How does membership in an international organization (like the United Nations, World Court, World Bank, NATO, or NAFTA) affect a nation’s sovereignty?
*There is some coverage of environmentalism: “The actions of people, communities, and nations have both short- and long-term effects on the biosphere and its ability to sustain life.” The question is asked: “To what extent are current decisions by individuals and governments in this interdependent world consistent with stewardship of the planet?” There is (thankfully) no hint of activist environmentalism in these standards; instead environmental issues are pretty much downplayed. There is a tendency in current academic standards to promote the UN’s Agenda 21 and sustainability, with their emphasis on simpler lifestyles, reduced economic development, global redistribution of wealth, limited use of natural resources, “green” (renewable) energy, “smart growth” policies, human population control, and global governance. The Global Connections theme wisely avoids this controversial area.
10. Civic Ideals and Practices.
*This is the civics theme. It focuses on principles undergirding a democratic society and on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Standards on the workings of government are covered under theme #6.
*Concepts and ideals in a democratic republic are listed: “human dignity, social justice, liberty, equality, inalienable rights, responsibilities, civil dissent, citizenship, majority and minority rights, the common good, and the rule of law.” Most of these are fine, but a number of important ideals are missing; e.g., consent of the governed, limited government, natural rights (i.e., life and the pursuit of happiness/property), religious freedom, national sovereignty, moral character, and personal responsibility. The inclusion of “social justice” is all right if it is intended to mean that everyone deserves an equal opportunity to succeed; if the term is meant to support government intervention and redistribution of wealth, however, it should not be listed as a democratic “ideal.”
*Rights and responsibilities of citizenship are listed: “respecting the rule of law and due process, voting, serving on a jury, researching issues, making informed judgments, expressing views on issues, and collaborating with others to take civic action.” This is a good list for participation as a citizen in the workings of government, but it says nothing about the personal characteristics of a citizen. A democratic republic like the U.S. can only succeed if the people have high moral and ethical character. Also, good citizens need to assume personal responsibility for themselves and their family, which includes a strong work ethic and a caring attitude.
*Students will understand “key documents that define and support democratic ideals and practices (e.g., the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Sentiments in Seneca Falls, New York, the Gettysburg Address, the letter from the Birmingham Jail; and international documents such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Children).” By far the two most important documents in the list are the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Interestingly, nothing is said in the standards about the source of democratic ideals and principles. The source is explained in the Declaration, which speaks of the “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Students should know that the Founders relied on God and the Bible for the basic principles under which our government operates. We would not include the two international documents in this list. First, it is not clear whether the first document is referring to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789). The second document is presumably the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959). American ideals and practices are not based on foreign documents or UN proclamations; they are based on the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
*Learners “identify, seek, describe, and evaluate multiple points of view about selected issues, noting the strengths, weaknesses, and consequences associated with holding each position.” It is good to examine various perspectives. However, any evaluation of differing viewpoints should be based on American ideals and principles. The standards should make clear that not all points of view are equally valid.
National Civics and Government Standards
National Economics Standards
National Geography Standards
National History Standards
National Social Studies Standards