New Social Studies Framework Steers Clear of Content, Facts

If the new academic framework designed to “enhance the rigor of K-12 civics, economics, geography and history,” contains nothing relating to civics, economics, geography and history, does it have any value to teachers and students? That is the question asked by Chester E. Finn Jr., of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute about the the latest release by the National Council for the Social Studies.

College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards – a result of a three-year collaboration between states – is aimed at two different audiences. It is supposed to guide states in improving and upgrading social studies curricula and at the same time aid school districts, teachers and curriculum writers in adding rigor and structure to the subject. But as Finn points out, that’s quite a set of goals for a document that’s filled with all forms of jargon, but omits anything that can be called “content.”

Nowhere in its 108 pages will you find Abraham Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King (or Martin Luther), a map of the United States, or the concept of supply and demand. You won’t find anything that you might think children should actually learn about history, geography, civics or economics.

Instead, you will something called an “Inquiry Arc,” defined as “as set of interlocking and mutually supportive ideas that frame the ways students learn social studies content.”

Got that? Here’s an example of how it works. Turn to table 23 on page 49. This has to do with “causation and argumentation” and purports to be part of the inquiry arc as applied to history, in particular to “dimension 2,” dubbed “causation and argumentation.”

According to Finn, the entire framework is the world’s most elaborate game of Mad Libs. Its value is about equal to the value of a newspaper article that fails to include the Five W’s.

As most of the country rushes to get itself aligned with Common Core Standards, Finn expects to see more such frameworks that are light on content – documents that provide only hints without any internal controls designed to make sure that people charged with filling in the blanks fill them in correctly and to the benefit of the students.

The publication of the “C3” framework (that stands for “college, career, and civic life”) is not, however, a neutral act. It is, in fact, a damaging act for American education. In struggling (on multiple pages) to insist that it is “aligned” with the Common Core state standards for English language arts, it demeans the Common Core and complicates the work of those trying earnestly to implement it. And by enshrining “twenty-first-century skills” within social studies, it puts a further squeeze on actual content and reduces the odds that kids, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, will emerge from school with anything like the knowledge they need to be effective, productive citizens and participants in the nation’s shared culture, civic life, and public discourse.