J.R. Wilson: Who’s Writing Common Core Social Studies Standards?

by J.R. Wilson

Is the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) writing common core state standards for social studies or not? They say they aren't, but it appears they are. They are playing this one closer to the vest than they did with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for ELA and math.

In November 2012 the CCSSO released Vision for the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Inquiry in Social Studies State Standards. They say they are developing a framework for states to use as a resource as they upgrade their social studies standards and that this will not be a set of standards for states to adopt. They also say this framework is "being developed through a state-led effort". They contend this framework, like the common core state standards, "will be based on evidence and will aim at college and career readiness." The CCSSO is not disclosing the names of people on the writing team and tightly controls information about how and what business is being conducted.

While this is to be a framework and not a set of standards, it still may be extremely influential as states develop standards under its guidance. Remember the influence NCTM's standards had on state math standards? Remember how the federal government required, encouraged, bribed, or coerced states into adopting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for ELA and math? Will the federal government use similar enticements to get states to commit to using this framework? (i.e., with programs like RTTT and NCLB waivers?) And last but not least, will there be a common "national" assessment that addresses social studies in each state's uncommon core state standards for social studies? (In case you're getting confused, those are the standards developed with the commonality of CCSSO's "framework".)

The National Governors Association (NGA) Center for Best Practices and the CCSSO teamed up in the effort to produce the CCSS for ELA and math. Both say this was a state-led effort. Apparently if a governor and chief state school officer undertake something it is a state-led effort whether or not the people of the state—taxpayers and constituents—want it, know anything about it, or have any kind of say in it. With no mention of NGA involvement, the CCSSO is leading the way to develop a social studies framework claiming it is a state-led effort. It's intriguing that the NGA is absent from this effort. Are the chief state school officers now so confident in their ability to lead the way for the states, that they can now do so without the NGA as well as the states and still be able to say it is a state-led effort? Or are the people in your state leading your state by asking your chief state school officer to undertake this effort on their behalf? Do the people in your state even know about this effort? Did they know about the effort when the CCSS for ELA and math were being developed as a so-called state-led effort? Which leads me to conclude that a state-led effort doesn't mean that states are leading the effort. What a state-led effort really means is that states are being led in an effort to impose something the states had nothing to do with.

The CCSSO claims this framework will be evidence-based like the common core state standards. This appears to be a promise with a sense of deja vu: the NGA and CCSSO also promised the ELA and math CCSS would be evidenced-based which is very questionable. In Common Core State Standards: An Example of Data-less Decision Making, Christopher H. Tienken has the following to say about the CCSS being evidenced based:

The official website for the CCSS claims to provide such evidence. The site alleges that the standards are "evidence based" and lists two homegrown documents to "prove" it: Myths vs Facts (NGA, 2010) and the Joint International Benchmarking Report (NGA, 2008).

The Myths document presents claims that the standards have "made use of a large and growing body of knowledge" (p. 3). Knowledge derives in part from carefully controlled scientific experiments and observations so one would expect to find references to high quality empirical research to support the standards.

When I reviewed that "large and growing body of knowledge" offered by the NGA, I found that it was not large, and in fact built mostly on one report, Benchmarking for Success, created by the NGA and the CCSSO, the same groups that created these standards; Hardly independent research.

The Benchmarking report has over 135 end notes, some of which are repetitive references. Only four of the cited pieces of evidence could be considered empirical studies related directly to the topic of national standards and student achievement.

The remaining citations were newspaper stories, armchair magazine articles, op-ed pieces, book chapters, notes from telephone interviews, and several tangential studies.

Many of the citations were linked to a small group of standardization advocates and did not represent the larger body of empirical thought on the topic.

Why should we believe this framework will be evidence-based? Should we believe it simply because we have been told it will be? Being told this will not make it true yet the CCSSO and others will repeat this over and over as if it is. The evidence needs to be evident and credible.

How can they tell how accurate their aim at college and career readiness will be? How will they calibrate their aim? What if everyone buys into this and their aim is amiss?

The CCSSO is not disclosing the names of people on the writing team and tightly controls information about how and what business is being conducted. Who are the writers? Why don't they want the public to know who they are? Why such secrecy? The CCSSO is a non-government organization and is not subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act . This non-government organization has set out to produce a document that likely will highly influence state social studies standards, textbook development, textbook selection and adoption, and professional development. Ultimately, this will affect what (as well as how) will be taught in public classrooms across the country (and possibly private schools, charter schools, and in home school settings). Shouldn't the public have a right to know who will have such an influence on the education of the children in their local community?

The NGA and CCSSO did receive pressure to release the names of the individuals writing the CCSS. Eventually the names of individuals on the working (writing), feedback, and validation teams were released to the public. If there was enough pressure, do you suppose the CCSSO will release, sooner rather than later, the names of those involved in working on the social studies framework?

Every state has a chief state school officer and the CCSSO website indicates their membership includes every state. Your chief state school officer's CCSSO membership dues are likely paid with taxpayers' money. Ask your officer and the CCSSO for the names of the people writing this framework. The states participating in the CCSSO social studies collaborative involved in developing the framework are Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, DC, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. If you are from one of these states, you may want to ask your chief state school officer for the names of individuals from your state who are involved.

Isn't it great that we have an "open government" that, often at great costs, supports, buys into, and voluntarily adopts frameworks and standards developed by non-government organizations behind closed doors without the opportunity for real public input and involvement? While some information may be available to the public, it may be difficult or impossible to find. Beware of the Leopard!

J.R. Wilson is a parent and an education advocate with 25+ years experience in public education as an elementary teacher, curriculum consultant, staff development coordinator, and principal.

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