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The Shrinking Role of Social Studies in Classrooms

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Lincoln_MemorialSocial studies, long considered a “core subject” in American classrooms, has been cut back in recent decades. Jen Kalaidis, writing in The Atlantic, traces the reduction in social studies classroom time to the No Child Left Behind Act, and argues that a greater emphasis is essential.

In the 1993-1994 school year, the average American student spent 9.5% of their classroom time on social studies. Just one decade later, that figure dropped to 7.6%, signaling a shift in curriculum priorities. Kalaidis argues that No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on math and reading forced school districts to cut back on social studies instruction. While 62% of elementary schools increased time for English language arts and/or math since the passage of the law, 36% of districts cut back on the time allocated for social studies. This decrease adds up to a net loss of four weeks of social studies instruction per year, Kalaidis writes.

Kalaidis argues that social studies schoolwork serves two vital roles in American society. First, social studies encourages students to develop critical thinking skills and articulate their opinions. Kalaidis cites a survey of employers performed by the Chronicle of Higher Education which found that those skills were lacking in entry-level workers.

Secondly, a more robust social studies curriculum may be key to addressing the civic achievement gap—the disparity of voting rates between students of low-income compared to the middle class. Kalaidis writes:

Many experts agree that a stronger curriculum in social studies could help close this gap.  A study from the Carnegie Corporation of New York found that students who receive effective education in social studies are more likely to vote, four times more likely to volunteer and work on community issues, and are generally more confident in their ability to communicate ideas with their elected representatives.