Making Democracy Work

Social Studies in High Schools (2003)

Will Oregon's High School Students Be Prepared to Deal With International Issues in the 21st Century Global Community?

Issues Identified

How are today's students being prepared to deal with foreign policy and globalization issues in the rapidly-changing world of the 21st century?

Does the high-school social studies curriculum include the history and culture of the Middle East and Far East, Africa, India and South America, as well as those countries that exemplify the European tradition?

Do teachers have adequate, up-to-date, materials available in their classrooms, so that their students will acquire accurate information about world affairs and understand the role and procedures of the United Nations in dealing with international conflicts?

Are students developing critical thinking skills, so that they can distinguish between biased and unbiased information that they find in the media and on the Internet on issues of foreign affairs?

Are students becoming empowered to exercise their role as responsible voters in the American democratic system? Are they encouraged to consult and critically analyze a variety of sources in order to understand the issues and determine the true facts before making a decision about how they will vote in an election?

How can the LWV assist teachers and students to maintain an effective and up-to-date educational program in social sciences, especially international studies?

Process

The Committee conducted interviews with several staff representatives of the Oregon Department of Education (DOE) and the Salem-Keizer School District (District). The Committee reviewed the Content Standards that were adopted by the DOE in April of 2001. The Committee obtained and reviewed copies of several social studies textbooks that are currently in use at the secondary level in the District. The Committee distributed a questionnaire on a variety of social studies issues to approximately 40 professional social studies teachers from various school districts, then compiled and evaluated the responses received. The Committee prepared testimony on a proposed amendment to HB 2744, for presentation at the Oregon House of Representatives Education Committee, and obtained approval of State League Action Committee for presentation.

Findings

Oregon DOE Content Standards For Social Sciences:

The Oregon Department of Education adopted new content standards for the social sciences curriculum of Oregon schools in April of 2001. Those standards, which were published in Oregon Standards, 2002-2003 School Year, were intended to cover the content that would be includible on statewide social studies assessment tests for all students at four separate educational levels (Grades 3, 5, 8 and 10-CIM), known as benchmarks, beginning in 2003-4. The document divides the study of social sciences into separate content areas: civics, economics, geography, history, social science analysis, aesthetics/ art criticism and historical and cultural perspectives. The "history" area is separated into four categories: historical skills, world history, U.S. history, and State/local history.

The benchmarks are ambitious and comprehensive. For example, the "world history" benchmarks at Grades 8 and 10, include the following:

Grade 8: (1) The early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Indus River Valley, Egypt, the Americas, Greece; (2) political, economic and social characteristics of the Roman Republic and Empire and how they are reflected in the law, government, economy and society of the U.S.; (3) the rise of Islam and its interaction with Europe; (4) the development of the empires and kingdoms of sub-Saharan Africa, Imperial China and feudal Japan; (5) the impact of feudalism, the Church and the rise of cities on the Middle Ages in Europe; and (6) the characteristics and impact of Renaissance art and thought.

Grade 10 (CIM/CAM): (1) Industrial Revolution; (2) Agricultural Revolution; (3) concepts of imperialism and nationalism; (4) interactions between European colonizers and indigenous populations of Africa, India, and Asia; (5) major consequences of imperialism in Asia and Africa around 1900; (6) Japanese expansion and its consequences; (7) Chinese Revolutions of 1911 and 1949; (8) Russian Revolution of 1917 and its impacts; (9) Mexican Revolution of 1911-17; (10) World War I; (11) Treaty of Versailles and the post-war economic and social challenges; (12) responses by USA and other nations to aggression; (13) isolationism and the mobilization of USA in World War II; (14) inventions and new technology; (15) terror in Nazi Germany and the response of the world community; (16) India's resistance movement; (17) division of Europe after WWII; (18) the Cold War; (19) the Korean conflict; (20) the Vietnam war.

In addition, the "U.S. history" category includes the following benchmarks: (1) The African slave trade; (2) the Irish potato famine; (3) Manifest Destiny and the effects of expansion on other nations and peoples ; (4) causes and effects of the Great Depression and the New Deal.

Finally, the "civics and government" category includes the following benchmarks regarding international policy: (1) treaty-making; (2) the effects of U.S. government international actions on the people of other countries and on Americans; (3) international organizations and their influence; (4) the purpose and functions of the United Nations; (5) international humanitarian agencies; and (6) the comparison of various forms of governments with the structure and functions of American government.

Limitations Observed

The committee was impressed with the breadth of subject-matter and the overall thoroughness that is evidenced by the statewide content standards for social sciences. Drafted by a team of professional social studies teachers from school districts across Oregon, in conjunction with specialists from the State Department of Education, the standards cover a wide variety of historical and cultural issues involving countries throughout the world, not simply those deriving from America's European and Anglo-Saxon heritage.

Unfortunately, however, the standards and benchmarks only cover time periods up to the Vietnam War era. Recent world events, including the end of the Cold War and the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the 1991 Gulf War, the conflicts in the Balkans and in Africa during the 1990's and the war in Afghanistan, as well as current world events, are simply excluded. This omission is unacceptable, as it leaves the responsibility for covering such important subjects up to the individual teachers, without guidance as to the standards expected.

In addition, the committee learned that students of today are not acquiring a sense of empowerment for exercising their adult role as citizens of the United States and the larger global community. They graduate with a limited understanding of the true meaning of democracy and civic responsibility. They are generally apathetic toward voting and participating in government. In spite of the breadth of subject-matter that students are offered in their social studies curriculum, there is a disconnect between their studies and the real world experiences that they face upon graduation.

Obstacles to Successful Implementation of the Standards:

The committee is concerned that the content standards for social sciences may be losing their value, due to recent action by the State Board of Education and legislation that is being considered by the Oregon legislature. The Board of Education recently voted to exclude social sciences from the list of subject areas that would be assessed statewide in conjunction with the Certificate of Initial Mastery (CIM). Due to economic conditions, the Board voted on March 20, 2003, to make social sciences testing optional. Also, there are two bills before the Oregon legislature that threaten to reduce the strength of the social science curriculum. HB 2415 would eliminate the CIM completely, as well as all the content standards and assessments that have been created over the past ten years. HB 2744 is less draconian, in that it would preserve the content standards and assessments in English, math and science. However, the requirements for social sciences would be eliminated. Each district would be free to return to its previous minimum standards for high school graduation in the social science content area.

Since the State of Oregon only requires high school students to take two years of social studies courses to qualify for graduation, and students can choose their courses from an extensive list of options in most districts, it appears unlikely that many students will effectively meet the benchmarks that have been established.

The committee is concerned that the study of international issues, comparative government structures and the United Nations may be eliminated by many districts for financial reasons. Also, students may become further disenfranchised, because they will lack the quality and extent of study of civics and government that they would have enjoyed under the current standards. There is little or no hands-on training in democratic processes, such as how to provide input to governmental bodies. Also, there is little training in conflict-resolution processes, including the court system and international organizations like the United Nations.

The Impact of Budget Constraints:

In order to carry out the goals set forth in the content standards, teachers need well-written, up-to-date textbooks and supplemental materials, covering current events, for their students. They also need computers with Internet access in their classrooms, so that they can teach critical-thinking skills. Unfortunately, due to budgetary constraints in recent years, many school districts have been unable to acquire new materials and equipment. In Salem-Keizer District, for example, the textbook that is used for the Twentieth Century Studies course was published in 1991. Many of its maps and charts are out-dated. There is only one page devoted to the United Nations. Teachers have to prepare multiple hand-outs in order to provide information on current events. Also, teachers have to pre-schedule their classes for visits to the school library in order to use computers.

Recommendations:

(1) The committee opposes HB 2415, in that the bill would eliminate all the good work that has been done by professional educators over the past ten years in preparing statewide standards in various content areas, including social sciences, for the CIM. The committee is also opposed to HB 2744 as written, in that it would make compliance with statewide standards and assessments optional in social sciences. The committee believes those standards should be mandatory and the State legislature should allocate sufficient resources to school districts so that they can meet the standards and assessments.

(2) The committee strongly supports the budgeting of adequate funds for up-to-date textbooks and materials for social studies courses in all school districts, so that students will be prepared to take their place in the global community of the 21st century. Testing should include, not only multiple-choice questions on factual issues, but also an essay portion, to provide students the opportunity to demonstrate the ability to analyze social science issues and make critical judgments, based on facts and reasons.

(3) Computers with Internet access should be available in every social studies classroom. Teachers should have in-service training on current events and issues, such as comparative world religions, so that they can bring the most thorough information to their students.

(4) Creative processes need to be implemented in social studies classrooms in order to help students understand the importance of voting and be empowered to participate actively as citizens in a democratic government once they graduate. Such processes could include debating, participating on panels, role-playing and drafting letters to elected representatives, in which they take a position on an issue of current concern and make recommendations about appropriate ways of dealing with the issue.

(5) Students need to understand how the justice system works and what conflict-resolution processes are available to deal with various conflicts, domestic and international. Field trips and outside speakers on the Constitution and the American legal system should be incorporated into the curriculum. A model United Nations program should be offered to students at all high schools. Negotiation skills should be taught, so that students can learn to interact peacefully and effectively with people of diverse backgrounds, both domestically and internationally. Foreign language study should be encouraged as an adjunct to social studies courses.

How can members of the League help educators and students?

Here are a few ways that League members can help:

Volunteer to teach a class to kids (at any level, K-12) on voting and responsible citizenship. The LWV of Westport, Connecticut, has successfully developed such a class.

Advocate for sufficient funding in the school budget, so that social science books and materials can be maintained and updated as needed.

Ask a high school social science teacher how you could help him/her.

The Committee: LWVMPC Members Sandra Smith Gangle, Janet Markee and Anita Owen

This report was published in April 2003.