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Common Core Standards and the problem for Social Studies

Update April 20, 2012
Since writing this post two years ago, really before we had a clear idea of what the Common Core would look like, I’ve been won over. The Social Studies Literacy pieces of the Common Core document really do encourage quality instruction in history and social studies.

We still have to see how these literacy skills will be assessed but the document can help us do good things in our classrooms. If you’re looking for some helpful resources, head over here.


I spent last Saturday as part of the Kansas Council for the Social Studies board of directors helping to solve all of the world’s problems. (We still have some work to do on that whole Mideast thing.)

But one of the issues that we did spend a considerable amount of time discussing was the idea of national Common Core Standards. The goal of the Common Core movement is to create more uniform expectations for the nation’s students in the form of common content standards. The first public drafts of math and language arts have been released with other content areas, including Social Studies, to follow.

The question we addressed on Saturday was a fairly simple one.

Are common core standards good or bad for history and social studies instruction in the state?

Given that the Kansas BOE has already signed on to the Common Core Standards initiative, it may be a moot point.

Our response? Maybe.

A major concern is that a common set of standards might become just a very long laundry list of specifics without any concern for thinking skills. So maybe . . . if the focus is on using information rather than on just a long list of dead guys without context.

Maybe . . . if, as Rees M. suggests, the standards are:

broadly written to describe the kinds of tasks that a student should be able to do, then yes. By this, I mean the ability to locate and evaluate the strength of evidence, analyze that evidence by reasoning using widely accepted tools and then arrive at conclusions based on the reasoning. This is what critical thinking is all about.

The problem is that it seems that any set of possible Common Core Social Studies Standards will not focus on the idea of thinking skills but on very specific content. A possible rationale for this?

Easier to test and measure. Easier to compare kids. Easier to compare schools and measure “progress.” “Progress” equals federal funding. The result?

Teaching only to the specific details required so that “progress” is made and so the money is delivered on time. Less engaged kids, less true learning. One district administrator summed it up fairly well when he said:

Kids don’t remember when school was fun.

The problem is that we know that history is more than just a collection of facts. It’s nuanced and complicated and messy and confusing and it changes whenever we discover a long-hidden scrap of paper.

And we also understand that it’s difficult to teach that sort of history, let alone measure that sort of learning. I once heard the comment made about that sort of history:

If it counts, it can’t be counted.

It took me a while to noodle that one through but I finally got it . . . it’s easy to measure the easy stuff.

The irony?

If we want history and social studies to be “important” in the grand scheme of the present education environment, it must be tested. And right now, in the grand scheme, history and social studies are not important.

The state of Kansas still doesn’t have a social studies content specialist at the Kansas State Department of Education. At many K-6 buildings in Kansas, social studies and history is taught, if it is taught at all, less than 60 minutes a week.

So . . . a rock and a hard place. Jump into the Common Core movement and sacrifice what we know is good for kids or resist and risk being literally left at curb?

Maybe we should have focused on that Mideast problem instead.

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32 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m not sure where Kansas is with statewide end of course exams, but in Virginia, we have them for grades K-12. In elementary schook (K-5 here) the teachers barely focus on social studies covering just the basics so they can focus on math and such. The problem then comes in middle school and high school when they take tests and cannot locate Italy on the map, or cannot even distinquish between the water and land forms.

    We had the same dilemma last year when theywanted to cut the 3rd grade EOC test for social studies. While we thought that would be great since teachers could have more fun with the content, we also knew that the reality was that social studies would never be taught then.

    I think a national curriculum would be horrible for social studies. There’s too much local history that would get overlooked and it would just become testable lists as you mentioned. It seems to me the best thing you could hope for in this situation is mandatory EOC testing with a state test for grades K-6. It won’t improve the time spent on teaching social studies, but it would hopefully prevent it from going from 60 minutes to zero minutes.

    If you do have those tests, then you’re probably like us and stuck with minimal teaching. I’m trying to write a TAH grant now for 4-11 grades hoping that boosting their content knowledge will translate to better teaching in the classroom.

    February 17, 2010
    • glennw #


      We do have state tests at 6th, 8th and HS. The “problem” is that the original plan was to give those tests every two years but the last one was in 2007. Any future tests won’t be until 2012 and possibly 2014. So the results are what you’ve discovered . . . no one below 8th grade is that worried about teaching social studies.

      Good luck with the TAH app!


      February 17, 2010
    • Dani #

      Keep in mind that the CCSS only requires that 85% of a state’s curriculum focuses on the CCS standards, so 15% of the curriculum is still state-determined ( And it would surprise me if the CCSS didn’t include some local and state history as part of their requirements.

      June 14, 2011
  2. I teach 6th and 8th Grade Social Studies in California. As far as the standards line up state by state, California has some of the highest standards then other states. However, as high as they are they are often to detail oriented and not focused enough on skill based learning. Our state exams for history are given at the various levels. The problem middle school students have is that instead of just testing the students on the Social Studies knowledge from a given year, they cover three years of knowledge in one exam. In 8th grade students in California take a Social Studies test which is a review of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade standards. You can review some of the released test questions on the California State Department of Education website every year to see the rigor of the questions. With only so many days in the school I struggled every year with how I can find the time to cover the material for the current grade level (8th Grade) and review past material (6th and 7th Grades) to prepare them for the exam. Many of my students complain that we move through the material too fast but with the pressure to cover it all is on me, I don’t know what more to do. I agree with the need for Common Standards but please let’s work to make sure they focus on Social Studies Skills not can a student recall the smallest details from a particular event. When most students today can find out a detail in a matter of seconds by using goggle why test them on that knowledge. Our Social Studies focus needs to be skill not who has the best memory!

    February 18, 2010
    • glennw #


      Many teachers I talk with in Kansas are saying the same things you are. Our tests are at 6th grade, 8th grade and high school and so they’re in the same boat. The focus is shifting from creating historical thinkers to forcing kids to memorize just enough to meet AYP. I’m not sure what the answer is right now.

      My solution is pretty simple – encourage every parent to opt out of having their kids take state tests. Know that’s not going to happen but it sure would take the pressure off!

      Thanks for sharing and good luck!


      February 18, 2010
  3. Patricia Polan #

    Here in New York State we had been assessing social studies in grade 5 and 8 that were supposed to determine if students had the necessary skills and information to succeed on the high school assessments that are required for graduation–one after a two-year Global History and Geography course and one after United States History and Government course.

    Due to lack of financial resources and the fact that social studies has not been part of NCLB, we are no longer doing the 5 and 8 assessments. Before long, we know that teachers won’t be teaching social studies K-8, unless it surfaces as a national standard.

    BTW, anyone doing statewide online assessment of social studies? or district-wide assessments? Just curious.

    July 15, 2010
    • glennw #

      So you’ve lost your DBQs at 5th and 8th grade!? I’ve always thought that was such a great way to encourage quality instruction and have used them as examples for years. I’ve worked with several districts who have begun using DBQs as local common district assessments.

      Kansas used to do something similar, probably 20 years ago but stopped also because of the cost of the scoring.

      To answer your last question, Kansas does have online state assessments – 48 MC questions for 6th grade, 60 for 8th grade and HS.


      July 15, 2010
  4. Ann #

    Our school has been searching the web for the Elementary level Common Core Social Studies and Science Standards.
    We have the ones for Math, Language grades K-12
    and the 6-12 Social Studies and Science.
    We NEED the Elementary Social Studies and Science. Can you tell me where to find these? OR do they not exist yet? Thanks for your help.

    January 31, 2011
  5. Ed #

    After reading the article and the responses, I wonder if I am thinking about the same Common Core State Standards. When I read, “A major concern is that a common set of standards might become just a very long laundry list of specifics without any concern for thinking skills, ” I wondered what document the group was examining. The CCSC reading standards for literacy in history and soical studies (6-12) indicate the TYPES of skills students should acquire. Standards are not curriculum. So, when the standard states that students should be able to “cite evidence to support” and “distinugish among fact, opinion and reasoned judgment” I’m confused that the group fears a list of specifics with no thinking skills!

    The standards for history/s.s., science, and tecnical subjects are part of the ELA document. FINALLY, someone realizes that content area teachers ARE teachers of reading…that they best know how to unpack the texts of their disciplines…and that ELA teachers don’t have to teach how to read a textbook.

    April 19, 2011
    • glennw #

      The original post was written almost 15 months ago when it wasn’t clear what social studies stuff would be included, if at all. There was talk at the time of adding a separate set of Social Studies / History / Government / Not Really Sure What standards. The concern at the time WAS that any SS standards added to the common core would be a generic list of stuff rather than a list of doing stuff.

      The good news? Whatever connection the current Common Core standards have to social studies is focused on literacy / thinking processes rather than content. My question in February 2010 still remains – if a “true” set of Social Studies Common Core content standards were added right now, what would they look like? More process or more specific historical content?

      More good news? I think that it will be incredibly hard to get agreement across the country on what content should be included in a set of social studies standards and so the focus might be more on process, rather than specifics – because it would limit the arguing over causes of the Civil War, for example. Still a concern would be the creation of a “laundry list” of specifics that would be easy to teach and equally easy to forget.

      Thanks for the comment!


      April 19, 2011
  6. Ed #


    Regarding your post of 1/31/11 (and I’m fairly sure that you’ve received feedback on this already), I suggest that rather than search for specific science and s.s. standards at the elementary level, teachers take a closer look at Common Core standards that deal with informational text. How can standards that require students to “Describe the relationship between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts…using language that pertains to time, sequence, and cause/effect” or “Compare and contrast the most important points and key details presented in two texts on the same topic” NOT support the development of content curriculum?

    What a wonderful opportunity for same-grade faculty to discuss what is important in a particular historical strand and then create quality instruction that is supported by standards!

    April 22, 2011
  7. Dave Simmons #


    Overall comment,
    It seems that we are at the mercy of politicians that know precious little about the needs of teachers and students and are willing to listen to only teachers of literacy and math about the needs of all. We in Arkansas just experienced a fruit basket turnover with our frameworks about four years ago. Now, it seems as though we might be headed back to where we were by the year 2012 for 5-8. Constant change for change’s sake is not only fool hardy but is an extreme waste of money in economic times that can’t really stand the excess. We are in the same boat as the rest of the states. Our elementary teachers don’t teach Social Studies unless they are threatened. Teachers are dedicating their days to the teaching of LA and Math. We in grades 5-8 are charges with cramming four additional years of history and civics down their throats when they have little, or no, background.

    Please, We have got to stop celebrating mediocrity!

    June 10, 2011
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the comment!

      You mention my biggest concern – a serious lack of social studies / history instruction at the elementary level. It really does make a difference and as long as math / LA is the focus of required tests, it will continue to be a problem.

      Part of me hopes that the new Common Core standards with history literacy skills built in may start to have an impact on the younger grades. Cross your fingers!


      June 11, 2011
    • April #

      Dave, I teach Social Studies in Arkansas on the 8th grade level. When I first began teaching Social Studies our standards were for US History. Then abrubtly it changed to a World Emphasis with a mix of other social skills. My problem is that in many of our schools our students have neither a US or World foundation. Many of the World concepts are extremely difficult to get an 8th grader to wrap their heads around. Many of them have no foundation of their own nation, their own government / political beginnings, the importance of their own nations economic background or liability to others to care or be concerned with other countries. In my school students really don’t get a full source of US History until the 11th grade. They get their Civics in the 9th grade. I too believe Arkansas needs a change, but at what cost? Our students need to know the skills and practical ideas of Social Studies but at the same time getting a foundation of where we began and where we are evolving to throughout the actions, events, and reactions of the citizens living in this nation.

      November 8, 2011
  8. Jane Krauss #

    Hey Glenn: Thanks for your take on the CCSS. Do you know the progress on the development of Social Studies standards? I read this and wonder what more you might know:

    July 11, 2011
    • glennw #


      There are some Social Studies literacy things in the Common Core standards but they focus more on process and research rather actual historical content. There has been some conversation about creating SS common core stuff but I just don’t see states coming to any agreement on historical content. Can you imagine South Carolina and Mass. agreeing on how to teach the Civil War and Reconstruction?

      I think much of the conversation is just an attempt to agree on big picture stuff and historical thinking skills. Am pretty sure the KSDE social studies guy, Don Gifford, was a guest at the discussion in NC. (Kansas didn’t have the $$ to officially join the group.) Am looking forward to hearing his version of the meeting.


      July 12, 2011
  9. Jane Krauss #

    I thought historical thinking/research might be fleshed out– I know that’s part of literacy but in the CCSS it seems thin. I’d love a debrief on the NC work.

    July 12, 2011
    • glennw #

      Yeah . . . the Common Core is really a Math / Language Arts movement right now. Actually kinda surprised that they added the Social Studies / Science literacy pieces. I’m sure if I ever get any feedback from the meeting that I can share (was told that the meetings are kept secret!), I will post it here on History Tech. If you hear anything, let me know!


      July 12, 2011
  10. Glenn (et. al.)

    The Common Core has actually already released skills standards for Social Studies – there are a set of 10 literacy standards and 10 writing standards that all involve higher-order thinking skills and college and career readiness skills in our discipline [examples include being able to analyze primary sources, construct arguments when presented with conflicting viewpoints, etc.]. The content standards that are still to come will address the specific knowledge bases we have long been accustomed to in our field, but any assessments that are created will reflect BOTH sets of standards, and will utilize content knowledge in the context of literacy [i.e. “Interpret the following quote from James Madison” or “Select the best argument against the author’s interpretation of ____ historical event”]. I personally feel the standards will serve as a major push for teachers in our field to transcend basic-level facts instruction and embrace a skills-based pedagogy.

    October 18, 2011
    • glennw #

      I am much happier with the History literacy pieces of the Common Core now than I was back in February 2010 when this post was first written. At the time, no one was really sure what the History piece was going to look like. I like the focus on doing history rather than a simple list of history stuff.

      But I still have concerns with the actual Social Studies / History document that has yet to be released to the public. First, I find it hard to believe that any content document will ever find nation-wide approval. Second, if there is some sort of wide acceptance, it will because it will have to contain everything, making it useless to teachers.

      I’m also concerned that states will not see the value of quality assessments (“doing” history) and so go the cheaper route of multiple choice tests used by many now. But I have my fingers crossed!


      October 18, 2011
  11. Glenn–I do believe that you have identified the reason we should have social studies standards that deliver the best that our disciplines have to offer. Perhaps then teachers will be inspired to teach them and students will be delighted to learn. We can figure out how to assess this good stuff!

    Thank you!

    March 15, 2012
    • glennw #

      That post was written quite some time ago, before it was clear what the social studies piece would look like. I’ve come around a bit – the social studies literacy piece does a nice job of focusing on the process of doing history/social studies.

      We’re actually working in Kansas right now revising our state standards to try and do just that. We hope that we can focus less on content and more on process – with an emphasis on the Common Core literacy standards, Sam Wineburg’s stuff, and Social Studies Habits of Mind. The assessment will be reading and writing – we’re even hoping that students will be able to “bank” content online before the assessment and use that content to help them with their historical thinking.

      We’re thinking that if we provide some guidance on content but leave specifics to local districts, that there will be less emphasis on drill and kill instruction.

      A post from several months ago about the process – if you’re interested.

      The grade level stuff has already changed quite a bit with less specific content and more emphasis on scaffolded habits of mind. We started with a lot of stuff borrowed from California and South Carolina. But it still seemed too content heavy. We’ve also been influenced by your thematic structure over at NCSS.

      Exciting times!

      Thanks for the comment.


      March 15, 2012
  12. C. R. Cook #

    I am all for learning the process of thinking and analyzing, but the reality is that knowing facts about the history of our nation still matters, and I am concerned that the politicians and the “experts” are putting less emphasis on knowledge or our history. I teach American history in 11th grade and In Florida the new state requirements are that we start with Reconstruction and are not allowed to teach any pre-Recon history. How can one understand the Civil War without the Three-fifths clause, or the Missouri Compromise, or the Mexican War, the Wilmot Proviso, or the Compromise of 1850…..? My 11th graders will not have remembered what they were taught in 8th grade. I am frustrated and concerned because I want my students to have an awareness of their history….

    June 24, 2012
    • glennw #

      The trick in all of this is finding the balance that you’re talking about. Too much content doesn’t train kids to think, too much process doesn’t provide enough context for effective thinking. So what we’re trying to do in Kansas is develop a standards document that supports and encourages high levels of historical thinking while providing a practical content set.

      There will be bumps along the way but what we have seen here is that state assessments have been driving instruction towards basic memorization of content only. Historical context and content is important but must be paired with historical thinking process.

      It’s an exciting time to be a history teacher!

      Thanks for the comment.


      June 27, 2012
    • krepter #

      This is all leading nowhere. Students need knowledge first. Perhaps in 12th grade they can piece together critical essays.

      February 25, 2013
      • glennw #

        I don’t disagree at all about the need students have for foundational knowledge. We all need to know basic information – what I like about the ELA Literacy Standards is that they provide support for making kids do something with that foundational knowledge. We know brain research tells us that without context and processing, that foundational knowledge is often lost. We need to have kids mess with information, not just memorize information.

        Incorporating the Literacy Standards encourages practices that have always been part of quality social studies instruction – sourcing documents, evaluating claims, interpreting arguments, understanding complex text, gathering information, comparing multiple perspectives, and reading fiction / non-fiction sources.

        We do have to be careful that we don’t let ELA departments dictate content or instruction practices. We need to remain true to our content and the historical thinking skills that support that content but see no reason why the two disciplines shouldn’t work together. (I especially like that grades K-5 are being asked to spend much more time with specific social studies text and content. This can only support what happens later in our classrooms grades 6-12.)

        Thanks for the comment!


        February 25, 2013
  13. ppolan #

    I would be interested in seeing what you are able to produce in Kansas and am curious as to whether other states are having success with the challenge?

    June 29, 2012
    • glennw #

      We’re right in the middle of trying to develop social studies / history standards that focus on a balance between foundational content and historical thinking skills. You can find some of the latest drafts here:

      Some interesting conversations but teachers (and state BOE) seem to like the direction we’re going. One of the biggest questions is going to be the assessment piece. We want to measure the “benchmarks” (1.1, 1.2, 1.3 etc on the document titled Standards) and there are many questions still be worked out what they will look like.


      June 29, 2012
  14. Uche #

    Just stumbling unto your website cleared a lot for me about social studies curriculum (aligned with CCS) Thank you

    October 7, 2012

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