Reducing social studies will stunt Texas students

Posted Monday, Apr. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Of all the subjects to which our students are exposed, arguably the most significant to their intellectual performance in life is the collection of courses we call social studies.

These courses, which include civics, history, geography and economics, teach problem-solving, critical thinking, written and spoken expression, civic duty and awareness of the world. At a time when dynamic shifts are taking place in the global economy, politics and government, social studies should be highly valued and promoted in our public schools.

Due to strong educators, strong executive and legislative leadership and support from the State Board of Education, social studies in Texas has maintained its well-deserved high profile for 20 years and has been an integral part of the required curriculum for graduation, as well as a significant portion of our state's accountability system.

In other words, kids are currently tested on these subjects. But House Bill 5 would change all of this.

HB5 reflects a backlash against rigorous testing, but the social studies are being marginalized in the process. If passed, the bill would drop the requirement that students take both world history and world geography and would eliminate both end-of-course exams.

What is puzzling and troubling is the Legislature's apparent failure to recognize the crucial role that world history and world geography play in developing strong, well-rounded Texans.

In world geography and world history, students learn things that almost everyone agrees they should know. Students with diverse backgrounds, in particular, need an understanding of social studies to participate as full citizens in the democratic process. Preparing these future citizens is one of the state's greatest responsibilities.

Students need to understand where America is situated in relationship to the rest of the world in order to appreciate American achievements and to cope with the challenges of globalization. If Texas is to continue to prosper, newcomers and natives alike need to understand the state's culture and history.

Young Texans of all backgrounds must understand the other cultures around the globe because with global partners in the future they'll have to tackle the challenges of economic competition, resource allocation, terrorism, international conflict and curing disease.

It is in the social studies classroom, furthermore, that students learn how our institutions and beliefs have developed; how to cooperate with others; how to research and analyze information; and most of all, how to think critically and make informed decisions. Students who take these courses are better prepared for college and careers and better equipped to compete in a global economy.

As a Wall Street Journal column on proposed changes to Texas social studies requirements stated recently: "The challenge for those who want to eliminate testing in world history and geography or other subjects in Texas is to explain how students are prepared for a global economy when they are not required to learn anything about either the globe or the economy."

Is learning United States history alone really enough, as HB5 suggests? The majority of Texas students -- future voters -- will never take another class in either world history or world geography. Should they be permitted -- and in some cases compelled by districts with limited resources-- to choose just one of these important subjects?

Eliminating the corresponding tests surely will reduce the flow of district funds to these subjects.

I suspect that the bright light of the anti-testing movement has blinded legislators to the damage being inflicted upon social studies. They have overlooked the important fact that what is being assessed becomes a means to communicate goals and priorities to students, parents, teachers, administrators and other stakeholders in education.

At the core of the anti-testing movement is the realization that the state has failed to use assessment as a lever for constructive educational reform. Instead, the tests have been used to punish students and teachers. Perhaps Texas' accountability system should be examined, but not at the expense of social studies.

The 21st-century world demands a great deal from our students. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of civic responsibility, competent citizenship and world awareness. Future generations of Texans deserve to be competitive global citizens. It would be unforgivable to allow social studies to be eliminated as collateral damage in a war against testing.

Pat Hardy, an instructional specialist in the Weatherford school district, represents District 11 on the State Board of Education.

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