Superintendent Barresi joins educators in opposing proposal to weaken social studies, U.S. history instruction


OKLAHOMA CITY (April 15, 2014) — State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi and various educators around Oklahoma and across the country are expressing concerns that proposed state legislation would erase Oklahoma’s ability to measure student knowledge of social studies, geography and a significant portion of U.S. history.

Senate Bill 1654 seeks to eliminate state assessments on social studies in grades five and eight, as well as geography in grade seven. The seventh-grade world geography test is the only time students are currently tested on geographic knowledge.

While the U.S. history end-of-instruction exam would remain in place in high school, that assessment only covers standards that encompass history following the Civil War.

That means students would not be assessed that they know about the founding of the colonies, the Declaration of independence, the Revolutionary War, the writing of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Civil War — in addition to everything else that happened in early American history.

“Oklahomans know what our nation’s flag represents. Thousands of Oklahomans sacrificed their lives fighting for it and thousands more are prepared to stand up for it today,” said Barresi. “If this bill passes — combined with another law enacted last year that diminishes end-of-instruction exams — it is possible that a student in Oklahoma could go through 12th grade without ever having been assessed on America’s heritage or values. What message do we send if we dispense with the ability to ensure the teaching of what, in many respects, is the story of America?”

Kelly Curtright, director of social studies education at the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE), said eliminating the assessments would deemphasize social studies in elementary and middle schools, which are the foundational levels of learning and assessing if our youngest citizens are understanding their history and heritage.” Curtright is also the current president of the Oklahoma Council for the Social Studies, which represents 1,400-plus educators.

“When citizens of a democracy are deprived of an effective social studies education, it places our citizens, our democratic principles and our Republic at risk. Citizenship illiteracy is no less destructive than reading illiteracy. We simply cannot afford to raise a generation of civic amnesiacs. Citizenship is as basic as reading, writing and arithmetic,” Curtright said.

His sentiments were echoed by Glenda Coleman, an eighth-grade American history teacher at Hefner Middle School in the Putnam City school district.

“SB 1654 does not hold students accountable for learning about the past but pushes students to walk blindly into the future,” she said.

The time it takes a student to take the aforementioned assessments is limited. The fifth-grade social studies exam takes 105-125 minutes for a student to complete, while the eighth-grade U.S. history assessment takes upwards of 110 minutes. Seventh-grade geography takes 90-110 minutes. 

Leaders of the Oklahoma Council on Economic Education, Oklahoma Alliance for Geographic Education and Oklahoma Council for History Education have all submitted letters opposing SB 1654.

“Students develop analytical and questioning skills from historical thinking that complements the skills they learn from math and science. History tells us that Ancient Greece and Rome and Medieval Europe prioritized learning the lessons of geography, good governance and of history. Should Oklahoma abandon our cultural heritage?” wrote Greg Oppel, a high school teacher in Edmond and president of the Oklahoma Council for History Education.

Susan Griffin, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, wrote: “Removing social studies assessments sends the message that social studies is expendable. But it is absolutely critical. Social studies is where students gain the content knowledge, intellectual and analytical skills to synthesize information and communicate effectively. In addition to providing these 21st-century skills, it also creates the foundation for students to exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.”

Chairman Emeritus of the National Geographic Society Gil Grosvenor said: “SB 1654 threatens to marginalize geography, history civics and economics instruction in Oklahoma, leaving students with a deficit in their fundamental K-12 education.

“While everyone understands that SB 1654 reflects a backlash against testing fatigue, few realize that social studies would become marginalized in the process of relieving this fatigue …We all agree that social studies education is critical to creating knowledgeable citizens so the assessment program should reflect this belief, as it has done for many years in the past.

“State-level student assessments are more than mere indicators of educational progress. The results of student assessments can provide critical information for decision-making in education policy and practice. What is assessed is a means to communicate goals and priorities to students, parents, teachers, administrators and other stakeholders.”

SB 1654 is next slated for consideration by the full House. 

 
 
 
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Last updated on April 15, 2014