Social Studies Goes to the Back of the Class

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Schools are emphasizing the importance of math and reading, leaving other subjects behind. Fred Risinger, former coordinator of Social Studies Education at the School of Education at Indiana University, discusses the problem with Liane Hansen.


Reading, writing and math classes form the core of a high school student's education. In the past few years the strong emphasis on improving those skills has significantly changed the curricula. However, other subjects, such as social studies, have not received the same kind of attention. To find out what this means for secondary education, we've called Fred Risinger. Professor Risinger recently retired from his position at the School of Education at Indiana University in Bloomington. He also served as a past president of the National Council for the Social Studies.

And welcome to the show, sir.

Professor FRED RISINGER (Indiana University): Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: What effect do you think has the increased emphasis on reading and math skills had on social studies classes?

Prof. RISINGER: Well, it has had a very strong impact. The No Child Left Behind Act combined with the state social studies improvement programs have constrained social studies teachers, in my opinion, from first of all exploring important contemporary issues such as global warming, immigration reform, U.S. foreign policy. I would wager that probably less than five percent of the students in American classrooms today are talking about whether or not the United States should adhere to the Geneva Convention in the treatment of prisoners of war or enemy combatants.

Additionally, teachers feel that they're going to be evaluated by how well their students do on math tests, on reading tests and writing tests. And therefore they are much more likely to spend more time with those subject areas than they are social studies.

HANSEN: Is it that it's difficult to test those classes? In other words, say social studies: if you're talking about analyzing and evaluating - and more than just facts - is it difficult to create a test?

Prof. RISINGER: That and the emphasis that's being placed both at the national level and at many state levels on mathematics and English language arts. It's even hurt science, to some extent. But in a sense elective courses that students used to take are being pushed, along with social studies, out the schoolhouse door.

HANSEN: Hmm. What do you think teachers might be able to do to broaden the curriculum, because having social studies classes - I mean, they've been based on what we called Western Civ - Western Civilization - for a long time.

Prof. RISINGER: They have, and there have been major strides, I think, or there were some major strides going on in the past decade or so to make courses in social studies more multicultural and dealing with other areas of the world. There is more emphasis on the Middle East. There is more emphasis on East Asia, and to some extent some more emphasis on Latin America. But still, because of the pressures of time, I don't think students are learning very much about these areas of the world.

They may know that China is the world's most populous nation, but they don't know about some of the economic and social changes going on now. The same thing with India. They don't know much about the Middle East. They know about the rise of Islam, because they learn that in a world history course. But they don't know about contemporary Middle Eastern policies.

HANSEN: How can teachers then help? I mean - or can they? Are they being constricted, as you say, because they're also being watched as to how their students do on the test?

Prof. RISINGER: Very much so. The teacher in the classroom is being compared to the teacher in the next classroom. Our school is being compared to the school down the street, our district to other districts in the state, and our state with other states. When I'm faced with those kinds of pressures, I'm going to spend more time on language arts, writing and mathematics than I am social studies. And students aren't going to take the art and music courses because they too are trying to make good grades on those tests.

HANSEN: So bottom line: do you think American students are actually being prepared to engage in the world they live in?

Prof. RISINGER: No, I don't. The goals of social studies education are to prepare students for effective citizenship in a democratic society. And I don't think they are. They learn the five causes of the Civil War, because that is in the textbook and that's what's going to be on the test. But they don't debate an issue such - was slavery really the primary cause of the Civil War? They don't deal at all with contemporary issues. They don't deal with the things that I mentioned such as global warming and other things.

Now, some teachers do, but they have to be creative and they have to work a lot harder to bring those subjects and to bring that kind of teaching into the classroom.

HANSEN: Professor Fred Risinger served as coordinator of social studies education at the School of Education at Indiana University. Thank you so much for your time.

Prof. RISINGER: Thank you for having me.

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