In July 2020, the District of Columbia State Board of Education (DC SBOE), in partnership with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), created the Social Studies Standards Advisory Committee to review and update the District’s social studies curriculum. These standards were last revised in 2006. The goal of this review was to develop more culturally responsive and anti-racist standards that promote democratic principles and values while also encouraging civic engagement in younger students.[i]
In the fall of 2020, after receiving public comments, the Social Studies Standards Advisory Committee approved the 19 Guiding Principles that would guide updating social studies education in D.C. public schools. These Guiding Principles underscore the importance of recognizing the multicultural and diverse world in which students are learning and focus on educating students about the current inequalities in the United States through an anti-racist lens.[ii] As a next step, DC SBOE and OSSE’s Social Studies Standards Technical Writing Committee are working to draft new elementary, middle, and high school standards using the approved 19 Guiding Principles. A first draft of the standards will be ready by the end of this summer and available for public comment in September. The revision process should be complete before the start of the 2022-23 academic year.[iii]
This revision of the District’s social studies standards is occurring at an important time. A D.C. Policy Center review of the Continuous Education and School Recovery Plans submitted by each Local Education Agency (LEA) for the 2020-21 school year reveals that District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and public charter schools focused on reading and math during the pandemic rather than social studies. 99 percent of the investigated PK-12 LEAs mention math, and 99 percent also mention reading. Conversely, only 32 percent mention social studies. Additionally, DC SBOE’s 2021 D.C. All-Teacher Survey found that the majority of teachers (55 percent) believe at least 20 more minutes of class time needs to be dedicated to social studies education even if it means less time for math and reading.[iv] As such, DC SBOE and OSSE’s review of D.C.’s social studies standards is well-timed to meet the needs of both students and teachers as they return to the classroom.
The revision of the District’s social studies standards also aligns with the ongoing national conversation about civics education in the United States. In response to the protests last summer following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, some leaders in the education community, including DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, have emphasized that civics education also needs to incorporate critical race theory (CRT).[v] Viewed as controversial in some circles, CRT explores systemic racism in America by positing that U.S. social institutions (such as the education or criminal justice system) are embedded with racist laws, regulations, and cultural perspectives that lead to some races enjoying more opportunities and better outcomes than others.[vi]
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s State of State Standards for Civics and U.S. History in 2021 report rated D.C., along with four other jurisdictions (Alabama, California, Massachusetts, and Tennessee), “exemplary” in K-12 civics and U.S. History standards.[viii] However, despite this high ranking, DC SBOE and OSSE’s Social Studies Standards Advisory Committee’s 19 Guiding Principles emphasize the importance of continuous improvement in civics education in D.C. schools – to include consideration of CRT – in order to educate students on how to interact with government and each other effectively.[ix] The majority of D.C.’s public school students are students of color: In the 2020-21 school year, 65 percent of students are Black, 19 percent are Latino, and 10 percent are white.[vii] It is critical that all these student groups are exposed to updated content and ways of thinking in the District’s social studies curriculum.
To better understand this ongoing dialogue surrounding social studies in the District, the D.C. Policy Center reached out to education leaders and teachers to ask the following question: “How do social studies classes meet the needs of D.C.’s students during this time?”
Jessica Sutter, DC SBOE’s Ward 6 Representative
“Our standards need to provide mirrors for our students to see themselves reflected in the American story and windows to help them see the world beyond their own experiences.”Jessica Sutter, DC SBOE’s Ward 6 Representative
Social studies is an essential subject for all DC students. Understanding geography, history, civics, and economics is critical to living in our globally-interconnected world. But it is also a controversial subject. The way we teach history and civics is contested terrain in the United States. Wading into decisions about what is taught in social studies classes is not for the faint of heart.
For this reason, creating social studies standards for classes that meet the needs of DC students requires courage. I’m proud that my colleagues on the DC State Board of Education (SBOE) and the educators who volunteered for our Social Studies Standards Advisory Committee (SSSAC) have displayed exactly the kind of courage I think we need to provide students with the kinds of social studies content they deserve.
In 2019, the State Board committed to working with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) to revise the current DC Social Studies Standards. We resolved that the revised social studies standards would be “culturally inclusive and anti-racist, impart important social studies content in the early grades, strengthen student knowledge of democratic principles and values, and promote civic engagement.”
We know that students are more engaged when they see themselves in their subject matter because they can better relate to the content. Our standards need to provide mirrors for our students to see themselves reflected in the American story and windows to help them see the world beyond their own experiences.
Since our current standards are not organized in a way that facilitates learning the long, interconnected arcs of history, economics, politics, and geography that run through the American past, we need to adjust that, too, so students make connections between history and the present, where they are active agents of civic change.
While the new standards will not be implemented until school year 2022–23, we’re planning these revisions with our rapidly changing world in mind and courageously prioritizing the critical examination of history as an essential skill for all DC students.
Reginald L. Williams, Social Studies Teacher at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, Member of the Social Studies Standards Review Advisory Committee
“It is my job to ensure students are exposed to as many perspectives as possible, where with reasoning, there is space to agree and/or disagree with differing opinions.”Reginald L. Williams, Social Studies Teacher at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, Member of the Social Studies Standards Review Advisory Committee
As a 12th grade social studies teacher, the courses I primarily teach are DC History and US Government. As quarantine and virtual teaching has isolated us, the social studies classroom has been an even more significant space for students to engage and express themselves. The current political climate has created opportunities for intellectual discourse, which is where I have found the most success of meeting the needs of DC students. Whether it be the response to COVID-19 or navigating an era of political protest, our American society is finding itself in a very polarized place. It is my job to ensure students are exposed to as many perspectives as possible, where with reasoning, there is space to agree and/or disagree with differing opinions.
In these times, there is an increased curiosity in the classroom of how political systems work. While I won’t complain about this newfound interest in my content, I know that it creates challenges for myself, and students as we reflect on how our biases and experiences help frame our individual and collective thinking on a particular subject.
Ultimately, living in a democracy is the thread that connects us. I encourage students to speak their truth, be able to understand nuanced arguments, and respectfully engage in discourse with people across a multitude of cultures and perspectives. As the country is becoming more and more diverse, it is important that the social studies classroom reflects this as well.
Michael Stevens, Director of Social Studies at Friendship Public Charter School, Member of the Social Studies Standards Review Advisory Committee
“The social movement and subsequent backlash that erupted following the murder of George Floyd showed us that students must command an honest and rich understanding of history and its connection to today’s world.”Michael Stevens, Director of Social Studies at Friendship Public Charter School, Member of the Social Studies Standards Review Advisory Committee
Recent events have made it abundantly clear that the students of Washington, D.C. must be equipped with the skills and knowledge that have historically been absent for previous generations of students. The demands on today’s students are larger than ever and the consequences are great.
The Covid-19 pandemic not only underscored deep-seated inequities that continue to challenge students and educators but exposed the extent to which many of us are unaware of our interconnectedness and the implications for this evolving landscape. At the same time, the social movement and subsequent backlash that erupted following the murder of George Floyd showed us that students must command an honest and rich understanding of history and its connection to today’s world. Encompassing all of this is the need for students to successfully navigate digital literacy and changing media, distinguish fact from fiction, and repel attacks against such basic rights as voter access and representation in government.
Amidst this backdrop, teachers and leaders in Washington, D.C. are responding with necessary speed and measures. The D.C. Social Studies Standards, which are over 15 years old, are being revised to ensure greater diversity and inclusion in topics and content, promote civic dispositions and engagement in students, and broaden perspectives. At the same time, the standards will provide teachers and students with increased clarity and rigor through a “fewer, clearer, and higher” design. Within the classroom, Social Studies teachers in Friendship and throughout Washington, D.C. will need to continue to create and implement student-centered lessons that promote inquiry-based learning over direct instruction. There is also a greater need for connections to current events in daily lessons and to ensure students see themselves and people like them in the course, while also learning about diverse cultures.
At Friendship, we are committed to empowering our students to become informed, global citizens who are equipped to respond to the challenges of this moment and those to come.
Miranda Shao, Cohort 2019 Urban Teachers fellow at Raymond Elementary, 4th grade math and science teacher
“These types of student-led discussions would allow the students to explore an important and relevant topic in a way that feels comfortable to them. It would also teach the important skill of how to have a civil dialogue.”Miranda Shao, Cohort 2019 Urban Teachers fellow at Raymond Elementary, 4th grade math and science teacher
I think there are two ways to improve the social studies curriculum in D.C. at this time.
The first method is to make the curriculum more relevant to our social context. For example, I teach fourth graders, and they’re currently learning about early American history such as the founding of the 13 colonies. This type of education is great, but it’s not reflective of our current circumstance and doesn’t lend itself to conversations about events like the Capitol riots that occurred in D.C. last year. One strategy is to update our curriculum. Some ways we might do this is to make sure that it’s relevant to important conversations students might have later on like race relations. I believe the country’s past influences our future and it is important to understand how history is not only about how the United States was formed, but also how that history functions in our everyday life. I also believe there is a kid-friendly way to have these discussions. For example, teachers can begin by talking to their early elementary school students about identity and where we all come from. Then, over the years, students can move on to more and more nuanced subjects, while remaining confident in the strength of their foundation.
The second way to improve the social studies curriculum in D.C. is by allowing students to lead the conversation. Elementary-aged students are more observant than we think. I believe that sometimes it can be good for educators to function as facilitators in conversation rather than leaders, allowing students to take the dialogue where they desire. For example, after the Capitol riots in January, I used our Morning Meeting time to facilitate a conversation about this event. I first provided context in a kid-friendly way that was provided with language from our school. I then asked a few open-ended questions and allowed my students to take it from there. We were able to have a valuable conversation about how they felt and why they thought the riots were happening. These types of student-led discussions would allow the students to explore an important and relevant topic in a way that feels comfortable to them. It would also teach the important skill of how to have a civil dialogue.
Lamar Bethea, Founding Kings 101 Instructor at Statesmen Academy, Member of the Social Studies Standards Review Advisory Committee
“Social studies students do more than memorize facts and dates; they develop the capacity to interpret and evaluate events, understand their consequences, and connect these events to the present-day, or even their own lives. This can be directly applied to relevant topics of civil unrest and social justice.”Lamar Bethea, Founding Kings 101 Instructor at Statesmen Academy, Member of the Social Studies Standards Review Advisory Committee
Social studies classes are vital to students in DC because they provide a lens for our students to understand the entire world and how it operates. They cover traditional topics like history and civics, but also more complex topics like human geography, social justice, and ethics. Social studies students do more than memorize facts and dates; they develop the capacity to interpret and evaluate events, understand their consequences, and connect these events to the present-day, or even their own lives. This can be directly applied to relevant topics of civil unrest and social justice. An informed social studies course goes beyond the emotional tags associated with oppressive systems; it enables students to trace a series of connected characters and events and attack the core of any issue. Rather than latching on to how unfair things may be, students will be able to unpack why certain systems do or do not work in the United States. The “history” component of social studies should be taught as an ongoing and constantly updating subject rather than something that only exists in the past.
Since our students live in the nation’s capital, it is critically important that our social studies courses expand our students’ global perspectives rather than have an “America-first” or “America-only” experience. Students can develop the misconception that American history is just that–American. However, the story of America has chapters that touch upon every single continent. Pacifying or sterilizing what students learn limits their exposure to other nations and cultures. All students benefit from a more inclusive social studies course because it mitigates the potential for othering or stereotyping. It also allows for students to draw important connections throughout their learning.
One of the most important aspects of a social studies course is critical thinking. This goes beyond students regurgitating information as it is given to them. If taught correctly, social studies classes will allow students to answer the question “why did this happen?” If authentically taught, social studies classes will allow our students to trace the thin red line between that connects people, places, and events. For example, they will see the repetition of political outcomes that led to economic depressions or how different activist groups have used the same types of methods to draw attention to issues or enact substantial social changes. After the global protests against police brutality in the summer of 2020, it is imperative that students can discuss the root causes of movements such as Black Lives Matter. They need to see how these events are connected from the distant past to the present day. Based on what students discuss and discover, they will be empowered to make decisions about their own future. Social studies classes are quintessential to students in D.C. because they will cause our students to develop their critical thinking skills and have more impactful insights on events they see play out in real-time.