Boston Public Schools to Fold History Dept. Under 'Humanities Umbrella' to Meet Common Core Standards

Boston Public Schools to Fold History Dept. Under 'Humanities Umbrella' to Meet Common Core Standards

Boston Public Schools (BPS) has announced that it will be “improving and coordinating the use of instructional materials” by folding the subject area of History and Social Studies “under a Humanities umbrella,” along with English Language Arts (ELA) and World Languages, likely for the purpose of meeting the demands of the Common Core ELA standards.

Interim Superintendent of BPS John McDonough appeared to be responding to what was termed “a lot of confusion on a petition circulating to keep History and Social Studies departments within BPS.”

At Network H-High-S, Joseph J. Ferreira, Jr. wrote Wednesday:

It was announced today that the Boston Public School department is “reorganizing” by eliminating all Departments of History & Social Sciences in all schools and folding the departments into the Department of English Language Arts as a “Humanities Department” with the currciculum [sic] determined by the ELA Common Core Standards. Certified history department heads/chairs are being laid off and, apaprently [sic], no certified history specialist will be hired to replace any of these teachers. This essentially eliminates history and the social sciences as one of the core academic departments in the Boston Public Schools and subordinates HSS to ELA. This appears to be the first major metropolitan school district to reduce history and the social sciences to merely a supporting role in the education of students.

McDonough, however, said, “There is a lot of misinformation circulating online and I want to set the record straight.”

Denying that the department of History and Social Studies will be eliminated, McDonough continued:

Instead, we are improving and coordinating the use of instructional materials throughout all subject areas. This means we will improve our ability to support English teachers who wish to take advantage of historical lessons in their classes, and for History and Social Studies teachers who wish to take advantage of literature that frames an understanding of historical content. This is different than eliminating one course and asking another subject to take it over. This is about coordinating our curriculum at all levels and connecting the dots for students. To help us do this successfully, we are bringing these areas together under the Humanities umbrella. This allows us to maintain separate History and Social Studies, English Language Arts and World Languages departments while aligning ourselves academically to promote interdisciplinary cross-collaboration. This was one of the major recommendations offered in the Academics review we requested this spring from the Council of the Great City Schools.

The Council of the Great City Schools, an ardent supporter of the Common Core Standards, has received nearly $12 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, much of it for the implementation of the centralized standards.

Though McDonough clearly wants to suppress any alarm about the change, the act of placing the History and Social Studies department under an “umbrella” with other departments could serve to dilute all of them.

In a research paper published by the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, authors Anders Lewis and Breitbart News contributor Sandra Stotsky wrote, “Across Massachusetts public schools, history teachers believe that the study of U.S. history through the grades is in jeopardy if not in a poor state altogether.”

They add:

In Massachusetts, historical illiteracy has not resulted from poor state standards. To the contrary, the state has a highly rated set of history and social science standards, and in 2006 the board of elementary and secondary education chaired by James Peyser voted to include a high school U.S. history test based on these standards as part of the state’s high school diploma requirements. In 2009, however, the board chaired by Maura Banta voted to suspend the test for two years.

The problem of shortchanging American students, in general, of solid U.S. History and Civics was also the subject of another Pioneer Institute-published paper by Robert Pondiscio, Gilbert T. Sewall, and Sandra Stotsky.

“The collective grasp of basic history and civics among American students is alarmingly weak,” the authors wrote in April of 2013. “Beyond dispiriting test results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and other measures, poor performance in history and civics portends a decay of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed for a lifetime of active, engaged citizenship.”

The researchers state the decline of students’ knowledge of American history and civics is due to shrinking instructional time for history in K-12 education and demands that schools and teachers dwell on “inclusive” curricula components that focus on social, racial, and gender issues “that distort the nation’s historical narrative.”

“We ignore history at our peril,” the authors warn. “The neglect of a commonly understood heritage and the failure to cultivate civic values breed cynicism, distrust, and the decidedly un-American idea that ordinary citizens lack agency to manage their own affairs.”