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Curriculum Reform NYC Restructured Schools May Short Change Social Studies Teaching While Researchers Commend the

In a study in the Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, two Teachers College professors, Margaret Crocco and Steve Thornton, both Associate Professors of Social Studies and Education, examine what shapes current practices in secondary-level social studies classrooms in New York City, especially in those institutions characterized as "restructured."


Study by Crocco and Thornton in Journal of Curriculum and Supervision

In a study in the Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, two Teachers College professors, Margaret Crocco and Steve Thornton, both Associate Professors of Social Studies and Education, examine what shapes current practices in secondary-level social studies classrooms in New York City, especially in those institutions characterized as "restructured."

Crocco and Thornton found that school restructuring at the secondary level has had a less uniform effect on subject matter than expected. The impact of school restructuring on social studies in NYC schools can deviate greatly or little from social studies practices found in traditional schools. On the one hand, the researcher found a preponderance of young, inexperienced teachers working with small classes doing "humanities" in a block scheduling structure. In such settings, teachers use student-centered learning activities, spend little time in direct instruction, and assess student learning through portfolios. By contrast, in other small schools, older, more experienced teachers rely on the standard NYC/NYS survey course framework, teach social studies via the developmental lesson, and emphasize breadth over depth. Tests serve as the principal means of assessment in traditional schools.

Reform and Restructuring in New York City Schools:
Crocco and Thornton examined the teaching of social studies in New York City in restructured and traditional high schools. In these environments, how are decisions made on what subject matter to include in the curriculum? How does the character of the teaching force affect social studies curriculum and instruction in different institutional settings? What does the integration of subjects such as social studies and English (commonly referred to as "humanities" in NYC) actually look like? How prepared are teachers to plan and teach such curriculum?

Interdisciplinary Curriculum Without Teacher Preparation:
Crocco and Thornton raise important issues for curriculum policy formation and implementation as well as teacher education. They argue that interdisciplinary curriculum has been adopted without adequate consideration of how to prepare teachers for planning and implementing such curriculum. In brief, they said, "We found that curriculum reform as practiced in many NYC restructured schools may shortchange the teaching of social studies."

Social Studies in Traditional NYC High Schools:
One of the chief differences between traditional and restructured schools in NYC is use of the Regents-defined curriculum. All the traditional high schools follow the prescribed New York State (NYS) curriculum, requiring four years of social studies: World History in freshman and sophomore years; American History in junior year; Economics and Problems of Government in senior year. By contrast, many restructured schools develop their own interdisciplinary curriculum. Teachers in traditional schools (66% of survey respondents) believe they have some latitude in deviating from the standard curriculum.

Restructured Schools:
In general, Crocco and Thornton found that instructional strategies in social studies tend to be far more flexible in the restructured schools. Constructivist approaches to teaching and learning rely heavily on primary sources as opposed to textbooks and secondary sources. Cooperative learning and other group work approaches, including simulations and role play are also used with some recitation and discussion in evidence. Most survey respondents from restructured schools said that teachers rely chiefly on group work or cooperative learning as the dominant method of instruction. About half of restructured schools (both those with and without waivers from the Regents' exams) follow the prescribed NY State curriculum. In many restructured schools, teachers emphasize reasoning and the interpretation of evidence rather than learning a prescribed body of knowledge. Since this is to some degree consonant with the current direction of the reformulated Regents exams, these teachers believe their students' performance will not be adversely affected by lack of coordination with the Regents curriculum.

The most dramatic effects of school restructuring on social studies curriculum can be found in schools restructured through the agency of the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE), which has an explicitly defined philosophy of education and a set of principles guiding curriculum and instruction. In such schools the focus on "essential questions"-for example, "Is power good or bad?"-shape the curriculum. CCE, however, does not prescribe curriculum and some of their high schools follow more traditional curriculum.

In many cases social studies offerings vary from school to school and student to student. Students may graduate from restructured high schools never having studied the Civil War or World War I or the American Revolution.

Some new smaller schools received waivers from Regents examinations in major subject areas. Such waivers from high-stakes standardized testing of the state social studies framework gave teachers curricular latitude largely unknown in traditional high schools. These schools substituted other forms of assessment, especially portfolios, as graduate requirements. Very few tests are used in these settings.

Teachers in traditional and restructured schools differ markedly. Significantly, most teachers in restructured schools are younger and less experienced than those in traditional schools. More than a third of teachers in restructured schools had under five years' experience. Yet, the proportion of highly experienced teachers (20-30 years experience) in traditional schools was more than twice that in restructured schools.

Crocco and Thornton found many of the humanities and social studies teachers in restructured schools uncertified in social studies. In only 20% of the restructured schools were more than half of the social studies teachers certified in the field.

At alternative high schools, control over curriculum rests in the hands of the teachers; this is a sharp contrast with traditional schools where only one in six schools gives teachers that kind of latitude. Nevertheless, a former director of one restructured school commented, "These schools depend on teacher made-curriculum but most teachers have never had training in developing curriculum."

Although it seems obvious that the traditional curriculum, developmental lessons, and high-stakes tests are ineffective with many urban youngsters, substituting interdisciplinary curriculum without adequate teacher education is to invite failure. "We believe that the differences found in restructured schools are sufficient to warrant new approaches to teacher education, with a focus on interdisciplinary curriculum, student advisement, workplace collaboration, and portfolio assessment, at the very least," they wrote.

Crocco and Thornton suggest that, while it may be unrealistic to expect all teachers of humanities to have extensive liberal arts preparation in both the social studies disciplines and English, it seems reasonable to demand that teachers with complementary subject-matter backgrounds cooperate to develop humanities curriculum. Given the intensive expectations of the high school curriculum generally, teachers will need to insure that sacrificing breadth to depth does not mean four years where very little social studies gets taught at all.

Teachers also need education in methods of interdisciplinary teaching, curriculum development, guidance, as well as portfolio and other forms of authentic assessment. If teachers in restructured schools are to construct their own curricula, they require ongoing formal work in curriculum development.

Crocco and Thornton said that this research should not be interpreted as a blanket condemnation or endorsement of practices at traditional schools, although it seems clear that in urban environments, in particular, traditional schools could take some lessons from what occurs at restructured schools. The literature clearly indicates not only the real gains that come from small schools, but also identifies what makes small schools relatively attractive environments for urban, diverse students. Over all, the researchers say traditional schools would do well to focus their energies on making their cultures more "caring" environments since much of what seems to make small schools so successful has to do with the sense that the adults in the building care about their students.

In spite of the generally favorable response to restructuring schools from educational researchers, parents, and students, it must be remembered that for every successful experiment such as Central Park East Secondary School the eventual success of many more such experimental schools is far from certain. As noted through the example of social studies, in the name of restructuring teachers take on work for which they are inadequately prepared and significant elements of social studies and English may be omitted in the cause of interdisciplinary curriculum. These factors make restructuring schools especially vulnerable to critics who insist urban schools need no more and no less than traditional subjects and instructional arrangements.

Innovative organizational features associated with the school restructuring movement, such as the length and scheduling of classes, number of students in a class, formation of teaching teams, and so forth do not automatically result in improved teaching and learning in social studies. Only when programmatic efforts, said Crocco and Thornton, to generate improved attention to the goal of higher order thinking work in tandem with changes in organizational structures are real benefits noticeable.

The researchers said that only bold solutions are clearly needed in urban education. There is genuine cause for concern over how students' needs in restructuring schools may have overshadowed the development of sound curriculum in the established school subjects. Gains in equity and improved attendance are plainly important. These gains, however, may constitute a Pyrrhic victory if the demands of subject matter are neglected, said Crocco and Thornton.

See also: New York Times Article Summary

Published Wednesday, Jun. 26, 2002