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Crocco and Thornton Study Social Studies Teaching Reforms

In a study in the Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 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."

In a study in the Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 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 researchers 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.


Crocco and Thornton examined the teaching of social studies in New York City in restructured and traditional high schools. They looked at decisions on what subject matter to include in the curriculum, the character of the teaching force, different institutional settings, the integration of subjects such as social studies and English and how prepared teachers are to plan and teach such curriculum.

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.

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. By contrast, many restructured schools develop their own interdisciplinary curriculum. Teachers in traditional schools (66 percent of survey respondents) believe they have some latitude in deviating from the standard curriculum.

In general, the researchers found that instructional strategies in social studies tend to be far more flexible in the restructured schools. About half of restructured schools (both those with and without waivers from the Regents exams) follow the prescribed NYS 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 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 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 percent 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, "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.

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.

The school restructuring movement's innovative organizational features, 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, say the researchers, to focus more on higher order thinking are used together with changes in organizational structures, are benefits seen.

Published Sunday, May. 19, 2002


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