MS2, Black History and Social Science in the Common Core

Feature Report, February 5, 2015.

Howard University Middle School for Mathematics and Science – known as MS2 for short – has been in the news this past week as its students staged a protest Monday on the campus shared with their historic namesake. Some university students joined the protest in solidarity, and activists around the country praised the young students for speaking out.

MS2 is dedicated to preparing young people for careers in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – fields and offers after-school programs designed by Howard University faculty. But it was the firing of social studies teachers – which students and parents say took place in front of classrooms last week – that prompted the protest. Another social studies teacher has since given notice, saying in a letter to parents that today (2/5) will be his last with the students.

MS2 Student DemandsStudent demands include “better education,” “more understanding of what we’re supposed to be learning,” plus better administration, discipline, and the teaching of social studies.

Early news reports centered around a parent’s statement that the school had adopted a curriculum from Montgomery County MD and didn’t want students learning about things like “Kwanzaa and Marion Barry,” DC’s long-term political leader who died at the end of the 2014.

As discussed on air, February 5, the situation has been on-going for months: Both parents and teachers have been complaining about the lack of training associated with a new curriculum, students have been complaining about the curriculum’s failure to include current events, and lack of communication to the school community from MS2 and Howard University.

Listen for the latest from the school’s Parents in Action group, represented by Shannon Settle, and Akosua Ali, president of the NAACP’s DC Branch, which is supporting parents and students. (See also #MS2protest story with links to earlier press reports.)

Social Studies Curriculum in DC and Beyond

In the District, the State Board of Education is responsible for determining academic standards which:

• Specify what children are expected to know and be able to do;
• Contain coherent and rigorous content;
• Encourage the teaching of advanced skills; and
• Are updated on a regular basis.
— State Board Academic Standards

But neither the State Board nor the State Superintendent of Education has a mechanism for ensuring if, or how well, standards are being taught.

The Superintendent’s office says DC follows Common Core State Standards and referred to the Public Charter School Board for details.

In fact, DC’s existing Social Studies standards were adopted in 2007, before Common Core was developed. Newer Common Core standards subsume History and Social Studies within English Language Arts. (See page linked above.)

The Public Charter School Board issued a statement a few days ago saying that charter schools set their own academic goals and that the board uses “a variety of methods“ to ensure that schools comply with the law. (Full brief statement here.)

Annual testing, established by the State Board, is intended to measure how well schools are meeting standards, but existing tests do not assess social studies at all, and new Common Core-based tests focus on Mathematics and English Language Arts alone.

Within English Language Arts, the Common Core offers guidelines on how social studies students should learn to read and evaluate a piece of writing. Students in grades 6-8, for example, should “Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.” The standards are entirely mum on content.

Recent national controversy over U.S. History Advanced Placement exams shows how important testing is in determining content. And 43 states, in addition to the District of Columbia, have adopted Common Core standards and related testing. So, DC is not alone in evaluating teachers and schools based on nationalized, commercially-developed standardized instruments which de-emphasize social studies. How, in this climate, can local communities meet the needs of students, like those at the predominantly African American MS2 who are demanding more of “their history”? Where in this system is room for lessons on the legacy of a local leader?

Questions raised by DC’s young MS2 protestors are ones educators across the District and the country will have to consider as Common Core standards and related curricula continue to roll out.

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