No real reason to let social studies and civics fall down

Mara Miller

On Tuesday, August 16, the Hawaii Board of Education (BOE) listened to several hours of testimony from dozens of citizens (allowed two minutes each) regarding the value of the current social studies requirements for high school graduation. The board is considering eliminating the requirements based on a proposal from the Department of Education (DOE). The board has postponed their vote, previously scheduled for August 16. No date has yet been set.

At the recent BOE Curriculum and Instruction Committee meeting, testimony by members of the general public, scientists, teachers, students, and education specialists was unanimously in favor of the current requirements, known as Proposal 4540, and against the DOE’s proposed changes.

Since June, the board had been considering whether to stop requiring both the currently mandated “civics” course called “Participation in Democracy” (PID), and the fourth year of (required) electives in social studies for high school graduation. Although no formal announcement has been made, DOE Deputy Superintendent Ronn Nozoe indicated that the DOE is contemplating, but no longer requesting, the elimination of PID from the list of requirements.

Current social studies requirements are:

* One year of world history.

* One year of U.S. history.

* A third year of two required one-semester courses—Hawaiian history (mandated by law) and “Participation in Democracy” (PID).

* A fourth year of two one-semester courses chosen by each student in the senior year from the roster of social studies courses offered at that particular school. Such offerings include economics, geography, psychology, and global studies, etc. (The actual offerings differ depending on the school.)

Hawaii residents are at a loss to understand why the board supports this double reduction—the elimination of the fourth year of social studies electives, and of the PID course—and why the DOE included these reductions of social studies credits in Policy 4540 in the first place.

In the words of one commentator following Tuesday’s meeting, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” 

Out of the 129 written testimonies given at July’s BOE meeting, 127 were in favor of keeping the fourth credit of social studies and PID; only two were in favor Policy 4540 as it stands.

A majority of commentary in publications throughout Hawaii have been in favor of keeping the fourth credit of social studies and the PID course. Several national organizations have also written open letters to the board supporting the current, more rigorous requirements.

For links to more commentary, see Aloha POSSE’s webpage of articles in the press

For additional resources from Aloha POSSE, click here

The DOE, which initiated the changes proposed in Policy 4540, is currently at an impasse with the the way the board is considering implementing them. The DOE does not believe they themselves will be able to implement the policy for the class of 2016, as the BOE requested in their June 21 meeting. Yet so far the BOE has not taken this into account.

The board has offered little explanation as to why it wants to eliminate the social studies requirements or the PID course. Was this change a mistake? When was this decided? How was this discussed internally? Is the board aware that such courses are increasingly required across the nation, and that this is a step backwards for Hawaii?

The BOE is committing itself to a vote on something that has yet to be developed by the DOE.

This, if enacted, would make Hawaii the only state without such a requirement. That is, of the states that have requirements. Massachusetts, for one, has no state-wide requirements. Typically in such cases, local boards establish their own requirements, and a civics course is common in such districts.

There is a substantial amount of scientific research that clearly demonstrates that civics courses in high school have a positive effect on those students becoming voters and participating in their democracy. There is an even stronger correlation for immigrants. (See “Preparing for Citizenship: Immigrant High School Students’ Curriculum and Socialization,” Callahan, Muller, & Schiller, 2008, and visit the Aloha POSSE website for more research.)

Furthermore, Hawaii has low voter turnout. In 2006, the Participation in Democracy course was changed from a lower grade level to the junior year specifically to find out whether positioning it closer to the time when students would be actually able to vote would increase voter turnout in Hawaii. Since the students affected by the change are only now coming of voting age, we have yet to see the results of this experiment. It seems absurd to nullify the experiment so admirably put in place such a short time ago.

The BOE’s only public comment has been its June 21 recommendation memo (on the BOE website) that it supports choice for students. The implication is that the change in a social studies elective to a general elective gives students more choice. 

But how does this really give students more choice? In the Step Up diploma, part of a statewide campaign that promotes college and career readiness for Hawaii’s high school students, five credits of elective choices are recommended. By eliminating the senior project, students will get one more elective choice. Six credits of elective choices is still choice. And they already have choice within the existing program of fourth-year social studies electives.

In addition, the claim that Policy 4540 will offer more choice is false because it is based on unrealistic models of course offerings. As the BOE should know, the number and types of courses that can be offered at any given school are based on the way teachers are hired. And electives are actually allocated at schools. (See the White Paper posted by Aloha POSSE.)

An additional problem is that the DOE has not yet defined what is meant by a “proficiency-based equivalent,” which is a major component of the new graduation requirements.

The public needs to know what a proficiency based equivalent looks like in each of the subject areas, and how long it would take the DOE to develop a policy about proficiency based equivalents.

Until they do, the BOE is committing itself to a vote on something that has yet to be developed by the DOE.

Some have surmised that the thinking behind the recommendations for the new diploma in Policy 4540 are that it is more rigorous. But this is also a false assumption. The current BOE recognition diploma/Step Up diploma is more rigorous.

The current diploma requires four credits of math: Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II or its equivalent (because of common core, which allows the creation of new course that might supplant Algebra II); three credits of science including two lab sciences; four credits of Language Arts; and a half-credit that is expository ... plus the senior project.

In total, the BOE recognition/Step Up diploma has 25 credits including a senior project. For full details, see the graduation requirements here and the Step Up diploma here.

Compared to the Policy 4540, the current BOE recognition diploma/Step Up diploma requires one more credit of math and social studies, including a senior project. (Science and language arts are the same.) 

This is the first time since 1967, when citizens of Hawaii voted to elect the BOE rather than have a Board appointed by the governor—a decision we reversed in the last election—that a governor-appointed school board will make a major decision of this magnitude or affecting so many students (now 180,000). 

The elimination of the social studies elective and the PID course, with the addition of one more elective, weakens the DOE’s ability to achieve their vision for Hawaii’s students. Our graduates are expected to “possess the attitudes, knowledge, and skills necessary to contribute positively and compete in a global society; exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.”

It is the responsibility of the new, appointed BOE to demonstrate their commitment to the ideals of democracy and to the welfare of our state and of its students by voting the proposal down as soon as possible.