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Teachers: Social studies get pushed aside

Stephen Cooney, from the Copiague school district, asks

Stephen Cooney, from the Copiague school district, asks a question to Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at the Long Island Social Studies Council conference held inside the Melville Marriott on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. Credit: Steve Pfost

Long Island students are learning less history, civics and geography than they did a decade ago -- in the early grades, radically less -- a procession of local educators told state education officials Friday.

Social studies teachers and administrators meeting with Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia in Melville said that instruction in their subject has been eclipsed in recent years by increased emphasis on English and math.

The complaints were aired during a question-and-answer session at a conference sponsored by the Long Island Council for the Social Studies.

"I have never been more concerned about social studies education than I am now," said Ira Schildkraut, a retired Freeport High School teacher who now works at a private academy in North Woodmere.

Schildkraut's remark drew sustained applause from more than 300 educators attending the annual conference.

Elia, who once taught social studies in the Buffalo area, replied that she, too, worried about weakened instruction in history and related subjects.

The commissioner added that the problem appeared to be especially acute in elementary schools.

"I'm concerned, and you should be, about social studies being pulled out of K-5," she said.

Elia, who took office in July, told Newsday she needed to review the issue in greater depth before taking corrective action.

On the Island and across the nation, teachers in a variety of fields, including social studies, art and music, have reported that their subjects get increasingly short shrift.

The trend began, educators have said, with the rollout in 2002 of the federal "No Child Left Behind Law," which requires annual testing in math and English in grades three through eight. Pressures intensified in 2010, when New York State began linking teachers' job evaluations with how well students performed on those same tests.

"The reality is, what's tested is taught," said Joseph Lemke, a social studies administrator and council executive board member, who attended Friday's conference.

Lemke, in an interview, said he knew of elementary schools where time devoted to history and geography has shrunk from five hours a week to "one hour a week, if you're lucky."

Other conference participants told stories of students who arrive in middle schools without having gained a basic knowledge of geography in the elementary grades.

Stephen Cooney, an eighth-grade social studies teacher in Copiague, recalled asking a student recently for the location of the Panama Canal. "Spain," the youngster replied.

Expanded testing in English and math has been accompanied by reduced assessment in other subjects.

New York in 2010 eliminated social studies tests in grades five and eight. In January, the state began allowing waivers from Regents exams either in U.S. History or Global History, in exchange for completing sequences of occupational courses accompanied by certification tests.


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