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How Much Time Should Schools Spend on Social Studies?

In Tennessee, elementary schools spend as little as a half hour or as much as 90 minutes a day studying social studies, according to the Tennessean. But some districts don't quantify the amount of time spent on the subject at all, as it is sometimes entwined with lessons in English/language arts or other subjects.

A history education nonprofit in the state, Tennessee History for Kids, is concerned that changes to the state's standards might lead teachers to spend even less time on social studies. 

In some quarters, there's been hope that the time spent on social studies will be on the upswing. 

For nearly three decades, the amount of time spent on social studies at the elementary level has been, in general, dwindling. A 2011 study from the Fordham Institute found that instructional time spent on social studies in elementary schools each year had dropped by 18 hours between 1987 and 2003. The No Child Left Behind Act, which encouraged states to create accountability systems that put significant weight on standardized test scores in reading and math but not social studies, led social studies groups to raise concerns about how much time would be devoted to their subject. (Science and arts groups raised similar concerns.)

As recently as 2014, the National Education Association included social studies as part of the "disappearing curriculum" that was losing out due to the emphasis that policymakers and, thus, schools were placing on tested subjects. 

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act late last year, offers more funding for social studies and civics classes. The law's emphasis on providing a well-rounded education, which includes social studies and a number of other subjects, has been heralded as a potential boon for the "disappeared" subjects.

But those changes won't likely have trickled into schools yet. Teachers are still sharing strategies for covering anything of substance in science and social studies when the subjects are allotted just 30 minutes each day.

So, are the proposed content standards in Tennessee likely to change the amount of time that individual schools are spending on history? The state has been embroiled in debate over the standards, which drop some details about religion and the state's history, including the origins of the Grand Ole Opry and the rise of Elvis Presley. The Tennessee History for Kids group's executive director, Bill Carey, is concerned that decreasing the amount of content that teachers are asked to cover will give teachers an excuse to spend even less time on the subject.

But the new standards are in line with a national trend toward emphasizing students' skills rather than specific items of content in social studies standards, as the chairman of the standards review committee, John Roach, told the Tennessean: "It is not about students memorizing trivia. We want to give students the skills to be historians," he said.

And in the meantime, as the Tennessean reported, many schools are increasingly teaching literacy skills like reading and writing within history class, which may make it harder to track. (You can read more about it in this week's print edition of Education Week.)

The proposed standards in Tennessee are still open for comment, so we likely won't see how they'll actually affect time spent on the subject for years to come. 


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