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Educating stability:

Social Studies is the canary in the coalmine

By Stephen B. Waters

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Table of Contents

Print edition
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Promoting education that matters.

   Sifting education from current habits. 1
Approaches to learning 5
Reviewing the Social Studies frameworks 6
   Summarizing reasons for concern. 6

Frameworks: Timeline and layout

   The social studies frameworks timeline. 9
   A layout of the frameworks. 9
   The general framework structure: 11
Frameworks: Key Understandings are of minimal significance 12
   1: “Key Understandings” aren’t key. 12
   2: “Key Understandings” are cultural 12
   3: “Key Understandings” are only popular. 12
   4: Popular traditions are not principles 13
   5: “Key Understandings” are not validated or revalidated. 13
   6: Popular traditions leave students ungrounded. 13
   7: Frameworks miss the meat. 14
   8: Today’s issues framed in experience give traction. 14
   9: Framework assumptions undermine. 14
   10: Frameworks uses tradition to mold. 15
   11: The weight of history. 15
Frameworks: Inquiry Arc of vague questions 15
   Fogging out over compelling questions 15
Frameworks: Themes don’t unify 16
   Themes are a programmed distraction. 16
   1. Culture 17
   2. Time, Continuity, and Change 17
   3. People, Places, and Environments 17
   4. Individual Development and Identity 18
   5. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions 18
   6. Power, Authority, and Governance 18
   7. Production, Distribution, and Consumption 19
   8. Science, Technology, and Society 19
   9. Global Connections 20
   10. Civic Ideals And Practices 20
Frameworks: Key ideas and understandings are not compelling 20
   Concepts may not be principles or virtues. 20
   Democracy isn’t a principle. 21
   Principles matter. 21
Frameworks: Content Specifications misdirect 22
   Implementations arrived in full bloom. 22
   Implementations are the point of the sword. 22
   ELA: Grade 2 samples misrepresent democracy. 22
   ELA: 6-12 Grade samples are non–evidence-based. 23
   History matters. 24
Frameworks: Social studies practices 26
   Practices don’t make perfect. 26
   Participation can be manipulated 26
   Economic systems aren’t a practice 26
Frameworks: Reviewing conclusions 27
   Integration of Common Core Standards is distracting. 27
   The frameworks are judgmental. 27
   The frameworks confuse. 27
   Complexity complicates matters. 27
   The frameworks exclude. 28
   Frameworks have been poorly vetted. 28
   Who chose implementation content? 28
   Frameworks serve particular interests. 29
   Who stands to benefit from the proposed social studies frameworks? 29
   Common Core war is misdirected. 30
   The Social Studies name gets in the way. 30
   Knowledge, patterns, and process. 31
   Excellence redefined 31
   Political theory 32
   Social studies frameworks are too heavy to survive. 33
   Moving on 33

Individuals & Society: Self–interest

   Where to find education 35
   Developing humility 37
   Building society 38
   Only one question matters 38
   Minimums of society 39
   Experience fosters respect and responsibility 39
Individuals & Society: Why society 40
   Individuals create society. 40
   Individuals create ethics. 40
   Understanding creates its own traction. 41
   Simple wisdoms are scalable. 42
   Concentric circles of individuals, journalism, and society. 42
   Morality in society. 43
   Advancing society 44
   Power threatens society. 45
Individuals & Society: Generating traction 45
   Discover that you matter. 45
   You in the universe 46
   Self–interest leads to a character-centered life 48
   Dynamic process tools 50
   Metaphors from experience motivate. 51
   Fixed rules are incomplete 51
   Skills to weigh the quality of ideas. 51

Individuals & Society: Where character comes from

   Ethics is a creation of thought. 52
   Morals are for personal protection. 52
   Ethical participation is by choice 52
   Character development follows from education. 53
   Approaches to morality. 53
   Deducing morality 54
   Virtues change over time. 54
   Validation is everyone’s task. 55
Individuals & Society: Approaches to character 56
   How to teach character is an old problem. 56
   Teaching vocabulary doesn’t teach character. 57
   Emulation doesn’t build character. 58
   Teaching character requires a better method. 59
   Character requires developing society. 59
Individuals & Society: Conclusion 60
   Governance has failed us in the past. 60
   Ethics did not mature in the 20th century. 61
   What matters has been distilled out of education. 61
   The exceptional. 62
In summary: Alone and with hope 62
   Making your own hope. 62
Wrapping up Common Core frameworks 65
   The emperor’s new clothes 65


   Improving the Common Core model lessons 67
   Grade relevant opportunities 67
   Integrating simple wisdoms into subjects. 69
   Global Studies Regents Exam, August 2010 73


Elementary school used to teach about ancient Greece:

Rowing, marching, singing — each required practiced loyalty from fellow citizens. An oar out of sync pulls a trireme off course. A soldier’s shield pulled too close opens a chink in the row of armor. An off-tempo note distracts attention from the play’s storyline. Such life skills were virtues that Greeks were taught.

New generations revalidate virtues according to recent life experience.

Today, teachers teaching teachers spent little time validating what students ought to learn. In the belly of the present–day educational trireme educators have been pulling oars in sync because that is how they were trained and that is what they are told.

Occasionally some poor fool sticks his head out of the hatch, looks around, and yells down into the ship’s hold, “Hey! Do any of you realize where this thing is headed?”

Welcome aboard.

Promoting education that matters.

Sifting education from current habits.

The Social Studies frameworks for Common Core reinforce that the sin of Common Core is that much of what is objectionable is not Common Core.

The Standards themselves do focus attention on the need for techniques, content, and even assessments to overcome the questionable quality of some teachers interspersed amongst the excellent ones — those that damage students and that local administrators either had not mentored to success or drummed out of the classroom.

The Social Studies frameworks revealed that others used the mantle of Common Core as cover to take advantage of a public interested in quality education. Using that cover, they inserted material quite different from that responsible for generations of diverse individuals and unparalleled American success. They called all the content they inserted “Common Core” even when it was neither common nor core.

Most state and local educators and officials were not tuned to see the social agenda or what it was designed to accomplish. Identifying those who worked to color educational standards and mapping their efforts is beyond the scope of this paper and is documented elsewhere.1

Parallel to the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts (ELA) and for Mathematics was an effort to establish an equivalent social studies standards. The National Council for the Social Studies released their effort called College, Career and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards2 and known as the C3 Framework. State frameworks were derived from it.

This paper presents patterns that reveal the social studies frameworks, for all their complexity, are unfocused and shallow. As magicians distract with subterfuge, frameworks intricacy is an effort to insinuate, obscure, and re-label schooling to become something that voters would not countenance or ever approve. Armed with insight, readers may make their own judgments.

Other branches of Common Core have been co-opted. It just hasn’t been noticed, probably because narrow teaching expertise, makes it less likely patterns would be recognized.

Before examining the frameworks in detail, let’s establish context. Peeling away the complexity of the Common Cores, success in the classroom depends upon:

  1. Teachers who engage each student individually and positively.
  2. Content that gives traction because it registers self-interest individual by individual.

Instead, administration has become preoccupied with how best to teach students operational skills. Others in history have tried that as the main focus of teacher training. Ancient Romans schooled their children with operational skills so they would become good citizens who spoke well. That schooling didn’t prevent Romans from losing their republic. Not all change is bad. In 399 BC, the trial of Socrates forced the question, “Does an education belong to the State or to the individual?” In the late 700s, Alcuin instituted grammar, logic, and rhetoric for Charlemagne. In the 1200s, the works of Aristotle were recovered helping to reclaim schooling from medieval scholastics.

The goal of this paper is to use the opportunity Common Core has presented to affirm the engagement of teachers with students individually and positively, and to propose content that gives traction because it registers individual self-interest.

The first section suggests frameworks proposals may be popular, but they are inadequate and misdirected. The second section suggests how to do better. An individual-based education nudges students to recognize what matters in such a way that it arms them to defend against even those who would teach them. Students learn to deduce for themselves behavior that is positive, instructive, and constructive. The word for that behavior is virtuous.

The frameworks approach might have been more obvious had society not traditionally often been confused with culture. Separate the two and society’s simple elegance becomes clear. That insight sells to others the personal advantage society offers. The insight generates the courage to defend society against those who, resigned by their actions to living the law of the jungle, would destroy it.

Focusing on culture is like looking at a photograph absent the depth of field to see society in the background:

Flowers with no depth of field Flowers with depth of field

Focused on foreground activities alone, People miss the value of society they actually create for their own self-interest. Not conscious of the background, people overlook that individuals, journalism, and society are like interrelated concentric circles.

Subjects currently taught offer fascinating detail, but don’t convey the lessons that help students mature and integrate into society. Discrete subjects were developed the middle ages. As mentioned above, Charlemagne appointed a monk named Alcuin to establish a sweeping educational system for both kings and commoners. The system taught students to think using the Trivium. After that, they practiced thinking on subjects. Now we teach subjects and hope students learn to think.

Subjects are not enough. Suppose you want to drive a car:

The car you need to learn to drive is you. Self–interest generates traction in school. Today officials are less interested in self–interest than in molding students to be “college and career ready.” Officials determined that “college and career ready” is the students’ interest regardless whether students and parents find that to be a students’ best interest.

College teaching programs and district professional development spend considerable time teaching teachers how to teach. Little time is spent validating content. Teachers enter the classroom told by authorities what students will learn. What or why it should be taught is not necessarily part of teacher expertise. Textbooks and teaching materials provide content vetted by highly credentialed “expert” mandarins.

Methods and content need to improve, but the new social studies frameworks impose well-ordered and disturbing complexity. Underneath concepts well worth practicing are levels of the social studies framework that will be examined for concerns they cause:

Common Core social studies frameworks and the parallel intrusion into English Language Arts (ELA) implementations have educators trying to turn students into good citizens by every means except familiarizing them with the continuum of history and how America emerged from it.

Frameworks designers appear to have lost confidence in what experience has to teach. They dismiss the founders’ advantage. Losing the value of experience examined makes the same mistakes previous “forward-thinking” educators made. Charles Dickens captured the problem in his 1854 book Hard Times that describes attempts to rigidly control education according to the best technical understandings of the day. In 1885, Daniel Owen wrote Rhys Lewis in Welsh to reclaim heritage from the mechanistic hand of British central government.

We have reason to be proud of humanity, proud of America, and proud of ourselves as individuals. At the very least, education should make that clear. Let’s summarize frameworks concerns, review them in detail, and offer a more useful alternative.

Approaches to learning

Coasting on contemporary feelings as if they were scholarship, proposed social studies frameworks presume that if “Enduring Understandings” and “Key Ideas” are popular, they must be important. That makes no sense. Absent scholarship that conveys why something matters, classroom experience becomes a charade.

For example, the C3 Framework proposes to tease out a formless “Key Idea” using a sample question it considers compelling: “How will an increase in the minimum wage affect local job opportunities for teens?”3 That is tedious, pedantic, and fog–inducing.

A simpler approach, offered by Economist Mark J. Perry posted on his blog, Carpe Diem, presents a Venn diagram of overlapping circles that induces strong traction students can use regarding minimum wage.4

Venn diagram on minimum wage

In the Venn diagram:

Perry’s minimum wage lesson is teachable in different ways:

The first point is verifiable through economic research and the second adds useful patterns that reinforce personal experience. Patterns help one master the essential benefit of humility. Recoginizing one’s mental map of reality might be mistaken leads to doubt that fuels a persistent quest to learn. It leads to respect for others similarly aware who recognize the benefit of cooperating to understand things more accurately. Later discussions will help explain the importance why.

That NCSS sample question was generated at the behest of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) who parented creation of the social studies frameworks. They took a cliché that sounded good and presumed they had stumbled upon a fact: “Questioning is the key to student learning.”5 As the CCSSO explained, “Students will develop questions as they investigate societal issues, trends and events.”6

To expect students to develop questions from thin air is unreasonable. More likely the case is that, “Learning is the key to student questioning.” That didn’t stop the CCSSO from dictating questions to be the heart of their curricular guidelines. Their frameworks follow the structure:

Darned few questions really motivate people, and those tend to reflect profoundly individual concerns:

The job of education is to help students reach for mastery of what is worth knowing and why, embrace a process of continuous reflection, and tie it all together without dogma or conviction. One need not read completely the NCSS report either in the original “College, Career, and Civics” (C3) Framework or the numerous state-sponsored derivatives (We examine New York State’s framework) to see the many ways they miss the mark.

Reviewing the Social Studies frameworks

Summarizing reasons for concern.

The Social Studies frameworks are yet another grand educational scheme designed by committee and built to fail:

  1. Centralized frameworks are designed for the government’s view of what constitutes common community interest, not for the students’ view of what constitutes common individual interests that also serve society.
  2. The design–by–committee approach,7 supposed to lend credibility instead created lack of accountability and the opportunity for the frameworks to be shaped to serve outside interests.
  3. Sweeping assumptions, made early in the vision process, rippled down into implementations to the detriment of the learning.
  4. Four pages of frameworks contributors make unwieldy assumptions of common cultural experience, democracy, a stable economy, and beneficent government.
  5. “College and career ready” ought to be a secondary goal. Schooling should not program a CNC machine to shape students into a centralized idea of where and how one should fit.
  6. “Themes” are superficial and misleading, giving the appearance of striving for education when they mask the lack of it. They present a false façade of rigor whereas they are less themes than habits of presentation fallen into over time. Not coherent, they do not follow one to the next; accordingly, they offer little traction for students. They meet what they set as relevant standards, but those standards are not germane.
  7. “Key understandings”, selected because they were popular rather than well–founded or important, offer little traction other than what comes from required repetition.
  8. Dependence on current questions leaves students the mistaken impression their generation is more capable and better than earlier ones. They lose their sense of history because of it.
  9. Principles aren’t paper. Free speech may be enshrined in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. But only the timid justify action using the parchment of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence rather than the principle behind it.
  10. Justifying selecting an understanding to be “compelling” is the equivalent of an old fashioned ruler-waving schoolmarm’s “because I said so!” Dogmatic selection leaves real education as an exercise for students to pursue later in life.
  11. The frameworks proposed to create something culturally independent but unsure how, create content independence instead. What they thought to be politically and socially enlightened it turned out to be incomplete.
  12. Framework authors confess to habituation — to be able to survey consensus — but not to be able to deduce or convey the roots of society in such a manner that others can re-verify.
  13. Framework virtues are static, not extracted from experience, and promoted only because they sound worthwhile.
  14. In the 1920s, John Dewey pushed “social studies” instead of geography and history and “Language Arts” to replace English literature and grammar. Dewey believed its purpose was to produce “good citizens” where what constituted “good” was defined by authorities. Today, concepts seem overlooked or purposely left out by authorities interested in social transformation that international organizations yearn to achieve.
  15. Lessons were produced using pedagogy designed by 1930s soviet behavioralist Lev Vygotsky implant a social integrationist view of language and learning because the goal was not to make students understand, but to make them behave the way that was in the state’s interest. Vygotsky believed in distributed intelligence. Tests measure pedagogically induced habits, not the acquisition or application of knowledge. In real education, how to teach has to be treated like a loaded weapon because it can go off pointed in the wrong direction.
  16. Project-based learning is experiential rather than mental. The interaction becomes the measurable quality rather than individual mental development. The subject of the class becomes secondary to behavior.
  17. Common Core has become the justification for inclusion whether or not a specific change was required by some authority. That makes it hard to recognize a shift away from knowledge and mental skills toward behavioral skills and developing habits. Standards have become the flag under which social change is carried out.
  18. Experts came down on the side of centralization, presuming that “college and career ready” trumped other desirable options. History has not been kind to that approach, as ancient Chinese dynasty dependence on mandarins attests. Credentials are not required to produce useful curricula. Sometimes they are a disadvantage. Ancient Chinese mandarins were highly credentialed in areas that ended up not to matter.
  19. State–based framework derivatives beget vendor-provided implementations. Failure cascades through them. Generalities in the original framework become not liberty, but license for distributed frameworks to do worse, all in the name of a centralized presumption of the public good.
  20. Understanding should be reached through competition and individual agreement, not top-down imposition that expounds unchallenged ideas, tested by uniform exams, “validated” by administration approved accreditors.
  21. Without deduction, there is not education but indoctrination. Schooling becomes drilling, losing traction and wonder.
  22. Once having captured a culture through schooling, a government leviathan will use the institutions of culture to perpetuate itself.

The frameworks strive for the abstract but achieve the abstruse. Their processes are academic and although they drill some useful tools, they don’t offer the underlying dynamic process concepts that, once discovered, lead one to create society, value, and defend it.

Dynamic process concepts, once understood, lead to the characteristics that help make people successful as individuals and active positive participants with others in society that together they create.

Frameworks: Timeline and layout

The social studies frameworks timeline.

A 2008 survey on the disparate nature of the way social studies was taught across the 50 states led the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA) to create the Common Core Initiative.

In 2010, work was commissioned by the Social Studies Assessment, Curriculum, and Instruction (SSACI) collaborative of CCSSO to create the Common Core State Standards.

In 2012, CCSSO asserted the premise that questioning is the key to learning. Their vision statement described the heart of the proposed C3 Social Studies Framework to be an “Inquiry Arc” consisting of dimensions “1) developing questions and planning investigations; 2) applying disciplinary concepts and tools; 3) gathering, evaluating, and using evidence; and 4) working collaboratively and communicating conclusions”

When the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts (ELA) and Math were released, the CCSSO dropped plans to replicate the exercise for Social Studies. That is when the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) stepped in.

In 2013, The NCSS and a plethora of other contributing associations released The College, Career & Civic Life Framework For Social Studies State Standards. (C3 Framework)

The C3 Framework integrated and extended ELA Common Core State Standards in social studies standards.

A layout of the frameworks.

The C3 Framework proposed that state standards identify the knowledge and skills students need to know and be able to do — suggesting “purposes worth caring about, processes worth engaging in, and knowledge worth knowing”8 be organized as:

Lastly, the NCSS advocated that the civic mission of social studies promote civic action.

To consider “big ideas” or “enduring understandings” the C3 Framework established ten “themes” for social studies discussion. They proposed, more than content knowledge, to develop skill sets and a disposition for critical thinkers.

Like other states following the C3 Framework, New York State produced a field guide, an introduction, and grade-specific social studies frameworks that followed Inquiry Arcs, Unifying Themes, Common Core Literacy Skills and Social Studies practices, Key Ideas and Conceptual Understandings presumed to be principles, and, finally, Content Specifications.

The NYS Social Studies Framework Introduction established standards for:

New York also emphasized Instructional Shifts in its framework:

The NYS K-12 Social Studies Field Guide introduces “various Social Studies practices” that are not part of the C3 Framework structure:

The NYS K–8 Social Studies Framework revised and expanded those Social studies practices:

NYS massaged the ten C3 Framework Themes but essentially follows them in a nominally chronological approach to social studies according to this schedule:

The NYS Framework also lists Key Ideas tagged with the applicable themes, then Conceptual understandings, followed by Content Specifications. This is followed by rubrics, organized by social studies practice, with columns selecting grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12.

Details of content were left to commercial textbook and program implementers. New York State Education Department posted sample lessons from different vendors at their website.

It is in the NYS Frameworks itself that the heavy overlay of Common Core Literacy Standards becomes the tail that wags the dog.

The general framework structure

A more detailed examination of concerns follows social studies frameworks sections:

If the summary has raised sufficient concerns about the frameworks, skip the detailed examination and summary and page on ahead to the chapters on Individuals & Society for a refreshing look on validating background for society.

Educating Stability Table of Contents

Next chapter: Educating Stability: Social Studies Frameworks

Endnotes -- Introduction

1 Eubanks. Robin S. Credentialed to Destroy: How and Why Education Became A Weapon. © 2013.
2 National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History (Silver Spring, MD: NCSS, 2013). Page 18.
3 Ibid. C3 Framework.
4 and the article located at
5 Ibid. C3-Framework. Page 17.
6 Page 5.
7 Frameworks authors consulted “anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences” before producing the frameworks. They cite four pages of authors who contributed to their work.
8 NCSS Publication Social Education. Page 220.