The State Board of Education will make its final decision today on new high school graduation requirements. The changes come after state lawmakers passed a bill last year that reduces the number of required courses to graduate. Among the changes: students only have to take three social studies classes to graduate instead of four.
In the early 1990s, Texas became the first state to require students to take four social studies classes to graduate. The change back to three has some worried that Texas students won’t be as prepared for an increasingly global society.
High school students will still have to take US History, a semester of government, and semester of economics to graduate in four years. But, depending on what local school districts decide, many incoming freshmen will be able to choose World Geography or World History, instead of taking both.
Supporters say the change gives local school districts more flexibility to offer a variety of classes, including Representative Jimmy Aycock who wrote the bill that made the changes.
“That was one of the places we felt like districts could require that or something in place in that if they chose. It was a matter of flexibility," Aycock says.
Texas State University Professor and Jesse H. Jones Distinguished Chair in Geographic Education Richard Boehm sees things a little differently.
“I think its competition for class time and there’s been more emphasis on science, math and literacy and something had to give. Something had to give and so what gave was Social Studies curriculum which is probably perceived as less important than science, math and literacy," Boehm says.
Social studies advocates say many people—including lawmakers—don’t truly understand what social studies is all about. Tina Melcher of the Texas Council for the Social Studies says she noticed that during the last legislative session.
“They just see it as stories," she says. "It really bugs me. People would say, “’That teacher had such great stories,’ when that is not really the central part of social studies.”
Advocates say world history and world geography provide more than just stories. They say social studies involves critical thinking skills, data analysis and writing—something students are struggling at on the new state standardized tests.
“Writing is key to social studies. It’s the way students will communicate their ideas, their belief based on evidence and facts instead of just regurgitating what a teacher has told them. It gives them something to write about," Melcher says.
Jacob Anderson, a World Geography teacher at Lanier High School in Austin, says it’s also about learning how to analyze information.
“A lot of students around the state and in the district, they lack some of the basic skills taught in world geography- analyzing maps, charts and graphs, using data to make inferences about the future," he says. " I think it’d be a great oversight if kids were not taking the courses that will help them as well rounded students.”
Plus, advocates say, the two courses are very different. One deals with the past, while the other deals with contemporary issues and how they’ll affect the future.
“You can study China historically and it looks like very different place from the United States," Boehm says. "But if you studied China today, there's a lot of competition between the US and China and a lot of that competition, what led up to that competition, has taken place in last 20 years. If you just studied the history of China, you’re going to miss all of that.”
State Board of Education members have discussed blending geography and history into one class. Teachers say that would be a challenge and Boehm says in that case, geography would likely get the short end of the stick—just like it did when the state combined Texas history and Texas geography into one year.
“If you take a look at the commonly selected textbooks that are out there, that have approximately 34 chapters in them, 31 chapters of those are history and three of those chapters are geography," he says.
Representative Aycock says if a local school district still wants to require four credits of social studies, they can do so.
Some districts have already discussed the possibility. At its most recent meeting, the Leander school district board seemed inclined to require four social studies credits under its most rigorous graduation plan. Dr. Bret Champion is the superintendent of the Leander school district.
“With 70 percent of our students going on to college after they leave Leander ISD, the high school principals really wanted to ensure we weren’t steering students the wrong way," said Bret Champion, Leander ISD Superintendent.
Like many other school districts, Leander is waiting for the State Board of Education to finalize its graduation requirements before making any local decisions.