The Need for Middle School Social Studies Curriculum Reform Policy Paper
Today’s society is one filled with fear: fear of the attacks that occur because of race, religion, and other aspects of someone’s identity. Within the past few years, there has been an increase in hate crimes against various groups, with a specifically noticeable one against Asian-Americans. The COVID-19 pandemic has arguably accelerated this increase, with Asian-Americans being unfairly blamed for the situation, an accusation that is both inaccurate and racist. With the political environment slowly beginning to change, the lack of awareness people have about diversity has been revealed. This is a problem that reaches Montgomery County and its schools. It is crucial that MCPS students be exposed to a curriculum that highlights the importance and relevance of diversity as soon as possible. Although in light of recent events, a greater emphasis has been placed nationwide on reforming high school social studies curricula, the middle school curriculum needs to be placed under similar scrutiny.
The aim of the social studies program in MCPS middle schools is to build a “chronological and thematic understanding of world and United States history, while also developing the social studies strands of geography, economics, political systems, and culture.” However, in examining the instructional guides and learning objectives, it can be seen that there is a eurocentric tilt in the content being taught, as well as a lack of explicit connection to modern events. When reflecting on this, it needs to be considered that out of all counties in Maryland, Montgomery County has had the most reported hate bias incidents; since 2010, the number of incidents has almost quadrupled. Within this, hate towards Black, Asian, and Jewish individuals is blatantly visible. Anti-Asian hate crimes have increased by 80% in Montgomery County; out of the 59 incidents motivated by bias towards a race in Montgomery County in 2020, 40 (67.8%) were considered anti-black; of the 39 incidents motivated by bias towards a religion in 2020, 36 (92.3%) were considered anti-Jewish. It is important to recognize that these are merely the hate crimes reported, and that there are many that go unrecognized. When a significant percentage of these hate crimes take place in schools, the possible reasons behind this connection need to be examined.
Particularly in the sixth and seventh grades, where the MCPS social studies curriculum focuses on world history, there are many places where Black, Asian, and Jewish histories can be incorporated into the content. However, these opportunities have been missed; the consequence being that students are not exposed to a curriculum that is as diverse and informative as it could be. For example, in the Instructional Guide for the ‘Citizenship and Governance in the Ancient & Modern Worlds’ unit in sixth grade, only the political systems of ancient Greece and Rome are examined; this is repeated in the seventh grade as the world government unit focuses on the Roman Empire and the formation of individual nation states in Europe. Particularly in today's political climate, it is imperative that students recognize that the different governments from different areas of the world are just as important to modern politics and society. Incorporating content that highlights this will go a long way in laying the foundation in students' minds to be more accepting of diversity.
The first step in addressing the lack of exposure middle school students in MCPS are getting to diversity in the social studies curriculum is for MCPS to acknowledge its part in the issue and how the lack of diversity in the content is a reason behind the occurrences of hate crimes. Next, there needs to be change to both the content that is being taught and the way it is being applied. First and foremost, the social studies curriculums for the sixth through eighth grades should be revised to be less eurocentric in both the perspective and events being taught. For the sixth and seventh grades, care needs to be taken to ensure that material from different areas of the world is being examined. For eighth grade, emphasis should be placed on critically thinking about the impact other cultures have played on the development of the United States. Additionally, primary sources that display a range of perspectives on the event should be used as much as possible. Furthermore, MCPS should allow teachers to have flexibility within the curriculums while continuing to provide resources for teachers as guidelines; these resources can include guidelines on “individual teacher extension” in the instructional guides for each unit by grade level and suggestions for relating historical events to modern ones. MCPS should also require teachers to take part in workshops that aim to help them navigate through teaching sensitive subjects and learn how to make their classroom a comfortable space for discussion. Although the Culturally Responsive & Antiracist Teaching Framework for Social Studies lays out the guidelines for teacher behavior, it is crucial that they be given more concrete, direct instruction that emphasizes the importance of their actions; by attending these workshops, teachers will be able to better translate the framework into planning, instruction, and assessment for their classrooms.
As a district that prides itself on the diversity of its student population, the need to move away from a eurocentric curriculum to one that is reflective of that diversity is evident. The lack of education and conversation about difficult topics regarding diversity in middle school has a connection to the presence of hate crimes in MCPS schools, and so needs to be addressed with urgency. Schools should be a place where students feel safe and ready to learn, but hate crimes create an environment that is the opposite. Feeling safe at school has been proven to result in higher academic achievement, better student well-being, and leads to greater engagement. MCPS has a responsibility to put its students’ well-being as the utmost priority, and instituting a reform of the middle school social studies curriculum will be a meaningful step in the right direction.
Maryland Department of State Police, State of Maryland 2019 Hate Bias Report (n.d.). Maryland Department of State Police. https://mdsp.maryland.gov/Document%20Downloads/State%20of%20Maryland%202019%20Hate%20Bias%20Report.pdf.
MCPS Social Studies. (n.d.). Culturally Responsive & Antiracist Teaching Framework for Social Studies. Framework for Culturally Responsive Teaching . https://docs.google.com/document/d/17Nn_hLBe4wk26RakhaeXeQcZ4w4fP0eLTtoJZBLsRJ4/edit.
Montgomery County Police Department, 2020 M.C.P. Annual Report on Bias Incidents compiled by the Policy and Planning Division (2021). Montgomery County Department of Police. https://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/pol/Resources/Files/annual-reports/BiasIncidents/2020%20Bias%20Report%20(Published).pdf.
Montgomery County Public Schools Sixth Grade Social Studies. (n.d.). PDF. https://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/uploadedFiles/curriculum/socialstudies/middle/grade6/6.2%20Overview(2).pdf
Poiner, J., & Murray, J. (2021, February 8). Children learn best when they feel safe and valued. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute. https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/children-learn-best-when-they-feel-safe-and-valued#:~:text=Feeling%20safe%20and%20valued%20is,engaged%20and%20take%20intellectual%20risks.
Social Studies Middle School Curriculum . Montgomery County Public Schools. (n.d.). https://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/curriculum/socialstudies/ms.aspx.
State and National Social Studies Standards. MCPS Social Studies. (n.d.). https://sites.google.com/a/mcpsmd.net/socialstudiesmcps/instructional-planning-resources/state-national-standards?pli=1&authuser=1.
Written by Ha-Yeon Jeon & Nina Atrokhov