Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Comments on Georgia Social Studies Curricula for 6th and 7th Grade

The failure of 70-80% of Georgia 6th and 7th graders to pass their social studies exams in the spring of 2008 has caused the state of Georgia to rewrite its standards. Without commenting on the overuse of standardized tests in today's public schools, I was curious to see what these standards were, and I felt strongly enough about a couple issues to pass on some comments which I'm including in this blog post. Access the draft curricula at

My comments:

Cuba (SS6CG1a) and Libya (SS7CG1) are case studies for dictatorship in grades 6 and 7, respectively. The United States’s government has identified both of these states as enemies since Fidel Castro and Muammar al-Qaddafi became their rulers. The far more typical case of dictatorships in Latin America and Africa are U.S. allies.

For Latin America, Nicaragua (the Samozas), Chile (Pinochet), Argentina (the military junta from 1976 to1982, see Human Rights Watch, Vol 13, Issue 5(B), December 2001), Honduras (see United Fruit Company, the original “banana republic”) are worthy examples.

For Africa, the United States and the U.S.S.R. traded Somalia and Ethiopia back and forth as client states. Egypt is the second largest recipient of United States military and economic aid. For many years, the United States supported the apartheid governments of South Africa and opposed the liberation movements in Zimbabwe and Zambia. The United States organized the coup that brought Mobutu to power in Congo/Zaire. If we consider France and the United Kingdom and their multinational corporations as extensions of the United States, we can also start talking about French and British client dictatorships such as Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria.

In summary, I think it’s a profound source of bias to focus on two enemies of the United States as dictatorships and not the many dictatorships which enjoyed, or even came into power with, U.S. support.

SS6CG1 The student will explain the structure of national governments in Latin America and the Caribbean and Canada.
Explain the basic structure of the national governments of Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica, and Mexico; include the type of government, form of leadership, type of legislature, and role of the citizen.

The proposed change here is:

SS6CG1 The student will demonstrate an understanding of national governments in Latin America and the Caribbean.
a. Compare the federal-republican systems of Brazil and Mexico to the dictatorship of Cuba, distinguishing the type of legislature, form of leadership, and the role of the citizen in terms of voting and personal freedoms.

SS6E3 The student will describe the factors that influence economic growth and examine their presence or absence in countries such as Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina.
Describe investment in human capital; include the health, education and training of people, and the impact of poverty on economic development.

The proposed change here is:

SS6E3 The student will describe factors that influence economic growth and examine their presence or absence in Canada, Mexico, and Brazil.
Explain the relationship between investment in human capital (education and training) and and [sic] gross domestic product (GDP).

I’m concerned that this change prejudices the curriculum against Cuba’s model by branding it a “dictatorship” and comparing the various national governments on the aforementioned bases and ignoring the governments’ performance in improving standards of living as defined in United Nations’s standards for human development. I note that Cuba is excluded from the question SS6E3.

SS6E3 does refer to measures of human development such as literacy, life expectancy, infant mortality, etc. However, the proposed change in question “a” seems to water down this emphasis by making GDP the end-all be-all of societal performance. You may want to check out recent Congressional testimony on the misuse of the GDP statistic.

It seems that the proposed changes represent a reduction in expectations/burdens/requirements. I note that SS6G8 The student will describe the cultural characteristics of Europe has been removed entirely and that SS6H4e has been trimmed down to remove European colonialism in Asia and Africa. Are these issues addressed later, perhaps in high school? As you will see below, I don’t think SS7 addresses it properly.

SS7H1 emphasizes ancient African political systems. While they are certainly worthy of study, technological developments (introduction of Asian and American plants, spread of domesticated animals, forging, etc.), long-distance trade (both within Africa and across the Atlantic), Christianity (particularly as introduced by the Portuguese in southern Africa) and Islam in Africa are all important topics as well. Colonial governments in Africa imposed/encouraged a transition from subsistence agriculture to commodity agriculture, and this is one of the most important developments in Africa in the last 200 years. Finally, while not explicit, the exports of slaves west across the Atlantic was a result of European colonization of the Americas. The way the standard is written, a person might think slavery was a consequence of the (later) European colonization of Africa.

SS7G2 The student will discuss environmental issues of Africa.
a. Explain how air and water pollution have affected the people of Africa.
b. Explain the issues concerning water as a natural resource in Africa.
c. Explain the impact of deforestation and desertification on the people and environment of Africa.

I’m surprised that “climate change” or “global warming” does not get mentioned in either level. Climate change in Africa may exacerbate problems such as drought and desertification. Rising sea levels would threaten some of the megacities of southeast Asia.

SS7G4 The student will analyze the cultural characteristics of different people who live in Africa and how those characteristics affect their daily lives.
b. Compare and contrast the cultural diversity of the Arab, Ashanti, and Swahili in terms of their belief systems.

I think the teacher doing this step would need to show extreme skill to do this properly. When discussing Arabs in Africa, one will find many different constructions of modern Arab identity. Historically, tribal lineages and alliances and Sufi (mystical religious) orders were important means of cultural integrity and reproduction. There are important urban and rural distinctions, and of course we’re talking about a wide geographical area. Sudan and Morocco and Mauritania would be excellent topics to discuss Arab culture, but they are complicated. Swahili is a good choice. However, until the late 20th century, it is primarily an urban identity. Ashanti is probably good as well. I think that the standards writers should reconsider this question and try to use “pastoralists” and “gatherers/hunters” and “agriculturalists” as criteria for choice of groups. The original question included Khoikhoi and the San, who are good choices. Note that “Bedouin” is simply the Arabic word for pastoralist, so it is good that it is dropped from this version. Finally, “belief systems” may not be the key which best opens the door to these questions. But I’m not sure what’s a better way to limit discussions of “cultural diversity”, which is obviously a huge topic.

Lastly, both curricula don’t include as a topic “women” or “demography.” In fact, neither word appears. Aside from the contributions women made in all fields of endeavor, I’m not sure how a student could understand agricultural production in any of these parts of the world without examining gender roles. Also, demography should include important concepts such as nutrition, child and maternal mortality and endemic diseases.

Finally, I graduated Evans High School in Columbia County, Georgia, in 1986, and I don’t remember any of this being in my college prep courses. So if your teachers can accomplish ½ of this, it would be a big improvement over what I remember.


Jen said...

I will send this on to the social studies teacher on my make a lot of good points. And I agree with you that it is impossible to teach all of this to 6th graders! I teach 6th grade science and it is the same problem.

Ayman H Fadel said...

Well, it seems the state of Georgia did not implement my suggestions. Big surprise! Here are the links to the current standards:

Grade 6

Grade 7

Grade 8

One standard I mentioned in the entry actually became worse:

SS7G4b: Explain the diversity of religions within the Arab, Ashanti, Bantu, and Swahili ethnic groups.

Bantu ethnic group? C'mon, Georgia, we can do better than that!

Jen said...

from another teacher...
I couldn't post this because the site was acting up....can you post it for me?

I am the social studies teacher that Jen sent this to...Not only is it impossible to teach all of this to 6th graders, they are A) not interested in government structure in the least--- and B) not developmentally ready to grasp the nuances/subtleties between the different kinds of government, even when it's explained how it affects the people of the country. I'd rather see a focus on the cultures of the countries and the peoples involved, including the gender roles and societal hierarchies.