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Teaching Sociology in High School: A Pilot Project Begins in Chicago

by Caroline Hodges Persell, New York University, and Carla B. Howery, ASA Academic and Professional Affairs Program

In 2001, the American Sociological Association (ASA) established a national Task Force comprised of high school, college, and university faculty. The Task Force was charged with developing and pilot testing a curriculum for an Advanced Placement (AP) type course to be taught in high schools. As its first job, the Task Force developed an outline and a narrative for an AP-type Introduction to Sociology course. Those materials have been on the ASA homepage for several months, with a request for feedback, at Currently, the Task Force is developing and collecting a notebook of teaching resource materials, including learning objectives, simulations, data resources, exercises for students to do in and outside of class, suggested readings, relevant films, web resources, and lesson plans.

The curriculum incorporates data resources that have recently become readily accessible to teachers and students, for example, the General Social Survey (GSS) websites at the University of Michigan, the University of California at Berkeley, and CensusScope using Census data. The curriculum emphasizes active learning by students, focuses on understanding principles, helps develop quantitative reasoning skills, and provides students with tools for investigating sociological questions on their own.

By introducing students to major sociological research methods and concepts, the course seeks to develop an understanding and appreciation of humans as social beings and considers how social factors affect daily lives and long-term outcomes. Areas of focus include, but are not limited to, the sociological perspective, social organization, research methods, culture, social inequality, social institutions, and deviance and conformity. The full course can be taught over two semesters. Sections of the course could be taught in one semester, but a one-semester course would largely exclude social institutions such as the family, education, religion, economy, polity, science, and media.

The Chicago (and Other) Pilot Projects

In the 2003-04 academic year, four teachers in Chicago and one in Princeton, New Jersey, are pilot testing the curriculum and teaching materials. These pilot courses are taught at the college level as honors courses, using college textbooks and materials, and are being taught as one-year courses. During the first year of pilot testing, research will be conducted on how the curriculum is working, what is working well, what needs improvement and why, and what understandings students are obtaining.

The Chicago pilot is particularly important. Task Force member Barbara Schneider, University of Chicago, is working with the Chicago public schools to pilot test this course in inner city schools that have few, if any, AP courses. The Task Force is very committed to having an AP sociology course in these schools, not only in suburban schools already flush with AP offerings. Even for students who never go on to college, or delay college attendance, having a quality sociology course in high school is important. In May 2003, Persell and Howery joined Schneider and colleagues for a two-day training session of four Chicago teachers. The teachers had varying backgrounds in sociology, but each knew quite a few of the core concepts in the field. They had been approved to teach sociology and to offer the course by their principals. They were highly engaged in this training workshop and were lively students themselves.

The Chicago teachers are currently offering the yearlong honors-level sociology course. Each is using a college-level textbook they chose. Schneider holds quarterly meetings with these teachers. Graduate students enrolled in Sociology of Education visit their classrooms and help with lesson preparation and feedback. The link between the Chicago Public Schools and the University of Chicago is an important one, built on the longstanding involvement of Schneider and colleagues. The teachers were especially excited about a reception in their honor, which the Department of Sociology will host this spring.

New Steps with the AP Course

On August 13, 2004, the day before the ASA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, the ASA is offering an all-day training workshop for teachers currently teaching sociology in high school, especially teachers who might have a future interest in teaching an honors or AP-type sociology course. There will be a fee for the workshop. Teachers attending this workshop will have the opportunity to review and discuss the proposed curriculum, participate in simulations and data exercises for some units, and work with other teachers to design strategies that could work with their students for teaching some of the key concepts and principles in the curriculum. They will leave with some useful ideas and materials for the sociology courses they are already teaching. Further, they could become eligible to pilot a college-level sociology course during the 2004-05 academic year.

Although there is currently no AP exam offered in sociology, the ASA and the College Board are discussing the possibility of establishing such an exam in the future. Persell, Howery, and Schneider met with the College Board in February to encourage the development of an AP course and exam. The College Board is currently developing exams in other languages: Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and Italian. It is possible that sociology would come into the queue in June 2004. While it takes several years for an exam to be prepared and field tested, the advance work that the Task Force has done may reduce that time frame a bit. In any event, ASA will share the materials and encourage honors-level courses in sociology in the high schools.

Involvement with NCSS

In fall 2004, ASA will participate in the National Council on the Social Studies (NCSS) meeting in Baltimore, and lead a daylong workshop on the possible AP Sociology Course and a shorter workshop on using data resources in sociology courses. NCSS is the national professional association for social studies teachers and has a section on sociology; we have met with those teachers before and find them well trained and enthusiastic (though few in numbers).

The ASA’s Task Force, then, is working on a number of fronts: with the pilot projects; with the College Board; with the NCSS; and, most importantly, with ASA members who teach introductory sociology.