March/April • Volume 43 • Issue 3

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Vantage Point: From the Executive Officer
Sally T. Hillsman, ASA Executive Officer

Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive
Officer

Why Standards?

Recently a prominent member wrote me to ask about the world of high school texts in regards to my November 2014 Footnotes column on high school sociology. He asked a good question, “Why standards?” As a prominent public intellectual, he wanted to know, “who decided that there had to be national standards for high school, and that the discipline itself should establish them?” My response follows.

You asked about where sociology was first offered at the high school level during the very early years of the discipline. This history is covered in a 2005 Teaching Sociology article by Michael DeCesare (which is not very complimentary of the ASA, frankly), titled “100 Years of Teaching Sociology: 95 Years of Teaching High School Sociology.” According to DeCesare, “F.D. McElroy and J.D. Bates offered the country’s first high school sociology courses during the 1911-1912 school year.”

Your second question, “why standards?”, represents a bigger ball of yarn to unravel. Our efforts here at ASA to develop standards for high school sociology are motivated by a variety of factors that address your third question: “Who are, or were, the major agents: politicians, government bureaucrats, the textbook industry, or the discipline itself.”

In terms of chronology, the ASA has been working to advance sociology at the high school level for more than a decade. The ASA Task Force on the Advanced Placement Course in Sociology was established in 2001 in response to concerns that few inner-city high school students had access to AP courses and a belief that sociology represented an ideal science discipline to address that issue, among others. It resulted in a full model curriculum (www.asanet.org/introtosociology/home.html) for an AP course that was pilot tested in urban and inner city high school classrooms. Unfortunately, despite these efforts, the College Board remained unwilling to establish an AP course for sociology. If you are interested in reviewing that history, read the article about those efforts in the July 2007 Footnotes.

Our next step was to explore what our sociology colleagues in high schools—who are often isolated and “the only” sociologist in their school or district—needed from the Association in support of their teaching and professional development. We established an ASA High School Sociology Planning Program with two high school sociology teachers (Hayley Lotspeich and Chris Salituro) leading the effort, in collaboration with Jean Shin (Director of Minority Affairs) and Margaret Weigers Vitullo (Director of Academic and Professional Affairs). Lotspeich described this stage of our efforts in a May 2011 Footnotes article.

Common Core

Then in September 2013 the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) published the “C3 Framework,” which was designed to demonstrate how social studies (traditionally defined as civics, economics, geography and history) learning outcomes aligned with the Common Core (see www.socialstudies.org/system/files/c3/C3-Framework-for-Social-Studies.pdf). As I am sure you know, the Common Core has been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia and is reshaping K-12 education in schools across the country, despite recent efforts to derail the movement. Although we only learned of the effort to create the C3 Framework in April of 2013, ASA  was able to get a sociology appendix (found on pp. 73-76) included in the document. We worked closely with our sister social science disciplines of psychology and anthropology, who were also excluded from the C3 and also published appendices in the C3 Framework. The C3 framework and the importance of sociology being present and accounted for in the social studies curriculum, including the history (going back to the late 1800s) that led to sociology’s  prior exclusion, are discussed in an articleby Jean Shin in the January 2014 Footnotes.

As my November 2014 Vantage Point describes, the current project of establishing ASA Standards for High School Sociology builds upon our work with the C3 Framework. From the very beginning of our collaboration with Lotspeich and Salituro, they and their colleagues across the country have been advocating for ASA, as the national association of sociologists, to establish standards for high school sociology. Their assessment of this need has been echoed in the regular calls that we get from high school teachers of sociology who ask us where they can find the high school standards on our website. They are astounded to learn that ASA does not have standards. At this point in secondary education, most teachers are expected to be able to demonstrate to their administrators how their courses satisfy the national standards established for their discipline. If ASA does not establish standards for high school sociology, the states will do so in our place. Illinois is currently engaged in establishing sociology standards, as is Indiana.

Establishing Standards

At ASA, we are moving very carefully into this proposition of establishing standards. After much study and debate, we have taken the view (yet to be considered by ASA Council) that ASA high school standards should represent a “floor” for high school sociology—the minimal content that any solid sociology class at the regular high school level should cover. Another way to think about this is to imagine the standards as a well-built foundation on which many different houses can and should be built. The level of complexity and sophistication of those houses (and the specific content of the courses they represent in this analogy) will vary widely depending on the people who will be living in them and the neighborhoods where they are built (the specific teachers and students and their schools and school districts). Establishing the standards as a “floor” or “foundation” means they will provide a set of shared essential learning outcomes for any sociology class. The expectation is that many sociology teachers and their classes will move well beyond the floor. However, high school curricula that do not move beyond these minimal essential learning outcomes will still satisfy the basic definition of a high school course in sociology. Thus, while providing clear guidance for sociology teachers, in the spirit of independence in scholarship and pedagogy, ASA would not be telling them exactly what they should teach or how they should teach it. We hope Council will agree.

While your question was posed in the context of high school sociology, the question of standards is also being asked at the post-secondary level. This began with the assessment movement and advances in pedagogy and curriculum development, and it is now being propelled by a diversity of factors—some of them carrots and some of them sticks! You can read about that part of the puzzle in a November 2014 Footnotes article on the ASA Task Force on Liberal Learning, which describes the new Task Force we are establishing to create a 3rd Edition of Liberal Learning and the Sociology Major. I recently spoke with sociologist Suzanne Ortega,  President of the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), who told me that CGS  is involved in the issue of standards  and working with disciplines  to consider graduate-level learning outcomes.

I hope this long response provides some background  to your question: Why standards?  There is a longer road yet to travel to see what the final answer is.

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at executive.office@asanet.org.

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