Curriculum and Instruction

Social Studies

Developing and Implementing a Standards-Based Curriculum

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The New York State
Learning Standards for Social Studies

The New York State social studies program, prekindergarten—grade 12, is based on the learning standards for social studies. All instruction—including the teaching of concepts, themes, and skills—is planned according to the five learning standards, which are further divided into key ideas and performance indicators. The definitive version of the New York State social studies learning standards can be found at the New York State Education Department's Virtual Learning System, where the learning standards and associated resources can be explored.

Social Studies Standards

History of the Learning Standards

At the approach of the 21st century, the Board of Regents approved a new set of learning standards for all students in New York State. These standards represent the core of what all people should know, understand, and be able to do as a result of skilled instruction. As such, the standards form the basis for a new vision of education in New York.

With this new vision, students may expect an intellectually powerful education, in which teaching, assessment, and the provision of supports for learning are to be closely linked. Schools and parents will share the same high expectations of youngsters.

Learning standards have two primary dimensions. Content standards describe what students should know, understand, and be able to do. Performance standards define levels of student achievement pertaining to content. However, the teaching and learning that take place in between are at the heart of the matter, forming perhaps the most crucial element of the entire process.

Classroom teachers have a tremendous challenge. The real world must be brought into the classroom teaching and learning process in order to ensure that all of their students will perform at higher levels. In addition, they have wonderful opportunities for professional and personal growth as they examine their instructional practice, share what they do each day with their students, work in collaboration with other teachers and students, and grow in their understanding of the craft of teaching.

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How to Obtain Copies of the Learning Standards

Electronic: The Learning Standards for Social Studies and the 28 New York State Learning Standards are available on the social studies website.

Hard Copy: Paper copies of all documents, and the latest edition of the Publications Catalog, can be ordered by calling the Publications Sales Desk at: (518) 474-3806. See the listing for Social Studies. A copy of a Publications Order Form can also be found online.

The definitive version of the New York State social studies learning standards can be found at the New York State Education Department's Virtual Learning System website, where the standards and associated resources can be explored. The purpose of the New York State Education Department's Virtual Learning System is to encourage the use of the Internet as a tool for teaching and learning and to assist classroom teachers in locating Internet resources for instruction. VLS offers the full text of New York State's learning standards with their key ideas and performance indicators, as well as alternate performance indicators for students with severe disabilities. It provides resources that classroom teachers can use to support preK-12 standards-based instruction, such as sample tasks, learning experiences and lesson plans.  

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The "standards" movement began during the 1980s and 1990s as educators and lawmakers nationwide began a series of accountability measures to improve student achievement in schools. But the movement's roots can be traced to a time well before that. Americans have grappled with a sound education policy for over a century. In 1894, a group of scholars named the "Committee of Ten" called for an established academic curriculum for all high school students. Over the decades, organizations such as the National Education Association (NEA) and the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) have debated and published their statements, goals, and models of curriculum for the nation’s schools.

A turning point occurred in 1983 with the publication of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, researched and written by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. This document proclaimed that a "rising tide of mediocrity" existed in American schools, noting a decline in SAT scores and relaxed graduation requirements in core academic subjects for secondary school students. The two main responses to this report were increased state and local assessments and increased course requirements for high school graduation.

Political and business leaders were calling for an improvement in the quality and preparedness of graduates to justify the money they invested in public education. If standards were created, then student achievement could meet them. According to the U.S. Department of Education, "American education has never had national standards. [In their absence], a haphazard, accidental national curriculum has evolved based largely on standardized multiple-choice tests and mass-market textbooks…. The improvement of American education begins with an agreement about what students should learn." In 1989, then President George Bush invited all 50 governors to a summit, where they established the need for educational goals. In 1991, Bush announced "the AMERICA 2000 strategy to reach the goals, which called for the development of high standards and a national system of examinations." Voluntary national standards were planned at this time in mathematics, science, history, the arts, civics, geography, and English.

New York addressed the need for statewide learning standards at this time with A New Compact for Learning, presented to the Board of Regents in 1992. This interim report, developed by the New York State Curriculum and Assessment Council, recommended the establishment of a learning-centered curriculum, and learner-centered schools through the creation of student learning outcomes, standards, and curriculum frameworks; shared accountability through assessment of student learning; and a single diploma. The Compact recommended that "the State should broadly define the desired educational results, or learning outcomes: what students should know, understand, and be able to do at graduation and at earlier stages. Local districts should establish their own outcomes, consistent with these."

During President Bill Clinton’s administration, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act (enacted in 1994 and amended in 1996) was designed to "support State efforts to develop clear and rigorous standards for what every child should know and be able to do, and support comprehensive state- and district-wide planning, and implementation of school improvement efforts focused on improving students achievement to those standards. Largely through State awards that are distributed on a competitive basis to local school districts, Goals 2000 promotes education reform in every state and thousands of districts and schools." (Executive Summary)

Organizations and individuals beyond state and federal agencies became involved in the standards movement as well. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) published Setting Strong Standards in 1994. This document includes the AFT’s criteria for high-quality standards:

  • Standards must focus on academics
  • Standards must be grounded in the core disciplines
  • Standards must be specific enough to assure the development of a common core curriculum
  • Standards must be manageable given the constraints of time
  • Standards must be rigorous and world class
  • Standards must include performance standards
  • Standards must define multiple levels of performance for students to strive for
  • Standards must combine knowledge and skills, not pursue one at the expense of the other
  • Standards must not dictate how the material should be taught
  • Standards must be written clearly enough for all stakeholders to understand

Education researcher Diane Ravitch wrote a history, rationale, and intended outcomes of the national standards and assessment movements in her 1995 book, National Standards in American Education: A Citizen’s Guide. Ravitch was also involved in the development of national standards in history. Scholars, historians, and educators have also published numerous articles and books on the standards movement in general, and the history standards in particular, over the past decade.

On the basis of the recommendations of the New York State Curriculum and Assessment Council in Building a Learning-Centered Curriculum for Learner-Centered Schools, New York developed learning standards in seven academic subject areas. The standards were approved in 1996. In response to the recommendation for curriculum frameworks, the New York State Education Department produced resource guides with core curricula in various standard areas shortly thereafter. The Social Studies Resource Guide with Core Curriculum (1997) outlines major content and conceptual understandings that are tied to the learning standards, their key ideas, and the student performance indicators. The resource guide forms the basis of what students should know and suggests how teachers can prepare standards-based instruction in their classrooms.

This part of the leader's guide is designed to help you plan, evaluate, and revise your local curriculum. In particular, the focus is on the following questions:
  • What are the most essential items your teachers need in their classrooms for successful 21st-century instruction?
  • What is the curriculum development process? How do you go about it?
  • How do you know which textbooks are eligible for State aid? What are examples of materials that do not satisfy the definition of textbooks under the textbook loan program?
  • What are some sample standards-based social studies classroom activities?
  • What are the guidelines to periodically update your local social studies program?

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Overview of the New York State Social Studies
Core Curriculum:
Prekindergarten–Grade 12 Course Outlines

This PowerPoint provides ( 147 KB) a grade-by-grade overview of the prekindergarten through grade 12 social studies curriculum. It includes a synopsis of State tests that reflect the curriculum. It then provides more detail for each specific grade and/or grade clusters.

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Bilingual Glossaries

These bilingual glossaries were developed for use by newly arrived high school students. It is intended to provide students with a quick reference guide to content terminology. The bilingual glossaries are word for word translations and do not contain definitions.  For questions relating to the Bilingual Glossaries email OBEFLS@mail.nysed.gov.

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Items for the
21st-Century Social Studies Classroom 

The following was developed by NYSED social studies supervisors as a recommended checklist of materials and collections for students' use in the 21st century social studies classroom.


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Case Studies: Standards-Based
Social Studies Learning Experiences
Grades 3, 7, and 12

Standards-Based Social Studies Learning Experiences Grades 3, 7, and 12 ( 91 KB)

This case study explores three standards-based social studies learning experiences at the elementary, intermediate, and commencement levels:

  • Grade 3 - World History
  • Grade 7 - Civics, Citizenship, and Government
  • Grade 12 - Economics

Each learning experience is tagged to a social studies learning standard, with corresponding key ideas and performance indicators. The case study is also tagged to the Social Studies Resource Guide with Core Curriculum (with page numbers provided).

Last Updated: May 26, 2009