Common Core Curriculum

NCSS Responds to Alan Singer

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Several days ago, I posted a commentary by Alan Singer that was critical of the National Council for the Social Studies. Singer was disturbed that NCSS was trying to align its content with the Common Core standards, and that it had modeled some lesson plans on a proposal by the Bill of Rights Institute, which is funded by the Koch brothers. I posted Singer’s piece because it was interesting; I did not echo his criticisms, as I have no independent knowledge of the specific issues he raised. It is good to air the issues, and I provide room to different perspectives.


The president of the NCSS responded to Singer as follows:
Dear Dr. Ravitch:

Alan Singer, professor of education at Hofstra University, has recently criticized the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS) and its work in advancing the study of civics, economics, geography, and history. In particular, Prof. Singer has tried to undercut NCSS’s work on the “C3 Framework” (College, Career, and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards), by misrepresenting its intent and its content, and has challenged the organization’s integrity by alleging that NCSS is supporting the right-wing political agenda of the Koch brothers.
Your blog of January 5 cites some of Singer’s criticisms. People truly knowledgeable about NCSS, its mission, legacy, and membership will dismiss Singer’s attack—which was our first impulse as well. But his thesis appears to be gaining some traction, at least on the Internet, so we think it is necessary to add some facts to the conversation, in the hope of elevating the discussion to a level more appropriate to its importance.
Singer accuses NCSS and the C3 Framework of sacrificing social studies in favor of the marginalization of social studies content and conceptual learning promoted by the Common Core State Standards. The exact opposite is the case. NCSS and the C3 Framework strongly advocate that the study of social studies – civics, economics, geography, and history are just as important to our nation’s future as the study of Mathematics and English-Language Arts, which are the focus of the Common Core State Standards.


The C3 Framework provides clear and exacting distinctions by defining the conceptual knowledge and skills required for all students of social studies to be prepared for college, career, and an engaged civic life. Twenty-two states and fifteen national professional organizations representing civics, economics, geography, and history, collaborated in the creation of the C3 Framework. All agree that literacy skills are no substitute for the robust content knowledge, skills, and dispositions found in a rigorous social studies curriculum. All agree that a vigorous, inquiry-based social studies education is essential for the development of responsible, informed, and engaged citizens and provides a powerful context for the development of literacy skills for all students.


The C3 Framework is built around an Inquiry Arc…”a set of interlocking and mutually reinforcing elements” structured upon four dimensions:
Developing questions and planning inquiries.
Applying disciplinary concepts and tools.
Evaluating sources and using evidence; and
Communicating conclusions and taking informed action.
These are the pillars of the conceptual framework for the C3 Framework and speak to the heart of education for informed civic participation, the purpose of social studies. They offer a strong foundation for exactly the kind of “meaningful social studies education” and “education for democracy and citizenship” that Singer says is necessary.

The C3 Framework includes links to the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts to assist states that have adopted the Common Core to identify the conceptual understandings and skills common to both. High quality social studies education enables students to build content knowledge, conduct research, evaluate multiple sources of information, collaborate with others to share knowledge and ideas, and communicate conclusions based on evidence through expository writing and formal presentations. All of these important skills, found in a rigorous social studies program, will prepare students to address compelling issues and problems in the 21st century as informed, engaged citizens.


Let us turn to the NCSS/Koch brothers connection. In a blog on January 5, Singer claimed:


“Desperate for Koch dollars to subsidize its convention and publications, the NCSS actually had agents for the seemingly anti-Common Core Koch brothers design one of the fifteen Common Core aligned lessons [published in an NCSS Bulletin].”
This line of attack, which Singer expanded upon in segments just preceding and following the quote above, is a classic example of asserting guilt-by-association, innuendo and misrepresentation. Yes, it is true that the Bill of Rights Foundation was and has long been an exhibitor at the annual NCSS convention. In that capacity it is one of over 200 exhibitors, organizations that represent every conceivable ideological stripe on the spectrum. Other exhibitors have included Peace Corps, Fords Theater Society, Mikva Challenge, and the Zinn Education Project among others.
As for selling out to right-wing zealots, featured speakers at this year’s convention included immigration reform advocate Jose Antonio Vargas, filmmaker Ken Burns, columnist Nicholas Kristof, Anthony Chavez, grandson of the late civil rights icon Cesar Chavez, and many others, who might be surprised at being so labeled. In 2013, the keynote speakers were Taylor Branch, John Lewis, Stephen Paine, and Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick. You yourself were a keynote speaker in 2011. William Bennett and Howard Zinn were both keynote speakers at our conference in 2008. Through our exhibitors and our speakers, NCSS provides a dynamic forum for ideas that social studies teachers can measure and evaluate as they see fit.
Yes, it is also true that the Bill of Rights Institute was one of 15 organizations that provided a lesson plan to an NCSS publication (Bulletin 114) on how to use the C3 Framework; the wide range of other contributors included National Geographic, National History Day, Facing History and Ourselves, the Newseum, Mikva Challenge, National Museum of the American Indian, Library of Congress, the National Archives and others. NCSS Bulletins are funded by member dues, and have never received funding from the Koch brothers, as implied by Singer (or from any other of the “right-wing groups” that he speculates are influencing NCSS). NCSS publications are open to a wide range of viewpoints. Although Singer criticizes the latest NCSS Bulletin for excessive alignment with the Common Core, the lesson plans in the Bulletin are, in fact, directly aligned with the four dimensions of the C3 Framework, not with the Common Core State Standards.
A copy of the Bill of Rights lesson plan published by NCSS that Singer denounced is attached. We do not believe that any reasonable reading of the lesson plan will support Singer’s view that it is a result of a conspiracy in which NCSS “had agents for the seemingly anti-Common Core Koch brothers” write the lesson plan with the aim of achieving objectives like opposing “a national health insurance plan and the regulation of companies like Koch Industries that destroy the environment in the name of profit.”


We believe that any representative review of NCSS books and journals, which have published several contributions by Singer himself, will show that they are richly diverse and anything but a “sell-out of all principles.”
The C3 Framework asks students to analyze and evaluate evidence prior to communicating conclusions or taking action. We suggest that all of us follow that sound instruction.

Sincerely yours,

Michelle M. Herczog, Ed.D.
President, National Council for the Social Studies

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