In Search of Feminism and Activism Instruction in Nevada’s Social Studies Standards
As a retired teacher educator and former school teacher, I often view the world through a curriculum lens that critiques how social issues and current events impact what teachers do in the classroom, as well as, what changes, if any, will occur in public schools. Many of the assigned texts for Feminism and Activism, either explicitly or implicitly, advocated for changes in American society through modifications to or the dismantling of the public education system (e.g. Freire,1970/1993; DiAngelo, 2011; and Matias and Allen, 2013). These readings, coupled with recent national and local events, led me to consider how Nevada public schools currently prepare our youth to become members of American society.
Social studies is the academic discipline responsible for “the preparation of young people so that they possess the knowledge, skills, and values necessary for active participation in society” (Ross, 2006, p.18). In addition, “the primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world” (National Council for the Social Studies, 1992). Historically, the instructional content for the social studies was communicated to teachers through state curriculum guidelines, resulting in 50 different sets of requirements, since education is the purview of the states. Textbook authors wrote social studies books based on these guidelines usually following California, Texas, New York, and Florida guides. In 1983, A Nation at Risk, a report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, warned that the different state requirements created an imbalanced and deficient educational system when viewed nationally (Berger, 2000).
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This report prompted state and federal governments, as well as professional education organizations, to initiate a common core of standards to serve as instructional guidelines for all teachers. Thirty-five years later, after state and federal mandates, professional posturing, and political maneuvering, the social studies content standards are very similar from state to state since most states, including Nevada, adopted The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards (National Council for the Social Studies, 2017).
The standards-based curriculum movement labored to bring uniformity to social studies content. In contrast, the Women’s Movement, through the second and third feminist waves, questioned the actual content of textbooks, curriculum guides, and standards. In the 1970s, feminists critiqued the white male, eurocentric, patriarchal perspective and the exclusion of women’s contribution to American society in textbooks. Later research analyzed the manner in which women were presented, and which women appeared in textbooks through a feminist intersectionality lens of gender and race (Noddings,1992; Schocker & Woyshner, 2013).
If social studies is the academic discipline responsible for “the preparation of young people so that they possess the knowledge, skills, and values necessary for active participation in society” (Ross, 2006, p.18), then it cannot be a stagnant body of knowledge and must reflect and examine societal changes continually. Over the past five years, American youth have witnessed sociopolitical movements, such as Black Lives Matter and The #Metoo Movement, that declared to American patriarchy that racism and sexism cannot be tolerated. These movements, while different in purpose and political perspectives, were spearheaded by feminist women who advocated some form of activism, be it protests in the streets or pronouncements on social media.
JASS (Just Associates) (2013) defined feminism as a “range of theories and political agendas that aim to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women due to sex and gender as well as class, race, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, geographic location, nationality, or other forms of social exclusion” (p. 5). This definition reflects the multifaceted nature of feminism and the intersectionality of multiple factors that contribute to its complexity. The inclusion of the term “political agendas” assumes that feminists are activists, that is, “people who actively work for social or political causes and especially those who work to encourage other people to support those causes” (Curtain & McCarty, 2016, p. 228).
Given this background, an investigation of what Nevada’s youth are taught about feminism and activism is timely; therefore, a content analysis of the new Nevada Academic Content Standards for Social Studies (NACSSS) is appropriate. The analysis was guided by the following research question:
- How is feminism content presented in the NACSSS?
- How is activism content presented in the NACSSS?
For the purpose of this paper, the Nevada high school standards were analyzed. Students in grades 9-12 are generally between 14 and 18 years old, the time of adolescence when significant cognitive and moral development occurs. They are able to think critically, analyze situations, and adopt the perspectives of others. In addition, high school students develop “values and ethical behavior, moral reasoning, honesty, and prosocial behaviors such as caring for other people” during this time (American Psychological Association, 2002, p.13). Teachers, through the content they are required to teach, explicitly impact adolescent development by “reinforcing the concept that racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and biases against persons with disabilities are inherently destructive to both the individual and society” (American Psychological Association, 2002. p.11). Thus, the inclusion of feminism and activism content in the Nevada high school standards is necessary for adolescents’ overall social development.
Three areas of scholarly research have informed this study: women’s representation in social studies textbooks; the inclusion of women and feminist content in social studies standards and other related documents; and the teaching of activism in schools. A brief review of the literature on each area is presented; the first two areas will the summarized together since they are interrelated.
The inclusion of women and how they are presented in social studies textbooks has been a topic of research for many years. Trecker’s (1971) analysis of high school history textbooks, published between 1957-1966, showed “that they omit many women of importance, while simultaneously minimizing the legal, social, and cultural disabilities which they faced” (p.133). As late as the 1990’s, the inclusion of women in social studies textbooks was still limited. For example, Noddings (1992) noted that “women’s genuine contributions have been glossed over because they do not fit the male model of achievement” (p.240).
In addition, Commeyras and Alvermann (1996), using a feminist perspective, analyzed three widely-used history textbooks for the language used to present women’s historical content. Their analysis revealed that women’s presentation often “obfuscate the patriarchal system that accounts for women’s demeaning experiences and differential treatment throughout history” (p.46-47).
In a more recent study, Woyshner and Schocker (2015) used content and visual analyses to examine the intersectionality of race and gender through an analysis of how Black women were presented in a Black history textbook compared to traditional history textbooks. They found that Black women were marginalized in Black history textbooks although women, in general, were depicted in a variety of roles.
In addition, a lower percentage of Black women images were included in the Black textbook than the percentage of all women in the mainstream texts. Overall, the authors found that Black women in all high school history textbooks used in the study revealed that “they are still vastly underrepresented” (p.462). The inclusion of and how Black women are portrayed will “influence all students’ thinking about race, gender, and class, and the contributions Black women have made to history…(p.462).
Other researchers focused their analysis on state curriculum guides and/or standards, rather than textbooks. Schmidt (2012), for example, used feminist theory to analyze South Carolina’s 2005 high school curriculum and supporting documents for the presentation of women in American history, specifically in the post-World War II era. The analysis revealed that, when not specifically addressing an historical figure, the curriculum presented only white middle-class or working-class women.
Overall, the curriculum supported the “Cult of True Womanhood” through which women continue to be presented as the ideal “mother, wife, and pure, pious, submissive and domestic” (p. 719) even when women as a group became more politically, socially and economically involved in the 1970s. Schmidt’s critique of the curriculum was a concern about the message youth received when learning about women’s role in American history; that is, in spite of the contribution of women and the hard-fought battles for equality, the ideal woman is still the one who stays at home.
In another study, DeWitt, et.al. (2013) focused their analysis on the social studies tests used to assess the standards taught in four states. The authors reported that while the states’ standards required high order thinking from the students (Analyze, Evaluate, and Create), the high-stakes tests used to assess students’ learning only focused on lower order thinking (Remember, Understand, Apply). As a result, teachers may tend to teach what is on the test and “transmit(s) a very shallow and inaccurate view of social studies and history” (DeWitt, et. al. 2013, p.410). Since historical thinking includes “developing empathy and analyzing differing perspectives” (p.410), students will not develop the intellectual or social skills needed to understand feminism and engage in activism without appropriate instruction.
In a powerful essay and review of the literature, Winslow (2013) critiqued the teaching of US history by examining the effects textbooks, standards, and testing had on curriculum and instructional practices as they related to the inclusion of women’s history. “Women and gender-related topics are all but absent in social studies and history textbooks, and when included they are often presented in stereotypical roles with little attention to gender-related themes. Study after study of high school U.S. and global history textbooks found that while women were more visible than they had been twenty- five years ago, the coverage of women and gender issues continued to be superficial” (p.327).
She blamed white, male, and heteronormative dominated state departments of education for the exclusion and/or marginalization of the women in American history curriculum as well as for-profit assessment companies that focused high-stakes tests on patriarchal history. In addition, Winslow chastised the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and held this organization “equally responsible for the glaring absence of women’s history in secondary schools” (p.323) since it was instrumental in the development of the social studies standards.
Finally, she reproached departments and colleges of education for not providing adequate preparation in women and gender studies for the social studies teacher certification requirements. “Few social studies teacher education and preparation programs require any content courses in women’s (let alone African American, Latino, Asian, LGBTQ, or labor) studies” (p.324). Winslow noted that teachers in many school districts are including women and gender studies in their lessons but that they are caught between a rock and a hard spot when their performance assessment is tied to how well their students do on high-stakes tests.
In most school districts, social studies teachers are required to use state standards as the basis for the lesson plans; often a specific standard becomes the goal or objective of a lesson. Schmeichel (2015) used a two-step discourse analysis to examine published lessons plans available through the National Council for the Social Studies that focused on women and/or gender injustice. The study was prompted by the author’s recognition that in teacher education and in the K-12 curriculum, “the silence on feminism is deafening.
The women’s and feminist movements and the explosion of scholarship in women’s and gender studies in the rest of academia have had very little impact on the traditional social studies curriculum” (p. 3). The analyses, which focused on the rationales provided in the lesson plans, revealed that the plans presented “a rather narrow set of options for why women should be included.
In addition, the lessons reflected a “cult of politeness” (p.13) that makes a critique of the status quo impossible. If these lessons from professional organizations are presented as excellent examples of what and how to teach, then teachers learn to stay away from topics that may cause discomfort and distress for students and perhaps, themselves, resulting in “continued marginalization of women and feminism and the norms around how we talk and write about these topics” (p. 22).