The board of education recently heard the first of the presentations by department heads regarding curriculum as part of the district's new 5-year planning program, with a focus on social studies.The district is currently working on a five-year review of all its programs to ensure they are on par with best practices and have all the resources needed to be successful.

First up was social studies, as co-chairs of the department Jennifer Edge and Annemarie Mattia discussed the evaluation process and the goals for the future.

Edge said the review began in January 2017, and they are looking at the current program and reviewing curriculum.

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“In this five-year cycle, we are currently in year four, and we are looking at programs analytically,” she said. “We are looking at strengths and weaknesses.”

Edge said they distributed surveys to students and teachers, have looked at what other districts are doing and are prepared to make recommendations.

Mattia said the program is currently aligned with New Jersey Student Learning Standards at the kindergarten through fifth grade level. Kindergarten through fourth grade, she said, has social studies classes three days a week, with two marking periods of social studies and two of science.

“It is fully integrated into language arts for kindergarten, partly because it is a half day program,” she said.

Mattia said the social studies content is very broad based, under four domains of social studies  standards, and does not venture into the “nitty gritty” of history.

“At the end of fourth grade, we are asking them to meet certain standards,” she said.

For grades six through 12, Edge said, sixth is the first year the students have a full year of social studies, and it is a content-based curriculum as opposed to thematic.

“We are looking at units of civilizations for time periods, and at the high school, we have the standard, academic and honors programs,” she said. “Advanced placement classes start in sophomore year.”

Edge said they have four different AP tests in social studies, and it is pretty consistent that students score 3 or above on the exams.

Edge said they had surveys given out to different levels and classes, with 283 parents taking the surveys. Then, she said, they had two student surveys, one for third through 12th grade students and one for kindergarten through second grade students.

“We had 83 students take it in the district, but it was sent home, not done in school,” she said. “It had to be done at the request of the parent.”

Edge said some of the questions on the survey asked whether students are getting a deep understanding of social studies in the classes.

“We looked at whether the parents and teachers felt there was a good understanding of social studies,” she said.

‘We asked in the student survey whether they are enjoying social studies,” she added. “Probably the 83 students who took the survey felt strongly about social studies anyway.”

Edge said the staff surveys helped them understand current practices and curriculum, and some staff members addressed resources and the need for more consistent ones.

Mattia said teachers did make it clear that they love the content they are teaching at their levels, and the students are excited about the work they are doing.

“When we are looking to rewrite curriculum, we are not looking to make content changes, just more best practices,” she said.

But, Edge said, they want to reach more people in the future.

“We learned we need a better vehicle to access student and parent information,” she said.

In addition to the surveys, Edge said they looked at data from other districts, national standards and the current program in the district.

“We went on site visits to other school districts,” she said. “The social studies standards really take a stance that history is engaging.”

“One of the goals is to prepare students to participate in a democracy,” she added. “Inquiry is at the heart of social studies, and a way to investigate and engage. We are looking to make sure students can investigate, make sure we are not squelching their curiosity, but instead sparking it.”

Mattia said they looked at a number of different districts to see the programs and courses, and numbers of students enrolled in each of them. They did site visits in Hillsborough, Edison and West Windsor, at different grade levels.

As for the future, Edge said they are looking at new courses for the high school and potentially adding some elective options.

“We want to rewrite all curriculum and look at balancing the content with inquiry-based instruction,” she said. “We are trying to make it more apparent for students what they are learning and how best they learn. We are looking at more specific ways to integrate the curriculum beyond just core novels.”

For assessments, Edge said, they are looking at defining specific benchmarks, with the standards in grade bands of kindergarten through fourth, fifth through eighth and ninth through 12th.

“We are looking at what we expect students to know at certain points along the path so we can measure ourselves how well we are doing along that path,” she said. “We will need more common assessments that are geared toward that goal, and we are looking at more performance-based assessments.”

“We will have to provide training for teachers to maintain consistency,” she added.

Edge said they are also looking at resources and the technology that is available to improve what is offered to students.

“We do have a lot of resources, and seeing how we leverage those, how do we make sure we are able to do that using the technology we have and not just substituting a textbook or online resource,” she said. “We have to do it in a way that is improving the instruction kids are getting.”

As for teachers, Edge said, they have to make sure to offer professional development so that a beginning teacher is getting the same knowledge and education as a content expert who has been teaching social studies for 25 years and is looking to try something new.

As for new courses, Edge said they are looking into developing a civics course to look at promoting democracy and being active citizens. They are also investigating a potential social psychology class, since advanced placement psychology is one of the most popular AP courses at the high school.

Board member Jeffrey Brookner asked to what extent demand is considered before ordering a new course.

“A civics class could pull from American law,” Edge said, adding that they would see how all the courses fit together before offering anything new.

Brookner also asked to what extent assessments are used.

Edge said they have midterms and finals, and 50 percent of the exams are department exams, while the other 50 percent are designed by the teachers, as well as there being a writing component.

“In terms of unit assessments, we don’t currently have those in grades seven through 11, and in sixth grade we have common unit assessments,” she said. “We have a common document based question in the fall and spring for seventh through eleventh grades.”

Another question, which had also been asked of the superintendent at his state of the district address earlier in the school year, was whether it is a problem that there is limited time devoted to social studies, only half a year.

Mattia said it is actually typical, when compared with other districts.

“In terms of what we would like to cover, more is always better,” she said. “This is why we mentioned integrating curriculum.”

Mattia said they are looking at where the skills can cross over among subjects, and making sure the curriculum can integrate across language arts and other subjects.

With these beginning stages done on the review, and as the first department to make a report on the five-year assessment process, Edge said one of the biggest takeaways is the way in which they are accessing stakeholder information, and the common difficulties in accessing parents to consistently get feedback.

“With 283 people responding in a district this size, that is not a lot of information, and we can’t make judgments based on that,” she said. “Those were big issues that could be addressed going forward.”