As of Friday afternoon, more than 800 people had signed an online petition opposed to cutting social studies graduation requirements from four credits to three.
A proposal to add a personal finance requirement in the Pennridge School District has spiraled into a battle over whether high school students should take four years of social studies and the school board’s ability to upend curriculum.
As of Friday afternoon, more than 800 people had signed an online petition opposed to cutting social studies graduation requirements from four credits to three — a move that some board members favor and are expected to vote on as soon as Monday night.
Other board members are against the change, as are district administrators and teachers, who have voiced concern that curriculum will have to be revamped and that students will lose out on important content.
“To me, it sounds like a stupid idea,” said Ron Wurz, a school board member who started the petition, which says the proposed cut “will result in at least 25% less instruction in history, geography, civics, government and many other important life skills.”
Wurz had also opposed cutting the district’s world history course requirement — noting that because Pennsylvania requires instruction in world history, those lessons would have had to be compressed into other social studies courses, such as U.S. history.
“Of course, the U.S. only existed in 1776,” Wurz said. “What about world history before that?”
Since Wurz started his petition, that aspect of the plan appears to have been rescinded: Megan Banis-Clemens, a board member who favors the social studies credit reduction, said she wasn’t proposing that the world history requirement be eliminated — only that the number of required credits be dropped from four to three.
“We have an obligation to set all students up for success on any future path they choose,” said Banis-Clemens, who argues that cutting the requirement for a fourth social studies course would allow students to add more advanced math and science classes, or arts, that might help them with college admissions or technical careers.
But a minority of board members, including Wurz and president Joan Cullen, remain opposed, saying their counterparts are pushing through a shifting proposal without adequate notice to the public or justification.
Board members who favor the plan have also been at odds with administrators and teachers: During a recent meeting, some board members dismissed the district’s concern that their proposed changes would force an expensive rewrite of the curriculum.
“The best practice is you hire your administrators, a director of curriculum. They’re qualified to make those decisions. Boards are not qualified to make curriculum decisions,” said Art Levinowitz, a school board member in Upper Dublin and immediate past president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association’s governing board.
Levinowitz, who wasn’t familiar with the Pennridge proposal but commenting on general school board practices, added: “That area is getting grayed out a lot more these days, I guess.”
Republican candidates won election last year to the Pennridge school board, which has since scrapped its diversity, equity and inclusion program and barred teachers from “advocacy” activities, including hanging Pride flags and religious symbols in classrooms. In the curriculum debate, though, Republicans are at odds with one another.
» READ MORE: A Bucks County school district dropped its diversity program. Black families say the district isn’t acknowledging racism.
“There are very few people who have said this proposal would be fine and we should go through with it,” Cullen said.
Wurz said the social studies debate began earlier this year, when the administration proposed adding a personal finance requirement for students. That change had been part of the district’s comprehensive plan and discussed for years, a district spokesperson said.
“That started opening this Pandora’s box of what else can we change?” Wurz said. One board member wanted to add more physical education requirements. Then “someone said, ‘I think that’s too much social studies, we need to reduce it.’”
An earlier version of the proposal to scale back social studies credits from four to three specified that of the three credits, one would have to be in early American history, another in modern American history, and half a credit each in civics and the student’s choice.
That would have made world history — currently required for juniors — an elective.
David Bolton, the district’s superintendent, said during a board committee meeting last month that the district looked at “the top 10 schools in Pennsylvania … every one of them requires four social studies. Every one of them has a world history course.”
Banis-Clemens noted that Radnor and Tredyffrin-Easttown require only three credits.
» READ MORE: Pennridge tells teachers to remove LGBTQ pride flags, crosses, and other ‘advocacy materials,’ per new policy
(Pennsylvania doesn’t set credit requirements for graduation, but requires schools to cover certain standards, a Department of Education spokesperson said.)
The plan drew backlash from social studies teachers, 27 of whom signed a letter to the editor in the Bucks County Courier Times. “Our graduates will enter a world in which nations are increasingly interdependent. They will also be citizens in an increasingly polarized body politic,” the teachers wrote. “It is unconscionable that five members of the Pennridge School Board would even consider sending our students out into such a world handicapped by a lack of education in the very subjects they need to navigate their future.”
Keira Ruch, a junior at Pennridge High School, said she was confused by the proposal.
“I was kind of appalled by the fact that if we are taking two years to learn about American history and not anything else — America is not the only place in the world,” said Ruch, who is 16 and currently enrolled in world history. “I don’t feel like a group of people who are not teachers, don’t have a degree they have to stand for, should get to make those decisions about kids’ educations.”
While Ruch said she’s more interested in science and math, “history is one of those subjects everyone should really know,” she said.