NEWPORT NEWS, VA. — Social studies in Paula Brown's third-grade class used to mean drawing and reading simple maps of model towns and cities.
That doesn't cut it anymore in Virginia. Since last fall, Ms. Brown has taken her young charges through a series of in-depth lessons linking democratic concepts to ancient Greece and Rome.
Under Virginia's tough new standards, teachers like Brown are required to add rigorous historical content to the study of human society.
"I said, 'They've got to be crazy,' " says the teacher at Carver Elementary School in Newport News, Va., thinking the work would be too hard.
But now the 18-year veteran says the new standards are "a huge success," inspiring her to be creative. She consulted college historians for a list of Roman achievements, from voting rights to aqueducts, and designed a slew of activities. "Now on field trips, my kids say 'Oh, Ms. Brown, there are the arches of Rome.' "
The efforts here are part of a nationwide movement to raise academic standards. President Clinton and a growing number of state governors say that making lesson plans more demanding now will help young Americans compete in job markets of the future. All but two states have jumped on the standards bandwagon, and efforts are under way to devise a national testing system to measure student performance.
When it comes to the core subjects of math, science, English, and social studies, experts say Virginia's newly revised standards for kindergarten through 12th grade have emerged as the model.
"Virginia's standards, as a prototype, are more rigorous in early childhood years than any other state in the country," says E.D. Hirsch, a standards advocate and professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. If anything, he adds, "they're just not rigorous enough."
But teachers and administrators at Carver Elementary are nevertheless scrambling to meet the new demands. No textbooks exist that teach the new standards at a third-grade reading level. This means teachers have had to spend late nights and weekends visiting libraries and college professors, creating lesson plans and activities, and sometimes writing their own textbooks.
"Last year's textbooks have virtually no information that is useful now," says Rhonda Diamond, a teacher at Carver who is helping Brown develop Carver's new third-grade social-studies curriculum. "Parents say 'Send the social studies work home so I can help my kid learn,' but there's nothing to give them."
Until new textbooks are written, Ms. Diamond, and other teachers at Carver, often must dig into her own pocket to buy a handful of age-appropriate books on Greece, Rome, and the English settlers at Jamestown, Va. Even so, like most teachers here, she's become a firm supporter of the tougher standards.
"I love what we're teaching, and the children have been able to grasp it," she says on a break in Carver's small teachers lounge. "My children go home and tell their parents about it."
Down the hall, in Brown's classroom, children are crowded around tables, planning dramatic presentations about the Jamestown settlement of the early 1600s. At one table, students are compiling questions about what they need to know about the Native American tribes that lived near Jamestown.
Questions range from the mundane (Did Indians eat more than just corn, squash, and beans?) to the factual (What are the names of the main tribes near Jamestown?) The third-graders also learn something that Walt Disney didn't. The name of Pocahontas's father wasn't Powhatan. It was Wahunsonacock. (The Indian word "powhatan" means chief.)
Recently, Brown took her students into a nearby wooded area to look for things that a Jamestown settler might use to survive. Children pointed out vines for rope, wood for houses, stones for a fireplace. Then she had the children write letters to England, to tell relatives what it is like in the New World.
"If you're going to have this material, you have to find very creative ways to make it meaningful to kids," says Brown, especially for abstract concepts like the economic laws of supply and demand, which the class will learn later in the year. "Read the chapter and answer the questions in the back - that's not the way you're going to reach today's kids."
The new standards introduced in Virginia this year were built on standards that have been in place since the early 1970s.
A previous attempt in the mid-1980s to revise standards was nixed by Gov. Douglas Wilder (D), who said the proposed versions put too much emphasis on learning styles and paid too little attention to content.
After Gov. George Allen (R) was elected in 1994, the effort was revived. Committees of parents, teachers, and college professors cranked out revision after revision to decide what children should know in order to graduate. A governor-appointed state board oversaw the process to ensure the standards would be easily understood and measurable, so parents could keep tabs on their children's performance.
The process of creating standards in Virginia has had moments of controversy. A state effort to introduce Bible readings into the English standards caused a public outcry two years ago, and the state was forced to back down.
Testing the approach
The state has yet to decide whether the achievement tests for Grades 3, 5, 8, and 11, due to be field-tested this spring, should become a condition for promotion.
The tests to be administered this year will just be a trial run, and not every student will take every test.
Brown, who worked hard to help create the new social-studies curriculum, says her children are ready for whatever test they get, but she's hoping they'll get to take the social-studies test.
"I want to see how our material holds up,'" Brown says with a laugh. "I told my children, 'All of you kids who believe in prayer need to pray for social studies.' "