A Case for Elevating Science and History in Richmond Public Schools
Student-First Curriculum and How Collective Bargaining Gets Us There
By Stephen Straus
After teaching English in middle school for two years, I went back to Virginia Commonwealth University for a Masters in Teaching in Social Studies. I completed my graduate program in 2019–2020 while teaching at Boushall Middle School through Richmond Teacher Residency. Richmond Public Schools cut social studies and science instructional hours for middle school students beginning in 2020–2021. I had just earned a Masters in Teaching in Social Studies, but ended up teaching English because of the reduction in social studies positions.
RPS fully downgraded social studies and science for middle school students for the 2021–2022 school year. Some middle school science and social study teachers at Lucille Brown, Binford, and Albert Hill were reassigned to different schools or switched to teach math or English. Middle school students now go to math and English classes everyday. They have social studies, science, and electives every other day. This gives students over 270 hours of instruction in math and English per academic school year. Consequently, students only spend 140 hours in science and social studies.
Richmond Public Schools justified the leveling of science and social studies arguing students who were on grade level for reading and math were better poised for study in science and history. The decision to cut science and social studies does not account for the fact that both subjects incorporate reading and math. When students read biographies or conduct lab experiments, they interact with vocabulary. Studying history and science encourages literacy because vocabulary is built through context. Literacy is a major component in all of these subjects. I can attest to this fact as both a former social studies teacher and as a current English teacher.
Richmond Public Schools’ decision to cut history matches the practices of charter schools like KIPP. The Knowledge is Power Program, commonly known as KIPP, is a college-preparatory charter network where class selection is often limited and built around tested subjects. As a result, social studies classes are often absent from KIPP course offerings. The schools usually are high-performing on standardized tests, but they can remove students who do not meet their expectations. The students who do not meet KIPP’s standards are sent back to public school. If public schools could choose who they admitted and retained, they would also perform better on standardized tests.
“Learning loss” has come up a lot over the past year because of COVID. The idea of learning loss is not about providing students with an enriching curriculum or recognizing the knowledge they already possess. Learning loss is a concept tied to student performance on standardized tests. Unlike standardized testing, literacy in science and history is crucial for navigating our world. Students are living through a global pandemic. They have witnessed adults dismiss the validity of science and undermine the teaching of history that critically examines racism and systemic oppression.
Real learning loss is when we build our educational system around standardized testing. Students learn to loathe reading and math because they are about a test that does not prepare them for the real world or reflect their lives. We should offer a well-rounded curriculum that values science and social studies as much as reading and math. We should offer diverse courses that accommodate student interests, prepare them for a variety of jobs, and equip them for participation in a democratic society. Now is not the time to deprioritize science and social studies education. Now is the time to stand up against standardized testing and to give students in RPS the curriculum they deserve.
RPS did not give educators or the community meaningful input in the decision to cut science and social studies. RPS needs to move away from the process of making decisions for communities and towards a process where decisions are made with the communities involved. The possibility of collective bargaining with the Richmond Education Association and Richmond Public Schools is a bright spot for community and educator input. On May 1, 2021, Virginia state law § 40.1–57.2 went into effect, allowing collective bargaining for public school employees. With the passage of this law, the Richmond Education Association has an opportunity to further improve the lives of our students, communities, and employees.
Collective bargaining gives educational professionals a seat at the table, helping to retain strong educators and thereby building a stronger school division. If recognized as the Collective Bargaining Unit for Richmond’s educational workforce, we will work to maintain, deepen, and strengthen a democratic process in the governance of Richmond Public Schools. We will fight for a public education system in which all workers — alongside students, parents, and community members — are empowered to have a say in the decisions that affect them.
Winning collective bargaining will give education workers a voice in our contract with RPS. However, our contract is about more than how much we get paid, or the days that we work. Our contract is also about the learning conditions of our students. By building strong relations with students, parents, and community partners, the REA intends to use the collective bargaining process to address long-standing educational needs and social injustices in our city.
Stephen Straus teaches English at River City Middle School and serves on the Board of Directors for the Richmond Education Association. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University. He grew up in Short Pump and is a 5th District resident.