Curriculum Explainer

Social Studies and Science Get Short Shrift in Elementary Schools. Why That Matters

By Sarah Schwartz — February 27, 2024 10 min read
Science teacher assists elementary school student in the classroom
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As different initiatives, priorities, and efforts to change teaching and learning in schools come and go, one challenge remains constant: Time is a finite resource.

In elementary schools, especially, where subjects aren’t typically cordoned off in separate periods with different teachers, devoting more time to one topic inherently means spending less time on others.

It’s a truism that has led, in practice over the past three decades, to most elementary schools putting more time toward reading and math than toward social studies and science. The disparity is well-documented: In a 2018 national survey, K-3 teachers said they spent a daily average of 89 minutes on English/language arts and 57 minutes on math but only 18 minutes on science and 16 on social studies.

Now, new trends and anxieties may further affect this balance, experts say.

Study after study demonstrated that young students lost ground in reading, and even more so in math, during the pandemic. New research shows that kids are making academic gains in these subjects, albeit unevenly across wealthy and poor communities, as schools pour time and resources into intensive tutoring and other efforts aimed at reading and math recovery.

At the same time, a “science of reading” movement has swept through state legislatures, with lawmakers mandating that schools use evidence-based approaches to teaching young students how to read and provide additional help to students who struggle.

“We haven’t seen explicit language about how time is used in schools in the legislation,” said Esther Quintero, a senior fellow at the Shanker Institute who co-authored a recent report analyzing states’ science of reading laws. “But I think that with all of this focus on science of reading and assessment and intervention, there are messages that are being signaled as to what is important and what is worth prioritizing.”

In this explainer, Education Week breaks down the role social studies and science play in the elementary school classroom, why time is allocated the way it is, and how current policy debates may—or may not—shift the status quo.

Why do social studies and science matter for elementary schoolers?

It’s a well-worn cliche that elementary schools are tasked with teaching kids the three “Rs”—Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic. But researchers argue that social studies and science are crucial early on, too.

Not only can learning more about the world around them enhance young students’ reading skills, elementary lessons in these subjects develop foundational methods of analyzing information that students will need to use in later grades, experts say.

Deprioritizing science and other topics can be counterproductive to raising student-achievement test scores in reading and math in the long run, said Christine Royce, a professor of science education at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.

Studies have demonstrated that having a broader wealth of general background knowledge is linked to better reading-comprehension abilities. It’s easier for a reader to understand a book or an article if they already have some grounding in what it’s about.

“Allowing students to explore, and engage, and investigate is going to give them a lot of prior experiences that they can connect to reading,” Royce said.

A 2020 quasi-experimental study from the Fordham Institute took a closer look at this theory, in social studies. Researchers examined how much daily classroom time the country’s K-5 students spent learning social studies, as well as the 5th grade English/language arts test scores of these students.

They found that students who received an additional 30 minutes of social studies instruction per day in grades 1-5 outperformed students who received less social studies instruction on ELA tests—even when controlling for the students’ kindergarten reading ability and other demographic and school factors.

Beyond that, the subject has intrinsic value in elementary school, said Paul Fitchett, a professor of curriculum and teaching at Auburn University’s College of Education, who studies social science education.

Early-elementary social studies is usually focused on kids’ families, local communities, and maybe their towns and states.

“Understanding who you are and your place in society, that’s not something that just teenagers are thinking about,” he said. “You can’t be a good citizen without reading or math. Those things matter. And it also matters that people have a sense of self, and social studies provides those opportunities.”

Early science instruction fosters its own set of skills, said Royce, such as investigating, reasoning, and weighing evidence.

The more time devoted to social studies and science practices, the more likely students are to master them, Fitchett said. Lack of early exposure could have “ripple effects” into later grades, leaving students less prepared to take on more complex topics, he said.

How much time is enough? The National Science Teaching Association recommends at least 60 minutes per day in elementary schools, to put science on par with other core subjects—but also notes that there is not a research basis for this recommendation. (There’s not much research in general on the optimal time dosage for different subjects or skills that children need to learn.)

Similarly, the National Council for the Social Studies suggests that social studies receive equivalent amounts of daily time as other core subjects but does not issue a recommended number of minutes.

Why is more time given to ELA and math than social studies and science? When did this start?

Different national surveys of elementary-teacher-time use all show similar findings: Minutes spent on social studies and science instruction have declined since the 1990s, while time for reading and math has increased.

“There was this narrowing of the curriculum starting in the ’90s, with this push toward the standards movement,” said Fitchett. “But it really took off in the early 2000s, when the federal government put the money behind it,” he said, referencing the No Child Left Behind law.

NCLB, the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, required states to test students annually in reading and math in grades 3-8, as a condition of receiving federal Title I funding for low-income students. The law also required science testing, but only in three grades.

“These tested subjects, reading and math, have been perceived to be crowding out these other nontested subjects,” said Quintero of the Shanker Institute.

It’s not just classroom time—studies show the infrastructure for social studies and science instruction lags, too.

A 2023 report from the RAND Corp. found elementary principals reported less teacher evaluation and professional development for social studies instruction than for ELA and math. Only half of elementary principals said that their schools had adopted a published curriculum for the subject in grades K-5.

In science, less than a quarter of 4th graders attend a school with lab facilities that they’re able to use for experiments and investigations, according to survey data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Within these overall trends, there’s some variation by grade level. Upper elementary and middle school students get a bit more science and social studies, on average. And in social studies, said Fitchett, 4th and 5th grade are more content-heavy with clearly defined topics, often covering state and U.S. history.

Other factors have also been shown in research to influence time for social studies, he said, including whether a state has testing policy in the subject.

Could the ‘science of reading’ movement affect this balance?

The new state mandates on reading are an important step forward in bringing classroom practice in line with evidence-based methods, experts say.

But some researchers and advocates have also emphasized that research-informed instruction necessitates including social studies and science topics, too—and they’ve cautioned against a narrow approach to the curriculum that prioritizes developing isolated reading skills at the expense of building student knowledge in these other subjects. These new laws typically don’t explicitly reference science or social studies.

To become a strong reader, a child needs to know how to decode words on the page into spoken language, a skill they develop through phonics instruction. They also need to understand the words they read, connect them to other ideas, and analyze texts. Instruction should integrate these components of reading into a cohesive whole, say researchers who study literacy across content areas.

“This is an opportunity to say, ‘We’re not going to make these mistakes where we squeeze out other lessons,’” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, the executive director of the Shanker Institute, which published an analysis of state reading legislation last year.

The report’s authors found that new laws require instruction in different components of reading: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. But the legislation rarely explains how these components should be integrated, and only six states mention building background knowledge as a foundation for reading comprehension.

Some districts have recently adopted what’s known as “knowledge-building curricula” in ELA, programs designed to include social studies and science topics. But teachers and subject-matter experts maintain that dedicated time for these subjects, outside of a reading block, is still important.

Sean Morrisey, a 5th grade teacher in western New York, regularly teaches social studies themes in the novel studies he does with students in his reading classes. Still, there are 5th grade New York social studies standards his ELA program doesn’t cover, such as economics or basic geography. “Some of those things, it’s hard to embed in an ELA core curriculum,” Morrisey said.

Students also need time to learn discipline-specific practices—not just content, said Royce.
Science class doesn’t just introduce science topics, it also teaches how to do science, developing skills such as hypothesizing and designing experiments, she pointed out.

“If we only read about that, students aren’t constructing their own thinking,” Royce said. “They’re being given information.”

Did the pandemic shift how much time elementary teachers spent on social studies and science?

It’s hard to know—in large part because there’s not much quantitative research on the question.

“It’s a black box in terms of data and studies,” said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research group housed at Arizona State University that has tracked districts’ responses to the pandemic and recovery plans.

The vast majority of data on student achievement during COVID was collected in reading and math, and reports so far on elementary students’ academic recovery have focused on those subjects as well.

One study examined how K-8 science teaching changed during the first two years of the pandemic. The sample, which wasn’t nationally representative, included teachers from 25 states. Researchers found that while 88 percent of teachers said they were spending less time on science in the spring of 2020, those numbers had started to rebound by the spring of 2021.

Competing forces affected social studies instruction during the same time period. Anecdotally, some elementary teachers reported setting aside time to talk with students about issues unfolding in the world around them—the murder of George Floyd by police in the summer of 2020 and the presidential election later that year.

But as state legislators began to pass bans the next year on discussing so-called controversial issues in the classroom, these policies shaped teachers’ actions in lasting ways. A RAND survey from this year found that two-thirds of K-12 teachers have decided to limit instruction about political and social issues in the classroom. More than 80 percent said they were subject to local restrictions that limited discussion on such topics.

In school systems’ COVID-recovery plans, most leaders prioritize what they see as foundational subjects, said Lake.

“The districts that we speak to as part of our studies generally are pretty well focused on reading and math, and social-emotional learning, mental health, chronic absenteeism,” she said. Science isn’t usually discussed. It’s an approach that could have consequences down the road, she said.

“There are some big global issues that everyone who’s concerned about the future is thinking about,” said Lake, mentioning computational thinking skills and climate science. “It does feel like a real disconnect [from] the emphasis that our schools seem to be placing in science.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2024 edition of Education Week as Social Studies and Science Get Short Shrift In Elementary Schools. Why That Matters


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