Social Studies

When It Comes to Social Studies, Elementary Teachers Are on Their Own

By Madeline Will — March 07, 2023 8 min read
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Elementary teachers are left largely to their own devices when it comes to social studies instruction, cobbling together materials from different places with little support or guidance from higher-ups.

That’s according to a new RAND Corp. analysis, which also found that K-5 teachers report spending less instructional time on social studies than on the other core topics of English/language arts and math. The lack of a robust infrastructure to support this type of learning at the state, district, or school level means that the quality of social studies instruction likely varies widely from classroom to classroom, it concludes.

“This is the first time we’ve had a complete picture of what is happening in elementary social studies in one spot with very serious and well-designed research,” said Louise Dubé, the executive director of iCivics, which provides educational games and lesson plans to promote civics education. (iCivics was not involved in the RAND report.) “The picture that it paints is bleak.”

The report found that elementary teachers are evaluated less often in social studies than in other core subjects and receive infrequent professional development in the content area—and not nearly as much as they get in math or English/language arts.

And at the state level, academic standards, accountability policies, and assessment programs in social studies are few and far between.

“Teachers might be less aware of what constitutes high-quality instruction for social studies than they are for other subject areas,” said Melissa Kay Diliberti, an assistant policy researcher at RAND and a co-author of the report.

At the same time, schools are facing a wave of conservative legislation that seeks to restrict how teachers discuss racism and sexism. Eighteen states have imposed bans and restrictions on these so-called “divisive” topics in the classroom, which past research shows is creating a chilling effect in which many teachers avoid talking about subjects that could be considered controversial.

There aren’t strong signals of support from states

The RAND study used survey data from nationally representative samples of 745 elementary public school teachers and nearly 1,600 public school principals. The surveys were conducted in the spring of the 2021-22 school year, which was largely seen as a pandemic recovery year. The researchers note that that could have influenced the results; educators might have been particularly concerned about catching students up in ELA and math.

Even so, the RAND researchers’ review of the state policy landscape reveals that there wasn’t a strong infrastructure in place to support elementary social studies instruction before the pandemic.

National frameworks outline what students should be able to know and do in social studies—such as the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework, published by the National Council for the Social Studies, and the Educating for American Democracy roadmap, funded partly through a federal grant. (Both frameworks are voluntary; states can choose whether to use them.)

But the RAND report notes that both those resources identify need-to-know content for grade bands (like grades K-2 or 3-5) rather than grade levels, meaning that educators have a lot of room to decide for themselves what content they should teach.

And many states don’t use those frameworks to inform their instructional standards, so there’s wide variation across the country in the content and rigor of the subject. Most states also don’t use a statewide summative assessment in social studies like they do in ELA or math.

The RAND researchers write that the absence of social studies from states’ accountability and testing systems “sends a signal to educators that developing students’ knowledge in this area is not a priority.”

It also leaves room for wide variation on the ground in the quality and depth of instruction: “We cannot ensure any kind of consistency from educators,” Dubé said.

According to the survey, elementary teachers said that, on average, the typical student spends nine hours a week in ELA, seven hours in math, three hours in science, and another three hours in social studies. The RAND researchers noted, however, that one study found that increased instructional time in social studies was associated with improved literacy. That finding might be because social studies can help develop students’ background knowledge, which is critical for reading comprehension.

The de-emphasis of social studies in elementary school is not a new issue. It has long been a concern of experts in the field, who worry about how students are learning to engage and participate in—and understand—the world.

“Our concern for the past two decades has been, when you reduce or outright eliminate elementary social studies instruction, ... you’re producing an entire new generation of students whose first social studies experience might be much later in school,” said Lawrence Paska, the executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies. “They’re not coming to class with the background knowledge, with the passion for inquiry that they might have had before.”

PD opportunities for social studies are scarce in elementary grades

In the elementary grades, social studies teaches foundational concepts, including representation, civil rights, civic duties, and productive civic discourse, such as being able to disagree with someone and work together to find a solution, Dubé said.

Yet only 52 percent of elementary principals said that their schools or districts provided professional development to teachers to support their social studies instruction in the 2021-22 school year. Forty percent of principals said their teachers had access to social studies coaching, and 64 percent said their school or district provided collaborative learning opportunities related to social studies.

By contrast, large majorities of elementary principals said their school or district offered PD and collaborative learning opportunities for math and ELA, and coaching for ELA or math was twice as common as coaching for social studies. And the elementary principals said that these professional learning activities were happening more often in other subjects than in social studies.

Just over two-thirds of elementary principals said they evaluated teachers in social studies in the 2021-22 school year—which the researchers used as a proxy for teachers receiving feedback on the quality of their instruction. Meanwhile, almost all elementary principals evaluated teachers in math and ELA that year, and 74 percent said they did so in science.

Elementary principals in low-poverty schools were more likely than their counterparts in high-poverty schools to evaluate teachers in social studies. But social studies-focused professional learning activities were more common in historically disadvantaged schools that served more students of color.

Social studies materials can be a free-for-all

Teachers also received little guidance on what materials to use in social studies.

Nearly 3 in 10 elementary principals said that in the 2021-22 school year, their schools had not adopted any social studies curricula to provide to teachers. About 40 percent said their school had adopted social studies curricula created by publishers, 16 percent adopted curricula developed in house by educators, and another 16 percent provided both.

Thirty-eight percent of teachers said they are the main decisionmaker for what social studies instructional materials to use in their classrooms, and another 21 percent said other teachers in their school system made those decisions. For subjects like ELA and math, however, most teachers said school or district leaders were mainly in charge of deciding what materials to use.

Only 16 percent of teachers said they used a required textbook for most of their social studies instructional time.

Diliberti, the RAND researcher, noted that “textbooks might be sensitive to the time in which they’re written,” and teachers might be supplementing them with more up-to-date materials or materials that provide more diverse perspectives and voices.

About half or more of elementary teachers said they regularly—once a week or more—used materials from Teachers Pay Teachers, an online marketplace where educators can sell their created lesson plans and classroom materials; BrainPOP; or YouTube to supplement their social studies lessons.

But when teachers rely on scattered materials from across the internet, it’s difficult for school and district leaders to build a consistent and coherent curriculum and to make sure that all teachers are using high-quality materials from reputable sources, RAND researchers said.

“Teachers might be hanging out on a limb here, and they’re trying to fill in the gaps,” Diliberti said.

More professional development and guidance around materials could help. The RAND researchers recommend state departments of education and other groups establish review processes for social studies materials to provide an objective measure of quality.

Said Paska: “This is a solvable problem. Decisions to reduce or eliminate social studies, they can always be undone. We had the time for social studies in the elementary school day before, we can bring that back. We invest in professional development for teachers—we can just as easily decide that investing in PD for elementary social studies is a priority.”

Meanwhile, the National Endowment forf the Humanities announced on Monday that it has partnered with iCivics and committed $1.7 million toward the creation of pilot programs at elementary schools in underserved communities to support the implementation of the Educating for American Democracy roadmap.


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