Why social studies instruction may not be coming to the rescue

"Truth decay, declining trust in institutions, increased political polarization, and abuses of political power" show there's urgency to reinvest in the civic mission of schools,

Those hoping that more rigorous social studies instruction in K12 will heal some of the nation’s political divisions may be discouraged by what researchers have found in U.S. elementary schools.

Academic standards, accountability requirements and assessment programs—what the RAND Corporation calls the basic infrastructure of K–5 social studies instruction—are inadequate in many states, the nonprofit research organization asserts in a new report. “Concerning trends in both the United States and around the world, such as truth decay, declining trust in institutions, increased political polarization, and abuses of political power, have only underscored the need to reinvest in the civic mission of schools,” says the report’s authors, whose key findings include:

  • Districts and schools provided teachers with less support for social studies compared to English language arts, math and other core subjects. In the 2021–2022 school year, elementary principals reported offering less PD focused on social studies than on English, math, and science.
  • Only half of elementary school principals said their buildings or districts had adopted published curriculum materials to support K–5 social studies instruction. Teachers, therefore, tended to “cobble together” or create their own social studies lessons.
  • Principals whose schools offered more extensive teacher evaluations, professional learning activities, and curriculum guidance were more likely to report that teachers collaborated on social studies instructional practices.

“Over the past few decades, school systems have invested less in students’ civic development and more in academic and career preparation as educational priorities,” said Melissa Kay Diliberti, lead author of the report and assistant policy researcher at RAND. “Our findings suggest that inadequate state and local infrastructure focused on social studies instruction may have affected what elementary teachers did in their classrooms in 2021–2022.”

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Just 16% of elementary teachers reported using a required textbook for most of their social studies instructional while about 30% of principals said their schools had not adopted social studies curriculum materials. “Even where state-level infrastructure to guide teachers’ instruction is in place, its comprehensiveness and quality vary greatly,” the authors added.

Political climates in various states are another barrier to comprehensive social studies instruction in K-5. While this has always had an impact on classrooms, educators have been increasingly intimidated by more recent pushes to restrict teaching about race, racism, discrimination, LGBTQ issues and gender identity.

Solutions for social studies instruction

To bolster instruction, district leaders can ramp up PD and teacher evaluation and feedback around social studies. Principals should commit more time to observing social studies instruction. “Principals might feel that they lack the expertise or content knowledge to identify high-quality social studies practices,” the report points out. “If so, district leaders should provide training, professional development, resources, or staff to principals to help them do that work thoughtfully.”

District leaders can also push state policymakers to develop more rigorous social studies standards that are based on national frameworks such as the C3 standards. This would likely lead to the adoption of more comprehensive social studies curriculum materials. In turn, more transparent assessments of the quality of these materials would encourage adoption by more teachers. District leaders might also prepare for states to impose tighter accountability measures around social studies achievement.

At the high school level, RAND’s researchers found more robust supports—such as teacher evaluations and instructional coaching—but that the subject still takes a backseat to English, math and other subjects.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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