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States and districts don’t have adequate support and standards for elementary social studies instruction — they either entirely lack or vary widely in their academic standards, accountability and assessments for the subject, according to a RAND Corp. report released Tuesday.
The report, based on multiple surveys and data collected from 745 teachers and 1,598 principals, found local districts and schools also lack in social studies instruction support. For example, there are fewer opportunities for teacher evaluations, professional learning, and guidance for social studies when compared to other core subjects like English language arts and math, the report found.
Only half of elementary principals said their schools or districts adopted published curriculum materials to support K-5 social studies instruction. In a similar vein, teachers said they had to create their own social studies instructional materials.
The research was partly motivated by the under-prioritization of social studies in the U.S. education system, and by students’ underwhelming social studies results on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, said Melissa Kay Diliberti, lead author of the report and assistant policy researcher at RAND, in an email.
“In the past few decades, school systems have increasingly put more attention on students’ academic and career preparation as one of their central priorities, often sidelining students’ civic development,” said the report.
In 2020, 8th graders’ scores on national U.S. history and geography tests showed declines when compared to 2014, and performance in civics remained at the basic level. Elementary school students were last assessed nationally on social studies topics in 2010, and the results showed that less than a third attained a proficient score.
Political figures have also raised concerns about civic education in the country. In a 2019 year-end report, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “civic education has fallen by the wayside.”
Conversely, Republican leaders nationwide have pushed for or successfully passed policies restricting instruction and discussion on social studies topics, such as race-related issues. In 2022, 36 states introduced 137 bills seeking to restrict topics like race, gender, sexuality and U.S. history in public schools and colleges, according to a 2022 PEN America report. The policies have created a stark divide between red and blue states on how the subject is taught.
A lack of infrastructure through assessments, accountability and professional learning remains a problem unique to social studies among core subject areas, said Diliberti.
“The key takeaway from the report — that infrastructure specifically dedicated to support social studies instruction is underprovided relative to other core subject areas — is unsurprising but concerning,” she said.
However, the authors found it surprising that variation remained in social studies standards despite wide agreement over the kind of resources and content that should be emphasized in the subject.
“States’ autonomy in this area has resulted in a set of disparate standards for social studies
instruction with large variation across states in both content and rigor,” the report’s authors wrote.
The data indicates “we need to build a stronger, more coherent infrastructure to support elementary social studies instruction,” Diliberti added.
Diliberti and her co-authors pointed to the College, Career, and Civic Life Framework provided by the National Council for the Social Studies and Educating for American Democracy roadmap as being among those resources.
As social studies infrastructure currently stands, however, it’s likely that the lack of coordination on a state and local level also leads to large variation from classroom to classroom, said Diliberti.
“This is concerning, because we have no means of monitoring this variation, raising concerns about whether students are receiving equitable opportunities to learn,” she said.