The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) paints a bleak picture of student achievement in social studies. According to the most recent report from 2018, just 24 percent of eighth graders were proficient or advanced in civics. The situation was worse in U.S history, with just 15 percent of eighth graders proficient or advanced. A new RAND report hypothesizes that a “missing infrastructure” for social studies instruction led to those low scores.
Melissa Kay Diliberti, Ashley Woo, and Julia H. Kaufman analyze the support systems for social studies instruction in three contexts: the state level, the local level of districts and schools, and the classroom level. This three-tiered analysis is supported by data from a literature review of the existing research on state social studies practices, a RAND survey of 634 elementary school principals, and the 2022 American Instructional Resources Survey (AIRS) of 745 public school teachers in grades K–5.
The RAND report finds that the social studies infrastructure at the state level is hindered by a lack of accountability. No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act both contained accountability measures for math and reading but none for social studies, giving states little motivation to improve instruction in that subject. While many states have adopted social studies standards to compliment those in math and reading, their coherence and rigor is mixed. The report cites Fordham’s The State of State Standards for Civics and U.S. History in 2021, which found that just five states plus the District of Columbia had exemplary civics and U.S. history standards. Also, few states use assessments to monitor student achievement in social studies.
Moving to the local level of districts and schools, the report finds a lack of evaluative feedback and professional development for teachers. Just 67 percent of elementary school principals reported evaluating their teachers in social studies, while 98 percent reported doing so in both math and reading. The same survey showed that just 52 percent of principals dedicated professional development activities to social studies, while 89 percent and 95 percent reported doing so for math and reading, respectively.
This leads to inconsistent social studies instruction at the classroom level. The majority (59 percent) of elementary teachers considered themselves the primary decision makers on which instructional materials to use for social studies (only 36 percent and 32 percent of teachers felt the same way about math and reading, respectively). Teachers were also scrounging for social studies instructional materials. A large majority of teachers (79 percent) reported being “cobblers”—meaning they gathered materials from various sources—or creating their own materials. Just 16 percent of teachers reported using a textbook. This made planning for social studies inefficient and led to ineffective instruction.
The report recommends that state policymakers include social studies in their ESSA accountability plans. State leaders are also advised to make social studies standards more rigorous and align them to national frameworks (such as those from the National Council for the Social Studies). This recommendation is well-intentioned, but the NCSS standards are mediocre and content-free, so states would be better served by emulating those that scored well in Fordham’s 2021 review of civics and U.S. history standards. At the local level, district leaders and principals should provide more evaluation and professional development to teachers targeted to social studies instruction.
Surprisingly, the report’s recommendations neglect a proven strategy: using the reading block to teach social studies. High-quality reading curricula such as Core Knowledge Language Arts and Wit & Wisdom are rich in history and civics. As Robert Pondiscio recently noted, Core Knowledge in particular has been shown to boost students’ reading comprehension precisely because it contains so much content knowledge. Rather than teach social studies solely as an isolated topic, schools should also integrate it into existing reading lessons.
The report notes that the current state of social studies instruction threatens schools’ historical purpose as “important civic institutions that play a critical role in developing students’ civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions.” Our own Chester Finn recently voiced a similar sentiment, stating that a lack of a shared school curriculum could exacerbate “diminishing confidence in the shared values, institutions, principles, and traditions that have held us together as a nation.” This confidence could diminish further if schools do not find a way to improve the infrastructure that supports effective social studies instruction.
SOURCE: Melissa Kay Diliberti, Ashley Woo, and Julia H. Kaufman, “The Missing Infrastructure for Elementary (K–5) Social Studies Instruction,” RAND (March 7, 2023).