Cover: The Missing Infrastructure for Elementary (K–5) Social Studies Instruction

The Missing Infrastructure for Elementary (K–5) Social Studies Instruction

Findings from the 2022 American Instructional Resources Survey

Published Mar 7, 2023

by Melissa Kay Diliberti, Ashley Woo, Julia H. Kaufman

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Research Questions

  1. What was the status of state-provided infrastructure (such as academic standards and assessment programs) to support elementary social studies instruction as of the 2021–2022 school year?
  2. How prevalent was local-provided infrastructure (such as professional development opportunities and guidance around curriculum materials) to support elementary social studies instruction in the 2021–2022 school year?
  3. How does the state of infrastructure for social studies instruction compare with that provided for other core subject areas?

Public schools have historically served as important institutions that play a critical role in developing students' civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Over the past few decades, however, school systems have increasingly sidelined students' civic development as one of their central priorities. State policies have also emphasized improving student achievement in such core subjects as reading, math, and science, often leaving out social studies.

This report presents findings from a literature review and nationally representative surveys of teachers and principals conducted via the RAND Corporation's American Educator Panels to understand the state of infrastructure to support elementary social studies instruction during the 2021–2022 school year. By infrastructure, the authors mean the policies in place at the state, district, and school levels that, when combined, create an environment to support teachers' instructional practices and, therefore, student learning. The authors also find that the infrastructure to support elementary social studies instruction is often missing or inadequate. State standards vary in quality, there is less assessment and accountability, teachers receive less professional development and feedback from principals, and also less guidance around curriculum materials. Importantly, the lack of infrastructure for social studies instruction is in sharp contrast to that provided for other core subject areas and has important consequences for how teachers approach this subject.

These findings imply that improvements to social studies instruction and student learning require comprehensive supports, much more than piecemeal efforts, at all levels in schools across the United States.

Key Findings

  • State-level infrastructure (such as academic standards, accountability policies, and assessment programs) to support elementary social studies instruction was largely missing in many states in the 2021–2022 school year. Where such infrastructure was in place, its quality varied widely.
  • Similarly, local-level infrastructure was underprovided for social studies relative to other core subjects, especially English language arts (ELA) and math. For example, in the 2021–2022 school year, elementary principals reported less teacher evaluation and professional learning focused on social studies instruction than on ELA, math, and — to a lesser extent — science instruction.
  • Only half of elementary principals said their schools had adopted published curriculum materials to support kindergarten through grade 5 (K–5) social studies instruction.
  • Principals in elementary schools with a more comprehensive suite of supports for social studies, such as teacher evaluation, professional learning activities, and guidance around materials, were more likely to report the presence of shared social studies teaching practices.

Recommendations

  • State policymakers should work to make social studies academic standards not only more rigorous but also more consistent with national frameworks.
  • State departments of education and other organizations should generate greater transparency around the quality of social studies instructional materials to support curriculum development and teachers' use of high-quality materials.
  • District leaders should provide more supports (e.g., teacher evaluation, professional development) targeted to social studies instruction and learning.
  • States must figure out how to hold schools accountable for improving student achievement in social studies. In addition, states should incentivize schools to invest in social studies to the same extent as in other core subjects, especially ELA and math.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation and conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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