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An inquirED Blog

The State of K-8 Social Studies

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

The State of K-8 Social Studies. inquirED Webinar


What policies at the state, district, and school levels support teachers in K-8 social studies instruction? How does this affect student outcomes? NCSS and inquirED were joined by special guests Julia H. Kaufman (Codirector, American Educator Panels, Senior Policy Research, RAND), Melissa Kay Diliberti (Assistant Policy Researcher, RAND), and Elisabeth Ventling Simon (Chief Academic Officer and Co-Founder, inquirED) to examine the state of K-8 social studies across the country and explore how current policies impact teaching practices and student learning.


Key Takeaways

  • Concerning Data: National education progress scores indicate low proficiency in social studies for grades 4, 8, and 12.

  • Marginalization of Social Studies: Districts have predominantly emphasized math and reading, neglecting social studies teaching and learning.

  • Lack of Monitoring: Unlike math and reading, only three states monitor and collect data on social studies performance.

  • Varied State Standards: There's significant variability in state standards for civics and history, with only five states having exemplary standards.

  • Lack of Support: A majority of elementary teachers decide on their own what materials to use for social studies, often cobbling together various resources.

  • Planning vs. Teaching: Teachers spend almost as much time planning their social studies lessons as they do teaching them, indicating potential inefficiencies.

Deep Dive

Public schools have historically been the cornerstone for developing students' civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions. However, in recent decades, there's been a noticeable shift. The emphasis on students' civic development has been sidelined, with state policies prioritizing subjects like reading and math over social studies.

Julia H. Kaufman and Melissa Kay Diliberti from RAND Corporation along with their co-author Ashley Woo shed light on the current state of social studies education in their report titled "The Missing Infrastructure for Elementary (K–5) Social Studies Instruction." By "infrastructure," the authors refer to the amalgamation of policies at state, district, and school levels. These policies collectively create an environment that influences teachers' instructional practices and, by extension, student learning.

Many states lacked a robust infrastructure, such as academic standards, accountability policies, and assessment programs, to support elementary social studies instruction during the 2021–2022 school year. Where such infrastructure existed, its quality varied significantly, meaning there was wide variability in what was being taught and how.

The lack of infrastructure in social studies differs significantly compared to core subjects like English Language Arts (ELA) and math. For instance, during the 2021–2022 school year, elementary principals reported fewer teacher evaluations and professional learning opportunities focused on social studies instruction.

Elementary teacher Profiles

Textbook teachers: those who used a district-required or recommended published curriculum for the majority of their instructional time DIY teachers: used self-created materials for the majority of their instructional time. Local material teachers: those who used materials developed locally by their school or district. Cobbler teachers: those who do not fall into any of the previous categories. Because the cobbler category

Furthermore, teachers, especially at the elementary level, often have to decide for themselves what materials to use. Only half of the elementary principals surveyed mentioned that their schools had adopted published curriculum materials for K–5 social studies instruction. This leads to a patchwork approach, with many relying on a mix of textbooks, locally created content, and self-made materials. This means that teachers spend a significant amount of time planning their lessons, suggesting inefficiencies in the system.

Bottom Line

The state of social studies education requires attention. With varied standards, limited focus, and challenges in instructional planning, there's a pressing need for a more structured and consistent approach.

From the Chat

The chat was active with discussion, comments, and suggestions. For a summary click here.

Links and Resources

Watch the Webinar Below

About inquirED

inquirED was founded by teachers with the mission of bringing inquiry-based social studies to every classroom. Inquiry Journeys, inquirED’s elementary social studies curriculum, is used in schools and districts across the country to help students develop deep social studies content knowledge and build the inquiry skills that are essential for a thriving democracy.


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