English Dutch French German Italian Portuguese Russian Spanish


Mobilizing K-5 Social Studies in 2020 - Get Involved!

Published on Sat, 11/16/2019

Elementary girls work on a project at their desks.
Social studies excites student interest.

Facing the Crisis in Social Studies and Civics Education

Following years of decline in the teaching of History and Social Science, especially in grades K-5, and neglect of civics by schools at all grades, the Massachusetts Legislature and Board of Education each took decisive action in 2018. New state History and Social Science standards elevate civics in the context of inquiry-based Practice Standards, and the Civic Engagement Act mandates opportunities for civic action by all learners. (See my post: Civics Education Update.) 

Emerging America and a coalition of organizations have begun to step up to offer programs and professional development, especially for teachers of new grade 8 civics. There was universal celebration among the dogged K-5 teachers who kept teaching social studies through the lean years, despite pressures not to. Many districts are working diligently to build district plans and write new curriculum. A few organizations and school districts, notably Andover Public Schools are taking leadership. The best-resourced districts appear to be crafting new curriculum from scratch. New digital resources (including, of course, our favorite–Library of Congress!) strengthen these efforts. 


Modest Increase in Time Teaching Social Studies Grades K-5

Based on a recent survey of Massachusetts educators–mostly K-5 teachers–I can happily report that between 2017 and 2019, there seems to have been an increase in the amount of time that Massachusetts elementary students spend each week learning social studies! 

In 2017, half or more of classrooms grades K-4 got 40 minutes or less of social studies per week. In 2019, most grades 2-4 classrooms exceeded this benchmark.  
In fourth and fifth grades, the percentage of students getting more than 40 minutes of social studies per week rose from about 50% in 2017 to about 80% in 2019. 
The percentage of fifth graders getting an hour a day or more of social studies more than doubled from 9% to 23%. 
It is likely that at least some of this renewed class time for social studies is in direct response to attention to the new state social studies standards. Many educators and community leaders also acted in response to the problematic 2016 election environment. Note that the percentage of 5th graders getting social studies every day is still ridiculously low at less than 25%. We still have a long way to go! 

Quality Curriculum–Barrier for K-5 Social Studies Teachers

After a generation exiled from the social studies, most K-5 teachers face an overwhelming task. Many have never taught social studies. They lack background in content, concepts, and skills. The new inquiry-based standards are utterly unfamiliar. Meanwhile, the pressure is still on to produce test results in math and basic reading and writing. An infographic, "The Marginalization of Social Studies," from the Council of Chief State School Officers, puts the challenge in national perspective. 

The state of K-5 social studies curriculum is dire. Asked to rate the importance of various resources (including professional development, time to write curriculum, and class time), teachers ranked curriculum as the highest need. The lucky teachers with adequate time, resources, and skill are conjuring marvelous curriculum. Yet the average teacher lacks access to user-friendly, fully developed K-5 social studies curriculum. One comment from our recent survey lays out the problem: 

For the past 15 years teachers have been "winging it" at the elementary level. Some teachers spend lots of time hitting the standards, and some rarely teach it. All have different materials, and nothing is consistent.  

Teachers report on one of the two available textbooks, “It has minimal readings and activities to go with it. It is also outdated, copyright 2005.” Of the other main textbook, a teacher reports, “We have H---- for fourth grade at our school… But, the complaints are nonstop about it.” Thirty of 54 survey respondents reported that their distract has no curriculum, or that, “It’s up to the teachers.” 


Seeking Participation in a K-5 Social Studies Curriculum Pilot

Two teacher-leaders working with Emerging America and local school districts to support K-5 social studies. Laurie Risler, Westfield State University, and Kelley Brown, Easthampton High School, have teamed up to draft new highly user-friendly, inquiry-based lesson modules that directly address 2018 Massachusetts K-5 History and Social Science content and Practice Standards. 

Based on repeated pleas from teachers for lessons that are easily integrated into jammed up class days and that require only basic content background, Risler and Brown drafted lessons to introduce the seven Massachusetts Practice Standards and content lessons to support each grade. Based on teacher input, the authors pursued a “mystery”-centered approach based on a tantalizing question for each topic. As with all Emerging America materials, the curriculum will emphasize accessibility for diverse learners. 

Materials will be ready for field-testing in winter 2020. The pilot will continue through the spring semester, collecting feedback in May-June. Thanks to support from the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Program at CES, there is no cost to participate in the pilot for those who wish to get PDPs. If they wish, participants may pay $125 to instead receive one graduate credit.  

If interested in participating, complete the still-open short K-5 Curriculum survey. Be sure to provide contact information! 

NOTES: On Emerging America’s “2019 K-5 Social Studies Curriculum Survey”: 
Narrow factors may have influenced our survey results, including differing sample size and relatively small numbers in any case. (Online surveys had 47 respondents in 2017 and 35 in 2019.) 
See full 2017 Massachusetts Status of Social Studies Survey Summary
Also see my May 20, 2019 blog post: Literacy in Practice Standards at the Entry Point for Elementary Social Studies
It will be useful to repeat the survey in future to see if implementation of expected MCAS test in social studies in grade 8 leverages more time for the subject in elementary grades. 


Rich Cairn

Civics and Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction Specialist, Collaborative for Educational Services
Rich Cairn founded Emerging America in 2006, which features the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program at the Collaborative for Educational Services, and the National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks of American History program, "Forge of Innovation: The Springfield Armory and the Genesis of American Industry." The Accessing Inquiry clearinghouse, supported by the Library of Congress TPS program promotes full inclusion of students with disabilities and English Learners in civics and social studies education.