Opinion

Social Studies Has Become a Political Landmine: Here Are 4 Ways to Move Beyond the Controversy to High-Quality Instruction

By Shanti Elangovan | May 18, 2021

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In our polarized society, social studies instruction is a political landmine. For evidence of this, look no further than the current proposed bills to restrict how teachers discuss topics like racism. But we can’t let a handful of state legislators looking to score political points mislead us: Democracy can’t thrive without an informed and engaged citizenry.

What’s more, we actually have consensus around how social studies should be taught. New efforts like the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy, established guidelines like the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework, and revised state standards allshare the philosophy that knowledge and understanding arise from the inquiry process.” It’s a call to move social studies toward the hard sciences: to lead with questions rather than conclusions, deeply investigate multiple perspectives rather than a single source, and apply acquired knowledge rather than memorizing it for a test.

It’s time to answer that call.

But it won’t be easy. It’s much easier to tell students what to think and believe, then to slowly and methodically help them learn how to question and investigate. And with only standards and frameworks to work from, it’s like asking teachers to prepare a gourmet meal but only giving them the five-star menu. Curriculum companies and education leaders must begin to support teachers with the recipes as well: high-quality, inquiry-based instructional materials in social studies.

Without high-quality materials, most teachers are scouring the internet for sources of information, lesson plans, and activities. The materials they gather and use haven’t been vetted for accuracy or bias, and in some cases are proving harmful to students. A recent incident in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in which teachers used a lesson that asked students to ‘punish’ slaves, reminds us of the grave misjudgements that can occur when teachers use unvetted resources.

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New textbooks aren’t solving these problems, either. The textbook model hasn’t changed much since I was in school, probably because it meets a district’s need to provide one resource that “covers all the standards.” But despite the addition of words like ‘digital’ to their name, the model is sorely outdated. With flexible technology, these resources could integrate primary and secondary sources, embed continuous improvement cycles to keep materials up-to-date, or provide tools for teachers to customize content to reflect their students’ lived and historical experiences. But they don’t. Take a look at any of the top publishers’ products and you’ll find that often the only difference between the physical textbook and the digital companion is an additional image or video. And regardless of format, these textbooks don’t just lack cultural relevance, they are often misleading and inaccurate.

While social studies curriculum has remained stagnant, other subject areas have responded to the demands of national standards by embracing the use of high-quality materials. In literacy, math, and science, these materials include fully developed lesson plans, cohesive units, multimodal assessments, and integrated professional learning. Their use is leading to improved teacher practice and student outcomes. One study found that providing an average teacher with high-quality materials puts them on par with highly skilled teachers rated in the 80th percentile. Another study demonstrated that highly rated instructional materials resulted in student achievement gains of 3.6 percentile points.

So how do we replicate this model in social studies? Curriculum companies, education leaders, and advocacy organizations must take several key steps.

Avoid the pitfalls of politics

In a world driven by click through rates, polarization sells. Politicians seem intent on making it seem like instructional materials that focus on topics like racism and sexism abound. But the truth is if social studies teachers have any materials at all (and that’s a big if), the resources these politicians are so intent on banning represent a tiny fraction of what educators are actually using in the classroom. Controversy might sell but we can’t let ourselves be distracted by it.

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Set the bar

We need to define what high-quality instructional materials look like in social studies and agree on a process to evaluate them. While that task might seem daunting, thankfully, we can look to other subject areas for guidance. Third-party evaluators like EdReports have created metrics to vet ELA, math, and science materials. Take a look at the multi-step process they use to evaluate materials, and imagine the same rigor applied to social studies.

Let teachers focus on students

Especially after this year of distance learning, teachers’ inboxes are bursting with links to free tools, special lessons, freemium services, and lists upon lists of sites to visit and things to download. We can’t expect teachers to have the time to vet, curate, and adapt all of these resources for their classroom — even if some of them are high quality. Rather than drowning them in resources that amount to a jigsaw puzzle, let’s make sure we’re supporting them with comprehensive, culturally relevant, vetted materials. When teachers don’t have to spend hours upon hours digging through resources, then they can focus on facilitating high-quality social studies instruction in the classroom.

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Commit to the work

Social studies leaders, educational organizations, and fellow curriculum companies: join me in making the plea for definition and evaluation. Let’s support organizations like EdReports in helping us hold each other accountable for creating and implementing high-quality instructional materials in social studies. It won’t be easy. But if we want our students to experience the kind of social studies instruction that builds life-long democratic habits, we’re going to have to leave politics behind and do the hard work of building consensus, the necessary work of democracy.

Shanti Elangovan is the CEO and founder of inquirED, which offers inquiry-based social studies curriculum and professional learning that engages students and supports teachers.

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