2018 Brown Center Report on American Education: Understanding the social studies teacher workforce

Teacher standing in class in front of students
Editor's note:

The following is the third chapter of the 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education.

One of the clearest results emerging from the past decade of education research is that teachers are centrally important in promoting student learning. However, much of the research evidence available on teachers either focuses on teachers of high-demand subjects (like math or science) or looks at broader trends among all teachers; few studies focus on social studies teachers in particular. As a result, we know comparatively little about those who are responsible for teaching civics to the next generation of young citizens and how they may differ from other educators.

We need a better understanding of the social studies teacher workforce in America’s public schools. Teachers are undisputedly part of the solution in helping to close the stagnant achievement gaps for civics documented in Chapter 1, with primary responsibility for teaching the state civics standards and frameworks described in Chapter 2. In this chapter, we synthesize existing research and analyze nationally representative survey data on secondary social studies teachers to investigate whether this segment of the teacher workforce differs from teachers in other subjects—and whether differences exist across states and schools. We conclude with a discussion of policy implications.

Accountability policies affecting social studies teachers

Social studies is largely absent from federal education law and policy. Both the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), mandated regular testing and state accountability systems to monitor student performance in math, reading or English language arts (ELA), and, at less frequent intervals, science. Civics and the broader portfolio of social studies, on the other hand, received relatively little attention in these federal laws, limited primarily to special programs for preparing teachers under Title II. Seen through the lens of accountability policy, civics and related social sciences have become second-tier academic subjects.

We need a better understanding of the social studies teacher workforce in America’s public schools. We know comparatively little about those who are responsible for teaching civics to the next generation of young citizens and how they may differ from other educators.

As best we can tell, this lower status has affected social studies teaching. In one nationally representative survey, 44 percent of school districts reported reductions in instructional time on non-tested subjects in elementary grades, including social studies, in the years following the implementation of NCLB. Evidence suggests that this type of “crowding out” may be greatest among low-performing schools that tend to serve high proportions of disadvantaged students, and thus face especially strong accountability pressure. Moreover, with less classroom time available, teachers report focusing more on facts and history narratives and less on activities like debate or simulation exercises that are more likely to align with some of the Proven Practices described in Chapter 2.

Comparing studies teachers to teachers in other subject areas

To depict social studies teachers’ characteristics and qualifications compared to those of teachers in other subjects, we draw on the National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS), a nationally representative survey of teachers that was administered by the National Center for Education Statistics in the 2015-16 school year. Our sample includes all respondents who report their primary role is a subject-specialized teacher in secondary grades (grades 7-12) in any of the four following categories: social sciences (hereafter referred to as social studies), ELA, mathematics, and natural sciences.

We focus on teacher characteristics in five categories:

  • Demographics: age, race/ethnicity, and gender
  • Qualifications: years of teaching experience, average SAT scores of undergraduate institution, entry into the profession outside of a traditional university-based teacher training program, and alignment between teacher’s undergraduate studies, teaching certificate, and subject specialty
  • Responsibilities: total number of students taught, course load, share of assigned courses outside of the teacher’s primary specialty, involvement in extracurricular student activities, and involvement in extra school duties
  • Compensation: salary, supplemental pay from the school (e.g., for bonuses or leading extracurricular activities), total reported weekly hours on school-related activities, and whether holding a second job
  • Satisfaction: responses to questions about teachers’ satisfaction in school and intended length of stay in the classroom

These characteristics provide insights into who is teaching and what they do in schools. Table 1 reports descriptive statistics of teachers’ attributes across each of these five categories separately by their area of subject specialty.

Table 1: Descriptive characteristics of subject specialist teachers in secondary grades

Social studies English language arts Math Natural sciences
Age (years) 42.2 42.0 41.9 42.3
Non-white 16% 19% 22% 19%
Male 58% 20% 38% 41%
Experience (years) 13.8 13.2 13.8 13.3
Average undergraduate SAT math 550 552 555 561
Average undergraduate SAT verbal 534 537 537 542
Non-traditional entry into profession 20% 22% 25% 33%
Assignment misaligned with education/certificate 7% 12% 12% 8%
Number of students taught 121 106 106 116
Number of courses taught 4.9 4.9 4.9 4.9
Courses outside of main assignment 10% 8% 7% 11%
Involvement in extracurricular student activities 70% 58% 53% 63%
Involvement in extra school duties 61% 62% 55% 58%
Base teaching salary  $56,290  $54,528  $56,613  $56,056
Supplemental pay from school  $2,700  $1,663  $2,026  $1,892
Total working hours 54.4 54.1 52.8 54.6
Share reporting working in a second job 21% 18% 20% 21%
Strongly or somewhat satisfied with their school 72% 72% 75% 73%
Strongly or somewhat thinking about transferring 35% 35% 32% 34%
Intended length of stay in teaching (as long as I can/until eligible for benefits) 73% 70% 69% 71%
Source: Authors’ calculations based on the 2015-16 National Teacher and Principal Survey.

We find five especially noteworthy patterns:

  1. Social studies teachers are disproportionately male

Among the demographic variables, gender stands out most. Well over half (58 percent) of social studies teachers are male, compared to 41 percent of natural science teachers, 38 percent of math teachers, and 20 percent of ELA teachers.

What accounts for this disparity? One possibility is that males could be more drawn to the social sciences in general, whether to teach or not. Data on the distribution of male and female recent college graduates by undergraduate major allow us to explore this possibility. Figure 1 displays these data alongside data on teacher gender balance.

Gender breakdown of teachers by subject

We find that about half of those who major in social studies-related fields are male—a smaller share than the share of math majors who are male (57 percent) but higher than the share of natural science (46 percent) and English (20 percent) majors who are male. Still, we see an intriguingly different pattern in social studies. In the other subjects displayed, the percentage of teachers who are male is lower than the percentage of students who major in that area. In social studies, the pattern is reversed: A larger percentage of social studies teachers are male (58 percent) than the percentage of social studies majors who are male (50 percent).

While these data cannot explain why so many males enter teaching in social studies, they suggest there is more to the story than males simply being more drawn to the subject matter. One possibility (that we consider next) is that males are drawn to the other, non-classroom opportunities they can find as social studies teachers.

  1. Social studies teachers shoulder more responsibilities

Table 1 indicates that social studies teachers, perhaps more than other secondary teachers, tend to take on responsibilities outside of their classrooms. They report high levels of involvement in extracurricular student activities (70 percent, 7 percentage points more than the next-highest subject, natural sciences). They are among the highest in the share who take on extra school duties (61 percent) and in the share of the courses they teach outside of their specialty area (10 percent). This seems consistent with the results of a 2013 national survey of civics and U.S. government teachers, which reports competing demands for social studies teachers that create a barrier to their ability to provide high-quality civic education. Still, social studies teachers report teaching more students (121), on average, than teachers in other subjects, suggesting a possibly larger workload for grading tests and similar tasks.

This tendency for social studies teachers to take on additional, non-classroom responsibilities is evident when we examine the share of teachers who coach sports at school. Figure 2 shows that 35 percent of social studies teachers (the dark blue bars) report having coaching responsibilities. That is considerably higher than the percentage of natural science (23 percent), math (21 percent), and ELA (15 percent) teachers who report that they coach. To put this difference in perspective, science teachers would have to increase their current coaching levels by over 50 percent to match the rate at which social studies teachers report coaching.

Breakdown of teachers who also serve as coaches

This difference in coaching rates is not entirely due to the overrepresentation of male teachers in the social sciences. Figure 2 also reports the share of male teachers within each subject who coach (lighter blue bars). In general, male teachers in our sample have notably higher levels of coaching across all subjects (40 percent) than females (12 percent). However, a much larger share of males who teach social studies also coach (50 percent) than the share of male science, math, and English teachers who coach (all less than 40 percent).

These differences across subjects could be an indirect consequence of test-based accountability pressures differing across subjects: Teachers in accountability subjects may be compelled to work more intensively in their specialties, leaving teachers in non-accountability subjects like social studies to compensate by extending the reach of their duties beyond their subject specialty. This also could have implications for who is drawn to enter—and remain in—the profession. In any case, these patterns suggest schools may often be looking for candidates that can fill multiple roles beyond the classroom when hiring social studies teachers, which seems less the case for vacancies in other subjects.

  1. Social studies teachers make more money

Interestingly, social studies teachers’ total annual earnings from school ($58,990) are slightly higher than the earnings of other subject specialists. Although base teaching salaries are roughly the same across subjects (as we expect, given the proliferation of set salary schedules), average reported earnings from other school-funded supplements is significantly higher among social studies teachers. These differences in wages do not appear to reflect different levels of overall effort, as teachers in all subjects report similar numbers of total weekly working hours (around 53 to 55 hours). We also observe social studies teachers taking on second jobs outside of school at similar rates as teachers in other subjects (around 20 percent).

More than a third of all social studies teachers report coaching a school sport. This leaves us to wonder whether some social studies teachers are hired primarily to lead the team on the field, not the students in the classroom.

So what explains these higher earnings? The disproportionately male share of teachers in social studies could point to an explanation involving unequal pay to males and females. Although the gender wage gap among teachers is relatively small in comparison to many other professions, it could manifest in a variety of ways, including differential pay by subject or extracurricular activities. The results in Table 1 suggest extracurricular pay, and specifically pay for coaching merits a closer look.

In our sample, 86 percent of teachers who report coaching a school sport say they receive supplemental income for extracurricular activities at the school. The average amount among those reporting any supplemental pay is $4,516. Male and female coaches are similar in their rates of reporting any extra compensation (87 percent and 84 percent, respectively), although the average extra compensation male coaches report ($5,168) is significantly larger than the extra pay to female coaches ($3,157).

What accounts for this difference is unclear from our data, but disparities also appear in how much males and females report being paid for non-coaching extracurricular activities. We examined teachers who report being involved in any extracurricular activity except for coaching. Among this group of teachers, 53 percent report any supplemental income, with similar rates for males and females. Yet, there is still a gender wage difference in the value of their extra pay: Males report supplemental pay of $2,764, while females report supplemental pay of $2,021.

In short, social studies teachers report slightly higher total earnings from school than teachers in other subjects. This may seem counterintuitive in the context of conversations about paying teachers more in hard-to-staff subjects. Supplemental pay for coaching sports could explain part of that difference, with social studies teachers being particularly likely to coach. Gender-based differences in compensation for extracurricular activities warrant further exploration.

  1. Social studies teachers are more traditionally certified

Social studies teachers also differ from their peers in how they were trained prior to entering the classroom—and the alignment with what they currently teach. They have relatively low rates of non-traditional entry into the profession (20 percent) and low levels of misalignment between their assignments and preparation (7 percent). The SAT measures, which lag several points behind all other subjects, indicate that social studies teachers come from marginally less competitive undergraduate institutions than other teachers.

Although these differences suggest a pattern—that social studies teachers are more likely to be traditionally certified and less likely to come from alternative entry programs like Teach for America (known for recruiting students from selective undergraduate institutions)—we should note that these teacher qualifications are not strongly predictive of classroom performance. The patterns do suggest less reliance on alternative entry routes to fill social studies vacancies. Data on teacher vacancies tell a similar story: According to a recent study, roughly 5 percent of schools nationwide reported difficult-to-fill vacancies in social studies or ELA during the 2012-13 school year, compared to more than 20 percent of schools reporting difficult-to-fill vacancies in math or science.

Research has shown that teachers who enter the profession through traditional training programs tend to stay in the classroom longer. The results in Table 1 are consistent with this finding. Social studies teachers, who are more likely to come from a traditional training program, are slightly more likely to say that they plan to remain in the profession until retirement or as long as they are able (73 percent, compared to 69-71 percent of teachers in other subjects). However, this does not reflect greater reported satisfaction with their schools.

  1. Still, social studies teachers are similar to other teachers in many ways

Although the prior points highlight differences between social studies teachers and teachers in other subjects, we should note that social studies teachers are similar with other teachers on a number of important dimensions. These dimensions include teachers’ age and experience levels, course load, working hours, satisfaction with their school, and intentions to transfer in the near future. In each case, social studies teachers in secondary grades appear similar to math, science, and ELA teachers in secondary grades. Moreover, even in some areas where we observe differences across subjects (in qualifications and compensation variables, for example), these differences are smaller than the differences observed among teachers within the same subject area.

In other words, although analyzing the ways in which social studies teachers are unlike their peers can illuminate ways in which students’ experiences in social studies are unlike their experiences in other subjects, we caution against overstating those differences.

Differences in social studies teachers across schools and states

Differences across schools

The discussion above examines population-level differences across subject specializations—social studies versus other subjects. Other differences could exist across types of schools or states. Next, we explore for these differences. We categorize schools based on poverty levels (taking the top and bottom 25 percent of schools based on the share of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch), share of students of color (taking the top and bottom 25 percent of schools based on the share of black and Hispanic students), and locale (urban, suburban, town, or rural setting). We then inspect for differences in social studies teachers’ qualifications and responsibilities across these contexts.

Focusing first on qualifications, we find evidence of social studies teachers being significantly less experienced in disadvantaged school settings. The average experience level for social studies teachers in high-poverty schools (11.8 years) was nearly three years less than in low-poverty schools (14.4 years). A similar split was observed when comparing teachers’ experience in schools with high and low concentrations of students of color (12.7 years and 14.7 years, respectively). Social studies teachers in schools with disadvantaged student populations are also more likely to enter through non-traditional routes (for example, 28 percent versus 12 percent in schools with high versus low shares of students of color).

These patterns—where high-poverty schools with many students of color have access to less experienced and more alternatively certified teachers—are largely consistent with prior evidence of teacher sorting across different school settings and subjects. In fact, in our data, we see no dimensions in which social studies teachers stand out from teachers in other subjects on these sorting patterns.

Differences across states

Next, we consider whether state policy environment could be another source of differences in the teacher workforce. Specifically, using the (partial) tally of Proven Practices (PPs) by state in Chapter 2, we investigate whether teachers’ qualifications or responsibilities systematically vary between states that have formally adopted few PPs and those that have adopted many. Taking the PP tally as a proxy for how seriously the state emphasizes the rigor of civics instruction, we might find differences in who teaches social studies and how they are deployed in schools. It could be, for example, that social studies teachers in states committed to pursuing supposed best practices in civics education are less able or willing to shoulder additional responsibilities.

Indeed, while we observe no systematic differences in experience or qualifications, several of the responsibility variables showed an association with the state policy environment. Table 2 presents the average reported responsibilities of social studies teachers by the number of PPs the state has adopted.

Table 2: Responsibilities of social studies teachers, by state

States with 1-2 PPs States with 3 PPs States with 4-5 PPs
Total students 126 107 118
Course load 5.2 4.9 4.8
Courses outside of main assignment 15% 13% 9%
Involvement in extracurricular student activities 76% 73% 73%
Involvement in extra school duties 74% 60% 63%
Number of states 10 17 24
Note: This table was updated on June 27, 2018.

The figures reported in Table 2 suggest states with 1-2 PPs require their social studies teachers to carry more responsibilities, on average, than those in states with more PPs. The strongest relationships are the share of courses outside of teachers’ main assignments (15 percent among low-PP states versus 9 percent in high-PP states) and their involvement in extra school duties (74 percent in low-PP states, 60-63 percent in other states). These differences are statistically significant. Although the differences observed in total students taught, course load, and involvement in extracurricular activities are not statistically significant, the patterns here are suggestive of a similar relationship in low-PP states.

Together, these patterns suggest more and broader responsibilities for social studies teachers in states where the state policy environment is out of step with the consensus for high-quality civics education.


The analyses presented in this chapter reveal that social studies teachers differ from other subject-specialized teachers in many ways. By understanding the teaching force we have in social studies and comparing it with the teaching force we might need, we can better answer questions about which policies and practices would strengthen the social studies teacher workforce.

Our findings indicate that the supply of trained social studies teachers is relatively strong in comparison to other core academic subjects, which is encouraging. Interestingly, secondary teachers in social studies are disproportionately male, which suggests that a different selection process might lead college graduates to teaching positions in social studies relative to other subjects. Our data cannot speak to what these selection differences might be, but we see this—along with gaps we observe in supplemental pay by gender and subject specialty—as fruitful topics for future research. This chapter also illustrates the outsized role of coaching among social studies teachers, where more than a third of all social studies teachers report coaching a school sport. This leaves us to wonder how many social studies teachers are hired primarily to lead the team on the field, not the students in the classroom.

By understanding the teaching force we have in social studies and comparing it with the teaching force we might need, we can better answer questions about which policies and practices would strengthen the social studies teacher workforce.

Finally, we show that the qualifications and responsibilities of social studies teachers are not uniform across contexts. Consistent with prior research, our evidence shows teacher qualifications being systematically lower in schools that disproportionately serve students of color and students from low-income families. We also observe differences in social studies teachers’ responsibilities across states, which could reflect differences in what is asked of schools’ social studies programs through state policy.

To provide a high-quality civics education to students across the country, policymakers and practitioners will need to promote a healthy teacher workforce and sustainable teacher pipeline into the field. Strengthening the social studies teaching workforce is particularly important at a time when many Americans are wondering about their country’s civic and political wellbeing—and wondering about what schools could do to help.

Visit the full 2018 Brown Center Report page.


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  • Footnotes
    1. McMurrer, J. (2007).
    2. Darling-Hammond (2007); Pace (2008).
    3. Vogler (2008); Winstead (2011).
    4. The NTPS provides information on teacher demographics, teacher preparation, classes taught, compensation, and school characteristics. All of the analyses presented here were also done on the 2003-04, 2008-09, and 2011-12 waves of the Schools and Staffing Survey. The patterns for social studies teachers we report in this chapter, in comparison to other subject specialists, are similar in substance to those seen with earlier survey data.
    5. We restrict our sample analysis to regular full- and part-time secondary teachers working in public schools. Our final sample is comprised of 9,350 teachers, of whom 2,040 are social studies teachers, 2,760 are ELA teachers, 2,490 are mathematics teachers, and 2,060 are natural science teachers.
    6. Non-traditional entry includes those who enter through alternative certification programs and those who report entering the profession without a bachelor’s degree. The misalignment measure represents the share of teachers who have neither an educational background (undergraduate major or minor, graduate degree) nor professional certificate that allows them to teach in the subject of their main assignment.
    7. The share of assigned courses that are outside of the teachers’ primary specialty represents the ratio of courses outside of their specialty area (for example, a social studies teacher who also teaches an art class) over the total number of courses they teach. Teachers’ involvement in extracurricular activities includes coaching a sport and sponsoring any extracurricular student groups. Teachers’ involvement in extra school duties includes serving as a department lead or chair, lead curriculum specialist, assigned mentor or mentor coordinator for teachers, or serving on a schoolwide or districtwide committee or task force.
    8. Supplements are those paid out during the normal school year; we do not include supplements for teaching summer school.
    9. Male shares among bachelor’s degree recipients are computed from 2017 Digest of Education Statistics, Table 318.30The social studies category includes all graduates in the social sciences and history division, as well as those in area, ethnic, cultural, gender and group studies. The ELA category includes all graduates in the communication, journalism, and related programs division and the English language and literature/letters division. The math category includes all graduates in the mathematics and statistics division. The natural sciences category includes all graduates in the agriculture and natural resources division, biological and biomedical sciences division, and the physical sciences division.
    10. Unfortunately, the survey does not include detailed information about the nature of the extracurricular student activities that teachers lead. Thus, we cannot say whether social studies teachers were leading relevant extracurricular activities (e.g., debate or student government) in comparison to those that are unrelated.
    11. Godsay & Sullivan (2014).
    12. Hansen & Quintero (2017).
    13. The survey item asks, “During the current school year, do you, or will you, earn any additional compensation from this school system for extracurricular or additional activities such as coaching, student activity sponsorship, mentoring teachers, or teaching evening classes?” and then requests the total value of any compensation that meets this criterion. Thus, we cannot separate income specifically for coaching from other income related to involvement in extracurricular activities or extra school duties.
    14. The low rates of alternative entry into social studies may also play a role in the relatively low representation of racial/ethnic minorities in social studies (16 percent) noted in Table 1; see Putman, Hansen, Walsh, & Quintero (2016).
    15. This slightly higher level of qualifications among social studies teachers was also documented in Hill & Steans (2015).
    16. For example, there is far greater variation in teacher productivity within entry routes into the profession than is seen across different paths (Kane et al., 2008). In general, observable teacher characteristics like the qualifications listed in Table 1 routinely explain less than 5 percent of the observed variation in teacher productivity, based on studies looking at teacher quality in math and reading or ELA (Aaronson et al., 2007; Goldhaber and Hansen, 2013; Rivkin et al., 2005). It is plausible that teacher characteristics may have a different relationship with classroom productivity of social studies teachers, but it is unlikely to be overwhelming. 
    17. Dee & Goldhaber (2017).
    18. Redding & Smith (2016).
    19. See, for example, Clotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor (2006) and Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin (2004).