Strengthening the social studies teacher workforce in America

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After a period of heightened political awareness and activity, many Americans are wondering about their country’s civic well-being—and what schools can do to help. While there is evidence of stagnant achievement gaps for civics among U.S. students and different standards and coursework requirements across states, comparatively little is known about the social studies teacher workforce responsible for educating the next generation of citizens.

By first understanding the social studies educators currently in America’s classrooms, lawmakers can then address the policies and practices that can build the social studies workforce the U.S. might need. The 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education, written by Michael Hansen, Elizabeth Mann Levesque, Jon Valant, and Diana Quintero, examines how social studies teachers compare to those in other subjects, identifies differences in this workforce across schools and states, and how accountability policies are affecting social studies teachers.

Analyzing the social studies teacher workforce

Using the National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS), a nationally representative survey of teachers administered by the National Center for Education Statistics in the 2015-16 school year, researchers at Brookings’ Brown Center for Education Policy found workforce patterns unique to social studies teachers. While social studies teachers are similar to other teachers in many ways, their study reveals that social studies teachers are disproportionately male, shoulder more responsibilities, make more money, and are more traditionally certified than teachers in other subjects.

Data from the NTPS show that 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 perfect of ELA teachers (Figure 1). Interestingly, social studies is the one subject where the male share among teachers was actually higher than the male share among recent college graduates.

Gender breakdown of teachers by subject

This peculiar gender selection into teaching displayed among social studies teachers suggests the possibility that males could be more drawn to the social studies for other reasons than teaching alone. Digging a little deeper, the researchers find 70 percent of social studies teachers report involvement in extracurricular student activities and 61 percent report that they take on extra school duties, resulting in more responsibility outside of their classrooms than teachers of other subjects. This disparity across subjects is especially true for coaching sports at school, where 35 percent of social studies teachers report having coaching responsibilities, compared to only 23 percent of natural science teachers, 21 percent of math teachers, and 15 percent of ELA teachers. Figure 2 shows this is not due to the overrepresentation of males in the subject, either.

Breakdown of teachers who also serve as coaches

These high participation rates in extracurricular activities and coaching may help to explain why social studies teachers report slightly higher total annual earnings than teachers in other subjects. Base teaching salaries are roughly the same across subject specialty, but social studies teachers report significantly higher earnings from other school-funded supplements. This supplemental pay from activities like coaching sports could explain part of the wage difference between social studies and other teachers, but the disproportionately male share of teachers also helped uncover a gender wage gap between teachers manifest through supplemental compensation for taking on extra duties.

The report also finds that social studies teachers have relatively low rates of non-traditional entry (20 percent) and low levels of misalignment between their assignments and preparation (7 percent) compared to their peers in other subjects. While these teacher qualifications are not strongly predictive of classroom performance, research has shown that teachers tend to stay in the classroom longer if they entered the profession through traditional training programs. Findings across schools revealed that social studies teachers are significantly less experienced in disadvantaged school settings and that social studies teachers in schools with disadvantaged populations were more likely to enter the workforce through non-traditional routes.

While there are differences in the social studies workforce compared to other subjects, it is important to note that social studies teachers are similar to teachers of other subjects on important dimensions, including age and experience levels, course load, working hours, satisfaction with their school, and intentions to transfer in the near future.

Accountability policies and social studies teachers

These differences across subjects could be an indirect consequence of test-based accountability pressures. As seen through the lens of accountability policy, civics and social studies education have become second-tier academic subjects. In both the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), mandated testing and state accountability systems predominantly monitor student performance in math, reading or ELA, and science, with civics and related social sciences receiving little attention under federal law.

This lower status has affected social studies teaching, with other evidence demonstrating that following NCLB, school districts reported reductions in instructional time on non-tested subjects like civics and social studies. And with less classroom time available, social studies teachers have previously reported focusing more on facts and history narratives and less on civic-minded exercises, such as debates or simulations that are recommended practices for a high-quality civics education.

The scholars also find suggestive evidence of similar differences occurring in their analysis. Teachers in states that adopted policies aligned with the consensus view on high-quality civics education had fewer extra school duties and taught fewer courses outside of their core area. In other words, state policies that makes civics a priority may help focus social studies teachers on their subject specialty.

Given the low performance and stagnant gaps on national civics assessments, policymakers and practitioners need to understand and monitor the social studies teacher workforce to provide a high-quality civics education to students across the country.

Kelley Gardner contributed to this post.