The state of the nation’s social studies educators

Child in front of a 4th of July mural

During this Independence Day week, we thought we’d take a few minutes to recognize those who have made it possible for us to understand and appreciate it. We’re not referring to the Founding Fathers but rather to the teachers who taught us and continue to teach our kids about history, civics, and other social studies.

Social studies occupies a unique place in our conversations about public schools. On the one hand, we acknowledge literacy about society, government, and the history that contextualizes our lives are critical elements of cultural knowledge for all citizens. Yet at the same time, the country’s accountability systems have generally placed social studies conspicuously lower in the hierarchy of academic achievement, superseded by math, literacy, and science.

To get a glimpse of the social studies teacher workforce in the U.S., we look to data from the 2011-12 Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), a nationally representative survey. We find that social studies teachers look similar to teachers of other subjects on some dimensions and very different on other dimensions. Some of these differences suggest that many schools ask social studies teachers to play an assortment of roles in their schools—with responsibilities more varied than those of teachers in other academic subjects.

Who teaches social studies?

Teachers who specialize in social studies constitute roughly nine percent of the total teacher workforce, with most teaching in middle or high schools. About 40 percent of these teachers come into the classroom with an undergraduate major in history, and then slightly fewer come in from other social science majors like political science, economics, or sociology. The remainder, representing 30 percent of social studies teachers, have degrees in either elementary or secondary education or some other degree.

Key characteristics like experience and education levels among social studies teachers are similar to teachers in other subject specialties. Yet social studies teachers stand out in their gender balance. With 54.7 percent of them male, this is one of just two subjects represented in the SASS in which teachers are predominantly male (the other being health / physical education).

Chart showing percentage of teachers who are male

What do social studies teachers do?

The SASS data reveal some interesting trends among social studies teachers’ work responsibilities. First, they work a lot. Social studies teachers report working slightly more total hours on teaching and other school-related activities (nearly 54 hours per week) than teachers in all other subjects. This is true despite their total instructional hours and contract hours showing virtually no difference from teachers in other subjects. It also does not appear that the extra hours are coming from professional development. In fact, the survey data suggest that social studies teachers are among the least likely (at 72 percent), along with teachers in the natural sciences (71 percent) and foreign languages (70 percent), to stay engaged in ongoing professional development in their specialty area. Other subject-specialized teachers participate in professional development at markedly higher rates—around 80 percent or better.

Chart showing percentage of teachers who receive PD in their subject area

One possible source of these additional hours is coaching, where the responses from social studies teachers stand out from the responses of their peers. Nearly 34 percent of social studies teachers coach an athletic team, lead a physical education class, or do both. This is about 13 percentage points more than the rate at which mathematics teachers take on these extra duties, and even farther above the rates for teachers of other subjects.

Chart showing percentage of teachers who coach sports

In fact, broadly speaking, social studies teachers have an unusually large number of school responsibilities beyond teaching in their subject area. On average, 7.5 percent of the subjects they teach are outside their specialty area (in subjects such as English, health, and physical education)—a large share relative to other secondary school teachers. Moreover, many social studies teachers are involved in activities outside the classroom, such as mentoring students, being a curriculum specialist, and being a department lead or chair.

By taking on a variety of roles, social studies teachers help schools to fulfill their many responsibilities both inside and outside of the classroom. In the context of accountability systems that tend to emphasize other academic subjects to social studies, schools may view social studies teachers as their utility players—to use a baseball metaphor—and seek those capable of filling multiple roles. The U.S. education system is integral to creating and maintaining the fabric of American democracy that we celebrate on July 4th. We thank social studies teachers, along with their colleagues, for playing many varied and important roles in educating our youngest generation.