Five Key Elements for Developing State Social Studies Standards

Teacher with young students working with two globes

States are responsible for setting academic standards that are the basis of what students learn in grades K–12. Developing social studies standards is particularly challenging, given the broad array of topics the subject covers, including civics, economics, geography, history, and other disciplines.

Over the past 10 years, AIR has partnered with more than a dozen state education agencies to facilitate the standards development process for social studies. In this Q&A, AIR’s Beth Ratway, principal technical assistance consultant, and Stefanie Wager, senior technical assistance consultant, discuss why standards matter, how to manage the process of developing—and implementing—social studies standards, and five key elements for success.

Q. What are standards and why do they matter?

Standards provide a common foundation and language across districts in a state. Each district or school then builds its own curriculum from the common elements.

Ratway: The standards movement began in the 1990s as an effort to address equity issues in education. Standards define what all students should know and be able to do in a specific content area and build up from there. Standards provide a common foundation and language across districts in a state. Each district or school then builds its own curriculum from the common elements.

Wager: Standards are also a kind of social contract—an unofficial agreement about what the state or community says is important for students to know and be able to do. People don’t always talk about them that way, but that really is or should be their purpose.

Q. How do standards differ from curriculum and instruction?

Ratway: Standards are like the foundation of a house. The curriculum is the framework of that house. Instruction is what happens in the classroom that makes it a home, like the furniture and decorations. The state’s role is developing standards as a baseline. We can’t emphasize enough that curriculum is developed at the district and school levels, where they make sense of the standards for local contexts. And then instruction happens at the classroom level.

Wager: Teachers sometimes say, “I want to teach about September 11, but that’s not in the standards.” It’s important to note that standards are a floor, not a ceiling. They shouldn’t limit teachers from including topics in their lessons plans and instruction that will help students meet the standards.

Standards, Curriculum, Instruction: What’s the Difference?
  • States develop standards, which describe what students should know and be able to do in a specific content area, typically grade by grade.
  • Districts and schools develop curriculum—a plan, grounded in the standards, that lays out the scope and sequence of content and skills that students should learn and practice to achieve proficiency.
  • Teachers use the standards and curriculum to guide instruction, which includes lesson plans, strategies, resources, and formative and summative assessments to track progress. Teachers tailor instruction to engage students in meaningful learning and meet their learning needs.


Q. What obstacles do states tend to encounter when developing social studies standards?

Wager: Because standards are a social contract, that alone creates a lot of tension—trying to include so many expectations and voices and getting to agreement can be a challenge in some areas. It’s particularly important that people whose voices and history have been underrepresented in the past are heard in this process. This can often lead to disagreements, but there should be disagreement, wrestling, and passion because this is an important process.

It is also a huge problem that the words “standards,” “curriculum,” and “instruction” are confused, misused, and conflated. States need to be very careful about interchanging these words because they are not synonyms. This also makes the public mad because people think the state is handing down curriculum or telling teachers how to teach.

It is more important than ever to be inclusive through the standards revision and implementation process to ensure a common understanding of the meaning of topics and terms.

On a related note, we have encountered instances of the public not understanding how social studies instruction should work, which is tangentially related to standards. Their memory of social studies is as lecturing, textbooks, note-taking, regurgitating—just the facts, rather than complicated layers of perspectives and history. Students should be using multiple sources, asking questions, and discussing rich topics.

Ratway: There’s also now a politicization of standards in general, not just in social studies. Everybody comes with passions about what they feel like students need to know and be able to do. There is some common ground, but it can be hard to find on some topics, such as equity, racism, and civic engagement. People also use words in different ways, with differing definitions of these terms. This makes it more complicated for social studies because of the differing interpretations that some of these words come with in terms of studying the history and the nature of our country, much less of the world. This is why standards development is a very controversial space right now. It is more important than ever to be inclusive through the standards revision and implementation process to ensure a common understanding of the meaning of topics and terms.

Q. How does AIR support states in developing standards and avoiding obstacles?

Ratway: Our role is not to write or edit the standards. Our role as a facilitator is to guide the work of the team brought together to develop the standards.

There are five key elements for standards development. The process starts with engaging and collaborating with the state and multiple stakeholders. We do a lot of pre-planning, which can include a survey or focus groups to get a lay of the land and understand the state context; this is key in terms of ensuring the process is successful. Stakeholder engagement, transparency, and communication are key elements of this process. We help states think through these elements, with touchpoints throughout the process to keep stakeholders and the public informed and to solicit their feedback.

There is also an open, fair application process to be part of the standards development team, so there’s representation from different groups, different roles, different voices, different regions, and different contexts across the state. Educators, or a cross-section of educators and different stakeholders, need to be at the table writing the standards because they are the experts in the field. AIR offers feedback and helps the state create and circulate the application. The state builds a team to review applications; AIR sometimes trains this team on how to review applications.

The standards team spends the first few meetings developing a common understanding of words and definitions and of what a standard looks like. As a group, they analyze their state’s policies and different national and state standards, so they have a grounding in standards nationally and internationally. Then they work in small, grade-level teams to begin drafting the standards. After that, the whole team comes back together to consider the draft standards. This process ensures coherence horizontally—across each grade level—and vertically—across all grade levels. This is another key element of our work.

To help states ensure that all voices are heard with the initial draft, we build a comprehensive survey to get specific feedback from multiple stakeholder groups, including parents, teachers, administrators, community organizations, institutions of higher education, local business leaders, and organizations connected to the content area, such as a historical museum. The survey gives us data that we can bring back to the team to say, “This standard is working, this one isn’t. This is how people are reading it. These are the words they’re concerned about.”

Throughout this process, we don’t tell the state or stakeholders what to do. Rather, we facilitate the process. We help ensure that things don’t move forward if there isn’t consensus, standard by standard, revision by revision.

Wager: We also work with states to implement the standards once they are adopted. This hasn’t been happening until recently. States had just put out standards and hoped districts would use them. We help them create a three- to five-year implementation map to delineate the responsibilities of the state, districts, schools, teachers, and partners to make sure adoption of new standards is successful. We’ve found that this is our most powerful contribution—and it’s another key element of our work.

Five Key Elements for Standards Development
Based on AIR’s 10 years of experience helping states develop standards
  1. Transparent
  2. Research-informed and grounded in evidence
  3. Equity-focused
  4. Inclusive
  5. Improvement-oriented

Q. Is there a role for national standards? What is the evidence base for standards?

Ratway: I do think there is a role for national standards—although I’d call them guidance documents, core content, even anchor standards—that inform state standards. For social studies, there are four core disciplines. Each of those disciplines has a set of national standards and guidelines. But the intricacies and granularities need to be decided at the state level. That’s where the power and buy-in resides.

Social studies doesn’t have a robust evidence-based and researched-informed document for standards, like science does from the National Research Council. The evidence for social studies is the multiple state and national standards or guidance documents.

Beth Ratway
Principal TA Consultant
Stefanie Wager
Senior TA Consultant