The Search for High-Quality Instructional Materials in Social Studies

Students who receive high-quality social studies instruction are likely to develop skills that will help them make civic contributions in the future. According to Hattie, Stern, Fisher & Frey (2020), “Democratic societies rely on high-quality social studies instruction, cultivating students who delve deeper into issues and problems that vex humankind.” However, variability in state standards and a lack of research and work on a common definition has made it difficult to identify high-quality instructional materials, resulting in inconsistent and limited access to these needed materials for both students and educators. 

Recognizing these needs in the field, AIR partnered with EdReports, an independent nonprofit focused on students’ access to high-quality instructional materials, to develop a comprehensive, rigorous, accessible, and flexible tool—evidence guides—that educational professionals across the nation can use to identify high-quality instructional materials for social studies. 

Steps for Developing the Evidence Guides

To create the evidence guides, AIR investigated research in social studies, social studies standards, evidence based instructional practices, and current work on high-quality instructional materials. In addition, we analyzed select curriculum review tools and research on the state of social studies curricula. We used relevant review criteria to frame or guide the development of the requirements for indicators in each criterion. 

We then developed the following criterion for high quality instructional materials in social studies based on research and commonalities among state social studies standards: Standards Alignment, Social Studies Practices, Equity and Inclusion, Usability, Instructional Supports, and Assessment. These were reviewed by the social studies collaborative at the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of State Social Studies.

Example Criterion and Associated Indicator from the Social Studies Practices

Criterion 2: Materials emphasize social studies practices and skills students apply when engaging with social studies content. 

Indicator 2a: Materials are organized in a way that provides consistent opportunities for sustained inquiry through questioning and opportunities for students to generate and reflect upon their own questions, understandings, and inquiries.

Preliminary versions of the evidence guides were reviewed by AIR experts with backgrounds in social studies education, including Beth Ratway, principal technical assistance consultant, and Stefanie Rosenberg Wager, senior technical assistance consultant at AIR and social studies financial literacy, and world languages consultant for the Iowa Department of Education.

Once the evidence guides were drafted, six social studies state representatives from Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, and Oklahoma, along with representatives from Washington, D.C., and the Department of Defense Education Activity provided feedback on the evidence guides.

During the process, Lauren Gallicchio, academic program consultant at the Kentucky Department of Education, said, “Students and teachers deserve access to high-quality instructional materials designed to help students reach the grade-level expectations within state standards…Access to comprehensive HQIMs also enables teachers to adapt lessons to meet the diverse needs of students and to focus their time, energy and creativity on bringing lessons to life and engaging students with grade-level content.” 

Feedback from the state representatives contributed to the current evidence guides.          

What’s Next

AIR will conduct pilot versions of the evidence guides in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. These pilots will inform future iterations of the guides. AIR will also support implementation of these evidence guides in other states in the coming years.

The evidence guides support a vision for continuous improvement and advancement in social studies education. Further, the hope is that these evidence guides will create a domino effect that pushes publishers to create higher-quality materials, support the development of state-specific resource for identifying high-quality instructional materials, and act as a gateway to national conversations about the need for, and best practices in, social studies education.