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Assessment, Autonomy, and Elementary Social Studies Time

by Paul G. Fitchett, Tina L. Heafner & Richard Lambert - 2014

Background/context: In an era of accountability and standardization, elementary social studies is consistently losing its curricular foothold to English/language arts, math, and science instruction.

Purpose: This article examines the relationship between elementary teachers’ perceptions of instructional autonomy, teaching context, state testing policy, and reported social studies instructional time.

Research design: Employing secondary data from the National Center for Education Statistics 2007/2008 Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), we analyzed the association between elementary (Grades 1–5) teachers’ perceived autonomy, classroom/school contexts, and state testing policies on reported time spent on social studies. We also analyzed the moderating effect of state-level testing policy on teachers’ sense of autonomy in relation to reported social studies instructional time.

Data Collection and Analysis: We conducted analysis of variance (ANOVA) and hierarchical liner modeling (HLM) to examine the association among multiple levels of teacher, classroom, school, and state policy levels as a function of reported social studies instructional time.

Findings/Results: Results indicate that elementary teachers’ working in states that require elementary social studies testing spend more time on social studies instruction. Moreover, teachers’ who report greater instructional autonomy and teach intermediate grades (4–5) spend more time on social studies. Finally, elementary teachers working in states with a required social studies test report less instructional autonomy than teachers without a test.

Recommendations: Findings suggest recommendations for practitioners, school leaders, and educational policy. Social studies teacher educators and practitioners should continue to support ambitious teaching. School leaders who value social studies instruction should foster environments that offer less curricular restrictions, particularly in the later grades. From an organizational perspective, mandatory statewide testing improves the quantity of social studies at the elementary grades. However, policy makers and education advocates should weigh the costs and benefits of increased testing mandates and their possible impact on the quality of social studies teaching and learning.

Recently, the National Center for Education Statistics released its report on U.S. school-age childrens performance on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in History, Civics, and Geography. Students performed poorer on NAEP U.S. history than any other subject area tests (Dillon, 2011), suggesting insufficient preparation in social studies. Among elementary school students tested, 27% tested proficient in civics and only 20% in U.S. history and 21% in geography (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c). Educators attributed the negligence of social studies in elementary classrooms to increased standardization and emphasis on state-tested curriculumof which social studies is often left out (Brophy, Alleman, & Knighton, 2009; Houser, 1995; VanFossen, 2005). As such, state and national testing policies have contributed to subject area prioritization (Center on Educational Policy, 2007, 2008; Fitchett & Heafner, 2010). In addition to testing pressures, researchers pointed toward other moderating factors affecting social studies instructional time: teachers content knowledge (Wineburg, 2005; Zhao & Hoge, 2005), schooling context (Pace, 2011b; Wills, 2007), perception of autonomy (Gerwin & Visone, 2006; Gradwell, 2006; Grant, 2003), and grade level curriculum (Leming, Ellington, & Schug, 2006; VanFossen, 2005). Given differences in states testing programs (Au, 2007) and lack of research examining the connection between testing policy and other teacher/organization factors on instructional time, we sought to understand the relationship among these variables and instructional time. Employing data from the National Center for Education Statistics Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), we examined the association between elementary (Grades 15) teachers perceived autonomy, classroom/school contexts, and state testing policies on reported time spent on social studies. We also analyzed the moderating effect of state-level testing policy on teachers sense of autonomy in relation to reported social studies instructional time.


While social studies has traditionally maintained a subsidiary role in elementary education (Houser, 1995; National Council for the Social Studies, 1989), recent trends in standardization and statewide accountability measures have further decreased the subjects prioritization in many classrooms. Specifically, time spent on social studies education has declined significantly over the last two decadescoinciding with the establishment of Goals 2000 and more recently No Child Left Behind (Fitchett & Heafner, 2010). Excluded from substantive educational policy over the last 20 years, social studies has been effectively overshadowed by other core subjects: math, English/language arts (ELA), and, most recently, science (Evans, 2004; Marx & Harris, 2006; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 2002). Analyzing the impact of accountability and testing pressures on social studies instruction at any grade level has been complicated due to variance in state curricula and mitigating factors, which have contributed to how and how much social studies is taught (Au, 2007; Grant & Salinas, 2008). Thus, instructional time is an important indicator of social studies curricular importance (Center on Educational Policy, 2008; Perie, Baker, & Bobbitt, 1997; Roth, Brooks-Gunn, Linver, & Hoffereth, 2003; VanFossen, 2005). Furthermore, state testing policies, classroom-level milieu, and teachers instructional outlook contribute to how time is operationalized, and by extension prioritized, in elementary grades.


Across disciplines, time has been associated with how much value teachers place on content and instruction (Pittman & Romberg, 2000). NAEP (2010) analysis indicated that fourth graders whose teachers reported over 3 hours per week of social studies instruction scored significantly higher than those students whose teachers devoted less time. Social studies-specific research suggested time (or lack thereof) is an essential quality of both good and bad social studies instruction (VanSledright, 2010; Wills, 2007). Yet, social studies is consistently maligned with reports of the latter rather than the former; whereby, content coverage overshadows inquiry-based, higher-order instruction (Levstik, 2008; Ravitch & Finn, 1987; Shaver, Davis, & Helburn, 1979). Other researchers have acknowledged that standardization and intensification of time constraints have contributed to superficial social studies instruction (Crocco & Costigan, 2007) and an ancillary role for social studies in elementary curricula (Hargreaves, 1994; Heafner, Lipscomb, & Rock, 2006; Wills & Sandholtz, 2009). For many elementary teachers, this high-stakes environment encourages a form of instructional triage whereby social studies is ham-fisted through derivative forms of subject-matter integration (Boyle-Baise, Hsu, Johnson, Sierrere, & Stewart, 2008; Pace, 2011a; Wills & Sandholz, 2009).

Yet, time is an imperfect determinant of quality instruction. Increased time fueled by mandatory social studies instruction and testing does not necessarily give way to better instruction. In many cases teachers report feeling pedagogically restricted to teach content-specific, lecture-oriented instruction in order to prepare students for the standardized test (Grant, 2008; Heafner et al., 2006; Vogler, 2006). This caveat should not understate the importance of more time, particularly in the elementary school where disciplines are not partitioned out, but rather are taught inclusively. In this sense, time becomes a quantifiable measure of learning opportunities (Berliner, 1990; Camburn & Won Han, 2011; Carroll, 1989; Phelps, Corey, DeMonte, Harrison, & Lowenberg Ball, 2012). Hence, while an increased emphasis of social studies does not guarantee more vibrant teaching, such instruction is predicated upon more time.


In social studies, numerous pedagogical examples of teachers going above and beyond the constraints of prescriptive curriculum and testing can be found (Gerwin & Visone, 2006; Gradwell, 2006; van Hover, 2006). Referred to as ambitious teaching, these qualitative studies suggest teachers who enact instruction that is nuanced, complex, and contextualized do so both because of and in spite of state social studies tests and the consequences they hold (Grant, 2007, p. 253). These practitioners make their pedagogical decisions autonomous of the content requirements of the curriculum (Grant, 2003) and spend more time on social studies instruction (Pace, 2011a; Wills, 2007). Nevertheless, it is important not to label ambitious teaching with the overused best practices stigma.

Essentializing the instructional strategies contextualized in various qualitative studies is both an unscientific and an inaccurate interpretation (Grant, 2007; VanSledright, Kelly, & Meuwissen, 2006). Instead, we have centered on a key disposition connected with ambitious teaching literatureinstructional autonomy. Instructional autonomy is commonly defined as a teachers sense of authority (and control) over their own classroom decision making (Ingersoll, Alsalam, Quinn, & Bobbitt, 1997; Pearson & Hall, 1993; Pearson & Moomaw, 2005; Smith, 2003). Thus, teachers who report instructional autonomy exercise a greater influence over their teaching, assessment, and day-to-day pedagogical decision-making. Teachers who believe they are instructionally autonomous also allocate more time toward and engage in active instruction. Whereas teachers who perceive curricular or systemic limits on their classroom control eliminate what they view as superfluous content and instruction (Pittman & Romberg, 2000; Thornton, 2005). Various theorists suggest a substantial link between teachers perceived instructional autonomy and their control over instructional time (Hargreaves, 1994; Werner, 1988). Research specific to social studies highlights the importance of instructional autonomy in developing dynamic teaching and fostering opportunities to learn (Levstik, 2008; Thornton, 1991, 2005; VanSledright, 2010).

Educational policy has further emphasized issues of teacher control and autonomy. From a previous study using SASS data, researchers inferred that reported instructional autonomy to teach social studies among elementary teachers significantly decreased as nationwide standardization and accountability reforms increased (Fitchett & Heafner, 2010). Pressured by high-stakes testing programs that more often than not excluded social studies, elementary teachers perceived less control over the content and made difficult decisions to eliminate social studies in favor of tested material (Rock et al., 2006; VanFossen, 2005; Wills & Sandholtz, 2009). Consequently, perceived instructional autonomy has demonstrated in prior research to be a powerful indicator of the inclusion (and exclusion) of instructional time and content emphasis. Given the confluence of states unique testing policies, it is an important consideration for examining the rationale behind reported social studies time.


Ambitious and autonomous-minded social studies teachers share similar professional characteristics. They often rely on substantial content area backgrounds from which to navigate instruction beyond the superficial scope of a prescribed curriculum (Grant, 2003; Thornton, 2001; VanSledright, 2010). In addition, autonomous teachers draw upon sufficient preparation in the clinical/student teaching experience and teacher education to explore and practice their craft (Zeichner & Liston, 1987).

Social studies, with its multifaceted content areas and complex identity politics, renders complete subject area mastery a seemingly insurmountable task (Wineburg, 2005). However, in tradition secondary (Grades 612) environments, social studies various disciplines are most frequently parsed out into separate mandatory courses taught by individuals with a general license in social studies education (Evans, 2004). Thus, while social studies teaching instruction in upper grades might be saddled with teachers lacking a holistic understanding of the social studies, it is being taught. Research at the elementary level (15) suggests the opposite.

Zhao and Hoge (2005) in an examination of elementary teacher education, found preservice practitioners, having very little exposure to social studies content and methods, rely on textbooks and other passive teaching methods in order to cover social studies content. Uninterested in social studies and experiencing a brevity of preparation, many preservice elementary teachers avoided it or minimalized its presence in the classroom (Owens, 1997; Yon & Passe, 1990). Other preservice teachers experienced social studies negligence via their student teaching. In an examination of social studies marginalization at the teacher education level, Bolick, Adams, and Willox (2010) found that elementary candidates were not exposed to social studies at all during their student teaching due to pressure for greater instructional time in tested subjects. Inhibited by the amount of time social studies was emphasized in their own teaching and preparation, it was often difficult for elementary teachers to break away from the most simplistic modes of social studies instruction (Crocco & Costigan, 2007; Passe, 2006; Zhao & Hoge, 2005).

For increased instructional emphasis on social studies, researchers (Mathis & Boyd, 2009; Meuweissen, 2005; Thornton, 2001) have argued that greater content area and pedagogical knowledge is necessary. Yet, in an effort to shoehorn social studies curriculum into the crowded school day and avoid the content deficiencies of many elementary practitioners, the subject is often subsumed by language arts instruction through integration (Boyle-Baise et al., 2008; Holloway & Chiodo, 2009). The Common Core Standards Initiative (2010), adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, includes social studies (historical) content as reading comprehension fodder for English/language arts (ELA) standards and emphasizes literacy-oriented strategies (e.g., cloze reading). In classrooms with diverse student populations and high concentrations of English learners (ELs), skill and content (i.e., social studies) instructional goals are often sacrificed for students literacy development and linguistic needs (Bunch, Abram, Lotan, & Valdes, 2001; Chamot, 1995; Chamot & OMalley, 1996; Pace, 2011a). Not surprisingly, analysis of national data provides evidence that while time spent on social studies has significantly decreased, time in ELA has increasedimplying that integration is a de facto remedy for social studies instructional inclusion (Heafner & Fitchett, 2012).


Students with Accommodations

Further complicating how teachers spend their professional time are the various student and school factors that influence instructional decision making. Grant (1996, p. 237) has referred to various cross currents of demographics and organization further influencing curricular prioritization. Teachers time on social studies is mitigated by classroom accommodations. Consequently, social studies teachers in highly concentrated EL classrooms have cited deficiencies in training and accommodations as major barriers toward instruction (Cho & Reich, 2008; OBrien, 2011). Moreover, teachers encountered ELs in mainstream social studies classrooms who: (a) lack early exposure to social studies curriculum in elementary grades (Szpara & Ahmad, 2006), (b) possess a limited understanding of cultural contexts for academic content vocabulary (Antunez, 2002; Thornton, 2005), and (c) are unfamiliar with American cultural literacy (Cruz & Thornton, 2009). These instructional challenges indicate deficits in prerequisite content knowledge and linguistic skills necessary for content learning (Cho & Reich, 2008). Similar barriers have impeded the amount and type of social studies instruction afforded special needs students (Mastropieri et al., 2005). In a survey of special educators, Litner and Schweder (2008) reported the lack of resources and training to teach social studies. Respondents also note that social studies lacked clear direct objectives as opposed to ELA and mathematics curricula. Perceiving the aims of social studies as less applicable to life skills, instructional specialists in this study view social studies instruction as less valuable than other content (Litner & Schweder, 2008). Furthermore, in classrooms with high concentrations of ELs, social studies instructional goals were frequently sacrificed for linguistic and literacy foci (Litner & Schweder, 2008).

Curricular Differences

The issue of curricular aims and purpose is a common dilemma for social studies (Evans, 2004; Thornton & Barton, 2010). Time spent on social studies has been further influenced by traditional curricular emphasis resulting in grade-level disparities. Often referred to as an expanding communities curriculum, elementary social studies traditionally progresses from emphasis on the family/community in the earlier grades (13) to state/nation in the intermediate grades (45) (Hanna, 1937). The contemporary rationale for this progression centers on a whole-child theory, which suggests that young people are more likely to understand social structures and institutions if they are gradually introduced from the locus of familiarity (i.e., family, neighborhood, city, state, etc.) (Alleman & Brophy, 2001). Given this scope and sequence, specific disciplinary content such as geography, history, and civics is more concentrated in the intermediate grades (35). Primary grades (K2) focus on the family and community tends to be less content specific. Examination of reported social studies time across grade level (Fitchett & Heafner, 2010; Leming et al., 2006; VanFossen, 2005) has denoted greater time and emphasis in the intermediate grades than earlier grades. Analysis of national data suggests that intermediate social studies teachers report 24 minutes (on average) more time on social studies than primary grades (Fitchett & Heafner, 2010). Duplass (2007) posited that a lack of content specificity in earlier grades social studies curricula compounded by the attention toward basic literacy skills contributes to these differences.


Low-income Schools

Nationally, high-stakes testing and the accompanying accountability programs are used not only to assess students knowledge base but also to evaluate teachers competency. Low-income schools are particularly targeted for having subpar test scores and consequently stigmatized with employing the least desirable teachers. Under these pressures, researchers suggest that low-income elementary schools, specifically the teachers who staff it, are less likely to spend time on non-tested subjects, which frequently includes social studies (Pace, 2008, 2011b; Segall, 2006; Wills & Sandholtz, 2009). Pace (2011b) noted that teachers of affluent schools spend considerably more time on social studies instruction due to perceptions among faculty that students would inevitably score higher on the tested subjects. Conversely, in a study of working class elementary classroom, Segall (2006) found teachers less likely to teach social studies and are instead pulled into the direction of tested subjects for fear of low student scores and professional reprisal. Among low-income school populations, time directed for social studies is frequently reallocated toward ELA, mathematics, and science eduation for remediation purposes (Wills & Sandholtz, 2009), sending an explicit message as to its curricular prioritzation.

Charter Schools

While within-building effects are highly scrutinized in social studies research, the recent proliferation of charter schools offers a unique between-building effect to analyze instructional decision making. Charter schools, independent public school entities, are developed, in part, to offer greater choice for schooling for parents, children, and teachers. As such, charter schools tend to be less hamstrung by the same level of bureaucracy found in a traditional public school setting (Corey, Phelps, Ball, Demonte, & Harrison, 2012; Gawlik, 2007). Charter schools encourage participative decision making, offer teachers greater curricular independence, foster pedagogical innovation, and provide more emphasis on targeted subject areas (Corey et al., 2012; Malloy & Wohlstetter, 2003; Manno, Finn, Bierlein, & Vanourek, 1998; Smylie, Lazarus, & Brownlee-Conyers, 1996). In a comparative case study of teacher autonomy in charter schools, Gawlik (2007) concluded that teachers in nonaffiliated charter schools are granted greater organizational autonomy to develop and implement curriculum. Yet other researchers claim that deregulated schools might actually constrain teachers instructional independence with increased administrative burdens (Smylie, 1994; Wohlstetter & Chau, 2004). In addition, state guidelines frequently require charter schools to administer standardized tests in various subject areas. Similarly, Finnigan (2007) found that mandated testing in charter schools stifles within classroom autonomy and teacher control over the curriculum.


While teacher characteristics and school climate contribute substantially to the instructional prioritization, researchers indicate that recent state and national standardization policies have contributed to the exacerbation of elementary social studies marginalization (Center on Educational Policy, 2007, 2008; Fitchett & Heafner, 2010). In their analysis of reported instructional time among elementary teachers, Heafner and Fitchett (2012) pointed out that since implementation of NCLB, social studies instruction has decreased approximately 19 minutes per week. They also suggested that teachers reorganized instructional priorities in order to concentrate greater teaching time for tested subjects. In states that test elementary social studies, teachers spent more time on the social studies content than states without a mandated test (Heafner, Lipscomb, & Fitchett, 2014; Heafner, Lipscomb, & Rock, 2006). Thus, top-down curricular control measures and high-stakes testing mandates directly influenced content prioritization of social studies in the elementary grades.

Curiously, a large segment of social studies research suggests the contrarytesting is not driving or influencing social studies instruction. As pointed out earlier, numerous qualitative studies illustrate examples of independent-minded social studies teachers who, despite standardized testing, challenge students through insightful, meaningful instruction (Gradwell, 2006; Grant, 2003; van Hover, 2006). Grant (2007) has suggested that these vignettes offer evidence that social studies teachers, empowered by their instructional purpose, are circumventing the professional constraints of accountability and high-stakes testing to engage in ambitious teaching. These qualitative studies, while contextually informative, lack generalizability and are often situated in states that require testing, thus mandate content coverage (Au, 2007). Furthermore, some of these studies (Gradwell, 2006; Grant, 2003) examined secondary (612) classroom practitioners who teach social studies as a standalone subject, an imperfect comparison with elementary teachers who are individually tasked to teach social studies as one of many competing content areas over the course of an instructional day.

In summary, elementary social studies marginalization documents several converging lines of research informing how teachers make decisions regarding instructional time. The preceding literature is limited by individual examination of these components. Few studies attempt to explore the relationship between these specific research areas and their predictive value on reported social studies time (Au, 2007). Figure 1 conceptualizes the social studies marginalization phenomenon based on existing lines of inquiry and our own research interests. In the subsequent section, we will specify our research questions and provide details of our analysis.


Figure 1. A conceptualization of the relationship between social studies instructional time and associated variables

Au (2009), in his meta-analysis of social studies education and high-stakes testing, implies that ambitious teaching advocates fail to consider state policy and testing context. Thus, an important question to consider is: To what extent does testing policy moderate ambitious teaching (i.e., teachers sense of autonomy)? Findings from an earlier study indicated that elementary teachers perception of professional autonomy and state testing were significantly associated with teachers reported social studies instructional time (Fitchett, Heafner, & Lambert, 2014. As an extension of previous research, we utilized a hierarchical linear model (HLM) to examine the following research questions:


Is there a significant difference in reported social studies time between teachers in states that test social studies at the elementary level compared to those states that do not test?


How are elementary (Grades 15) teachers perceptions of autonomy and teacher characteristics associated with time spent on social studies instruction?


How are classroom and school contexts associated with time spent on social studies instruction?


Does testing policy have a significant moderating effect on teachers sense of autonomy in relation to reported social studies instructional time?



For this study, we utilized a sample of public, elementary (Grades 15) school teachers (n = 4080) from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Schools and Staffing Survey 2007/08 database (SASS). The SASS survey database provides the largest and most generalizable data on U.S. teachers characteristics, workplace conditions, and professional attitudes (Coopersmith & Gruber, 2009). Schools, and teachers nested within schools, were sampled through a complex multi-stratified protocol. Using inverse probability sampling techniques, data were assigned weights based upon diversity of school location and teacher characteristics. We selected for self-contained (teach all subjects in one class) practitioners as not to confound our results with subject area specialists. Due to limitations of the data, we randomly selected one teacher from each school. Thus, classroom and school-level variables served as Level I contextual variables (Hox, 2010). Charter schools as a subgroup were not specifically included in the sampling plan. Therefore, sample size prohibited us from examining charter schools as a specific model. However, future versions of the SASS survey will specifically include charter school type as a principal sampling unit, thereby allowing researchers to examine their unique effects more thoroughly.


At Level I, we examined a factor, instructional autonomy (range 624), as a measure of teachers perception of professional autonomya disposition associated with dynamic, enduring social studies practice (Grant, 2007, VanSledright, 2010). Previous factor analyses of instructional autonomy indicated teachers sense of control was associated with their curricular control and teaching decision making (Pearson & Hall, 1993; Pearson & Moomaw, 2005). Replicating a study on teacher professionalization conducted by NCES (Ingersoll et al., 1997), we aggregated six branch Likert-type items from the SASS survey in developing the construct: How much actual control do you have in your classroom at this school over the following areas of your planning and teaching (selecting textbooks and other materials, selecting content, topics and skills taught, selecting teaching techniques, evaluating and grading students, disciplining students, and determining the amount of homework assigned)? A Cronbach’s alpha test determined internal consistency reliability to be adequate (α = 0.704); therefore we included the aggregated item in our model (see Table 1). We also included indicator variables of grade level (15), teachers bachelors degree background in social studies-related disciplines (SSBACH), and charter school distinction based upon our previous research (Fitchett et al., 2014) and other existing studies (Bolick et al., 2010; Gawlik, 2007; Passe, 2006; VanFossen, 2005). The percentage of school population on free/reduced lunch was included as an indicator of socioeconomic status (Pace, 2008, 2011b; Segall, 2006). We also included a number of ecological variables (i.e., cross-currents) based upon previous research in our model (Grant, 1996; Litner & Schweder, 2008; OBrien, 2011). Class size, number of classroom students with Individual Education Plans (IEP), and number of classroom students who were limited-English proficient (LEP) were included in the model as control variables (see Table 1). For a dependent (criterion) variable, we examined a single-item opened-ended question, During the most recent FULL WEEK, approximately how many hours did you spend teaching (history/social studies) at THIS school?

At Level II, teachers were nested within their respective states. Each state was cross-listed with Education Weeks 50-state report card (2009), recognized as one of the best sources for information on social studies accountability measures and state testing policy (Grant & Salinas, 2008). We included indicator variables of social studies testing policy within a given state (test all grade levels, test multiple [middle/high], no test). We also examined whether states that tested all grade levels incorporated extended response questions (extended).

Table 1. Variable Descriptions

Level of Analysis


Variable Name


Level I

Teacher characteristics


SS Bachelors

Bachelors major/minor in a social studies related field



SASS item construct measuring teachers sense of instructional autonomy


Classroom/school context



# of students with individual education plans in class



# of limited English proficiency students in class


Class size

# of student in class



% of students eligible for free/reduced lunch at the school



Charter flag (reference No Charter)


Grade Level

Grades 15 (reference variable grade 5)

Level II

State policy


Social studies test1

State policy on testing social studies:

No test (reference)

All test (Elementary, Middle, High Test)

Multiple test (at least two levels)



Extended response 2

State social studies test has extended response items


HLM controls for both atomistic and ecological fallacies (Hox, 2010), which has plagued previous social studies research (Au, 2007, 2009). Models 1 and 2 represented these analyses. Level II variables were associated with state-specific educational policy regarding K12 testing in social studies. At Level II, we also sought to examine teachers reported autonomy as a function of states social studies testing protocol. Models 3 and 4 represented these analyses, respectively. SASS datasets contained weights that were applied at Level I of each model to provide a more accurate estimate of teacher-level effects associated with reported social studies time. We incorporated robust standard errors to account for clustering.

Model 1

YSStime = ß0 + ß1Xautonomy + ß2XSSBACH+ r0

Model 2

YSStime = ß0 + ß1Xautonomy + ß2XSSBACH + ß1XIEP_CLS + ß4XLEP_CLS + ß5XClassSize + ß6Xfree/reduced+ ß7XCharter + ß8Xgrade1 +&+ ß11Xgrade4+ r0

Model 33

YSStime = ß0 + ß1Xautonomy + ß2XSSBACH + ß1XIEP_CLS + ß4XLEP_CLS + ß5XClassSize + ß6Xfree/reduced+ ß7XCharter + ß8Xgrade1 +…+ ß11Xgrade4+ r0

ß0 = γ00 + γ01WAll_Test + γ02Wmulti_test + γ03Wextended + u0

Model 4

YSStime = ß0 + ß1Xautonomy + ß2XSSBACH + ß1XIEP_CLS + ß4XLEP_CLS + ß5XClassSize + ß6Xfree/reduced+ ß7XCharter + ß8Xgrade1 +…+ ß11Xgrade4+ r0

ß0 = γ00 + γ01WAll_Test + γ02Wmulti_test + γ03Wextended + u0

ß1 = γ10 + γ11WAll_Test + γ12Wmulti_test + γ13Wextended


YSStime = reported social studies instructional time

ß0 = mean reported social studies time among teachers within states

ß1 = effect of the perception of autonomy



Findings suggested that teachers in states that test social studies report spending more instructional time on the subject. Analysis of variance (ANOVA) results indicated that reported social studies time was significantly different across testing policy, F(3, 1537) = 1269.82, p = .001, η2= .02. Our analysis (illustrated in Figure 2) showed that teachers working in states that mandate assessment at all three levels, including elementary grades, reported on average 0.47 more hours (28 additional minutes of instructional time) on social studies per week compared to teachers working in states with no test. Over the course of a 36-week academic year, this accounts for 16.9 hours of social studies instructional time per academic year. While testing in later grades was associated with mildly positive gains, substantial increases in reported social studies time were present in states that specifically mandated a test in elementary social studies.


Figure 2. Comparisons in reported social studies time (hours per week) among states of different assessment policy


To examine the remaining research questions, we used an HLM analysis. The intraclass correlation coefficient (ICC) from the unconditional model was .065. This value indicated that approximately 6.5% of the total variance in reported instructional hours consisted of between state variance. The remaining variance was between schools and between teachers within schools. The reliability index for the estimation of the intercept in the level one model, the state average estimate of reported instructional hours, was .827.

As Table 2 indicates, the following level one variables did not yield statistically significant associations with the teacher reported social studies instructional time: bachelors degree in social studies-related disciplines, number of children in the class with an IEP, number of children in the class with limited English language proficiency, class size, and the percentage of the school population receiving free or reduced lunch. The autonomy measure was a statistically significant correlate of instructional time (Table 2). For each level increase in autonomy, teachers reported instructional time in social studies increased by 3.6 minutes per week.


Grade level was also statistically associated with instructional time. Relative to Grade 5, Grade 1 teachers reported less time (42.6 minutes per week), as did Grade 2 teachers (32.7 minutes per week) and Grade 3 teachers (26.8 minutes per week). Grade 4 teachers did not significantly differ from Grade 5 teachers, supporting previous research that suggested discrepancies in time prioritization among elementary grade levels was associated with primary and intermediate grade level differences (Duplass, 2007; Fitchett & Heafner, 2010; VanFossen, 2005). Teachers in charter schools reported more hours than teachers in regular schools. All of these coefficients can be interpreted as a difference in instructional time, scaled as the proportion of an hour, which can be expected for every increase of one point on the variable in question. For example, charter school teachers reported on average approximately 26 minutes per week more instructional time than did non-charter school teachers. Concerned with possible multicollinearity between teachers reported autonomy and schools charter school identification, we conducted a one-way ANOVA of charter versus non-charter teachers average reported autonomy score. Post-hoc tests of multicollinearity yielded nonsignificant results, F(1, 90) = 0.078, p = 078. Interpretations of findings led us to suggest that charter school organization offered a building-level independence unique from teachers personal sense of professional autonomy (Ni, 2012).


In the Level 2 models, social studies testing policy within a given state was used to predict both the intercept (state mean reported instructional time) and the autonomy slope (Table 2). A state policy to test all grades (including elementary) was significantly associated with the intercept. Holding all other variables constant, teachers within states that test social studies in elementary, middle, and high school grades reported 24.6 minutes per week of social studies instruction more on average than states that do not test social studies. Teachers in states that test at multiple levels (middle/high, except for WV [elementary/middle]) and extended test items were not associated with variability in state mean reported instructional time in social studies. A state policy to test all grades was inversely associated with the autonomy slope. Therefore, teaching in a state that tested social studies at all three grade levels (elementary, middle, secondary) was associated with a weaker relationship between autonomy and reported instructional time. Multiple tests and extended response policies were not associated with the autonomy slope.

Table 2. Fixed-Effects Estimates for Models of the Predictors of Reported Social Studies Hours per Week (n = 4080)



Model I

B   (SE)

Model 2

B   (SE)

Model 3

B   (SE)

Model 4

B   (SE)



2.42** (0.09)

2.82** (0.15)

2.64** (0.14)

2.64** (0.14)

Level I


SS Bachelors

0.01 (0.07)

−0.01 (0.01)

−0.01 (0.07)

0.01 (0.01)



0.04** (0.04)

0.04** (0.01)

0.04** (0.01)

0.06** (0.01)




−0.02 (0.01)


−0.02 (0.01)




−0.01 (0.01)

−0.01 (0.01)

−0.01 (0.01)


Class Size


0.01 (0.01)

0.01 (0.01)

0.01 (0.01)  




−0.01 (0.01)

−0.01 (0.01)

−0.01 (0.01)




0.44* (0.18)

0.43* (0.18)

0.43* (0.18)


1st Grade


−0.70** (0.13)

−0.71** (0.12)

−0.71** (0.13)


2nd Grade


−0.55** (0.14)

−0.55** (0.14)

−0.55** (0.14)


3rd Grade


−0.44** (0.12)

−0.44** (0.12)

−0.45** (0.12)


4th Grade


−0.01 (0.15)

−0.01 (0.15)

−0.01 (0.15)

Level II


ß0 social studies time

All Test


0.42* (0.18)

0.42* (0.18)  




0.52 (0.33)

0.52 (0.33)  


Extended Response


−0.22 (0.24)

−0.23 (0.24)


All Test


−0.05* (0.02)




−0.01 (0.04)


Extended Response


0.01 (0.03  

Note. ** p < .001, * p < .05.

To illustrate these findings and to aid interpretation, the model was used to generate the expected level of reported instructional hours for various subgroups of teachers. Table 3 contains expected values for a few specific subgroups of teachers. Each of these values was based on teachers without a bachelors degree in social studies and with the average values for the following variables: children with an IEP, children with limited English proficiency, class size, percentage of the school population on free/reduced lunch. The expected values range from as high as 3.51 for a high autonomy fifth grade teacher working in a charter school, to as low as 1.57 hours for a first grade teacher with low autonomy working in a non-charter school.

Table 3

Model Estimates of Reported Social Studies Instructional Hours per Week for Various Groups of Teachers


Regular School

Charter School


State Testing Policy

Low Autonomy

High Autonomy

Low Autonomy

High Autonomy








First Grade Teacher

No Grades Tested





Second Grade Teacher






Third Grade Teacher






Fourth Grade Teacher






Fifth Grade Teacher







First Grade Teacher

All Grades Tested





Second Grade Teacher






Third Grade Teacher






Fourth Grade Teacher






Fifth Grade Teacher












In order to better interpret the moderating effect of testing policies on autonomy as a function of reported social studies time, we include Figure 3. The figure depicts the slopes of reported social studies time associated with instructional autonomy in states with no test and states that test social studies at the elementary level. It illustrates a complex cross-level interaction effect whereby a combination of low autonomy and no testing is associated with minimal reported social studies instructional time. Conversely, high autonomy does not substantially increase social studies time when the testing is present. Interestingly, high autonomy among teachers in non-testing states is similar to teachers in states that test elementary social studies regardless of their perceived autonomy. The implications that these findings have on teaching, school leadership, and education policy are described below.


Figure 3. Autonomy as a Function of Reported Social Studies Instruction Hours per Week between Testing Policies


Unlike smaller-scale studies of social studies teaching and learning, which put forward contextual exemplars of elementary marginalization and the effects of high-stakes testing (Au, 2007, 2009; Bisland, 2011; Pace, 2011b), the present study offers generalizable findings on elementary social studies teaching in the era of accountability and testing, which is an area of considerable deficiency in educational research (Camburn & Won Han, 2011). Multilevel modeling allowed us to examine the association between various teacher-, classroom/school-, and state-level variables and social studies instructional time, thereby exploring the contextual nature of social studies teaching at large-scale. From results, we contend that autonomous teaching practices and ambitious pedagogical dispositions (particularly in non-tested environments) can improve the curricular foothold of social studies in elementary classrooms. Also, our findings suggest that building climate and distinct, yet consistent, differences in grade level curriculum influence the instructional emphasis of social studies. Finally, our study confirms the influence of testing on elementary teachers decision to prioritize social studies. These results have implications for elementary social studies at three levels: teachers and teacher education, school leaders, and broad educational policy consideration.


Findings from this study suggest that elementary teachers perceptions of autonomy are associated with increases in reported social studies instruction time. Thus, teachers who perceive greater pedagogical freedom are more likely to teach social studies at the elementary level. For teacher educators, these results underscore the importance of developing efficacious and independent practitioners. Social educators often refer to curricular gate-keeping (Thornton 2001, 2005) as an instructional outlook, supporting innovation. Thornton (2005) describes gatekeeping, prior to and during its classroom enactment, teachers have great leeway to interpret prescribed curriculum (p. 11). This disposition, which Thornton espouses, posits that teachers are not passive consumers of curriculum; rather, they have substantial control over emphasis and delivery of curriculum content, views affirmed by other researchers (Barton & Levstik, 2004; Pace, 2011b). This finding also supports the work of the ambitious pedagogues detailed in previous qualitative studies (Brophy, 1993; Gradwell, 2006; Sierrere, Mitra, & Cody, 2010; VanSledright, 2010).

While Au (2007) points out that a majority of ambitious teaching case studies have focused on states that already test social studies, our study indicates that in states that test social studies at the elementary level there is little association between instructional autonomy and reported social studies instructional time. Conversely, in states that do not test social studies, there is a strong association between instructional autonomy and reported instructional time in social studies. Thus, efforts toward ambitious social studies teaching appear a more appropriate pedagogical tool for elementary teachers in states without a testing policy and less efficacious in environments that already mandate elementary grade social studies testing.

In contrast to insular qualitative studies, our findings indicate that traditionally researched school and classroom effects (teacher credentials, free/reduce lunch, class size, and number of IEPs and LEPs) do not substantially influence social studies instructional time when accounting for statewide policy, curricula, and teachers perception of autonomy. Not to suggest that teacher credentials do not matter or the culture of the classroom irrelevant, our model illustrates that autonomy, a teacher-level indicator, eclipses ecological factors that often confound social studies teachingonce again suggesting the importance of autonomy as an essential attitude for elementary practitioners. Teacher education, in an attempt to promote social studies, should advocate this liberating disposition, providing preservice/in-service practitioners opportunities to manage their content priorities in creative and fulfilling ways.


Research suggests that principals value the role of social studies. Yet they remain conflicted as to its place within accountability and curricular standardization (Patterson et al., 2013). Our findings offer several implications for school leaders and administrators seeking to improve the presence of social studies in the classroom given the constrained environment of high-stakes testing. As noted above, teachers in states without a test were more likely to teach social studies if they perceived greater control over their working conditions. While providing school faculty and staff with greater autonomy is well-documented motivator (Bogler, 2001; Shen, 1997; Singh & Billingsly, 1996; Taylor & Tashakorri, 1995), our findings suggest that school administrators in states that do not test elementary social studies can uniquely contribute to improving the amount of time allocated toward social studies by providing a professional autonomous workplace environment. Concomitantly, charter school context was associated with increased social studies time. From our findings, we suggest that teachers working in school-choice environments are less inhibited by prescribed curricular mandates (Chubb & Moe, 1988; Teske & Schneider, 2001) and perceive greater influence over school policies (Moore Johnson & Landman, 2000; Malloy & Wohlstetter, 2003, Ni, 2012). The organizational structures and bureaucratic milieu of charters often differ substantially from the climate of traditional schools. Given the recent proliferation of charter schools at the national level, this finding offers a key insight into the differences between traditional public school and the charter school organization and deserves further analysis as it relates to prioritization of elementary social studies. Moreover, charter schools may provide organizational contexts in which ambitious teachers find working environments more suited to their instructional beliefs. Findings could yield important recommendations for how school leadership can implement a more balanced instructional prioritization.

Across grade levels, variability in reported instructional time reflects curricular traditions (i.e., expanding communities model) and calls into question the substantiation of social studies in earlier grades, particularly with its limited content focus. Numerous critics of social education have lambasted expanding communities approach for being nebulous, unscientific, and difficult to enact (Duplass, 2007; Ravitch, 1987; Thornton, 2005). Our findings confirm previous studies indicating greater social studies instruction in later grades (Fitchett & Heafner, 2010; Leming et al.; VanFossen, 2005). We posit that early elementary grade teachers are minimizing social studies content in favor of language arts and mathematics education and/or dismissing the content-sparse expanding communities curriculum. Moreover, foundational social studies content and skills require some degree of literacy and numerical competence. Research indicates that elementary childrens ability to engage in extensive inquiry-based instruction is related to grade level (Barton & Levstik, 1996) whereby early grade elementary children lack the contextual and chronological understanding of their older schoolmates.

We suggest that elementary school leadership seeking to place greater emphasis on social studies should target their initiatives in later grades with their explicit content focus in geography, civics, and history. Primary grades social studies should remain periphery content for literacy integration or reading comprehension as present in the Common Core ELA standards, providing greater instructional time for the prerequisite aptitudes and instructional time necessary for doing social studies in the intermediate grades. These recommendations are not to downplay the importance of early social studies learning. Rather, they coincide with the prevailing national view that developing literacy skills is foundational to all future learning (Maeroff, 2006).


Among state level effects, our findings confirm previous research documenting that elementary testing policy is associated with significantly increased time spent in social studies (Heafner et al., 2006). Dynamics of the test (extended response items) were not associated with instructional time variability. In support of Aus hypothesis (2007, 2009), elementary testing was a significant moderator of teachers perception of autonomy. Teaching in a state that tests social studies at the elementary level was associated with a decrease in reported autonomy. Thus, while testing substantially improves the prioritization of social studies in elementary curricula, it is negatively associated with instructional independence of teachers, echoing the work of previous studies on the effects of testing policies and instruction (Heafner et al., 2006; Vogler, 2006). Although ambitious teachers do have control over how much time they spend teaching social studies, their discretion appears to be substantially constrained by state testing policies, as Brophy (1993) forewarned.

Aforementioned NAEP results and previous commentaries (Dillon, 2011, Ravitch, 1987; Ravitch & Finn, 1987) lament the sorry state of history and social studies education. As pointed out by numerous historians of the field (Barton, 2011; Evans, 2004; Thornton & Barton, 2010; Wineburg, 2001), these findings are nothing new, reflecting years of lackluster performance by Americas youth. Yet, settling for a status quo of mediocrity in student achievement, regardless of the historical trend, is unsettling (Berliner & Biddle, 1995). Furthermore, it is a poor rationale for dismissing abysmal national results. NAEP (2010) data suggest that increased time spent on social studies in elementary grades is significantly associated with increased scores. Concurrently, our findings indicate that state testing of social studies at the elementary level is associated with approximately 28 minutes (or one day on average) of increased exposure to social studies. From an organizational perspective, mandatory statewide testing improves the quantity of social studies at the elementary grades. However, policy makers and education advocates should weight the costs and benefits of increased testing mandates and their possible impact on the quality of social studies teaching and learning.

Instructional autonomy, offering a non-test solution, is very attractive to education advocates opposed to yet another high-stakes assessment. Interaction effects suggest that autonomous-minded teachers spent more time on teaching social studies in states without an elementary test. Conceivably, advocating for teacher control is both more cost effective and in-step with pedagogical freedom advocated by social educators. However, defining and mandating teachers beliefs is difficult and inexact (Pajares, 1992; Raths, 2001). Teachers, both preservice and in-service, are shaped both by their professional training and their own education experiences as learners (Bruner, 1996; Zeichner & Tabachnick, 1981). While teacher education might successfully mold practitioners pedagogy, it does not guarantee a sea change in instructional philosophy or content emphasis. A sustained commitment to supporting teachers in developing and nurturing autonomous practice is required. Particularly in states without elementary testing, we suggest that building and system-wide school policy that cultivates a climate of teacher professional autonomy is a necessary step for improving the exposure of elementary social studies.

Acknowledging the limitations of our study, we examined teacher reported data of their attitudes and perceptions of the schooling environment. While issues of internal validity traditionally bias such data, we argue that the large sample size and reputation of the NCES for collecting and validating data far outweighs these potential biases. Moreover, given the limitation of data collection by NCES, building-level effects are included with teacher-level effects, thus minimizing the impact of school demographic findings. Though imperfect, previous research allow for building-level variables (i.e., free/reduced lunch) to be included as contextual variables at the individual levelsuggesting that school effects would indirectly impact individual respondents (Hox, 2010). A final limitation to the study is the inability of HLM to include the SASS replicate weights for adjustment of standard errors. Thus, we interpreted our p-values conservatively and used robust standard errors to account for the pooling of respondents.


Based on our study results, we suggest that independent-minded teachers care about and emphasize social studies instruction. Moreover, charter schools with their typically scaled-down professional bureaucracy offer a professional milieu unique from traditional public settings. Greater research in this domain is warranted that might provide insight into the unique organizational features of charters and their influence on teaching and learning. Grade-level differences once again highlight the disparity in how social studies is emphasized in primary and intermediate grades. Given the frequency of this finding in elementary social studies research, we suggest that it is inevitable because of (a) the prevalence of expanding communities curricula and (b) the necessity for the development of key ELA and mathematics skills essential to higher order social studies instruction in later grades. Among respondents across states, the presence of an elementary social studies test was an overriding factor of teacher autonomy and significantly associated with increased social studies time. However, policy makers should be cautious in their needs assessment of an elementary social studies test. Considerations for how testing will be designed, implemented, and weighed have significant implications for social studies teaching and learning (Grant & Salinas, 2008).

In a recent accounting of history education, Barton (2011) refers to the current research examining the marginalization of elementary social studies education as crisis talk. Downplaying its importance, he suggests that marginalization is not new and that social education has always maintained a subsidiary role to ELA and mathematics. However, we contend that minimizing this line of research fails to consider the curricular competition that social studies is currently losing in elementary classrooms. No Child Left Behind (2001) made no mention of social studies and mandated no measures of accountability to ensure its teaching (Evans, 2004; Jennings & Rentner, 2006). Conversely, science education, once treading the same troubled waters of social studies, is now buoyed by federal testing and curriculum mandates (Marx & Harris, 2006). Recent research implies that science will soon overtake social studies as the third most emphasized subject in elementary classrooms (Heafner & Fitchett, 2012). Such findings and those presented in this study are more than rhetoric, but a threat to how students are prepared to participate as democratic citizens. While national policy emphases are shifting to Race to the Top and Common Core initiatives, the fundamentals of what is and will be tested and part of the accountability curriculum remains constant, which does not bode well for elementary social studies. Given the existing state testing protocol and other organizational conditions, social studies stakeholders at various levels of influence should explore policy directions (albeit contradictory at times) in assessment and instructional autonomy in order to halt the tide of curricular marginalization.


This work was supported by a University of North Carolina Charlotte Faculty Research Grant (fund number 1-11196).


1. States that do not test social studies: AK, AZ, AR, CO, CT, DC, FL, HI, ID, IL, IN IA, ME, MN, MO, MT, NE, NV, NH, NJ, NM, ND, OR, PA, RI, SD, UT, VT, WA, and WY. States that test social studies at more than two levels (middle and high school): CA, KS, MI, and TX. WV (middle and elementary). States that test social studies at all three levels (elementary, middle, and high school):DE, GA, KY, LA, MA, NY, OH, OK, SC, TN, VA, and WI
2. Of the states that test elementary social studies, LA, WV, NY, OH, MA, DE, and KY have extended response items.
3. All Level II equations for Models 3 and 4 without predictors (i.e., ß2 = γ20) were excluded for parsimony.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 10, 2014, p. 1-34
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17605, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 7:11:17 PM

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About the Author
  • Paul Fitchett
    University of North Carolina at Charlotte
    E-mail Author
    PAUL G. FITCHETT is Associate Professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K12 Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where his research focuses on the intersections of educational policy, instructional practice, and schooling context in social studies teaching and learning. He is the cofounder of SQUARSS (Supporting Quantitative Understanding, Analysis, and Research in Social Studies), an associate editor for the newly formed Journal of Applied Educational Policy and Research, and co-editor of the forthcoming The Status of Social Studies: Views from the Field (Information Age Publishing). His research has been published in scholarly journals including Theory and Research in Social Education, Urban Education, Action in Teacher Education, and Educational Policy. Recent publications include: Fitchett, P. G., Starker, T. V., & Salyers, B. (2012). Examining culturally responsive teaching self-efficacy in a preservice social studies education course. Urban Education, 47(3), 585–611. Fitchett, P. G., & Heafner, T. L. (2010). A national perspective on the effects of high-stakes testing and standardization on elementary social studies marginalization. Theory and Research in Social Education, 38(1), 114–130.
  • Tina Heafner
    University of North Carolina at Charlotte
    E-mail Author
    TINA L. HEAFNER is Professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K-12 Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where she also serves as the Coordinator of the M.Ed. and Minor in Secondary Education programs. Her research interests include social studies marginalization and policy, teacher autonomy and praxis, online and technology mediated learning, and social studies literacy. Selected recent publications include: Heafner, T. L., & Fitchett, P. (2012). Tipping the scales: National trends of declining instructional time in elementary schools. Journal of Social Studies Research, 36(2), 190–215. Heafner, T. L., Petty, T., & Hartshorne, R. (2012). University supervisor perspectives of the remote observation of graduate interns. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 24(3), 143–163.
  • Richard Lambert
    University of North Carolina at Charlotte
    E-mail Author
    RICHARD LAMBERT is Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he also serves as the Director of the Center for Educational Measurement and Evaluation and as Editor of NHSA Dialog: The Research-to-Practice Journal for the Early Education Field. His research interests include assessment and evaluation of programs for young children, applied statistics, and teacher stress. Selected recent publications include: Mickelson, R., Bottia, M., & Lambert, R. G. (2013). Effects of school racial composition on K-12 mathematics outcomes: A metaregression analysis. Review of Educational Research, 83(1), 121–158. Ullrich, A., Lambert, R. G., & McCarthy, C. (2012). Relationship of German elementary teachers’ occupational experience, stress, and coping resources to burnout symptoms. International Journal of Stress Management, 19(4), 333–342.
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