The achievement gap is, in large part, a knowledge gap. Research shows that most democracies around the world require all schools to teach a standard body of knowledge, and that a comprehensive, content-rich curriculum is a signature feature of high-performing systems. Despite the research record, a majority of the United States’ curricula treat social studies content not as a source of building and applying knowledge, but merely as a site for trying (fruitlessly) to hone abstract skills. Furthermore, we know from the political science literature that students need to practice the skill of civil disagreement—something that a well-designed social studies curriculum can encourage.
The Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, with support from the SNF Agora Institute, has developed tools to analyze a social studies curriculum in terms of the knowledge it helps students learn and apply. We conduct this analysis by “mapping” the knowledge domains that are implicit in the selection of the sources and texts that are discussed. This mapping enables policymakers to see not only the domains of knowledge that are opened up in the curriculum—and others that are missed—but also to what degree, and over what grade span. We also assess whether a given unit includes more than one perspective, and whether the teacher-facing materials encourage deliberation and disagreement. Throughout the review process, the Institute for Education Policy works closely with instructional leaders to ensure that the map reflects the system’s vision of an educated person and includes specific knowledge domains that matter locally. This is a one-of-a-kind instrument.
The methodological approach is as follows:
- The IEP team maps all the items in the designated social studies grades on three dimensions. For example, a letter by abolitionist Thomas Garrett about Harriet Tubman would be categorized as:
- Domain: U.S. History to 1865
- Topic: Slavery/Abolition
- Subtopic: Harriet Tubman; Underground Railroad
- The team then evaluates the quality and contribution of each and every item (including primary and secondary sources) using Likert-scale scores, and also in the broader context of the entire unit.
- Next, the IEP team constructs a vertical mapping of the knowledge domains (“threads”) at each level by grade level and then across grade levels.
- IEP creates a coverage report that illustrates the depth of emphasis a given domain receives across the grades.
- Finally, IEP evaluates each unit for its presentation of distinctive viewpoints, and for the presence of teacher-facing instructions that would support a deliberative classroom.
Taken together, these reports enable a clear picture of which specific knowledge domains the curriculum reinforces or over-represents, and which it does not, in which grades, and with what quality or bias. Partners also receive clear signals about the prevalence of units that offer different perspectives on a given subject, and that encourage teachers to lead open classroom discussions. The institute also provides budget-sensitive, high-level recommendations that might include adoption of new materials, amendments to the existing materials, or targeted professional development.
Our findings are housed in a proprietary database and enable us to report cross-sections of data according to text, grade-level, and knowledge domain (and, of course, of an entire curriculum).