by Lisa Hansel

Lisa Hansel is director of Knowledge Matters, a new campaign to restore wonder and excitement to the classroom by building broad knowledge in science, social studies, and the arts. Previously, she was the communications director for Core Knowledge and the editor of American Educator, the magazine of education research and ideas published by the American Federation of Teachers.

Harriet Tubman will grace the front of our $20 bill—a long overdue tribute to a woman who lived up to the best of American values. But do most Americans know who she was? Anecdotal evidence and test scores indicate that they don’t.

This is not some footnote figure that only historians should know. Tubman repeatedly displayed astounding courage—and achieved heroic successes—in two of our nation’s greatest fights for freedom and equality: ending slavery and giving women the right to vote.

But perhaps this widespread ignorance is not our fellow citizens’ fault. When would they have learned of Tubman? A nationally representative survey of elementary teachers shows that in K-6, an average of just 16–21 minutes a day are spent on social studies (and a mere 19–24 on science). Given students’ utter lack of preparation, our middle and high school teachers would find it challenging to engage students in meaningful or memorable studies in history, geography, and civics.

Knowledge Needs Champions

It’s tempting to blame the elementary teachers, but that’s simplistic at best. Elementary teachers are, by and large, doing what they have been taught are best practices and responding to the signals sent by federal and state accountability policies.

The heart of this problem is that, as a nation, we’ve ignored an overwhelming body of research showing the massive role that academic knowledge plays in reading comprehension, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and even curiosity. We’ve pursued short cuts, hoping to cultivate these abilities directly. It doesn’t, can’t, and won’t ever work.

Out of deference to the spirit of local control and in a misguided pursuit of equity, we’ve avoided establishing clear, shared outlines of the specific topics to teach in each grade. We assume that different children need to learn different things, despite the incontrovertible evidence that language comprehension is not possible without a shared base of knowledge. From “space shuttle” to “Supreme Court,” there are thousands of terms that literate American adults are presumed to know; these terms are used but not explained in the national conversation. To have any chance to grasp, much less influence, that conversation, each and every one of us must acquire the words and concepts that are taken for granted.

Because we refuse to ensure that all students have equal opportunities to learn that essential body of knowledge, we’re far behind by global standards, and we allow socioeconomic status to have an outsized influence on achievement.

I’ve always believed that life is a mix of luck and preparation (with luck having a huge influence on just how prepared you become)—and that with good fortune comes great responsibility.

Those of us fortunate enough to be in the know must rise to the challenge of equalizing opportunity to learn. We must ensure that everyone—from policymakers to educators to parents—understand that rich and rigorous studies in science, social studies, and the arts are essential to reading, critical thinking, and other supposed “skills.” We must not rest until all children receive a well-rounded education that provides the shared knowledge we all need as well as opportunities to pursue personal interests.

We must take Tubman as our guide and fight for what we know is right.

When you are ready to do your part, join Robert Pondiscio and me in the Knowledge Matters Campaign. Sign our credo—then send it to two friends. Dig into our resources—then select one to email to your local school board. Explore ways to seize the day, every day.

Knowledge needs champions. Our children need you.

26 comments on “Knowledge Needs Champions”

  1. 1
    Susan Toth on May 12, 2016

    Thank you for your expert overview of the educational situation in our country. I believe that children who get a rigorous and complete curriculum will be competent to form their own individualization by graduation, if not sooner. When I was teaching in high school I talked to too many students who had no clear view of the next step to take. I think they did not have enough information of the kind that school should have provided. I also knew students (a few) who had a clear view of their goals. Talking to them showed me that it was an out-of-school experience, or their parents, who were responsible, not their schooling. That is why I support a rich content curriculum that equalizes education for all.

  2. 2
    Ebonie Anderson on May 17, 2016

    When I taught fifth grade, I could remember trying to find time to squeeze in time for Science and Social Studies. My school administration wanted us to spend a great deal of time on covering Reading/Language Arts and Math. My fellow colleagues would try to incorporate Science and Social Studies into our Language Arts and Math lessons, but this did not occur very often. I really wish my colleagues and I could have went to a professional development that showed us different ways to incorporate Science and Social Studies with our Language Arts and Math lessons. Do you know of different ways to incorporate Science and Social Studies into Reading/Language Arts lessons that would be appealing to upper elementary students? Thanks!

  3. 3
    Alise on May 19, 2016

    I found this post enlightening. As a secondary math teacher,I have generally supported the emphasis that many districts put on math instruction. However, I do understand the current reading crisis and believe that too many students lack background knowledge and vocabulary to make meaningful connections to texts. The fact that elementary students are receiving such limited instruction in social studies in science sheds some light on why even high school students score so low on reading assessments.

  4. 4
    Lisa Hansel on May 20, 2016

    Hi Ebonie,
    In addition to Core Knowledge Language Arts, I think you should look at the Text Set Project:

    In short, text sets are 5-8 texts tightly focused on one topic, such as the solar system or the Underground Railroad. Sets often include one or two texts that are far above students’abilities and thus are teacher read alouds. They also tend to be organized such that each text that the students will read is a little more advanced. This is a great way to build knowledge, and to show students that as their knowledge grows, so does their comprehension.

  5. 5
    Marcelo Coba on July 13, 2016

    This was a great post!! As a half day Kindergarten teacher it is extremely difficult to incorporate all academic subjects each day in the classroom. I feel that lack of time is a huge reason that teachers do not teach all subjects. Elementary teachers scramble to include everything, but because Math and language Arts are the only subject that “matter” they spend so much time on them. It is sad to think historical figures, such as Harriet Tubman, will not be taught or learned throughout education. These individuals did so much for our county, and should always be remembered. Time, and pressure with high stakes testing, is causing a lack of quality education for students.

  6. 6
    Eric Zahler on July 13, 2016

    This was a great post and something that really hit home to me. I am a high school teacher and currently teach Health/PE, but previously taught History. I struggled with my high school students who had very little prior history knowledge. The fact that Kindergarten to sixth grade teachers spend an average of 16-21 minutes a day on Social Studies, I honestly was not surprised. I feel that elementary teachers are forced to spend so much time on reading and reading interventions that Social Studies and Science are being placed on the back burner. As a history major this makes me angry because these students are missing out on so much learning. It also impacts student motivation and engagement when the get to their high school history classes. Students are unfortunately often not interested in history and struggle because most of the content is new to them and they are hesitant to engage.

  7. 7
    Asia on July 13, 2016

    This post was very enlightening! I am an elementary school teacher and currently teach first grade. I must admit that science and social studies has not been a priority. We’ve always been told that reading and math should be our main focus. Recently, our administration has wanted us to incorporate science and social studies into our reading block. As a child I’ve always loved social studies and found learning about past history exciting. It saddens me to rush through the subjects when I see the excitement on my students faces. They are happy to explore various experiments and learn about historical figures. Students all over are missing out on the wonderful history of our country.

  8. 8
    Ryan on July 17, 2016

    I am a middle school social studies teacher. The battle between knowledge and skills has been a constant in my practice from the outset. My administrators have openly told me that I should cut down on content in order to teach skills such as writing proficiency, reading comprehension, critical thinking, spacial reasoning, etc. I do agree that all of those skills should be taught, but alongside of the content, instead of sacrificing it. My students should have an understanding of what the pyramids are, how Julius Caesar changed the course of history, and how Socrates influenced the Western way of thinking. I refuse to sacrifice my student’s knowledge base that will make them into contributory and intelligent members of society.

    I do also acknowledge that they need to know how to read a map, analyze and solve problems, create new ideas, and write critically about the world around them. However, knowledge must come first. Without knowing who Ghandi is, how can you analyze his impact on the world? All I am saying is that when someone references a Greek god in their conversation or literature, the listener or reader should understand that references. Otherwise we are creating a nation of people who can dissect literature, but not understand what they are dissecting due to their ignorance of the names, places, and ideas contained within.

  9. 9
    Robin on July 18, 2016

    This was a great post and really something that I can relate to. I am a fourth grade writing and science teacher getting ready to transition into a new position on my campus as an instructional coordinator. As a classroom teacher, it seems like I am always forced to put science on the back burner, especially when it is close to test time. In fourth grade, students take a state writing test. Each year my school would spend the majority of time doing writing camps everyday during the weeks leading up to the test. It’s like we shut down and focus only on writing. Over the years, I have found that this really hurts our students when they get to fifth grade and they have to take a state science test. They are not really prepared because the students struggle on concepts that should have been introduced in previous grades. What I have started doing is teaching writing while introducing science content.

    I also think social studies should be taught more. This year, my district adopted a new social studies curriculum which was great because it could be integrated into many other content areas. I noticed my students were not learning social studies in previous grades when we had a presentation from a guest speaker. My students could not answer questions correctly about continents, capitals or other countries near the United States. They also didn’t know who the governor was. Our students are not being exposed to necessary information that they should know at an early age.

    As an instructional coordinator on my campus this year, I plan to meet with teachers to discuss ways in which they can make sure they are effectively planning science and social studies lessons. These two content areas are equally as important as reading and math and should be taken seriously. There are so many projects and hands on investigations in science and social studies for students to engage in. Our students definitely need a well rounded education in order to make them well rounded successful individuals to compete in this world we live in.

  10. 10
    Grace on September 14, 2016

    I think you have raised some very important concerns regarding the equity of our education. From my observations as a teacher, it seems to me social studies often get put on the backburner in our schools. For example, in my school if a student is falling behind in one of the core classes, they will be pulled from social studies to instead be in a structured study. Because only math, English, and science are tested on standardized tests, those subjects seem to be prioritized. Similar to what you stated, it is not recognized that social studies does not only teach the facts, but it also touches on many important skills such as critical thinking.

  11. 11
    Linda Shetler on September 17, 2016

    The concerns you raise about schools not teaching everything they should be teaching and of teachers omitting important information for lack of time are valid concerns. As an educator, this post raises some related questions in my mind. Are schools and educators the only ones responsible for this deficit? Parents are equally at fault. We have become an image-based world rather than word-based. Children are inundated with image-based media and never read to explore and learn. Parents are not reading to their children. How can we instill in children a love of reading and the desire to be life-long learners?

  12. 12
    Emmanuel Guevarez on September 18, 2016

    I believe that all schools should have well designed and efficient curriculum that will help the student to academic success. Instead of creating courses that students will need to help them improve in high school into college should not be present without any curriculum integrated into their academic schedule. The curriculum contributes to provide a better teaching structure in class and a better opportunity to improve their academic skills.

  13. 13
    tony spencer on September 18, 2016

    I am pleased to here someone communicate the importance for the need for knowledge. We have to address the inequality in which our educational system reaches students who are living in poverty. The way this text was put together helps capture the essence of how important it is.

  14. 14
    Linda on September 18, 2016

    This is a great post. I was able to make clear connections to this posting. I teach Kindergarten and I know for a fact that I don’t have enough time to teach social studies and science. Our administrator says we have to teach literacy and math along with language. We are not required to teach social studies and we have about 15 minutes to teach science. I disagree with this but that is what we are told to do by our school district.

  15. 15
    tara11welsh on September 18, 2016

    This post hits close to home. As an all day Kindergarten teacher this topic was just discussed last week at a grade level meeting. We are required to teach so much ELA and Math that by the time there is any time left for science or social studies we fall in the static of 16 to 21 minuets a day but by that time is to be used to teach on or the other. Yes, we do our best to intergrade since and social studies into our ELA and math lessons but are the students really learning the history and science behind everything else we are pushing them to know? As a kindergarten teacher I feel we have the responsibility to create and teach students to have passion for learning. A passion not just for math and Ela but for science and social studies. If we do not start teaching our students at an young age about science and social studies they can start to develop misconceptions about topics and teacher will spend more time trying to undo the misconceptions in their brain than teach the material they need. I am a firm believer that it is critical to ensure we have time to teach all subjects.

  16. 16
    Swapnil Pawar on November 9, 2016

    Hi Lisa,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I am sure every educator would positively agree with your thoughts and concerns in this post. I have been teaching at the middle and high school and have often wondered the benefits students would get if their educational body would somehow enhance the roots of young learners in Elementary schools. Because I believe that the knowledge students acquire early on will serve as the foundational base for everything they learn after. The foundation of composition and evaluation will prepare students with the ability to stay curious and develop critical thinking pedagogy. For example, forming a strong social studies base in elementary school will not allow learners to understand the versatile relationship in community with other people but it also enhances the knowledge of their own cultural background. Overall, the combination of such skills and education received will prepare young learner’s to be a responsible citizen and actively participate in this multi-cultural 21st century.

  17. 17
    Jen Frazier on November 9, 2016

    This resonated so deeply with me being an elementary teacher myself. I think truly authentic learning happens naturally during both social studies and science. I like the way you spoke to this not being the fault of the elementary teachers because we are only doing as we are told. Districts see the golden tickets being both reading and math and fail to recognize the importance of the other subject areas. At my last school, we developed a curriculum based on social studies and science so our students were able to seamlessly intertwine topics throughout the day in every subject area. It is a crime that we are not even giving these areas 30 minutes of instruction! How do we expect to build global citizens if we are not teaching our students what it means to be a citizen and are not providing examples throughout history of great citizens!

  18. 18
    Casey Sorensen on November 13, 2016

    Let me first say that I teach high school Social Studies in a small town in the State of Washington. There is no doubt that when my students enter my class their background knowledge is nothing to write home about. I am shocked at the lack of geography skills. it is actually sad to see how bad their knowledge of geography is. I think it is easy to skip social studies content because their are no standardized test that teachers and districts have to worry about. Even so, I still believe that history and geography are very important subjects for our students to learn. I also believe that all students can learn at a high level and each student deserves to have an education that is meaningful and interesting to them. I understand that standardized test are important for districts and schools but it would be very sad if we continue to spend less and less time on social studies. I also want to say that I don’t blame grade school or middle school teachers. They have a job to do and their administration probably wants to see more time on subjects such as math, reading, and science. I hope that this trend starts to change because social studies are important for our students to learn.

  19. 19
    Casey Sorensen on November 13, 2016


    It was interesting to hear your point of view considering you teach at the elementary level. I must say again that I do not blame grade school teachers for this but the administration and gov’t because of the importance of standardized test. I really like to hear that you are trying to incorporate social studies to your curriculum but I agree that 30 minutes is not enough. If you had it your way how much time would you spend of social studies a week? Grade school teachers are amazing! There is so much on your plate I could not imagine teaching at that level. Keep up the good work and I hope you continue to push for more social studies content.


  20. 20
    Rachel on March 22, 2017

    This is something I can relate to all too well. Unfortunately so much time is dedicated to language arts and math, that I end up having to alternate between science and social studies. Our students need to have an understanding of who they are and where they come from, and how their communities work. We are working to help our students become productive members of society, but due to requirements by my school, those skills are not made a priority to teach. I try to incorporate social studies into other parts of our day, like during our read alouds and writing time, but unfortunately, when we run out of time, our social studies time is what gets cut short.

  21. 21
    Jason Frey on May 24, 2019

    I really enjoyed your post and your input. I feel that there is so much push for students to learn information but no retain knowledge. Let me expand on that some. As teachers, I think we try our best to hit all areas of the curriculum and cover a lot of information. We then assess the students on what they have learned in the short cram sessions we call classes, and we use our assessments to make sure that they are ready for larger state tests. Essentially we are making sure our students are temporarily learning information to take tests, but not actually making sure that they are retaining information that will be beneficial for them in the future. There has been, and still is, a push to teach to perform, not to teach for students to learn. There is constantly new technology that states this the best way to teach, and yet we are seeing that our students are still underperforming. I agree with what you are saying that our students need to attain the knowledge and retain the knowledge, so the question is how do we start the reforming of the education system?

  22. 22
    Darrell Bowie II on November 18, 2020

    This was a great blog post describing what many teachers endure each day. Time is so often something educators are asked to take, but never much is given from the other side. When teachers are being pulled in many different directions, but the primary focus being student learning, it would be more productive to allow for a focus on students. Arguably, teachers’ most valuable resource is time. Time does not mean more teaching, but rather, more planning. Teacher trade effectiveness in one area for effectiveness in another (Vilson, 2015). An increased level of planning time would allow educators to better use cross-curricular methods to involve social studies and science into the core subjects of reading and math. Students deserve learning in subjects that seem less significant. Most teachers do not have the time to complete essential tasks (Anderson, 2019). As a result, time is going to be efficiently focused on the major components of the school day.


    Anderson, J. (2019). The Gift of Teacher Time. Harvard Graduate School of Education.

    Vilson, J. (2015, January 29). Less Is More: The Value of a Teacher’s Time. Edutopia.

  23. 23
    Shan on November 22, 2020

    Teaching in an elementary school setting allows me to relate to the limited time to teach social studies and science. In previous years, I feel like I had a balance between the two subjects during my shared reading time with the students. However, this year has presented a few challenges while teaching online. My science curriculum is very hands on, so in order for students to complete the desired curriculum they need a lot of different supplies. Of course sending these home would be a great option if I knew all of my students could come and gather the materials. So, this had led me away from the science curriculum and I have been more focused on social studies. I would like to change my approach for science and possibly step away from the given curriculum, that way I can still teach students about the different subject matter in science. I agree with you that both of these subjects are very important and they should be taught and woven into the academics in the classroom.

  24. 24
    Kiera Spencer on March 29, 2021


    I enjoyed your point of view and share your point of view that education does not place a large enough emphasis on social studies, science, and the arts. As an elementary school teacher, I also agree that the blame cannot be primarily placed on elementary teachers as like you mentioned are hands become more and more tied at state levels of what we have to teach and how long and often we must teach it. However, this does not mean that there are no answers and solutions to integrating time and education in these areas to students. I think what lacks all around is collaboration and cross-disciplinary lesson planning and implementation. Science, Social Studies, and the arts can be easily incorporated into CORE subjects like reading and math at the elementary level. In middle school and high schools, we could benefit from increasing collaboration to tie CORE classes with elective subjects. Co-plan project-based learning for students, etc. Although as teachers we get easily bogged down with requirements to teach, it is not impossible to incorporate social studies, science and arts so that we are not doing our students a disservice.

  25. 25
    Cydrena on May 28, 2021

    Hi Lisa,

    Thank you for your insightful view on the issues we are facing. Mathematics and Language Arts are the two courses that receive the most attention in my region, to the point that they are the only topics on which students are evaluated for exit examinations. While a shortage of time may have contributed to a stronger focus on certain subjects, it’s also crucial for pupils to be well-rounded intellectually. Students are missing out on vital cultural, historical, and scientific information that helped build the society we live in by putting social studies, science, and history, and other subject areas on the back burner. Some students love these subjects more than others and should be given enough time in these classes, on the other hand, others may lose interest in them later in their study or struggle with them owing to a lack of core principles that they did not comprehend earlier.

  26. 26
    Brittany Ray on July 25, 2021

    This post was very insightful. What was truly an aha moment was when the article mentioned that elementary teachers are not to blame for the lack or readiness when students go to middle or high school. Due to state testing majority of the educational focus has been put on reading and mathematics. Examining the overall problem when it comes to social studies and science, the state curriculum needs to be updated and challenge the student’s level of thinking. More emphasis must be placed on the importance of student learning in these curriculums. As educators we are just simply doing what we are taught.

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