Calculating your Social Studies ROI. Cause it’s #RefreshFriday

(Image credit: Glenn Wiebe)

It’s #RefreshFriday.

Yup. It’s that time of year when I want to say I’m too busy to write anything new but it probably has more to do with the fact that’s Friday. It’s 103 degrees outside. And I’m just super lazy.

But part of it does have to do with a conversation I had yesterday with some of the marketing geniuses at ESSDACK. We spent an awesome 60 minutes talking about a variety of different topics –  all focused on our ROI. And I started getting flashbacks to this post I wrote several years. If you remember reading it, it’s okay to go back to your cold beverage. If not, welcome to a quick updated post on #RefreshFriday.


ROI was never something I had to worry about back in the day when I was teaching middle school. If I made to 3:30 with nothing on fire and all 145 middle schoolers accounted for, I checked it off as a major success.

Return on Investment? ROI? I’m not even sure the term had been invented yet. And if it had, I would have had no idea what it meant and how the idea might apply to my classroom.

For anyone without the MBA degree, ROI is a basic business concept that measures the efficiency of an investment of time and/or money. The higher the ROI, the more efficient the investment. Spend $10 on lemons, sugar, and the time to craft a cardboard sign. Make $60 selling lemonade. The ROI is $50. Nice job.

Spend $10. Make $5. ROI is negative $5. Time to go back and rethink your business model.

And back in the day, ROI would not have been something that educators would have worried about. The business model of school was different.

Kids showed up. Kids sat in rows. Teacher talked. Kids copied down what the teacher said. Kids memorized what they wrote down. On Friday, teacher asked students to write down what they memorized. Teacher checked it against what he said and assigned a grade. Repeat.

The world of school is different now. We’re not following the traditional model of kids in rows and teacher centered instruction. (At least we shouldn’t be.) And ROI needs to be a part of this new world.

Before you all jump in with the argument that school is not a business and that kids aren’t widgets and we can’t compare the business world with what we all do in schools, I agree. The business of schools is not the same as the business of business. The inputs are different. The outputs are different. I get that.

But there are pieces that we can steal from the business of business that can help. ROI is one of those pieces.

Though I think we do need to change the vocabulary just a bit. Let’s not talk about Return on Investment. Let’s talk about Return on Instruction.

As far as I can tell, Eric Sheninger from the sweet admin blog titled A Principal’s Reflection is the guy who tweaked the ROI idea to better fit the business of school.  He started using the Return on Instruction phrase to encourage more conversation and intentional planning around the use of educational technology tools.

As in, if we spend $100,000 buying iPads or Chromebooks or 360 cameras or netbooks or smartboards or drones or 3D printers or whatever else is the edtech toy of the week, what’s the impact on learning? Are our students learning less, the same, or more because of that piece of tech?

It’s a fair question.

And it’s not just edtech. It’s a fair question for almost everything we do. If I ask kids to complete a SHEG activity or analyze a political cartoon or compete in National History Day or whatever else is the social studies strategy of the week, what’s the impact on learning?

It’s a question I should have been asking way back in the day at Derby Middle School. I should have but I didn’t. I wasn’t taught to plan instruction like that. No one else was really asking that kind of question. So it didn’t happen. But it is something that should be happening now. We need to think seriously about the strategies and instructional designs in our classrooms and the impact that they are having on our students. It’s not okay anymore to sit kids in rows and talk at them.

So what can it look like when we try to figure out our Social Studies Return on Instruction? I think we can adapt some of the tools that Eric suggests for edtech ROI.

First of all, I’m assuming that we’re all on the same page regarding quality instruction. Provide an authentic problem, have students collect/ organize evidence, collaborate with others, create a solution to the problem, communicate the solution? A balance of content and discipline specific thinking skills? Yes?


So Eric suggests that the next step is to

begin to connect this to results that prove beyond assumptions and generalizations that technology quality social studies instruction (see what I did there?) is playing a role to positively impact teaching and learning.

And what results can we look for?

Test and Anecdotal Data:

  • Eric starts with what might seem like a pretty traditional tool. But using both formative and summative test scores can give us a ton of information about whether are kids are getting better at what we want them to get better at. Quick Kahoot summative quizzes, mini-DBQs, and district level writing prompts are examples of the kind of things that can provide handy data. I especially like the idea of using SHEG’s Beyond the Bubble for quick formative assessments.
  • The new 2020 Kansas State social studies assessment is being designed to help with this. Locally administered and scored, it will be one more snapshot of student skills. (Curious about what that will look like? Head here.) But we should also look at graduations rates, where kids are two years out of high school, attendance, tardies, discipline referrals as well as anecdotal data like student engagement and parent satisfaction surveys.
  • Asking students to share their thoughts is not something that I did early on in my teaching career. But it’s a good idea to get that sort of feedback. You can also ask colleagues and administrators to observe you and your students during instruction and learning.

Artifacts and Portfolios:

  • Assuming that the actual assignment is high quality to begin with, we need to go beyond using what we ask kids to create as just a way to give them a grade. We need to use student work to make sure that our end in mind is aligned to both content and process standards.
  • Hang on to both great and not so great student examples and use them as way to measure your own progression in instructional design over time. Are the products getting better? Are you asking better questions? How might you adapt your lesson design to improve evidence of student learning?

It’s not rocket surgery. It really just comes down to us getting better at grading ourselves. And be willing to change our practice based on the ROI.

cross posted at

Glenn Wiebe is an education and technology consultant with 15 years' experience teaching history and social studies. He is a curriculum consultant forESSDACK, an educational service center in Hutchinson, Kansas, blogs frequently at History Tech and maintains Social Studies Central, a repository of resources targeted at K-12 educators. Visit to learn more about his speaking and presentation on education technology, innovative instruction and social studies.