This is an exciting time for history education. States across the nation are strengthening their history curricula and expecting youngsters to learn more American and world history.
Even the vitriolic controversy over the national history standards serves to remind us that people care passionately about history. Not only is there a rekindled interest in history in the schools, but also, public history is bringing stories of the past to millions of people in museums, exhibitions, movies, and on television. The wonderful television programs created by Ken and Ric Burns have demonstrated that there is a large and avid public for history as a tale well told. There is now even a cable television station called the History Channel.
Yet all is not well with the teaching of history in the schools. The most authoritative source for student achievement is the National Assessment of Educational Progress; American history was last tested in 1994. The results were bleak. NAEP results are reported by achievement levels, with the highest called “advanced,” then “proficient,” then “basic.” Those who fail to reach the basic level are described as “below basic.” In the 1994 assessment, 57% of high school seniors scored “below basic” in American history (in public schools, the proportion “below basic” was 59%). These seniors had taken a U.S. history course in either 11th or 12th grade; their scores were unaffected by whether they studied history in the same year as the test or not. The NAEP results in history were worse than in any other subject area.
There are many reasons for this poor performance in history, and together we could probably come up with a long list of culprits, including television, popular culture, after-school jobs, a general social disregard for history, and so on.
But important as all these are, I will focus today on the most important variable that is within the purview and direct control of public policy: the preparation of those who teach history.
It seems a truism that students will not learn much history unless their teachers know it. This gets to the core of our discussion. Who prepares our history teachers now? Who should prepare our history teachers?
It should be self-evident that those who teach history should themselves have studied history. If they don’t know it, how can they teach it? If they don’t enjoy learning about it themselves, how can they transmit a love for history to students? How is it possible to teach what you do not know?
The only authoritative national data on the preparation of teachers are gathered by the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education. Its “Schools and Staffing Survey” reports on whether teachers have earned a major or minor in the main academic field that they teach. The data refer to teachers in grades 7-12, where teachers usually teach specific subject matter like mathematics, science, and history.
NCES surveys assume that those persons who lack either a major or a minor in their main academic field are teaching out of field. In 1996, NCES reported that “over half of all public school students enrolled in history or world civilization classes in grades 7-12…were taught by teachers who did not have at least a minor in history.” This disturbing finding compels us to ask, what is the educational preparation of those now teaching history? In a few states, people can be licensed to teach social studies without ever having taken a single college course in history. Presumably these are exceptions; what is the rule?
Last July, the National Center for Education Statistics released a report called “America’s Teachers: Profile of a Profession, 1993-1994.” This report contains some startling statistics. It found that a substantial number—28% of the nation’s public school teachers—had neither a major nor a minor in the main academic subject they were teaching. That includes 39.5% of science teachers; 25% of English teachers; 34% of mathematics teachers; 13.4% of foreign language teachers; and 17% of social studies teachers. The figures are even worse in private schools.
Since I was particularly interested in the state of history teaching, I asked analysts at NCES to determine the proportion of social studies teachers who had a major or a minor in history, and the proportion of history teachers who had studied history.
Thanks to the generous assistance of Pat Forgione, U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics, Marty Orland, Kerry Gruber, Marilyn McMillen, and Steve Broughman of NCES, I learned the following:
Of those teachers who describe themselves as social studies teachers, that is, those who teach social studies in middle school or secondary school, only 18.5% have either a major or a minor in history. That is, 81.5% of social studies teachers did not study history in college either as a major or as a minor. In case you think you didn’t hear me correctly, let me say it again: 81.5% of social studies teachers did not study history in college either as a major or a minor. This figure helps to explain why history is no longer the center of the social studies, since so few social studies teachers have ever studied history.
Of those who teach one or more history courses, 55% do not have at least a minor in history. Of those who teach two or more history courses, 53% do not have a major or a minor in history; of those who teach one history course, 64% lack either a major or a minor in history.
Fifty-nine percent of students in middle school and 43% of students in high school study history with a teacher who did not earn at least a history minor in college.
Who did prepare our nation’s teachers of history and social studies? What did they study in college? Perhaps you assume that most social studies teachers earned their degrees in one of the social sciences, like sociology, psychology, economics, or political science, or in literature or the humanities. Wrong. Most social studies teachers received their undergraduate degree in education.
Among all those who identify themselves as social studies teachers, 71% took their undergraduate degree in education. When the 18.5% with history degrees are removed from the pool, 79% of the remaining social studies teachers have their undergraduate degree in education. What is the educational background of the social studies teachers who did not major or minor in history? About one out of seven (14%) gained an undergraduate degree in social studies education. However, about two-thirds (65%) have an education degree that is not related to any academic discipline, from such fields as special education, secondary education, bilingual education, curriculum and instruction, educational administration, counseling and guidance, or any one of a score of other pedagogical studies.
Of the social studies teachers who did not study history, a majority—53%—have not received an advanced degree; 42% have an advanced degree in education. Only 2% of these social studies teachers—the ones who lack at least a minor in history—have an advanced degree in any academic field. Put another way, of those social studies teachers who have received any advanced degree, 89% are in pedagogy, not history or the social sciences.
Now suppose we move from the universe of social studies teachers in the middle and upper grades to the more limited universe composed only of history teachers. As I said before, 55% of history teachers have neither a major nor minor in history. What did this 55% of history teachers study?
Nearly 77% have an undergraduate degree in education, 11% have an undergraduate degree in a social science other than history, and 5% earned their degree in some other academic subject.
But perhaps, one hopes, these history teachers who did not study history in college took a master’s degree in history, economics, sociology, political science, or one of the other social sciences. Wrong again. Fifty-three percent do not have a master’s degree, and of the 47% in this group who earned a master’s degree, 40% gained it in education, and only 3% in any academic field.
One can see a strong contrast between the preparation of those history teachers who studied history in college and those who did not. Those who earned at least a minor in history have a far stronger academic preparation, both as undergraduates and at the graduate level. Among those who have at least a minor in history in college, 22% have an undergraduate degree in education, 72% in history or one of the social sciences, and 4% in other academic subjects. Among this same group, 30% earned master’s degrees in education, 21% in history or another social science, and 1% in other academic fields.
From these numbers, it becomes clear that those who earned at least a minor in history as undergraduates are far likelier to earn a master’s degree in history or one of the social sciences than those who do not have at least a minor in history.
A picture begins to emerge of the social studies profession, in relation to history. The vast majority of social studies teachers—81.5%—as well as 55% of history teachers—did not major or minor in history, nor did they earn a graduate degree in history.
The typical social studies teacher has an undergraduate degree in education and, if she or he has a master’s degree, it too is in education.
At this point, it seems important to ask: How can teachers teach what they have not studied? How can students learn challenging subject matter from teachers who have not chosen to study what they are teaching? How can teachers create engaging, innovative and even playful ways to present ideas that they have not mastered themselves? How can teachers whose own knowledge of history is fragmentary help students debate and think critically about controversial issues?
This portrait of the social studies profession must be seen in a context in which states are expecting students to study not only U.S. History but increasingly more difficult courses in world history. How are students going to learn world history from someone who has never studied world history? How many universities even offer a course called “world history?” How many teachers in the United States are qualified to teach the rigorous content in the history standards prepared by the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA? The teacher who must teach a course that includes unfamiliar material will rely on the textbook as a primary source of information and is unlikely to raise questions or pose issues or develop activities that give the spark of life to the words in the textbook.
What I wonder is: Why do state officials grant teaching credentials to people to teach a subject that they have not studied? Why is teacher certification based on completion of education courses rather than on mastery of what is to be taught? Why not require future teachers of history to have a major or at least a strong minor in history?
In what other profession would public officials be so haphazard, so indifferent to professional preparation? Imagine going to a hospital and finding that the credentialing system permits scrub nurses to perform surgery. Or boarding an airliner and finding that ticket clerks have been certified to fly the planes. In education, placing teachers into out-of-field positions has become the usual, the acceptable and the normal.
In my view, it is professional malpractice when state officials do not require teachers to demonstrate—either by appropriate credentials or examination—that they know what they are supposed to teach. I say this not only about history teachers, but about teachers of every other core academic subject. Why should American students learn science, mathematics, or history from people who did not study those fields? Is it unreasonable to expect teachers to have studied what they will teach? There may be the exceptional instance where a gifted teacher really knows and loves history but chose not to study it in college or graduate school, but I suspect that those exceptions are rare indeed.
Who should prepare history teachers?
Ideally, future teachers should know their subject and know how to teach it. History teachers should study history in college. They should certainly have at least a minor and preferably a major in history, including American and world history courses. With states expanding the requirements in world history, it becomes essential for future teachers to study the history of Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and India. Imagine taking on the challenge of history teaching today without so much as a minor in history.
In addition, future history teachers should include the study of social sciences and literature as part of their preparation to teach. They should learn pedagogical methods, either in appropriate courses or in an apprenticeship setting with mentors. Their graduate studies should concentrate on history, the humanities and social sciences.
There are very possibly areas of fruitful collaboration between schools of education and colleges of liberal arts and sciences. Together, they should be able to work out a good balance between the knowledge and skills that good history teachers need to be effective in the classroom. That is, if they are willing to work together, as they have not in the past.
Of one thing I am quite sure: schools of education are not the appropriate place to prepare history teachers. One reason is simply the status quo. Schools of education are currently preparing most future teachers of social studies and of history, and they are not learning history. This is not an indictment of schools of education: They don’t teach history, so why should they be blamed if their students do not learn what the ed schools do not teach?
But there is another reason to urge that schools of education are not the right place to prepare history teachers. If we go back to the origins of the social studies, we will find that the field was created as an escape from the teaching of history. The founder of the social studies was Thomas Jesse Jones. He was probably the first person to teach a course called “the social studies” at Hampton Institute, an industrial and trade school for African-Americans and Indians in Virginia. Jones believed that history was useless to poor minorities; it was not history study that they needed, but the right sort of skills and attitudes to fit them into the existing social order.
Jones was a staff member at the U.S. Bureau of Education, where he produced a large federal report on “Negro Education” in 1916. In that report, Jones expressed disapproval of academic schooling for Negro children. He believed that what they needed was vocational and industrial training. He urged instruction in planting, sewing, cooking, and woodworking. Their parents and community leaders wanted them to get collegiate type schooling, but Jones insisted they were wrong. He thought that they had a mistaken suspicion “that the white people are urging a caste education which confines them to industrial pursuits.”
Jones was a former social worker, and he thought that education should adjust youngsters to their society and their prospects; the study of history didn’t do that. Many other progressive educators agreed with Jones that history was not only useless but elitist. What, after all, was the good of learning about ancient civilizations? How did knowledge of obscure worlds make anyone a better citizen? How did it prepare youngsters for labor in the factories and fields? Social studies, on the other hand, could teach youngsters the right attitudes and adjust them to the industrial order. Social studies was socially efficient; history was not. History was far too individualistic, and its results were not predictable. Students might even learn to think for themselves. This was not socially efficient. Better, thought Thomas Jesse Jones and likeminded educators, to teach only the history that connected to children’s immediate interests and better to concentrate on current events and existing social institutions because ordinary boys and girls could not possibly be interested in remote civilizations or faraway places. The trouble with history, it seemed, was that it frequently didn’t have a social purpose at all; too often, it was geared toward satisfying the student’s imagination or curiosity, which was a socially useless goal.
Jones was in the mainstream of progressive education; industrial and vocational education was in vogue. It was no surprise when Thomas Jesse Jones—father of the social studies—was named the chair of the committee appointed by the National Education Association to reorganize a new field in the high school curriculum. His committee’s report, released in 1916, established the social studies. The Committee on Social Studies proclaimed that “good citizenship” would be the goal of social studies.
Henceforth, the study of history would be subject to what the Committee called:
The test of good citizenship. The old chronicler who recorded the deeds of kings and warriors and neglected the labors of the common man is dead. The great palaces and cathedrals and pyramids are often but the empty shells of a parasitic growth on the working group. The elaborate descriptions of these old tombs are but sounding brass and tinkling cymbals compared to the record of the joy and sorrows, the hopes and disappointments of the masses, who are infinitely more important than any arrangement of wood and stone and iron. In this spirit recent history is more important than that of ancient times; the history of our own country than that of foreign lands; the record of our own institutions and activities than that of strangers; the labors and plans of the multitudes than the pleasures and dreams of the few.
The Committee on Social Studies stressed that social efficiency was “the keynote of modern education,” and “instruction in all subjects should contribute to this end.” In the future, social studies would be devoted to teaching students to have the right attitudes and to enable them to adjust to the “present social environment and conditions.”
These modern, progressive views were hailed in the nation’s schools of education. There was a consensus among pedagogical leaders of the day that history was only for the tiny minority who planned to go to college. The great majority of youngsters who came from working families, it was agreed, did not need to study history.
In light of these views, implanted in schools of education in their early years, it becomes understandable why history education is seldom found in our nation’s schools of education. There are professors who teach the history of education, but the programs that prepare teachers of American history and world history have been rare. Schools of education teach science education, math education, and social studies education, but not history education. Unfortunately, history continues to be treated as an elitist subject, because the anti-historical attitudes forged in the nineteen-teens persisted long after they lost any validity.
So now we must rely on the movies and television to teach history. Periodically there will be a hit show like Braveheart or Glory or Roots or The Civil War, and we know that for many youngsters it will be their best chance to learn history just for the fun of it. We just have to hope that the dramatic liberties that the filmmakers take are not too farfetched.
We should do better. We know that history is exciting, interesting, engaging, fascinating. We know that kids can get turned on to the history of ancient Egypt, modern China, the Aztecs, or a zillion other times and places and peoples. But we also suspect that, without teachers who themselves know and love history, the excitement doesn’t happen, indeed can’t happen.
I cannot conclude without pointing to the curriculum in the early grades, where the social studies has had an especially deleterious effect. We do not need historians teaching first, second and third grade. But we should have teachers in the early grades who understand the value of biographies, myths, legends, and history stories. Sadly, due to the power of the current social studies curriculum, little kids are compelled to learn abstract or trivial ideas about families and communities. Not only does this bore kids and teachers, but it gives youngsters a sense of insignificance. Why not introduce them to the lives of men and women who created, invented, struggled, discovered, and broke new ground? What the social studies now teaches is that the world is shaped by social and economic trends that are beyond anyone’s control; what history teaches is that one persistent, determined man or woman can change the world.
If we are to maintain the movement for history education, we must insist that states establish a strong history curriculum across the grades and that they require future teachers of history to have at least a minor in history.
Given the current state of the field, given the fact that 81.5% of current social studies teachers and 55% of current history teachers do not have even a minor in history, this will be an uphill battle. But it is the most important battle in the struggle to restore and improve history education.