From the Viewpoints column of the May 2006 Perspectives

History Departments and the NCATE/NCSS Accreditation Process: Time for a Change

Russell Olwell, May 2006

History departments in institutions that are accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) are facing a difficult road ahead. While relations between professional historians and teacher educators have never been perfect, the recent changes in the NCATE and National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS, the organization responsible for setting history teaching standards) systems present historians with difficult choices about how the profession prepares secondary teachers. At an NCATE-accredited university, all programs must pass a subject area review by a Specialty Professional Association (SPA), which is, in the case of history teaching, the NCSS. When the NCSS rejects a program, the stakes are high, and conflict between colleges of education and history departments moves into high gear. These conflicts can play out in mean and ugly ways on campus, with deans of education threatening to close history and social studies teaching programs.

However, the situation is not hopeless. In Michigan, noting the distance between strong state standards and weak NCSS standards, the state Department of Education has questioned NCSS's involvement in the overall Michigan/NCATE agreement for history programs. This is an important step in recognizing that the NCSS standards are inadequate, unworkable, and represent a watering down of history teacher training.

Across the nation, teacher accreditation is in a state of tremendous flux. If more states, colleges, and departments were to voice concerns about the NCATE/NCSS process, or more universities in teacher education leave NCATE, some real change might occur.

Historians and Teacher Preparation Issues

The American Historical Association has been involved in the preparation of secondary school teachers almost since its founding in 1884. In 1962 and 1968, the AHA's Teaching Division published guidelines for the preparation of secondary teachers. The 1968 AHA statement speaks directly to the issue of subject matter preparation for history teachers, requiring 33 hours of a history major, with concentrations in both U.S. and world history. Methods classes would not be generic, but historians would offer a specific class in the teaching of history. General education and classes in the social sciences and humanities would comprise 40 hours each. An extended student teaching would comprise 16 credit hours, and two classes in educational psychology and social foundations of education would round out the program. Since 1968, the depth required by this program has receded from view, as education schools have implemented a host of new classes for students, leaving far fewer credits available for content.

There were those in the Association who argued that the AHA should take an even larger role in teacher preparation and accreditation. In the 1950s, historian and educational critic Arthur Bestor argued that learned societies, such as the AHA, should take the lead in teacher education, and that the majority of training for history teachers ought to be in the discipline, not administered by colleges of education.

However, the development of the NCATE system ultimately thwarted Bestor's vision. While the AHA was involved in NCATE in its early years, the National Council for the Social Studies now sets the standards for history teaching at the national level. Thus, history departments are required to train students in 10 "strands" to become accredited by NCSS, only one of which is history (titled "time, continuity, and change"). NCSS evaluation of the history major itself is limited to a list of indicators and lacking specific disciplinary standards (such as writing research papers, historical thinking skills, or historiography).

The Present Problem

While the NCSS standards have always posed a problem for historians, the new NCATE performance based accreditation system brings the issue to a new crossroads. History departments, to pass NCATE/NCSS muster, must successfully teach the 10 vague NCSS strands in their college history classes, and then show that their students are fully learning. Departments need to have six pieces of evidence for each student, all tied to the vague NCSS framework. Student teachers attempting to meet NCSS standards in their classrooms are faced with a choice between meeting the goals of the 10 strands and implementing the state-mandated standards and benchmarks that their cooperating teacher, principal, and school board expect.

The effects of NCATE's shift to outcomes-based assessment have brought this problem to the fore. Rather than being a once every seven years headache, NCATE accreditation has become an everyday migraine for history educators. Worst of all, another organization—one with little commitment to history as a discipline—developed the standards to which we are held accountable. At the same time, the pressure on schools of education and deans of education has increased, leading to unheard-of stress levels around NCATE preparation and visits, leading to frayed relationships between departments and colleges.

Research Base and Lack Thereof

While the NCATE/NCSS system is steeped in the language of assessment and accountability, the research base for the standards is virtually non-existent. The current standards are based on the development of interdisciplinary social studies in the 1960s that reduced the importance of disciplinary learning in favor of an interdisciplinary approach to broader problems.

Since the NCSS standards were created, much solid research has been done on how students really learn history. If there is one central message in the research on how students (K–16) learn history, it is that students need to learn it in depth, not as 10 percent of a broader set of nondisciplinary themes. Students gain historical thinking skills through a long-term, in-depth apprenticeship in the field, guided by a knowledgeable history teacher. As the extensive research of Samuel S. Wineburg and Robert Bain has shown, learning history is difficult for students, and is a long-term cognitive process demanding a teacher with subject mastery and depth. Students, like professional historians, benefit from recursive learning, in which they return to the same material on several occasions with different lenses—they gain little from the wide coverage approach of NCSS. The real tragedy of the NCSS standards is that they seek to replace in-depth training of future teachers with a smattering of ten different areas of knowledge, which is a recipe for a continuing cycle of failure in history teaching.

What Can Be Done?

Preparing K–12 history teachers is the most important thing history departments do. It affects the lives of our communities, the future of our profession, and the lives of the students our students touch. We need to insist that teacher accreditation is done right, and done by people who know their own discipline and its specific pedagogy.

Therefore, historians should insist that accreditation of teacher preparation in history be based on AHA standards, not on that of NCSS. Historians should also insist that NCATE recognize specific organizations in the discipline, such as the AHA, as the proper accreditation body for history programs, and grant them a permanent seat at the NCATE table. If this does not come to pass, the AHA could become a member of the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, a rival accrediting body that is also recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, which asks the department and programs to investigate and improve their programs, and not to take the word of SPAs as the last word on program quality.

—Russell Olwell teaches at Eastern Michigan University.

Bibliographic Note

Readers may find the following discussions and reports useful: