K-12 Teaching: Why Should We Care?

Brad Austin, May 2008

Robert Townsend's October 2005 Perspectives article, "New Study Highlights Prominence of Elite PhD Programs in History," spelled out what most of us already knew: that most "elite" history departments hire the products of other elite programs.1 Townsend documented that 58.9 percent of professors at top-rated programs earned their PhDs at "top ten" programs. More than 80 percent of the faculty at the "Top 25" programs earned their PhDs at peer institutions (and this had been relatively constant over the previous 30 years). Tellingly, as Townsend points out, the percentage of professors holding foreign degrees is greater than the percentage from the 165 American PhD-granting institutions not in the top tier.

In other words, it's statistically highly unlikely that successful PhD candidates (including many from "elite" programs) will get jobs at elite doctoral programs. Instead, most who do get jobs will get them at schools where they are much more likely to be responsible for training future K–12 educators, than for preparing "academic" historians. Accordingly, it is vital that all history departments and graduate coordinators recognize this reality and embrace this situation as an opportunity and not a curse. We have the opportunity (and I would suggest the obligation) to promote our standards and expectations to the future K–12 teachers of the nation.

Philosophical Reasons for Working with K–12 Educators

We care about history. We've spent most of our lives studying, reading, debating, researching, and teaching history. We care about historical accuracy; we want people to understand and evaluate the most recent interpretations of history—to recognize that the History Channel isn't the last authority on subjects worthy of consideration.
We want history to be valued. We want informed citizens, people who can evaluate evidence and arguments for themselves, people who can recognize the structural conditions that shape their lives and the world around them.

If we sincerely care about these things, then we shouldn't consider ourselves "above" those who deal with these issues on a daily basis in our nation's high schools. As the recently published conference white paper, The Next Generation of History Teachers, correctly contends, we must engage with K–12 educators, not distance ourselves from them. 2 The many specific recommendations in this document deserve serious consideration and adoption. In what follows, I offer a few more suggestions that could, I believe, help efforts to improve K–12 education.

Practical reasons for working to improve K–12 education

We can improve our students' experiences, our programs, and K–12 education by taking advantage of our position as the trainers of teachers. This is especially true if one looks at the demographics of K–12 education. Many high schools envision half of their history teachers retiring within the next 5–10 years. Our students will replace them, and will, most likely, still be there 20 years from now. We've all heard reports of the impending retirement boom, but this time the rumors seem to be true. The Massachusetts Department of Education, for example, is actively planning for a spike in teacher retirements within the next four to five years.

Now is the time to train teachers well and to establish personal and institutional relationships that will allow us to continue to shape their education, and the education of the thousands of students each teacher will affect over the course of a career. We must engage these issues, not distance ourselves from them.

We Must Reach out toward Education Programs

In 2005 the AHA's Committee on the Master's Degree in History produced a report entitled "Retrieving the Master's Degree from the Dustbin of History." This report quoted Cal State Long Beach's Donald Schwartz as saying, "The fact is that many history professors do not feel any connection, personally or academically, to K–12 education in general, or to educating those who will teach on the pre-collegiate level."3 I'd suggest that the disdain many historians feel is not confined to K–12 teachers; many, in fact, hold some in reserve for the education faculty members of their own institutions.

My own graduate experience embarrassingly illustrates this second point quite well. Ohio State University has a "top-five" education program, and our team of graduate students and faculty members never even contacted the people in that program when writing our (successful) outreach and Teaching American History grants. Graduate students (myself included) were being used to prepare lesson plans for teachers across the state to use, but we didn't know the first thing about rubrics, state standards, existing curriculum guides, differentiated instruction, or extended lessons.

If we had talked to our colleagues across the Oval (as the teachers at Ohio State do now), then we could have adopted conventional formats and used common practices to make our ideas about teaching the content more usable. During seminars, institutes, and classroom visitations, we worked hard to present ourselves as the colleagues of the secondary educators we worked with, but we neglected to do the same with our colleagues in the School of Education. Our actions undermined our good intentions.

In short, if you're going to work to improve K–12 education, then you need to have a professional relationship with your own colleagues. If department chairs or graduate coordinators are looking for a specific step to take, they should begin by inviting their counterparts in the education programs to lunch. Programmatic changes begin with personal initiatives.

Have a Designated "Go-to" Person for Education Issues

Give that "go-to" person a course release, if possible. In many departments, this person carries the title of "Secondary Education Coordinator," and it's usually someone with high school teaching experience. That's desirable but not necessary. Your designee must, however, display the willingness and the attitude to tackle all aspects of the job.

So, what is the job? The "education specialist" should know about the licensure requirements for teachers, be an informed adviser to current and prospective students and teachers, know about the relevant teachers' tests, and understand the college's accreditation process. This "Ed person" should be available to go to a lot of meetings and be willing to present the results of those meetings back to your department. This is one of the most important responsibilities of the position, because if your state changes its licensure requirements, it will probably dramatically affect your students' and your program's needs and plans.

If you are the graduate coordinator, then it might be in your best interest to advocate for this position, because the default person will probably be you.

Introduce a "Methods of Teaching History" Class

The "Dustbin of History" report argued that "the distinctive pedagogy of history" should be a part of every historian's training at the master's level, but most graduate programs don't have these. Since most graduate students eventually become teachers of some sort (museum educators, professors, K–12 teachers, public historians), having a structured conversation about what constitutes good history teaching makes a lot of sense.

Moreover, accreditation agencies (those determining if your schools can endorse students for teacher credentials) usually require a "subject-specific" methods-of-teaching class. The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) certainly does. If you think that it takes certain skills to teach history, then don't leave this to the education schools. Seek to enforce your standards; communicate your expectations to the future teachers.

Consider Pedagogy in Your Other Classes

At Salem State College in Massachusetts, where I teach, we offer a course entitled "History Alive." This is a class on how to teach a specific topic selected by the professor. The course emphatically communicates that you must really know a subject before you can teach it well. The classes offer a rough 2/3 content to 1/3 pedagogy split, and are fun to teach.

The course requires a real examination of the topic's secondary literature, while also compelling professors to spend time discussing how to find and use primary sources in a classroom setting. Typical assignments include several book reviews, primary source analyses, and, most importantly, an "academically rigorous unit plan" that incorporates scholarly insights and materials into a detailed plan for teaching and assessing the covered material at the appropriate grade level.

Offering this type of class helps us to shape high school and middle school teaching of history, encouraging teachers to find creative ways to escape merely "teaching to the standards." If you don't want to offer an entire course dedicated to linking scholarship and teaching, you should, at least, consider allowing alternative assignments so your so-inclined graduate students can explore the connections and opportunities on their own.

Beyond serving our narrow self-interests, making these changes would also work to our students' advantage. They would be better prepared to be the "right" kind of history teacher, regardless of setting: high school, museums, or college. More importantly, modifying our programs to train better history teachers certainly benefits their students: the millions of children who might not ever see the inside of our seminar rooms but whose lives can be enriched if their teachers have. If our professional commitment is to improve the general level of historical discourse and understanding in the nation, then this might be the most compelling argument of all.

—Brad Austin is an associate professor of history and his department's secondary education coordinator. A historian of American sports and culture, he served in 2006–07 as the chair of the AHA's Teaching Prizes Committee.


1. Robert B. Townsend, "New Study Highlights Prominence of Elite PhD Programs in History," Perspectives (October 2005). The article can be read online at www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2005/0510/0510new2.cfm.

2. See "The Next Generation of History Teachers: A Challenge to Departments of History at American Colleges and Universities," at http://www.historians.org/pubs/free/historyteaching.

3. Philip M. Katz, Retrieving the Master's Degree from the Dustbin of History, (Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 2005), 32. Available online at http://historians.org/projects/cmd/2005/Report/index.cfm.