The American Historical Association and K-16 Collaboration

Karen Halttunen, October 2008

In January 2008, the AHA Council accepted the final report of the Working Group on the Future of the American Historical Association. The report’s primary recommendation is that, “To secure its future, the AHA must reach out to a broader membership and become more diverse and inclusive while preserving its core constituency of history PhDs who teach at research universities and liberal arts colleges.” One key constituency emphasized by the report is K–12 teachers—specifically, Advanced Placement teachers, as well as, more generally, high school teachers. The working group, which was chaired by William Chafe, recommends that the AHA create special dues categories and benefits to attract high school teachers to the Association, and redesign the annual meeting so that “up to 25 percent of all sessions are dedicated to programs targeted toward these new constituencies, e.g. teaching sessions focused on bringing new technologies into the classroom, etc.” The full report was published in the April 2008 issue of Perspectives on History, and has been posted on the AHA web site. Currently, the Implementation Committee (which is a subcommittee of the Council), chaired by president-elect Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, is reviewing the issues raised in the report, and setting priorities for responding to its recommendations.

The Teaching Division of the AHA welcomes the Working Group’s recommendations, especially as they apply to K–12 history teachers, who have occupied an important place on our agenda in recent years. Our work has been part of a significant upsurge, in the past two decades, in K–16 collaboration among history teachers—a partnership pursued, in my own home state, by both the California History-Social Science Project and the National Center for History in the Schools, which have been actively shaping history instruction since the early 1990s. K–16 collaboration breaks with the older model of “K–12 outreach,” in which collegiate teachers presented content-expertise to K–12 teachers, while K–12 teachers played the relatively passive role of returning students.1 The basic premise of K–16 collaboration is that history teachers at all levels are fellow professionals, who share the common tasks of both generating and transmitting historical knowledge, and who have much to learn from one another. In K–16 collaboration, history teachers at all levels (but especially from middle school through college) exchange historical knowledge and teaching strategies in ways that enhance instruction in all their classrooms. (K–12 educators, for example, have been at the forefront of learner-centered education, a pedagogical approach that has been trickling up to college and university classrooms.) K–16 collaboration illuminates our mutual professional interests, as well as our shared role as learners and teachers of history. K–12 teachers prepare their students to study history at two- and four-year colleges; college-level historians, in turn, prepare some of their students to become K–12 teachers, a responsibility that Edward L. Ayers, in “The Next Generation of History Teachers,” has urged us to take up more thoughtfully.2 Both K–12 teachers and college-level historians register the impact of federal educational policies, such as the reduction of history instruction as a result of No Child Left Behind. And the extension of policies mandating educational assessment from the elementary and secondary levels to colleges and universities will further expand the collective self-interest of K–16 history instructors.”3

One of the greatest recent boons to K–16 collaboration has been the Teaching American History grants program from the Department of Education. The grants under this program have funded more than 800 projects across the country since 2001. The program is now also funding a National History Education Clearinghouse, located at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Its purpose is to create the central online location for accessing high-quality resources for K–12 U.S. history instruction, with a focus on historical thinking and learning.4 The AHA, along with Stanford University and the National History Center, is partnering with CHNM in this work. The AHA’s primary responsibility to the Clearinghouse is to host and help facilitate a yearly workshop aimed at K–12 U.S. history teachers, scheduled for all-day Saturday during the Association’s annual meeting. We have completed the planning for this meeting to be held in New York City on January 3, 2009—which will feature distinguished historian-educators Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Sam Wineburg, and several K–12 teachers—and we are beginning to work toward the San Diego meeting in 2010. It is our hope that these workshops will help draw significant numbers of K–12 teachers (mostly from the immediate area around the meeting city) to the AHA’s annual meetings, and direct them towards additional panels and sessions throughout the program that may be of interest and value to them.

Unfortunately, the Teaching American History grants do not fund professional development in the field of world history. K–12 teachers of world history are in even greater need of support than U.S. history teachers, because of both the vast scope of the field, and many teachers’ relative lack of formal preparation to teach it.5 Within the AHA, the Research and Teaching Divisions have been working together to expand the number of Teaching Sessions offered in world history at the annual meeting. In an effort to counter the tendency to teach world history as an assortment of “world civilizations” largely disconnected from one another in both time and space, we are planning a multiyear program of panels under the rubric of “Sites of Encounter and Cultural Production.” In New York in 2009, the annual meeting will offer two “Sites of Encounter” sessions: “Teaching the Muslim World and World War I,” and “Thinking Historically about Early Human History.” These panels are intended to serve as models of K–16 collaboration: each features both research scholars and secondary teachers, whose purpose will be to exchange research findings and pedagogical strategies concerning major encounters, and to engage the audience—which we hope will include all levels of history teachers—in conversation on the subject. For the annual meeting in San Diego in 2010, we hope to feature at least four “Sites of Encounter and Cultural Production” sessions on the same model. More broadly, we would like to see these sessions generate more Teaching Sessions devoted to K–16 collaboration that do not necessarily involve sites of encounter or world history per se.

The National History Education Clearinghouse workshop and the “Sites of Encounter and Cultural Production” sessions represent two new initiatives of the AHA in the area of K–16 collaboration. Whether or not such activities can significantly broaden our membership to include more K–12 teachers, as the Working Group on the Future of the AHA has recommended, remains to be seen. The problem with annual programming for K–12 teachers is that we are unlikely to draw many teachers who do not live relatively close to the meeting site, since K–12 teachers are rarely funded for such travel. And unless we act on the working group’s suggestion that we publish a journal aimed at all teacher-historians (comparable to the Magazine of History published by the Organization of American Historians), our membership benefits may not be sufficient to draw K–12 teachers to our membership. What is clear, however, is that K–16 programming can better serve K–12 teachers, and draw more of them into our annual meetings, in addition to broadening the annual meeting’s appeal to two- and four-year college- and university faculty, as well as public historians and other practitioners. The Teaching Division invites suggestions and proposals from AHA members concerning future K–16 collaborations. Send your suggestions and proposals to Noralee Frankel.

—Karen Halttunen, professor of history at the University of Southern California, is vice president of the AHA’s Teaching Division.


1. For a discussion of the distinctions between these two approaches, see Karen Halttunen, “K–12 Outreach or K–16 Collaboration?” at

2. See Edward L. Ayers, “The Next Generation of History Teachers: A Challenge to Departments of History at American Colleges and Universities,” a white paper endorsed by the AHA.

3. This new approach is discussed the document created by the AHA, OAH, and NCSS, “Benchmarks for Professional Development in Teaching of History as a Discipline.”

4. The Clearinghouse went on-line this past spring, at

5. The World History Association, founded in 1982 by a combination of secondary teachers and academics, has been a leader in K–16 collaboration in world history, playing an instrumental role in establishing standards for world history at the national and state levels, designing the AP world history course, and providing instructional materials on its website. Indeed, the WHA’s mission statement includes the goal of bridging the gap between secondary and post-secondary educators in world history. The association’s web site address is