After National Standards, What Next for History in the Schools?

Leon Fink, September 1998

Everywhere there is talk of crisis in the nation's schools and of uncertainty over the fate of public education. Of a few things, however, we can be sure. We can be certain that teacher education will be one part of the resulting mix, as nearly two million K–12 teachers will be hired into the school systems over the next decade. We can also be confident that historical studies will inevitably be a part of future social studies curricular configurations. But what depth of historical understanding will social studies teachers possess, and how will history be taught in the twenty-first century? More to the point, what can professional historians—as university and college faculty, graduate students, or public historians—do about it? In the aftermath of the national history standards debacle of 1994–95, it behooves the organized historical community to consider seriously both its responsibilities and its capacities vis-à-vis the vexing issues of K–12 education and the professional community of history schoolteachers. As vice president of the AHA's teaching division, I want briefly to lay out a little of what I have learned over the past few months, offer a few modest suggestions, and issue a call for help.

Cause for Concern

There are two good reasons why we as historians should care about the schools: they need us and we need them. It should be obvious that the state of history education in the schools—both as a function of larger problems afflicting public education and the peculiar status of social studies professionalism—is cause for concern. Even in an arena in which a majority of the country's teachers majored in education rather than an academic subject, the field of history fares the worst. Government figures indicate that only 40 percent of history teachers have a bachelor's degree in the subject, and an equal percentage have had less than a college minor in the field. The situation still gives rise to the old joke that half the history teachers in the nation have the same first name: "Coach." Moreover, partly for egalitarian reasons and partly out of intellectual disdain, secondary schools that systematically set aside special resources for an accelerated track in English, math, and science seldom do so for history/social studies. Teaching materials at the secondary level are also lamentable. A recent survey of high school texts in the New York Review of Books, for example, scores the dumbing-down of content in the crucial text selection states of Texas and California under the twin influences of right-wing fundamentalist and professional-multicultural interest groups.

Anyone who has a child or a friend in the schools also appreciates the enormous morale problem confronting the social studies professional. Besides woefully inadequate salaries and the daily stress of inheriting all of society's problems in microcosm, the teacher—often pinned between conflicting demands of parents, the principal, and state-mandated curricula—has little time for intellectual nourishment and easily forgets why she or he went into this blessed line of work in the first place.

The history profession has an obvious stake in the schools' crisis. The university not only inherits the schools' "products" but also is chiefly responsible for providing and training the childrens' teachers. If we care about a historically informed citizenry—and, after all, this is our principal claim to a defensible social function—then surely the schools have a claim on our professional attention. Moreover, both intellectually and professionally, there are issues deriving from the schools that immediately affect higher-education institutions. In many states, for example, current plans for enhanced teacher credentialing open the possibility for a whole new track of masters and in-service teacher candidates in graduate courses in U.S. and world history. For both the most lofty and self-interested reasons, then, we ought to be actively involved in teacher education as well as local and state school curricula. But where do we stand in relation to this responsibility?

Mixed Legacy

As a profession largely enveloped within an academic culture, we first have to acknowledge current limits on our knowledge, freedom of action, and influence in the schools. As is clear from a recent survey conducted by the AHA's Teaching Division (about which I will have more to say below), most college and university history departments have no direct or sustained contact with teachers or public schools as history-teaching institutions. Indeed, it is probably fair to say (with a few, singular exceptions) that the more prestigious and research-oriented the university department, the less relation it has with the school-teaching community.

To be sure, there is a level of school-related advocacy in which the profession has been recurrently engaged. Beginning with the "new historians" of the 1890s, commissions of university professionals pushed hard for a national history curriculum based on " and "scientific" standards. In the 1920s and 1930s, progressive historians supported initiatives of the National Council for the Social Studies, at once advocating close links between history and social sciences and asserting history's preeminence as the "crown" of the social studies' curriculum. Again, in the 1950s and 1960s, the AHA's Service Center for Teachers of History was designed to bridge the gap between college/university historians and their counterparts in the schools. Each year the AHA set aside funds from its operating budget to sponsor two dozen conferences, arranged by the Service Center with school systems around the country, as a conduit to promote contacts and mutual efforts at the local level.

Although cutbacks in federal funding limited the capacity for grassroots service programs, the 1980s—as Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn neatly document in History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the American Past (1998)—nevertheless witnessed a new round of collaborative initiatives, including establishment of the History Teaching Alliance (1980), National History Day (1980), the World History Association (1982), and the OAH's Magazine of History. The most momentous moves of the era, however, came from on high with the movement for national standards in history education. Beginning with the report of the Bradley Commission of 1987, invigorated by President George Bush's call for National Education Goals in 1989 (including then-ardent support from National Endowment for the Humanities chair Lynne Cheney), and crowned by President Clinton's Goals 2000: Educate America Act (1994), the profession threw all its official weight behind the National History Standards Project, officially seated at UCLA's National Center for History in the Schools (NCHS). Seeking to connect the "new" and "global" histories of post-1960 scholarship with the continuing need for a national and world history narrative, by fall 1994 the NCHS was readying an elaborate set of documents for initial public response. What they were not prepared for was the full-scale politicization of the proposed history standards at the very moment of the "Gingrich Revolution" in the Congress.

As most readers know, we are now living not so much in a "post-standards" world of education but rather in a "post-national standards" world. While individual states rush in an often helter-skelter way to create new forms of student and teacher accountability and testing procedures, neither they nor the federal government choose to follow through on the original commitment of the Bush administration for a "renaissance in education." The idea of a nationwide renewal of history education in the schools as engineered by designated representatives of the scholarly profession has proven at best to be no more than a noble dream.

Ongoing Collaboratives and Local Bases for Renewal

If we as historians still intend to influence the public schools after the standards fight, we must ask if there is more than one way to skin a cat. So long as the federal government remains an unwilling or incapable ally, logic suggests that we look to our base and particularly to active collaboration between university faculty (as well as public history scholars) and neighboring schoolteachers for the seeds of renewal and expansion of the professional historical community. The teaching division's recent survey of history departments offers evidence that a distinguished minority of our colleagues are indeed forging some imaginative new links for their institutions and new roles for themselves as professionals.

Collaborative projects for history teachers tend to separate into two groups. First there are the departments formally engaged in degree-granting programs for pre-service (that is, education students) or in-service (mainly MA or MAT candidates) teachers. Such programs deserve greater attention than can be afforded here, but clearly there is considerable diversity and innovation among them. At Illinois State University, California State University at Long Beach, and Pennsylvania's West Chester University, for example, history department faculty take charge of required social studies methods courses and supervise student teachers in the field. By contrast, the University of Illinois at Chicago for 25 years has hosted an MAT or a "teaching track MA" program (with all classes beginning after 4 p.m.) based on the principle that teachers should master the same content courses as prospective doctoral candidates. Meanwhile, Michigan State University, ranked by some polls as the nation's top graduate program for secondary education, offers an uncommon pairing of history and pedagogical faculty in its courses for prospective secondary-school social studies teachers.

Community of Inquiry and Professional Development

The other approach, perhaps more feasible for most institutions, involves projects of professional or "staff" development, based on voluntary connections between subject matter teachers and disciplinary scholars. Writing in the American Educational Research Journal (summer 1993), education theorist Peter Seixas identifies the "community of inquiry" as a critical yet too often absent component of historical understanding. "[Teachers'] distance from the academic community makes them tend to see historical knowledge as being created by others. To the extent that they receive history as inert, opaque information, it is not surprising that they reproduce those presentations when they turn to face the students in the classroom." In Seixas's view, moreover, the potential for community between teachers and scholars holds benefits not only for the former but the latter by focusing on the problem of "conveying knowledge beyond their own community."

At least three ongoing programs of professional development seem notably to address Seixas's aim of creating a community of inquiry between professors and teachers of history:

  • The Marathon County (Wisconsin) History Teaching Alliance, founded in 1986, offers summer institutes as well as yearlong seminars in selected topical areas for teachers. Emphasizing the latest scholarly content and interpretations over methodological training—and drawing on both scholars and public figures from both inside and outside the state—the alliance facilitates an extraordinary disciplinary conversation.
  • The California History-Social Science Project, the most ambitious collaborative program in the country (and as a result under recurrent political threat of loss of funding), since 1991 has brought K-12 teachers to college campuses and college faculty to school classrooms at selected sites across the state. Combining history, geography, and other social sciences in a joint endeavor, participating teachers enjoy a rare opportunity for research as well as lesson planning in close contact with disciplinary scholars.
  • The Project for Historical Education at the University of North Carolina, established in 1991, regularly sponsors workshop sessions for teacher renewal credit on topics chosen by a joint faculty/teacher/graduate student steering committee. These five-hour, document-based sessions—attracting 30 to 60 participants to the Chapel Hill campus on four Saturdays each academic year plus an appearance at the social studies teachers annual state conference—have created a loyal network of participants and offered a sounding board for some of the most dedicated educators across the state.

Challenge and Appeal to AHA Members

With so much riding on what President Jimmy Carter would likely call the current "malaise days" of the public schools--and with university faculty constantly challenged to defend their distinctive social role and professional reward system--there is no better time than now to extend the bounds of the professional circles of historians to include history and social studies teachers. Indeed, can we really afford to treat history in the schools and higher education as separate worlds? I have offered above just a sample of current ideas and programs percolating among our members. My own view is that no history department—however decorated with good scholars and teachers—is truly distinguished in a professional sense if it does not in some way take up the larger challenge of public citizenship.

The AHA's Teaching Division seeks to build on current projects in various ways. At next year's annual meeting in Washington, D.C., we shall sponsor two new teaching workshops (or microcosms of classroom process), which we hope will attract area schoolteachers as well as college faculty and graduate student participants. We are also initiating a new prize procedure—"certificates of distinction"--for high school history textbooks that take seriously the educational standards of the profession. In the future we plan to organize special meeting sessions and grant projects to push a partnership agenda. Through all such measures we hope to improve the climate for collaborative work. In these efforts the teaching division relies on the National History Education Network, a clearinghouse and advocate for history teaching programs, directed by Loretta Lobes at Carnegie Mellon University. But clearly, we are still standing at the water's edge of effective collaborative work. We welcome a broader discussion of these issues. We look to our members (and fellow teachers) to teach by example and show us the way. I invite departments and historical organizations with any ongoing teacher education or K–12 oriented project to send me a brief description of the project and appropriate contact information.

—Leon Fink (Univ. of North Carolina) is the vice president of the AHA's Teaching Division.

Please send the information to Leon Fink, Vice President, Teaching Division, American Historical Association, 400 A St., SE, Washington, DC 20003-3889. Fax (202) 544-8307.