The Growth of Collaboration in History Education: Current Practices

William Weber, September 1999

The first thing that Leon Fink did upon becoming vice president for the Teaching Division of the AHA was to publish a call for all history departments (and indeed museums and history societies) to report about the programs they conduct with the schools. He declared:

As the AHA's new vice president for the Teaching Division, I hope to make connections between universities and each historical organization and secondary schools the number one priority of the division over the next three years. Drawing on the experience of numerous experimental efforts initiated in past years, I hope to challenge every university and college history department and historical organization to incorporate teacher training in one form or another into its formal mission. Let this message serve as a call to all historical organizations with any ongoing teacher training or K–12-oriented project to report for duty!1

The response has been extremely encouraging: a dozen museums and historical societies and three dozen history departments reported what they are doing in this area. The letters show a great deal more activity than many people expected—historians supervising student teachers, giving classes in history education, running institutes to update teachers' knowledge, and setting up public programs based in the schools. The reports will be posted on the web site of the National History Education Project, and an issue of The History Teacher will be devoted to the subject of collaboration.2 Here I will give a quick summary of the reports and suggest a few things for departments that are thinking about starting programs of this kind.

The most specific idea that emerges from the reports is the recognition that our greatest social effect as college history teachers may be in K–12 classrooms around the country. If history graduates go on to do any one thing in particular, it is to teach our subject in a school. A lot of satisfaction is to be gained from helping your students look ahead to a teaching career and thereby connect your work directly with the community at large. There are currently two principal types of collaboration: (1) programs leading to the attainment of history degrees and teaching credentials and (2) "in-service" activities offering professional development to history teachers. These collaborations have happy consequences. Members of a department that has done this for a decade or so find themselves working closely and pleasurably with their former students in training new generations of teachers. That will happen, however, only when university historians come to respect what K–12 teachers do and become colleagues with them on an equal, professional basis.

What I see happening in the departments most involved with history teaching has a lot to do with the evolution of American higher education. Colleges that were begun to train teachers took on comprehensive curricula but are now coming back to their original roles much more seriously. In her response to the AHA call for information, Rosanne J. Marek of Ball State University described succinctly what has happened at many institutions: "Founded as a normal school, Ball State became a comprehensive university over 75 years ago but its roots in teacher education are strong and deep." This is true of private colleges as well. A study of graduates from Bowdoin College, for example, showed that over a third went on to careers in education, the majority of them in the schools.

The reports make clear that history departments are having a great deal more to do with programs for training teachers. The nature of this service takes many different forms at different kinds of institutions. If at Tufts University two faculty are permanent liaisons with the School of Education concerning teacher training, at the University of Northern Colorado history and education faculty hold joint seminars on teaching. The most common practice at present is to hire a historian who has experience in the schools to coordinate the courses in history education and the placement of student teachers, but usually to teach history courses as well. John Shedd, who taught for years in North Carolina, plays such a role at the State University of New York at Cortland, as does Don Schwartz, my colleague at California State University at Long Beach, who can draw upon his experience in New York City schools.3 Such a person provides a crucial link with the educational community, helping bring teachers into university programs and better acquaint his or her colleagues with the way things are in the schools.

The most pleasant surprise from the reports has been the number of institutions where courses in history education are located in history departments; there are probably a lot more than the dozen I can identify from their responses. Most fall into the category of "comprehensive" universities with MA programs, but some do give doctorates. They are found in the the east (SUNY, Cortland, George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia; West Chester State University in Chester, Pennsylvania; Queen's College of the City University of New York; and Central Connecticut State University in Wallingford); in the south (Arkansas State University); the Midwest (Ball State, Pittsburg State University in Kansas, Illinois State University in Normal, and Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville); and in the west (California State University at Long Beach, University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, San Diego State University, and Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff). The program at Illinois State is especially impressive in its variety of activities and depth of involvement with the schools. Lawrence McBride and Frederick Drake, who teach at Illinois State, have become widely known specialists in history education. Both work closely with the State Board of Education in drafting and implementing their state's standards in history/social studies. Their department offers a complete program in history education; that is, it both offers courses in the methods of teaching history and administers student teaching. Master teachers from local schools conduct the courses, and both history faculty and recently retired teachers supervise the students in their first experiences in the classroom. The second of the two methods courses required of students is held in five cooperating high schools in Normal, Peoria, and the Chicago suburbs, where students can observe good teachers doing an innovative lesson plan just after hearing Drake talk about it. And every spring the department gives a conference to over a hundred teachers, aided by an advisory council of people from the field.

A key innovation made by several programs is to teach content courses with special regard for students who intend to teach. This is not a reversion to preparing students through a major in education; quite to the contrary, such courses seem to be given most commonly in states where prospective teachers must take a major in a content field. At San Diego State, for example, Albert O'Brien in American history and Ross Dunn in world history offer courses on the material within which they also start students thinking about how to teach it. California requires candidates for credentials not only to major in a social science but also to take what amounts to a minor in history if they are from another field.

Team-teaching of history education courses often serves the same function. At Northern Colorado, Fritz Fischer reports that history faculty teach seminars with education faculty in the three courses required of candidates, enabling both of them, as he puts it, "to offer insight gathered from practice and experience rather than mere educational theory." History faculty teach a seminar on standards closely linked with efforts to help students develop a full body of knowledge of what the standards demand (Colorado also requires a content major). Jack Censer tells a similar story about George Mason University, where a lead teacher works with a faculty member, often at a school, in conducting courses in world history and Western civilization aimed at future teachers. His department has developed close relations with the people who design and implement the state's standards, to make sure students are taught what is required. "These classes," he suggests, "provide substantive materials in these areas but are adapted to the teachers in that all the research and writing that the students do relates to the generation of original lesson plans in these areas."

Another faculty member of George Mason University's history department, Roy Rosenzweig, has been instrumental in the development of the American Social History Project's web site, "History Matters!" (http://www.historymatters., which provides an interactive electronic gateway for K–12 and college teachers of American history.

Some departments work with elementary teacher training programs as well, since that credential often requires an academic major. At Ball State the history education program is housed in the history department, where a methods course is taught and distribution requirements in different fields adjudicated. Such activity often leads to more wide-ranging programs. Roseanne Marek reports that in the last two years her department has sponsored two workshops about China and Mexico and a faculty forum on the state of history/social science education in Indiana.

Supervision of student teachers is another major area where forward-looking departments have involved themselves. Almost all states require that a student teacher be visited by someone from the college, university, or school district that is directing the field experience. If nothing else, it is necessary to make sure that the student is adequate to this early task and that he or she and the master teacher are communicating. While normally that is done by education faculty, it is increasingly done by retired teachers (as we saw at Northern Illinois) or by history faculty themselves. The responsibility has the decided attraction of being one-on-one, a kind of in-depth advisory role, and when done well it can build important links between universities and schools. At some universities (Illinois State, State University of New York at Cortland, West Chester State, and Cal State at Long Beach, for example) historians do all the visits, usually four to six times per student teacher (though in many cases it is part-time rather than tenure-track faculty who are involved). Student teachers need help with deepening their knowledge quickly and efficiently during this often traumatic experience. Fischer describes it as serving as a consultant to the student: "We feel it is critically important that this mentoring is provided by a practicing history professional with knowledge and experience about the specific problems associated with teaching history."

Other departments share supervisory responsibilities with education faculty. Kelly Woestmann of Pittsburgh State (well known as a moderator of H-Teach) reports that she serves as "content supervisor" for students, seeing them several times on campus and once at the school and receives a reflective journal (two units goes to the history department). She also gives a course called "Teaching Social Studies in the Middle and Secondary Schools." As history/social studies education coordinator receiving release time on a regular basis, she has upgraded the required GPA for the program from 2.5 to 2.75 and has made sure that the requirement has stuck. She finds that it is important to get students to withdraw early if they do not have the grades or the proper motivation to go into teaching: "It does mean that I give up teaching one more upper-division course in 20th-century U. S. history each year, but it is definitely worth the outcome."

It is also becoming more and more common to bring teachers in from the schools to conduct classes in history teaching. This again is an extremely important means by which to build ties with the schools—indeed, to develop larger collaboratives. There is what one must call a movement of such partnerships around the country by which school districts, community colleges, and universities link up within a continuing program to merge their efforts in areas in which they relate. Such activity is not done overnight, however; it will generally succeed only as the outcome of many small activities coordinated between the different institutions, and from people in all areas getting to know one another well.

Many departments have been working on the other angle of collaboration—conferences, institutes, and long-term programs for the professional development of history teachers. James Lorence and his colleagues at the Marathon County campus of the University of Wisconsin have been doing that for 14 years. An article on the program of their History Teaching Alliance will appear in The History Teacher in November. We have already encountered examples whereby a department holds a conference annually at which faculty present lectures about the state of interpretation in frequently taught subjects, or on new ways by which to teach them. The reports make clear that this is best done when linked with a school district or with a teachers organization (most often the local chapter of the National Council for the Social Studies). You can't just announce it and expect that teachers will come; you need to sit down with them and plan out what they want to do.

Large-scale outreach programs are increasingly important in helping departments develop their own programs. The California History/Social Sciences Subject Matter Project program, having weathered recent political storms successfully, is shifting the focus of its 11 sites to some degree from summer institutes to programs in the schools during the academic year. Its new director, following Edward Berenson and Amanda Poday, is Jana Flores, a former middle-school teacher who has come up the ranks in the project, an excellent example of the new professional program builder who comes out of the schools and works well with historians. Classicist Ron Mellor is an active force as principal investigator of the statewide project.

The program has drawn its site directors from historians both at the University of California and California State University, the latter being the main place where teachers are trained. For example, Asianist Linda Pomerantz developed the site at CSU at Dominguez Hills and then served as interim director of the state program and Americanist Jon Gjerde just finished his third year at the flourishing site at University of California at Berkeley. In some cases faculty from history and education serve together—at CSU at San Bernardino, Al Wolf of education works with medievalist Cheryl Riggs and obtained state funds by which to bring historians into the schools.

The University of North Carolina's Project for History Education is also impressive. Founded in 1991 by Leon Fink and Lloyd Kramer, it puts on four Saturday seminars each year with an eye to both historical and pedagogical aspects of major subjects. Ranging from "Lifestyles of the Not-So-Rich-and-Famous" to "Medieval Women" to "Cuban-American Relations from '98 to '98," the meetings aim to help teachers devise interactive lesson plans with programs that go beyond the simple lecture. A book of essays about current issues in history education emerged from the founding conference of the project entitled Learning History in America: Schools, Culture and Politics, edited by Lloyd Kramer, Donald Reid, and William Barney (1994).

An important way to help a department put on an annual conference is to link up with another institution that can help bring participants and provide funds. Western Illinois University has done that particularly well, having had its 24th annual conference this year. Since 1977 the School Service Committee of the history department has run a program that helps districts put on one-day institutes with university faculty speaking, and many of the teachers who participate then come to the annual meeting. Other successful conferences include the one put on by Wayne State University's American constitutional history faculty, done with the Detroit/Dearborn History Teaching Alliance with Ford Foundation money. Interest in teaching the Holocaust has stimulated a variety of conferences and course programs as well. In New Jersey, where teaching the subject is mandated in its standards, Rutgers University has held one-day conferences and seven-week courses. Florida State University has likewise had regular conferences on the subject.

To do full justice to this subject we would need to explore the widespread activities of museums and history societies for history teachers. Departments are well advised to work with these organizations, and see how well they know how to link up with public needs. The organizations that responded to Professor Fink's call include the National Archives, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the North Carolina Maritime Museum, the Indiana Junior Historical Society, the Minnesota Historical Society, the Chicago Historical Society, and the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.

The response to Leon Fink's call to action as vice president suggests the wealth of opportunities that departments possess to develop outreach programs to the schools. It is advisable to start by connecting directly with local history teachers. You might give some release time to a young, gregarious faculty member (maybe someone already involved in PTA or a children's soccer league), who would talk with the social studies coordinator at the nearest school district about what teachers might want to do. Invite them to help plan an after-school session, and you've got a program going.

—William Weber writes on the social history of European music in the 18th and 19th centuries. A member of the history department at California State University at Long Beach, he also edits The History Teacher for the Society of History Education. His e-mail address is


1. Leon Fink, memorandum of June 30, 1998, regarding K–12 collaboration.

2. The NHEN web site is at

3. See the article I coauthored with my colleagues, "Seamless Education in Long Beach: University/College/School Collaboration," Perspectives (September 1997).