Teaching is in the news. Especially the apparent lack of it. The initial test results under the Common Core standards are abysmal and they are wreaking its havoc in the school systems of America. The Common Core now being implemented may not be garner the same attention as Obamacare, but it has generated considerable vociferous and intense condemnation, including calls to cease and desist here in New York. John King, the Commissioner of Education in NYS, cancelled his original statewide tour of public forums when the first one spun out of control, although he has begun a new round.
The new social studies curriculum is scheduled for 2015, the first update since 1996. That curriculum is sure to be a topic of discussion at the annual conference of the New York State Council of Social Studies in Albany in March. The theme of the conference is “Linking Communities Together: Academic, Civic and Cultural.”
Another issue is the impingement of language arts on social studies. The trend towards the use of primary source documents to teach reading skills means language arts teachers may now be teaching the Gettysburg Address or other historical documents, not to understand the historical context of its creation, but to teach reading skills. Some schools may even drop social studies as a separate subject and teach it through these language arts modules. This further raises the concern over the training of teachers to teach content, history or otherwise.
The issue of the competence of the teachers to teach has been questioned. A recent major op-ed piece in the New York Times by Bill Keller was entitled “‘An Industry of Mediocrity.’” Although the focus was not specifically the teaching of history or social studies, much of that piece applies there as well.
The instigation for the current round of dismay appears to have been generated in 2005 by Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University. He belittled the teaching profession while he presided in a scathing denouncement of teacher training. He decried teacher preparation programs as covering a “range from inadequate to appalling.” This indictment was amplified when in the summer of 2013 the National Council on Teacher Quality condemned the current system of teacher education as “an industry of mediocrity,” the phrase Keller used to title his piece.
One emerging approach focuses on those being trained, not on the training (though that is also blamed). The theory goes that in some countries (such as Finland and Singapore) teachers are among the best and brightest, but in America that isn’t true. In America the best and brightest go into professions like finance. Some may spend a year or two in Teach for America for their resume, but not as a career choice. Even those in Teach for America who remain in education often switch to administration. Teaching simply isn’t a priority in this country among breadwinners
Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, spoke to Bill Keller about her experience when she visited Finland where only the top students get into teacher-training programs. “What I hadn’t realized was that setting a high bar at the beginning of the profession sends a signal to everyone else that you are serious about education and teaching is hard.” Anyone who thinks that any reasonably competent adult can just waltz into a classroom and teach has never done it.
A critical problem in this process is that the teacher industrial complex is about as skilled in promoting good teaching as the tourist industrial complex is in promoting the historical community. Teacher education programs are described as “cash cows.” There are lots of applicants who want or who are required to obtain a masters degree who pay full fare and require no dorm or lodging infrastructure. They whisk in and out in late afternoon/early evening, enabling colleges to maximize the revenue from each classroom. This makes teacher education programs cheap to run, but provides no incentive to change. They are making money and no one is officially telling them to do otherwise. As Susan Fuhrman, the current president of Teachers College [full disclosure: my Ed.D is from Teachers College] said, acknowledging the widespread mediocrity, that the state must bear some of the onus. States make it too easy to obtain a teaching license and politicians protect the colleges in their district: “There’s an ed school in every legislator’s district, and nobody wants to close ed schools.’
What does all this mean for the history community? One area where teacher training, certification, and teaching is faulted is in content. Generally the emphasis has been in math and science where America fares poorly with the teachers in other countries. There is no reason to think that the situation is any different in history. Furthermore, if this is true in American history, how much more true is in for state and local history? Exactly when are teachers supposed to learn these subjects? They are not required for certification. They are not required for professional development training after being hired. And such knowledge is scarcely needed to train the students to pass statewide exams.
As both Bob Weible, New York State Historian, and Bruce Dearstyne, formerly of the New York State Archives and the Office of State History, have both pointed out in recent posts, there are serious problems with state history in New York. Education is part of that problem. If by some miracle this divided, fractured, impotent history community was ever able to organize itself and submit a history agenda to the appropriate government people, as Bruce continues to believe is possible, then one component of the agenda should be education.
1. State and local history should be an integral part of the curriculum. Students can acquire skills through knowledge and experiences in their own communities.
2. The certification requirement for becoming an elementary and social studies teacher should include state and local history.
3. The maintenance of one’s certification should require professional development in local history in the community where they actually teach.
I have no illusions that any of this will ever happen, but it feels good just to express it just the same.