Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

History Education and Teaching Social Studies

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documents to teach reading skills means language arts teachers may now be teaching the Gettysburg Address or other historical documents, not to understand the historical context of its creation, but to teach reading skills.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.


9 thoughts on “History Education and Teaching Social Studies

  1. Peter, You are a breath of fresh air in this ongoing discussion, as is the existence of New York History itself. If the history community is as “divided, fractured, impotent” as you describe it, what about those of us who aren’t divided, fractured and impotent? Can’t we get together and turn this around? What’s the common ground we share and what’s driving us apart? More than 4,800 people receive NYH each day through email, RSS, Twitter and Facebook. (Bless you, John Warren). And for many of us, this participation is a labor of love, not a paycheck (though someday I envision it being different). This upcoming holiday season I’m asking Santa and the Universe to bring me what I want: a NYS women’s history trail, a Votes for Women trail from the feds, a state task force to plan the upcoming NYS 2017 women’s suffrage centennial, and plans for real economic development to prepare for the national suffrage centennial in 2020. I’m adding your wish list to mine, Peter:

    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.

    Carry on, Peter!

    1. Thank your for your exuberant reply. May Santa grant you all your wishes!

      The topic of the women’s trail is an important one. I have meant to write one and years ago spoke with some NPS staff in Seneca Falls but was never able to put together a Teacherhostel/Historyhostel. When the Path through History began I mentioned in one post how the NPS was investigating creating its own signs separate from the proposed NYS logo. I don’t know what happened to that effort. The recent posts by Olivia Twine and Marguerite Kearns show that a Path through History could be created on this subject (I was at the recent dedication of the Sojourner Truth statue in Ulster County). Of course to do so would require cooperation, coordination, and planning and there is no one to do it. That is the tragedy. Maybe a bus tour operator can do what the history community can’t.

      As for 2017, maybe women will fare better than the French and Indian War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War since, after all, the governor is up for re-election.


  2. I have been wondering about the effect of standardized curriculum and testing on school group attendance at museums. I have heard from teachers that there is no time to focus on material outside the curriculum and tests. If the curriculum and tests do not contain local history content, it makes sense that school group attendance will decline. Is it possible that a standardized curriculum could make it difficult for museums to achieve their educational missions? Is the curriculum flexible enough to allow for local history content to be introduced through museum programs? Since the answer may differ from school district to school district, I would love to see a comprehensive study on this topic.

  3. One reason for the so-called lower level of teachers — supposedly the “best and brightest” do not go into teaching — why would they, when they can earn triple (or more) going into another profession? A teacher might earn $25,000 after a minimum of five years of college and probably more of teaching. That’s not even an acceptable starting salary in other fields! And that doesn’t include the harassment from students and often from administration. If you question that, read “Up the Down Staircase.”

    (My figures may be outdated, but I expect they are outdated for BOTH teaching and the “other fields” cited!) My husband was a teacher and his parents were disappointed he didn’t go into law, as he could have earned a LOT more than he did, but he was a good teacher and a caring one. He later went into guidance, and never quite reached the $25,000 level before he retired in 1985. So why would an ambitious and well-educated student want to teach??

  4. Teachers are a lot better than you seem to think. Check out the self-appointed system of administrative certification if mediocrity is your cry. Let teachers teach, and you might be amazed. Stop the teacher-bashing. We’re probably half your audience.

  5. For years, it was possible to be certified in New York State to teach “Social Studies” without ever taking a course in American -or any other history. Either we want to teach History-or another subject not necessarily related to it. The solution to the problem should be obvious, and I recognize that some steps in that direction have been taken. But, many teachers still in the pipeline were certified in the “no history” regime and they continue to operate in that manner.

  6. Hi there, was talking to a local history teacher tonight about this question. He spent a lot of his life teaching local and state history. I’m an IBM computer guy, and for several years admined a local museum. Also a genealogist, and I’m here to tell you what you already know. Todays students know nothing about history. If you look around, every day, in every state cemeteries are being destroyed by today’s youth. Why not? There are not rooted in their community, the founders of their communities and this nation mean nothing to them. And it’s our fault. It happened on our watch. And what will we do about it?

    1. “When a British officer finally appeared with a white flag on the parapet surrounding Yorktown, the French and American guns fell quiet. The Continental forces let go a momentous cheer until Washington ordered it silenced. “Let history huzzah for you,” he was heard to shout. ” And now, we don’t teach history any more, the shout that began in 1781, has finally ended…

  7. Mr. Feinman is right on in most of his comments over the years on the relationships of living history and what the SS students take in todays classes.
    Every piece of ground that a student sits in a chair, in a classroom, in a building, in a town, has history.
    I hope his current 3 points are made a reality in the 2015 SS revised curriculum.
    As for me I just roam the hills of home wondering at the ancient lithic sites.

Comments are closed.