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Coaches Shouldn't Teach History

Testimony Ms. Ravitch gave on April 10, 2003 in support of a bill by Sen. Lamar Alexander to promote the teaching of history.

History education is one of the most important responsibilities of our schools. Unfortunately, for many years, the teaching of history had a low priority. In the 1970s and 1980s, history in many schools was replaced by a mishmash of ill-defined social studies courses that taught things like group decision-making, consumer education, and social science concepts. In 1983, for instance, the New York State Education Department intended to replace the chronological study of history with a thematic approach in which events were merged with big concepts and taught without regard to cause and effect. A popular outcry prevented that from taking place.

In many states, history was submerged into social studies programs, and states adopted social studies standards that ignored chronological history. Civics too suffered when it was separated from the study of American history. The study of history has been making a comeback in recent years. Ten years ago, only four states-California, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Texas-had history standards to guide teachers. Today, after ten years of popular support for academic standards, about half the states now have history standards.

We know from the tests given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that our students, especially in their senior year, have low scores in American history. In fact, the performance of seniors on the NAEP in U.S. history is worse than in any other subject, whether science, reading, or mathematics.

The greatest need in history education today is for well-prepared teachers who have studied history and who know how to make it vivid for youngsters.

Too many states have very low requirements for those who plan to teach history. In part, this is because of a longstanding tradition that anyone can teach history; just stay a few pages ahead of the students in the textbook, and you too can be a history teacher. That method is not good enough for teachers of math or science, and it is not good enough for history teachers either.

Our young people should study history with teachers who love history, who can go far beyond the textbook to get youngsters involved in learning about the exciting events and controversies that bring history to life; we need teachers who know enough about history to awaken the curiosity of their students and to encourage them to read more than the textbooks tell them and even to question what the textbooks tell them.

Sadly, the majority of those who teach history in our schools are teaching out of their field. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, a majority of history teachers in grades 7-12 lack either a college major or minor or graduate degree in history. In many cases, they majored in education, not in an academic subject. The only field that has more out-of-field teaching than history is the physical sciences, that is, physics and chemistry.

Many states recognize that they must make extraordinary efforts to reach out and recruit qualified teachers of physical sciences, but there is no comparable awareness of the conspicuous shortage of qualified teachers of history. In part, the problem is one created by short-sighted state policies, which put more emphasis on pedagogical degrees than on knowledge of one's subject. The young person with a history degree who wants to teach may be required to take many courses in pedagogy, even another master's degree in pedagogy, whether relevant to teaching ability or not.

Another reason for the shortage of qualified history teachers is that our universities have not addressed this need. With few exceptions, their history departments have become highly specialized; in addition to narrow specialization, university professors tend to pride themselves on taking a highly critical, adversarial attitude towards American history and culture. Nor do university professors believe that it is their role to teach civics along with history. Few universities have programs geared to produce teachers of history and civics for the K-12 classrooms; they leave that to the social studies educators, who see history as only a small part of their very large and diffuse subject.

This is a case where Congress can help with very clear and specific goals: Supplying academies for teachers of American history and civics, as well as programs for motivated students of American history and civics.

The need is clear. We simply do not have enough teachers who are well prepared to teach these basic subjects. The legislative program is equally clear: to provide academies where teachers can gain the knowledge and skills to teach American history and civics effectively.