The End of History Education in Elementary Schools?
Bruce VanSledright, Kimberly Reddy, and Brie Walsh, May 2012
Their stories were quite different. When asked, school principals and district social studies coordinators reported few reductions in curricular time devoted to history in elementary schools, perhaps reflecting their concerns with a mandate to provide a balanced set of learning opportunities for all students. However, almost two-thirds of the elementary teachers surveyed reported that instructional time in history had decreased substantially since 2002. When queried about how history education fared in comparison to other subject offerings, the stories began to converge: 88 percent of the elementary teachers noted that it was considered a low priority and 63 percent of the elementary school principals noted that history education's importance paled in comparison to subjects such as reading and mathematics.
The year was 2006 and the state was Maryland. The surveys were part of a state-level task force convened to understand the fate of history and social studies education in the wake of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation.1 Since then, from the Carolinas to California, additional survey work and research studies revealed this same pattern: the systematic teaching of history had all but ended in elementary schools across the country, pushed out by the prioritizations of mathematics and reading and the powerful testing and accountability regimes that had grown up around them.2 On closer analysis, it became additionally apparent that in school districts having difficulty meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) accountability requirements in those two subjects, history education had fully disappeared.
Some observers accounted for history's demise by claiming that the hybridized, integrated social studies curriculum had subsumed history into its raft of social science subjects at the elementary school level. However, examinations of elementary school curricula across the country reveal that state history is still a required subject in the fourth grade; a national history survey in the fifth. The holiday curriculum (for example, Thanksgiving Day, Presidents Day, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day) continues to provide occasions for teaching history in most elementary grades. And approaches such as studying the history of local communities populate professed offerings in the lower grades. At least on paper, history continues to serve as a centerpiece of the elementary school social studies curriculum, critics' claims notwithstanding.
The seeming demise of history education in elementary school may be in part a function of the adage that, if it's not tested, it will not be taught, but NCLB (and its deprioritization of history education) seems the more likely principal culprit. To be sure, close to half of the 50 states do test in history, but only a handful measure history achievement at the elementary level.3 This tempts advocates to lobby for more systematic testing of history achievement, perhaps even a mandate built into the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. After all, it stands to reason that a testing regime might provoke a stronger elementary school history curriculum and force more devotion to teaching it in the nation's schools. This in turn would underpin and strengthen the types of learning experiences students encounter in middle and high school history courses. But that assumption deserves closer examination.
Testing by itself will not solve problems associated with the poor preparation of elementary instructors for teaching history. Surveys of prospective elementary teachers at our institution reveal that remarkably few have more than one introductory-level course in the history of the United States and even fewer have coursework in world history of any kind. These same students receive one elementary history/social studies teaching methods course constituted by approximately 24 hours of course contact time spread across one semester when they are college seniors. Yet, every year, the state of Maryland licenses these prospective teachers to instruct elementary school students in history. Lest you think this arrangement is the exception, note that Maryland has teacher-certification reciprocity with 42 other states, ensuring that what counts as adequate preparation to teach history in Maryland is thereby deemed sufficient in most of the country.
Why is this a concern that accountability-through-testing mandates alone cannot solve? Because it is a knowledge problem: you can't teach what you don't know. And apparently, most elementary teachers know very little history and perhaps even less about how to teach it well. This might explain why the "holiday curriculum as history instruction" remains entrenched in elementary schools as a flimsy substitute for the more robust approach eliminated by the press on reading and mathematics. Elementary teachers find it relatively easy to insert a few days across the school year in which they deal with historical topics that they know something about. It might be more correct to say historical figures, since much of the holiday curriculum focuses on venerating national leaders and icons (such as George Washington or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance). That way, elementary school instructors can report teaching history while routinely spending the most time on mathematics and reading.
In some cases, elementary school teachers continue to report teaching history more regularly, but they do so in the context of their reading instruction. Effectively, they say they are integrating literacy and history instruction by assigning historical books (Jean Fritz stories, for example) to students as a subject focus for reading lessons. Observers in these classrooms report that such approaches turn out to be much more about reading strategies (finding the main idea in a paragraph, summarizing, rereading when comprehension breaks down) than about the history encountered in the course of that reading.4
These additional concerns suggest that a more comprehensive approach to arresting the decline of history education in elementary schools is in order. The problem is less directly about testing and accountability and more about systemic issues in what counts as history education in grades K through 5. Elementary teachers need to know much more about history and research-based teaching approaches in order to teach it well. Changing that would require substantially rethinking how elementary teachers are licensed, something state departments of education have been reluctant to pursue. More rigorous elementary-level history standards and their accompanying opportunities to learn are also landscapes that need revisiting. Addressing the nature of supporting materials (sources, accounts, history-specific reading guides, investigation templates) could then follow. The types of prospective teacher internships and quality of mentors have been perennially weak links in improving history education. Last but not least, practicing teachers need more history-specific and widespread professional development opportunities in order to grow their historical and pedagogical knowledge—more than Teaching American History programs alone can provide. With these pieces in place, testing and accountability measures could commence in earnest.5
Pressing change through testing and accountability alone is history education renewal on the cheap. We should resist being beguiled by its false promises. Deeper worries and more significant systemic issues, as we have attempted to show, deserve our concerted attention. Short of addressing them, the end of history in elementary schools will only be hastened.
Bruce VanSledright, formerly of the University of Maryland, College Park, is currently professor of History/Social Studies Education in the Department of Reading and Elementary Education at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
Kimberly Reddy and Brie Walsh are advanced doctoral students in the Department of Teaching, Learning, Policy, and Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park. Both are keenly interested in the fate of history education in elementary schools.
2. See, for example, Joyce Burstein, Lisa A. Hutton, and Reagan Curtis, "The State of Elementary Social Studies Teaching in One Urban District," The Journal of Social Studies Research 30 (January 2006): 15–20; Kathryn O'Connor, Tina Heafner, and Eric Groce, "Advocating for Social Studies: Documenting the Decline and Doing Something About It," Social Education 71 (September 2007): 255–260; and John S. Wills, "Putting the Squeeze on Social Studies: Managing Teaching Dilemmas in Subject Areas Excluded From State Testing," Teachers College Record 108 (December 2007): 1980–2046.
4. See Marilynne Boyle-Baise, Ming-Chu Hsu, Shaun Johnson, Stephanie Cayot Serriere, and Dorshell Stewart, "Putting Reading First: Teaching Social Studies in Elementary Classrooms," Theory and Research in Social Education 36 (Summer 2008): 233–255.
5. For more detail about these systemic issues in history education, see Bruce VanSledright, The Challenge of Rethinking History Education: On Practices, Theories, and Policy (New York: Routledge, 2010), especially Chapter 8.