From the Viewpoints column in the September 1999 Perspectives

Standards for History Teacher Preparation: Another View

Mary Beth Norton, September 1999

In the May 1999 Perspectives, Charles Myers lauds the new National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) Standards for Teacher Preparation. As Myers notes at the beginning of his essay, the goal of "rais[ing] the level of history content knowledge and understanding of beginning teachers" is crucially important. Yet the indefinite nature of the standards Myers describes—that "they do not prescribe specific courses or require a minimum of courses, credits, or hours" (46) and that "the history standard does not prescribe specific content to be covered" (47)—seems to permit teachers to be thrust into a history classroom without an adequate background in history but with a valid credential. AHA members might assume that even under the indeterminate NCSS/NCATE standards teachers would not be sent into history classrooms without formal education in the discipline. But nothing in the standards Myers lays out precludes that from happening.

The National Council for History Education (NCHE), which was formed in 1990 by academic historians and history teachers at all K–12 levels, and for which I serve as a trustee, has developed a more demanding set of standards and recommendations addressing the issue of teacher preparation. Members of the NCHE believe that this set of standards provides a minimum threshold that the training of history teachers should attain if the steady decline of student understanding of history is to be reversed.

A Meeting of the Minds

On March 1 and 2, 1996, NCHE members gathered in a national meeting at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to develop strategies for improving history education. Prompted by the dismal results of the November 1995 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) U.S. history test, the symposium brought together academic and public historians, classroom teachers (elementary, middle, and secondary), school administrators and curriculum specialists, authors and publishers, and museum and historical society personnel.

The symposium participants focused their attention on five key areas of history education: "The History Curriculum in Schools: Scope and Sequence"; "Updating the Content of The History Curriculum"; "Effective and Interesting Teaching Practices for Classrooms"; "Identifying the Best Resources and Materials for Teaching and Learning History"; and "The Preparation of History Teachers and their Continuing Professional Development." The NCHE symposium recommendations on the topic of teacher preparation listed below indicate the strong emphasis on formal content preparation for those who are to teach history, whether they seek history certification or the more general comprehensive social studies certification.

Preparing History Teachers and Professional Development

All teachers of history should be well-grounded in the areas of history that they teach; therefore NCHE recommends that:

  1. The minimum qualification for every middle and high school teacher of history classes within social studies should be the successful completion of at least a college minor in history, and preferably a major.
  2. Elementary school teachers should successfully complete at least three college courses in U. S. history, Western civilization, world history, or their equivalent.

To accomplish this goal, NCHE further recommends that:

  1. K–12 teachers should be provided with sufficient resources to engage in history on an ongoing basis for the purpose of professional development, including historical research, workshops, institutes, and collaborative efforts with colleagues.
  2. Education of K–12 teachers in history should be a university-wide responsibility, with the design and implementation of teacher education programs benefiting from a focused involvement of historians and other scholars in addition to education faculty.
  3. Teachers should be teaching teachers and be aware of proven successful models such as NCHE colloquia, academies, and summer institutes.
  4. Teachers of history should commit to and assume responsibility for continued professional growth. That growth should receive support from school administrators (to provide released time and encourage teachers to use it); scholars and faculties of history departments willing to collaborate; and history and humanities councils and others.

Obviously, the NCHE believes that history teachers who know their subject matter are indispensable to schools that want to hold students to higher academic standards. This must become a major theme for teacher education in history. However, preparation of history teachers is not isolated work. Solutions revolve around better connections—between the history and the college of education faculties in universities, and between the university and stakeholders in the local schools. Improved teacher education requires cooperation among prospective history teachers; education school faculty members and deans; university historians and department chairs; local school administrators and school committees/board members; representatives of state departments of education; and members of state education and university governing boards. (For an in-depth assessment of how such goals might be accomplished send a self-addressed stamped envelope to NCHE, 26915 Westwood Rd., Suite B-2, Westlake, OH 44145, for a copy of "Enlarging the Profession: Scholars Teaching History.")

In general, the NCHE's recommendations, which were further elaborated at an NCHE national conference in October 1997, rest on the principle that teachers must be thoroughly grounded in the content of what they teach. Accordingly, to prepare to instruct students in U.S. history, teachers need a formal background in all of the U.S. history for which their students will be held accountable, even though a particular class in a semester might cover only U.S. history from 1877 to the present. The content of teacher training should, in turn, be determined by the K–12 standards for U.S. history. Those standards differ from state to state and occasionally even from school district to school district. But the NCHE has described a model set of standards in its guideline booklet Building a United States History Curriculum (1998) (see box). All concerned with preparing U.S. history teachers could feel secure if a teacher graduated with a demonstrated knowledge of this material.

The NCHE has also prepared student content standards for world history in Building a World History Curriculum (1998). Both reports are available from the NCHE office at the address above. The e-mail address is nche19@mail.idt.net or contact the office through the web site at http://www.history.org/nche.

—Mary Beth Norton is a trustee of the National Council of History Education and teaches at Cornell University.