Publication Date

October 1, 1999

Perspectives Section


"The national curriculum standards in the social studies … [t]o paraphrase a famous question, … specify what students should know. …"
—Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (NCSS 1994, viii)

In the May 1999 Perspectives article, “New Standards for the Preparation of History Teachers,” Professor Charles B. Myers of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University described two sets of national social studies standards for prospective teachers that, he argues, “are expected to raise the level of history content knowledge and understanding of beginning [social studies and history] teachers in the years ahead.”1

The first set of 20 standards, National Standards for Social Studies Teachers, was developed by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). (See National Council for the Social Studies. Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies Washington, D.C.: NCSS.) A second set of 19 standards, Program Standards for the Initial Preparation of Teachers of the Social Studies, which he describes as “substantively the same as” the NCSS standards, was developed jointly by NCSS and the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). They are available at the web sites https://www. and They propose to describe the subject matter, knowledge, and teaching skills a prospective teacher should possess, and are being proposed as models for all teacher-training programs.

The Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC), sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers, is developing additional standards for new (actually second-year) teachers. Meanwhile, at the state level, K–12 standards for history and other subject areas have been adopted or are in various stages of development. The following comments focus on the 20 NCSS standards described in the May Perspectives.

Historians interested in the history education of new K–12 teachers will want to critically examine the standards. Changes in state licensing requirements for prospective and new K–12 history teachers will affect the structure and content of their required undergraduate history courses, as colleges tailor their courses to meet the requirements of local school districts.

The 20 NCSS standards for teacher training programs are divided into:

  1. Ten thematic standards that apply to "programs that lead to . licenses in comprehensive social studies without an emphasis in a specific discipline," and "are not required to meet a . discipline standard."
  2. Five disciplinary standards, one each for history, geography, civics and government, economics, and psychology.
  3. Five programmatic standards that apply to all teacher training programs.2

Myers's optimism that the NCSS/NCATE standards can be "expected to raise the level of history content knowledge" of new teachers seems dubious on closer inspection.

Diluting History in "Social Studies"

The 10 thematic standards dilute and merge seven major disciplines into one interdisciplinary amalgam called "social studies." Each is downgraded to a theme, a far more generous tribute to history's flexibility and vitality than the emaciated label assigned to it, "Time, Continuity, and Change." The following chart lists each of the first 10 "thematic standards" next to its designated parent discipline.

Thematic Standards and Parent Disciplines
Standard Standard Name Parent Discipline
1 Culture Cultural Anthropology
2 Time, Continuity, and Change History
3 People, Places, and Environment Geography
4 Individual Development Psychology
5 Individuals, Groups, and Institutions Sociology
6 Power, Authority, and Government Government/Civics
7 Production, Distribution, and Consumption Economics
8 Science, Technology, and Society Interdisciplinary
9 Global Connections Interdisciplinary
10 Civic Ideals and Practices Citizenship

These standards are meant for all prospective history teachers. Once adopted by teacher training programs and/or school districts, the standards will be translated into licensing and course requirements, and, increasingly, licensing exams. The document states that "[t]hese ten thematic standards apply to all individuals seeking initial licensure (or certification) in social studies, (1) as a broad field, (2) in any of the specific disciplines that fall within social studies . . . and teacher preparation programs that prepare [them] for these respective licenses (certificates)."

Although the document does allow "that depths of knowledge and degrees of competence will, of necessity, vary," it is hard to imagine how a teacher training program is supposed to structure course requirements for prospective teachers to meet all 10 standards.3 This goal can only be achieved by superficial coverage of the parent disciplines represented by each thematic standard. In so doing, it would force professors to cut important course content to accommodate all 10. Alternatively, it may be the intention to expand social studies methods course requirements to incorporate them, imposing an equally irrelevant burden on prospective history teachers.

Whatever instructional vehicle they had in mind, NCSS should produce evidence from comparative studies with controlled variables that document how these standards produce more competent history (and geography, etc.) teachers.

Is "Social Studies" a Discipline That Needs Standards?

The NCSS standards strongly imply that "social studies" is, in some way, a discipline. This is problematic in that no one teaches a content course called “social studies.” Subjects are grouped into “social studies” departments primarily for administrative convenience. It is more efficient to have 10 or 12 high school departments instead of 20 or 25. It also allows administrators some latitude in giving teachers out-of-field teaching assignments.

This was understood when standards projects were initiated by Congress in 1992 with the "Goals 2000: Educate America Act." Standards were developed for individual discipline-based subjects, such as history, geography, government and civics, and economics, but not for "social studies." NCSS then initiated a "social studies" standards project on its own.

Social studies in the elementary grades and social studies methods courses in teacher training programs appear to be content subjects/courses, but not upon closer examination.

"Social Studies" at the Elementary Level

A good elementary teacher will properly identify the weekly "social studies" unit as history or geography. Nonetheless, too many elementary teachers lack basic knowledge of history, and too many elementary schools are trapped in such social studies curricula as "Expanding Environments" so that they rarely "expand" beyond the local firehouse.

Although a Jack- or Jill-of-all-trades, the elementary teacher must still have a foundation of historical knowledge to be able to teach the historical facts and skills that enable their pupils to build their own mental foundations of historical knowledge. The capacity to absorb and retain complex factual information and analytical skills by the time they leave high school is much greater if laid down in the early school years and regularly reinforced with greater detail and complexity.

Children's capacity to learn and understand history (and other subjects) at an early age is evidenced by the success of E. D. Hirsh's Core Knowledge Schools and the enthusiastic response of elementary school teachers to Joy Hakim’s engaging and content-rich 10-volume History of US (New York: Oxford University Press. 1994, 1995).

"Social Studies" Methods Courses and State Licensure Requirements

Despite the evidence of what history students need, college-level courses on methods of teaching social studies focus on the methodology and process of teaching. They frequently combine all the social studies together in one course, though usually in discrete units. "Social studies" in this context clearly means process, not historical or geographical content.

Since most states have "comprehensive social studies" rather than discipline-specific licensure requirements for grade 7–12 teachers, equivalent "social studies" standards might appear to meet the need. This is not the case when one notes that most of these states also require evidence of specific courses in history, geography, etc. Furthermore, and most important, once hired and licensed, the "social studies" teacher will be teaching a specific discipline-based subject, namely, U.S. history, world history (in its various configurations), geography, and government/civics. The typical two-year U.S. history requirement makes it the subject with the largest number of teacher class periods in almost every junior or senior high school in the United States. Close behind are world history, geography, and government and civics.

What all prospective teachers need—and want—is a preparation that gives them a content background with a depth and breadth that closely match the scope of the courses they will be teaching. This, together with methodology and other ancillary courses of attested value, is what the well-rounded prospective teacher needs. Standards need to clearly and directly acknowledge this reality.

Who Is Teaching History in High School Today?

The gap between "social studies" and history teachers is not a hypothetical concern. In the March 1999 Educational Researcher, Richard M. Ingersoll published the results of the third and most recent (1993–94) national survey of the problem of “out-of-field” teaching. Out-of-field teachers are “those teaching core academic subjects at the secondary level [who] do not have even minimal credentials—neither a major nor a minor—in their teaching fields.” The survey sample included 5,000 school districts, 11,000 schools, and 55,000 teachers in all core academic subjects. The results for history teachers should alarm us: 53.1 percent of the history teachers had neither a major nor a minor in history! By contrast, only 19.9 percent of the social studies teachers were “out-of-field.”4 In other words, a major or minor in any of the diverse “social studies” disciplines or subjects such as geography, history, psychology, sociology, social science, or social studies methods meets licensure requirements in most states and “qualifies” that teacher to teach history or any other “social studies” subject.

It is precisely this gap that the NCSS standards not only symbolize, but threaten to perpetuate. The fourth NCSS programmatic standard, "Substantial Instruction in Academic Areas within the Social Studies Field" urges "prospective social studies teachers to complete subject matter content courses (history/social science) that include U.S. history, world history (including both western and nonwestern civilizations)," then allows for a gap that permits a duly licensed "social studies" teacher with little or no history background to teach history:

The subject matter content course work for those licensed to teach social studies as a broad field at the secondary school level should include no less than 40 percent of a total four-year or extended-preparation program, with an area of concentration of at least 18 semester hours (24 quarter hours) in one academic discipline” (emphasis added).4

Yet, even the recommendation for a major or minor in history can be deceptive, since there is no such course as "history." College history courses consist of surveys, specific eras, and/or thematic topics of specific world regions.

The survey wasn't calibrated to distinguish between history teachers with majors or minors in U.S. history versus the history of another world region. Required history courses at the grade 7–12 level are almost universally content-rich surveys of the United States, the world, and world regions, especially western civilization. Many history teachers wind up teaching a history subject outside of their field of history, especially now that the standards movement has led to an expansion of required world history courses.

Standards for Teachers of History (and Other Subjects)

Standards for K–12 history teachers must broadly describe the historical content a prospective elementary teacher and a prospective grade 7–12 teacher should know. In the typical junior high school (7–9) or middle school (6–8), students take a year of U.S. history (usually through 1865 or 1877 or even World War I) and a year of world history (more often now as the first of a two-part global survey).

They will also have a semester or two of geography, civics, and state history (if not taken in elementary school). In the typical senior high school (10–12 or 9–12), students take the second half of U.S. history, the second half of world history, a semester of government, and a small number of "social studies" electives. A few states, such as California, now require economics.

Standards Must Be Assessable and Quantifiable

Standards are of little value if they cannot be easily translated into assessments of the concrete knowledge they supposedly describe. The 10 “thematic standards” are linked to no concrete knowledge; therefore, they don’t inform the prospective teacher what—that is, what content—they are supposed to know. They only know how they are supposed to know everything!

This is a curious Alice in Wonderland inversion of reality. Abstract categories, "thematic standards," are called "content," the "what" to be studied, while concrete historical information is barely mentioned in passing. This approach seems to reflect a discomfort with the concrete stuff of history or a fear of facts. Instead, teachers are offered an abstract pan-disciplinary thematic template as key to being a successful "social studies" teacher. This view violates a basic fact of learning, that the construction of knowledge proceeds from the concrete to the abstract.

Standards for History Teachers

In my view, prospective teachers in the "social studies" should meet content standards in two of the following “social studies” subjects:

  1. U.S. history
  2. World history—teacher standards for world history should include the history of the West and the history of one major non-Western region
  3. Geography
  4. Political science (government/civics)
  5. Economics (in states where it is required)

At least one of the subjects must be U.S. or world history. In teacher preparation programs, this would be roughly equivalent to a major and a minor. Majors and minors in any area of area of history must include a survey course.

License and teacher preparation standards should be flexible enough to include relevant content-rich courses from outside the "social studies" disciplines, such as literature, the sciences, philosophy, mathematics (especially probability and statistics), foreign languages, etc. Teaching methods courses, the links between knowledge of content and practice, are also an important component. Finally, to the extent that the standards describe themes, they should be components of the specific content-area subjects that generated them, as exemplified by the five broad themes or "spheres of human activity" in the National Standards for History document: “social, political, scientific/technological, economic, and cultural.”5

In conclusion, and in response to the "famous question" in the opening quotation, the NCSS standards are inadequate, because, to take liberties with Gertrude Stein's famous answer, "there's no what there.”


1. Myers, Charles B. (1999) "New Standards for the Preparation of History Teachers." Perspectives (May), 45.

2. National Council for the Social Studies. National Standards for Social Studies Teachers. Washington, D.C.: NCSS. (https://www.ncss. org.)

3. Ingersoll, Richard (1999). "The Problem of Underqualified Teachers in American Secondary Schools." Educational Researcher 27(9), 1–12.

4. NCSS, 24.

5. National Center for History in the Schools (1996). National Standards for History: Basic Edition. Los Angeles: University of California, 47.

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