Publication Date

September 1, 2006

Perspectives Section


Editor’s Note: Following the publication of Russell Olwell’s essay, "History Departments and the NCATE/NCSS Accreditation Process: Time for a Change,” in the May 2006 issue of Perspectives, we received several communications commenting on the article. We are publishing them as a forum on the subject along with the first essay, which was specially written by Margaret Crocco in response to our request to the National Council for the Social Studies seeking comment on the Olwell article.

1. A Rejoinder to Russell Olwell

By Margaret Smith Crocco

Upon reading "History Departments and the NCATE/NCSS Accreditation Process: Time for a Change," (Perspectives May 2006), my first reaction to Russell Olwell’s essay was “Russ, I feel your pain.” In fact, many departments and schools of education, as well as history departments, have found the NCATE accreditation process unduly burdensome and questionably productive in raising standards for the preparation of teachers. The involvement of the Specialty Professional Associations (SPAs)—in the case of history, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)—surely adds another set of challenges to this process. Over the last year, the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education has been engaged in discussions with the SPAs about how best to remedy these problems. In short, NCSS recognizes that its processes need refinement. Nevertheless, I will argue here for keeping NCSS involved with accreditation of history teachers for several reasons. I believe that the NCSS standards are an effective way of ensuring that history remains an essential element of the preparation of teachers in all 50 states.

Let me begin with full disclosure on several counts. I am a member of both the American Historical Association and NCSS. I work in New York and reside in New Jersey, two states with markedly different approaches to social studies education. More significantly, the Program in Social Studies at Teachers College did not merit "national recognition" in its recent NCATE accreditation. As a one-year master’s degree with New York State certification, our program seems out of sync with the NCSS accreditation process. Despite this, I believe that the proper cure for a problem depends on correct diagnosis. In my judgment, the problem is not NCSS itself or its standards so much as the organization’s implementation of the program review process.

Participants in discussions of such matters on all sides need to refrain from oversimplification and caricaturing of competing positions. History advocates and social studies educators have many interests in common, especially a shared desire to see history in particular and social studies in general taught well in the nation’s schools. With the narrowing of the curriculum due to "No Child Left Behind" and high-stakes testing, we all need to work together to ensure young people have adequate opportunity to study the history of this nation and the rest of the world.

What Olwell sees as "vague" in the NCSS curriculum standards, I see as conceptual, thematic, and flexible—very much in keeping with the approach to history education endorsed by the National Research Council’s How Students Learn: History in the Classroom and the Benchmarks for Professional Development in Teaching History as a Discipline.1 In this brief rejoinder to Olwell’s essay, I argue that these attributes of the NCSS standards, their broad suitability to the national context of social studies education, and the longstanding commitment of NCSS to K–12 education, all argue for keeping it as the professional organization involved with oversight of teacher preparation for history and social studies teachers nationwide.

In making this defense of NCSS, I will not address several issues that are related but not central to Olwell’s argument. One of these has to do with whether "social studies" represents a fusion or federation of disciplines. Whatever position one takes on this subject, history has always been at the core of social studies. Another ancillary issue has to do with the optimal certification requirements for history teachers. In New York State, where high school students must take four years of social studies to graduate, future teachers must take 21 of 30 social science credits in history. What courses future teachers should take in history, however, is a problem worthy of further consideration. It seems that too many history majors take coursework with relatively little connection to the high school curriculum. I suspect that Olwell and I agree on the importance of strong content preparation for future teachers of history, although we might disagree on what this should look like—another topic worthy of further discussion but beyond the scope of this essay.

That said, I will make three points about the suitability of NCSS and its standards to the NCATE accreditation process. First, all 10 NCSS themes can be related to the study of history. My experiences as a teacher educator indicate that most social studies teachers manage to do this regularly and effectively. Readers ofPerspectives know well that history has become a broader, more interdisciplinary discipline than it was decades ago. Historical research now embraces social, cultural, intellectual, and transnational approaches alongside traditional emphases on political and economic history.

Likewise, the 10 NCSS curriculum standards reflect the diverse ways in which history and the social sciences inform one another. Nothing in these standards vitiates in-depth study of history over the course of K–12 curriculum. In fact, quite the contrary is true: Strong support for history can be found in both the NCSS Curriculum Standards and the Program Standards for the Initial Preparation of Social Studies Teachers.2 The shared commitment of AHA, OAH, and NCSS to history resulted in their collaborative effort in designing the Benchmarks, an extremely useful contribution to teacher preparation programs.

State variability in curricula and teacher licensing requirements is a second reason to keep NCSS and its standards in place. The U.S. system of governance places control over education into the hands of 50 states and approximately 15,000 school districts. Of these, 49 states allow a significant degree of decision making about curriculum and instruction to local education agencies and even to schools, teachers, and parents.3 Although New York State has a curriculum mandated by the New York State Regents, one that is heavily tilted towards history and enforced through a system of high-stakes accountability measures, this is not the case in every state. By contrast, in New Jersey high school students must take only three years of social studies. Local districts are given significant discretion in determining their approach to social studies curriculum. The high school curriculum often consists of electives organized around themes and issues which draw on history but are not necessarily presented in the survey-course format found throughout New York. In both states, however, curriculum frameworks provide for significant coverage of history, and to a lesser extent, geography, economics, and civics—either through disciplinary or interdisciplinary courses. In other regions of the country, the differences in approach to social studies curriculum are even more pronounced.

Likewise, some states certify teachers in history; others in broad-field social studies. This is related, at least in part, to the realities of the marketplace for teachers in different regions of the country (not to mention, unfortunately, the need to hire football coaches). Principals benefit from the ability to move teachers from U.S. history one year to civics the next. Broad-field social studies (like broad-field science) certification contributes to the exchange of teachers in high schools just as K–8 certification does in elementary schools. Maintaining NCSS as the accrediting agency for social studies teachers provides flexibility for personnel placement in American high schools, an argument which may not be terribly compelling to readers of this journal. But it also ensures that no state ignores history, even those with more interdisciplinary than disciplinary approaches to teaching social studies.

A third reason to keep NCSS involved in the accreditation process has been its close connection to K–12 education since its founding in 1921. Social studies scholars have contributed significantly to expanding the research base on teaching and learning history over the last twenty years. This subject holds a prominent place in the field’s publications, annual conferences, teacher preparation, and professional development efforts.

Over the last 50 years, it is fair to say that AHA’s interest in schools has waxed and waned. Although the AHA has made laudable efforts recently to do greater outreach to K–12 teachers, its publications and annual conferences demonstrate its primary focus to be research and college teaching. Clearly, some historians working in colleges once associated with normal schools may be quite involved in teacher preparation. Some have joined forces with the National Council for History Education (NCHE) and Teaching American History grants to improve both preservice and in-service teachers’ knowledge of history. Even so, none of these organizations has been as consistently involved with teachers and teacher preparation as NCSS over the last several decades.

The cure for our problem does not lie in dumping the NCSS standards or in replacing NCSS with the AHA. Instead, I hope that both organizations will work together to sustain and strengthen the teaching of history nationwide. In the meantime, I hope NCSS will improve management of its contribution to the accreditation process. There needs to be greater flexibility in recognizing the good efforts made by diversely-situated history educators while also insuring fidelity to high standards. Such flexibility would be in keeping with the performance orientation to accreditation promulgated by NCATE in 2000. This approach "defines the outcome to be achieved rather than specifying the method of achieving the desired result."4 Given the shift that NCATE is making in its SPA program reporting process, now would seem a good time to reevaluate, reflect and make the changes needed to build greater flexibility into this process.

—Margaret Smith Crocco is professor and coordinator of the Program in Social Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University.


1. National Research Council, How Students Learn: History in the Classroom (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2004). The Benchmarks may be found at

2. These documents may be found at

3. National Center for Education Statistics, “Digest of education statistics, 2003” (NCES 2005-025), (Washington, 2005). Accessed at on June 10, 2006.

4. Sharon P. Robinson, “The Evolution and Reality of Standards,” American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education Briefs 27:9 (June 5, 2006), 2. See also, Kevin M. Casey, “Greater Expectations: Teaching and Assessing for Academic Skills and Knowledge in the General Education History Classroom,” The History Teacher 37:2. Accessed online at the History Cooperative on June 14, 2006.

3. NCATE and Accreditation

By Charles F. Howlett

Russell Olwell’s "History Departments and the NCATE/NCSS Accreditation Process: Time for a Change” (May 2006) is insightful and important. He is absolutely on point in his comment that, since the 1968 publication of the AHA’s Teaching Division guidelines, “this program has receded from view, as education schools have implemented a host of new classes for students, leaving far fewer credits available for content.” He is also correct on two other points: (1) “that the majority of training for history teachers ought to be in the discipline, not administered by colleges of education” (even though I belong to one); and (2) “NCATE accreditation has become an everyday migraine for history educators. Worst of all, another organization—one with little commitment to history as a discipline—developed the standards [the 10 “strands” of which only one is history while others include subjects like anthropology and economics] to which we are held accountable.”

Recently, as retired social studies chair at Amityville Memorial High School on Long Island and presently an assistant professor of graduate education, I have experienced firsthand the NCATE process. Although my department passed the review with flying colors, I was more than troubled by many of my social studies majors’ lack of historical content knowledge. If they don’t know it how can they teach it? What I found is that many of these majors are well skilled in methodologies of teaching, but poorly prepared to explain the interconnected meanings and interpretations surrounding events and their impact on human life. That is, their historical reasoning was weak. The ability to develop and organize a research paper, to enhance historical thinking skills, and to have a knowledge and understanding of the literature of the field (historiography) can only be acquired successfully if placed in the hands of those who are best trained to do it.

This was made even clearer to me when I was asked to develop and conduct a content specialty test workshop in Social Studies. In New York State, social studies teachers must pass the state test to receive certification. I was shocked at how many of those enrolled in the workshop had failed the exam not once, but two or three times. Many failed because they could not interpret or provide background knowledge to the documentary-based essay. Others did poorly on the historical section of the exam. Many of those enrolled complained about their lack of subject knowledge because of the other teaching courses they were required to take. For someone who has held a PhD in history for over 30 years and taught with that degree in secondary education for the same amount of time, I applaud Olwell’s observations. However, until we are able to claim history, not social studies, as the true champion of teaching and learning about the past, I’m afraid we will still be singing Bestor’s tune well into the 21st century.

—Charles Howlett is assistant professor in the graduate education department of Molloy College, New York.

2. NCSS Standards and the History Major: Are They Really Irreconcilable?

By Larry Frohman

In recent years, teacher education programs have come under sustained attack from virtually every quarter, and at the same time they have been under pressure to meet the standards for accreditation set by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). In practice, NCATE requires the individual teacher education programs at those institutions seeking accreditation to be accredited by the Specialty Professional Associations that are responsible for setting standards for the individual disciplines, i.e. the National Council of Teachers of English, etc., and NCATE has charged the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) with setting standards for the accreditation of social studies teacher education programs. The question, though, is what do NCSS standards, and the accreditation process more generally, mean for departments of history?

In his examination of this question in the May 2006 issue ofPerspectives, Russell Olwell came to the conclusion that compliance with the NCSS standards is diluting the sustained study of history within the major and thus doing a serious disservice to both prospective teachers and their future students. In the end, Olwell calls on the AHA to flex its muscles and pressure NCATE to make the AHA, rather than the NCSS, the body responsible for accrediting social studies programs.

The first thing that needs to be said in response is that most states offer certification in social studies, rather than history, because they require schools to teach courses in social studies, not history. Consequently, no call for the AHA to play a greater role in the accreditation process is likely to have much effect unless and until the states revise their curricula and certification requirements. However, as I shall suggest below, the issue is not so urgent because history already serves as the de facto core of most social studies curricula.

Second, Olwell’s arguments depend on a particular reading of the NCSS standards and of the impact of the accreditation process on the history major. However, I would like to suggest here that the relationship between the NCSS standards and the history major may very well be more positive than depicted by Olwell. At my university, for example, the social studies teacher education program has a fairly good relationship to the history department within which it is housed, and we have been able to exploit the synergies between the history major, the university’s general education requirements, and NCSS standards to ensure that our undergraduate students get a strong grounding in history and the social sciences—without either watering down the major or imposing any undue assessment requirements on the history faculty.

Social Studies Standards and the History Major

The NCSS has adopted 10 thematic standards that have to be met by programs offering certification in "broad field" social studies. These standards are: I. Culture and Cultural Diversity, II. Time, Continuity & Change, III. People, Places and Environments, IV. Individual Development & Identity, V. Individuals, Groups & Institutions, VI. Power, Authority & Governance, VII. Production, Distribution, Consumption, VIII. Science, Technology & Society, IX. Global Connections, X. Civic Ideals and Practices. As the NCSS explains, the knowledge underlying these standards is most likely to be taught in courses in anthropology, history, geography, psychology, sociology, etc., respectively. To earn accreditation the organization expects social studies programs to provide evidence, first, that their students are learning the basic concepts of these disciplines and, second, that they are capable of applying this knowledge in appropriate ways in the public school classroom. I do not know of any historian who would seriously object to expecting history majors to understand the basic concepts of these disciplines and be able to incorporate them into their own thinking about society and history. In fact, any historical research and writing that was not informed by these ideas would be impoverished.

These standards pose such a problem for Olwell and others because they fear that the study of these social sciences is becoming a substitute for the in-depth study of history, rather than a supplement to it. If this were necessarily the case and if I felt that NCSS standards and the NCATE accreditation process were indeed incompatible with systematic study of history and habits of mind, then I would be among the very first to sign Olwell’s petition. However, the problems and conflicts described by Olwell are by no means foreordained, and I think that his conclusions in this respect are prematurely gloomy.

On the one hand, secondary school social studies curricula are increasingly taught as recognizable history (or history and geography) courses. Within these courses history serves as the integrating discipline to the extent that, as students progress through the curriculum, the central concepts of the other social studies disciplines are introduced not for their own sake, but rather in specific historical contexts in order to give the students the analytical tools they need in order to think more clearly about specific issues at stake. Consequently, I cannot agree with Olwell’s claim that only one of the 10 standards actually supports historical thinking, while the others represent distractions from it. One thing that university faculty tend to overlook is that students are not born with an innate understanding of what social classes are, how economies operate to distribute available resources, or how culture or geography can shape a society’s perceptions of the challenges it faces and the options available to its members. The NCSS standards serve as a useful reminder that the elementary concepts that college-educated adults operate with automatically have to be taught to secondary school students in a much more explicit manner than is the case with college students.

On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to ensure that prospective teachers take at least the minimum social science coursework needed to satisfy NCSS program standards without in any way undermining the integrity of the history major. At many schools, university general education requirements usefully complement the requirements of the history major, which itself frequently demands that students take one or more courses in related social science fields.

While one might legitimately worry that all of these requirements will pose an undue burden on students, in practice we have found that it is much more a question of advising than of curriculum design. Moreover, this potential problem can be diminished even further by undertaking to meet some of the social science requirements (especially the more difficult to meet interdisciplinary standards 8 and 9) within the framework of the history major. While many schools have had problems meeting the NCSS standard in science, technology and society, this has been less of a problem for us because the university has imposed a general education requirement in precisely this area. So, rather than struggling simply to meet the standard, we have been able to focus on meeting the standard in a way that will actually be of use to our students, and what we have done is to encourage our students to satisfy this general education requirement through one of the surveys in the history of science, technology and medicine that are already taught through the history department. In this way, the NCSS standards can be seamlessly incorporated into the major. Similarly, since Stony Brook does not have a geography department, we chose to make a virtue out of necessity, and the history department worked with us to create a world history and geography course that satisfies the NCSS geography requirement and now regularly draws a large number of students who are not enrolled in the teacher certification program.

In sum, I do not think that the NCSS standards are essentially incompatible with the teaching and learning of history at either the secondary or university level or that they are irreconcilable with the in-depth study of any of the other social science fields through which students can pursue social studies certification. In fact, one can make a plausible argument that they strengthen it. Thus, it should not be surprising that many school districts are showing a pronounced preference for history majors over graduates in the other social science disciplines and that graduates in all of these disciplines are increasingly preferred over education majors.

The Assessment Trap

As part of the NCATE/NCSS accreditation process and as a result of the emphasis upon the use of assessment data for program improvement, teacher education programs are expected to provide evidence showing how well their students are learning the content knowledge they are being taught at the university, how well they can teach the key concepts of the discipline to secondary school students, and—as part of the new push for accountability in education—what impact their instruction is having on secondary student learning. History departments and history faculty are only concerned with the first of these three elements. However, Olwell’s claim that, in order to gain accreditation, history departments must teach the 10 "vague" NCSS strands in their courses is misleading and unhelpful.

Any well-designed history course will address almost every one of the 10 NCSS standards. The problem, though, is that the NCSS requires that schools provide information showing how well students are learning the content pertaining to each of the 10 discrete standards, and the organization insists that a single course grade can not provide adequate evidence of how well students are learning the many different standards that may be addressed by the course. To a certain extent, the solution is a simple one: to require teacher education students to take courses that are so closely aligned with the individual NCSS standards that the course grade will provide clear evidence of how well the students are mastering the body of knowledge lying behind the individual standards. For example, the final grade in a geography course should provide satisfactory evidence for how well a student has mastered the basic concepts of geography. The reporting and analysis of course grades can be done by institutional research without imposing any additional requirements on the history faculty, and Olwell’s warning that the accreditation process requires history faculty to teach all of the thematic standards in each of their courses misses the essence of the process—at least in the vast majority of cases.

Those departments and schools that cannot (re)design their curricula in this way find themselves in a much more difficult situation. In these instances, content area faculty may find themselves pushed by the education school to identify within their courses specific modules or units that do align adequately with the individual NCSS standards, assess student knowledge in these areas, and then report this data on a regular basis for all of the teacher education students enrolled in their courses. This is the nightmare from which we are all trying to escape. Given the choice between submitting to such regimentation and either creating new courses to meet NCSS standards or revising the content area course requirements for the teacher education program, most schools are opting for the latter.

The Use and Abuse of Standards

Olwell also espies a conflict between state standards and those of the NCSS. This conflict is, I believe, more imaginary than real. As I noted above, social studies curricula are almost universally history-based. Student teachers do not—or at least should not—set out to teach a lesson on geography, economics, or the concept of class. Rather, what they should do is identify an important event, development or question in the subject they are teaching and then design a lesson that will help the students unpack the topic and articulate the reasons for its importance.

When approached in this way, the NCSS standards are useful because they help history majors learn how to go about this process. For example, in a model lesson that I often teach, I use the building of the transcontinental railroad to illustrate the economic, social and political changes set in motion by the creation of a national market. While every student will have a latent but probably inchoate understanding that railroads played an important role in 19th-century American history, they may not be able to articulate the diverse reasons why this is so. What the NCSS standards do is make the student sensitive to the various ways in which this significance can be unpacked and articulated by helping to focus on the economic processes that followed upon the construction of the railroads, the impact of these processes on class, family and community structures, the relations of political power that made possible the building of the railroad and that were in turn reinforced by the railroad, the reform and social protest movements that arose in response to this chain of social change, and so on. Thus, the NCSS standards should serve not as a prescription or a straitjacket, but as a guide to help prospective teachers—and, through them, public school students—learn how to engage in those forms of historical and social analysis that we all believe to be uniquely valuable.

In one respect, though, Olwell is absolutely right. History is vast and complex, and the NCSS standards do not help our students figure out what is important to teach or why. If we want our students to be able to create a challenging curriculum, rather than slavishly following the textbook, then they need the breadth and rigor that comes from in-depth study of the discipline. The state standards mentioned by Olwell represent an attempt by the states to spell out what is important enough to be included in the curriculum, and these state curricula, in turn, are used as the basis for teacher certification tests and high school exit exams.1 Ultimately, I think that the NCSS standards and the various state and national history curricula can complement each other in productive ways and that we need not see ourselves faced with an either/or choice.

It should be noted, however, that, in a hasty and ill-conceived effort to meet the minimum requirements for accreditation, a number of social studies education programs have redesigned their methods courses and that these courses now undertake, at least on paper, to teach the students a different standard each week with no obvious concern to ensure that they know how to think in a sustained manner about society and history. Although it is difficult for an outside observer to know what goes on in the social studies methods classroom, this is a disturbing trend, though it may well be that such syllabi are just a show put on for the benefit of the NCSS. Nevertheless, one needs to be wary of letting the tail wag the dog and falling into the trap of mistaking knowledge of the NCSS thematic standards for the systematic, in-depth study of society and history.

Ultimately, I think that we should view the NCSS thematic standards more as a pedagogic device for helping prospective teachers learn how to engage in those kinds of historical and social analysis that professional historians engage in in a largely unconscious manner, rather than viewing them as a worm eating away at the heart of the history major. Yes, accreditation requirements do impose some curricular constraints upon us. However, as I have tried to show here, we have been able to turn most of these requirements to our own advantage, and they have not diluted the major to any appreciable degree. To the extent, though, that there is a conflict between history and social studies, it is not one that is created by the NCSS accreditation requirements or is inherent in the NCSS standards. With a modicum of amity on both sides, history departments should have few problems—either intellectual or practical—in negotiating the NCSS accreditation process.

—Larry Frohman, a historian by training, is the director of the social studies education program at SUNY Stony Brook, where he is also the coordinator of assessment for the NCATE review process. He has been a program reviewer for NCSS, and is the book review editor of the journal, Social History.


1. Even though New York State has an extensive scope and sequence for social studies, I have found the National History Standards published by the National Center for History in the Schools (UCLA) to be extremely useful because of the way they combine a challenging history curriculum with practical suggestions on incorporating these ideas into the social studies classroom in a grade-appropriate manner. See Ross Dunn and David Vigilante, eds., Bring History Alive. A Sourcebook for Teaching World History and Kirk Ankeney et al., eds., Bring History Alive. A Sourcebook for Teaching United States History (National Center for History in the Schools, UCLA).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.