Publication Date

September 1, 2011

National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) reviews have never been a popular topic for departments of history.1 Many professors grumble at efforts to extend assessment efforts beyond course grades; an intrusion likened by some to current airline passenger screening processes. In the most extensive review of standards to date, history education expert Sam Wineburg argued that NCATE standards say little about history and social studies teacher training, and he found the NCSS standards that anchor the review too vague to effectively implement or to learn from.2

While we share Wineburg's concern about the vague language that currently drives the NCATE accreditation process, we focus here on the elements that can be used by faculty to rethink their teacher preparation programs and bring about needed changes. NCATE's current system asks departments to collect at least six pieces of data on each student pursuing a teaching credential—a state teaching test score, a measure of content knowledge, student teaching performance, and the aspiring teachers' impact on their own students.

Test Scores and Candidate Knowledge

Due to federal requirements, all programs that prepare teachers through NCATE must have an 80 percent pass rate on state teacher licensing exams, and each program area needs an 80 percent pass rate to be nationally recognized as well. This form of high-stakes, multiple-choice testing has its problems as an accurate assessment of candidate knowledge, but results can suggest patterns worth examining. For example, faculty members charged with reviewing data may identify gaps in student performance in content areas of the exam that would likely persist indefinitely in the absence of such scrutiny.

In the case of our own department, teacher candidate scores in world history were so far below those in U.S. history that our department could no longer ignore this gap. We added a required world history survey sequence for majors and minors to address this issue, and have watched our pass rate steadily rise as a result. Data analysis has driven change at the K–12 level in this manner through state and national accreditation processes for decades. Whether they take place at the collegiate level, or in deliberations at elementary, middle, and high schools, the conversations that arise among educators when examining data involving student performance have to power to lead to internal change leveraged by external standards.

Beyond the Exam: Other Types of Evidence

NCATE program review also calls for analysis of student content knowledge outside state licensing exams, such as GPA. Looking over hundreds of student transcripts of social studies and history for teaching majors, we found a disturbing number of students in the secondary education program with multiple withdrawals and incompletes, seemingly treading water rather than advancing toward their diplomas and certification. These transcripts document students signing up for several history classes each term, only to withdraw from those they were not likely to pass, or taking incompletes.

While some of these students present respectable GPAs (the withdrawals and incompletes did not figure into GPA calculations, and courses could be retaken for a higher grade), they clearly experience academic or other problems leading to withdrawal, failure, sub-par performance or incompletes. As classes began in September 2010, nine history or social studies education majors in our program were on academic probation for having a GPA below 2.00. As a result of discussions arising from our NCATE review, we determined the need to direct more human resources to this population, thereby reinforcing university-wide efforts to boost student retention. To target this population of struggling students, our department approved a plan to dedicate a faculty adviser slot to history and social studies education students, to allow for better academic and career guidance, and to increase our focus on our students who have become disengaged from their own education.

While some of our majors were academically adrift, we learned through our NCATE review that others felt left back. We learned that we were assessing a skill in our required "Teaching of Social Studies" course which students already had mastered in previous coursework required by the College of Education. We were asking students to design a two- or three-week unit of instruction, as were instructors in their previous courses. Students saw the duplication long before the faculty did, although they did not need NCATE committees to discover it. We shifted the focus of a major assignment so that instead of replicating an assignment, our requirement builds on the previous course assessments.

Now, in a three-part assessment, students adjust a lesson within the plan they have already created to provide extra support for special education students. In the second exercise, the student composes a letter to the local school foundation, playing the role of a social studies teacher requesting funding to implement an academic service-learning project, in which middle or high school students learn about an academic subject through community service. For the third portion of the assessment, students adapt an existing lesson by including global or regional comparative elements. This approach conveys to students a message of program coherence across the university.

Implications: Rethinking Structure of Programs

Taken seriously, NCATE reviews inevitably reveal program needs. Through the review process we learned that our students, good and poor, were getting stuck in the history and social studies teacher-training pipeline. NCSS reviewers pointed out that the number of students completing the program declined, even while our class enrollments were steady. Analyzing the data in more detail, we noted that a majority of students in the history teaching program sought double majors, many had more than one major and one minor, and several were graduating with well over 150 credits (only 124 are officially required to graduate). Faced with a declining job market, students are choosing to delay graduation, signing up for a greater number of classes and endorsements to be more competitive for the jobs that are available.

The review process also pointed out the sheer confusion our program design can cause both students and reviewers. Our department, along with several others in our college, has offered single degree programs in areas such as history, political science, geography and economics. We learned through the NCATE process that outside of history and social studies, the number of students intending to teach in majors and minors such as political science, geography, and economics was quite small. It looked as if a redesign of the social studies major might help us streamline our curriculum (and our data collection efforts). We have proposed moving from over 25 ways to become a history and social studies teacher to 9, each with more focused coursework, including new classes integrating history and geography content.


Assessment efforts generate a great deal of data and a corresponding number of meetings. However, the NCATE process does not necessarily require institutions to ask hard or fundamental questions of the data. Going through the motions, a program could simply use existing data to point to their teaching candidates' strengths, downplay the weaknesses, and offer a few feeble "improvements" to satisfy reviewers. This kind of anodyne program review can be found throughout academia, and NCATE reviews are no different. If institutions and programs choose a pedestrian route for their journey, the results will be well-documented, data-supported mediocrity. However, history departments should give thought to how reviews can be used to advance the agenda of their teaching programs, and steer the review process towards creating more knowledgeable, skilled teachers for our K–12 classrooms.

Robert Duke and Russell Olwell both teach social studies education classes in the Department of History and Philosophy at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Duke', a former K–12 superintendent, has a book on Lyndon Johnson and Texas political culture forthcoming from Texas A&M Press. Olwell is currently serving as director of EMU's Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Communities.


1. At the time of publication, The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education is merging with the Teacher Education Accreditation Council to create the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation, based on an agreement in October 2010. For current information on this ongoing project, visit

2. Wineburg, Sam, “What Does NCATE Have to Say to Future History Teachers? Not Much,” The Phi Delta Kappan, 86:9 (2005), 658–665. Susan Adler, Alberta Dougan, and Jesus Garcia responded in Kappan shortly thereafter, finding less distance between Wineburg’s vision of meaningful reform of history education and that of NCSS. See “NCSS Has a Lot to Say to Future Social Studies Teachers: A Response to Same Wineburg,” The Phi Delta Kappan, 87:5 (2006): 396–400.

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