Publication Date

December 1, 1999

Perspectives Section


The article, "New Standards for the Preparation of History Teachers,” which I wrote for the May issue of Perspectives, has attracted two reactions—one from Mary Beth Norton (September Perspectives) and the other from Erich Martel (October). Because Martel’s reaction raises more issues than Norton’s, most of my response concerns his views, but I respond to both reactions.

I have avoided, as much as I can, restating content in my May article and the National Standards for Social Studies Teachers document, which that article describes and explains. I believe readers will want to refer to the article and the document as they read my seven points below.

Point One. Martel’s reaction raises several issues that are beyond the scope of my article and the Standards document. These beyond-the-scope issues are

  1. Social studies as taught at the elementary school level—the Standards concern the preparation of high school and middle school teachers, not elementary school teachers.
  2. Specific issues about the nature of social studies methods courses—the Standards expect that preparation programs for history and social studies teachers include a course or courses on how to teach these areas of content, but they do not address the specifics that Martel is concerned about. (I comment more on this matter below.)
  3. Whether social studies is a discipline or not—the Standards document considers social studies as a field of study for high school and middle school students; it makes no claim that social studies is a discipline.
  4. "Out-of-field" teachers.

I am not suggesting that these four issues are unimportant, but I am suggesting that they are not bases for critiquing the Standards, my article about the Standards, and the use of the Standards to strengthen the preparation of history teachers.

Point Two. Although the focus of my article and Martel’s reaction to it are both about the preparation of history teachers, Martel devotes more energy to the 10 social studies thematic standards than he does to the history standard, and, doing this, he criticizes the thematic standards saying they “dilute and merge major disciplines into one interdisciplinary amalgam called social studies.” His neglect of the history standard and his blanket criticism of the 10 thematic standards miss several points:

  1. The Standards require that programs that prepare teachers for a license to teach history meet both the history disciplinary standard and the 10 thematic standards. (They also require meeting the programmatic standards.)
  2. The history standard requires greater historical understanding and expertise of a prospective history teacher than the alternatives that Martel and Norton propose.
  3. The fact that the standards—history and thematic—do not prescribe specific courses that must be taken does not mean they lack rigor, and, conversely, requiring specific courses of prospective teachers does not assure rigor.
  4. The 10 thematic standards are 10 separate standards, which have to be met individually; they are not amalgams.
  5. Seven of the ten thematic standards are—at their core—disciplinary standards. (Martel acknowledges this but his criticism does not seem to take it into consideration.)
  6. The content understanding expected to meet each standard does not have to be provided in separate courses, in courses that are separate from history courses, within a prescribed major, or in four years of study.
  7. A history faculty, at least in my judgement, could not honestly and validly say a prospective teacher is ready to teach history if that teacher does not understand the content delineated under each of the 10 thematic standards in addition to the history standard. (I acknowledge that thematic standard 2 and the history standard overlap.)

Point Three. Martel says, “… it is hard to imagine how a teacher training program is supposed to structure course requirements for prospective teachers to meet all 10 standards.” Well, this statement is probably clear evidence of the rigor of the Standards. They require the meeting of 11, not 10, standards. (The History standard is the additional and most important one.) Teacher educator program faculty must not only imagine this, they must do it and show that they do it or both the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) will not approve or identify their programs as “nationally recognized.”

In contrast to these rigorous expectations, I think Martel seems to expect too little of programs that prepare history teachers. He implies that prospective teachers of history do not need to have a college-level understanding of the content covered in all 10 thematic standards. I, however, do not see any content that is included among the 10 themes that could be neglected in a teacher education program and still have the program faculty say its prospective teachers understand history to the point that they can teach it to high school and middle school students. How could someone teach history without understanding the following: culture, cultural diversity, the key concepts of geography, economics, political science, and so forth? Which of these could be absent from a competent history teacher's understanding?

Point Four. Because Erich Martel and I both serve on the Social Studies–History Standards Drafting Committee of the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC), I realize that he is concerned about the fact that many states license teachers of history as “social studies” teachers and that, in doing so, at least some state requirements in terms of knowledge and abilities to teach history are not very rigorous. He prefers that (a) all history teachers be licensed only as “history” teachers and (b) all “social studies” licensees be required to have a solid content base in history. Although these two perspectives are worthy of discussion, they are not bases from which to criticize the Standards. The Standards are clear on three points in this regard:

  1. Teachers' licenses should match their subject matter qualifications—only those qualified to teach history should be licensed to do so, and only those qualified to teach social studies should be licensed to do so.
  2. When the license is "history," the discipline of history should dominate the licensee's preparation; and, when the license is "social studies," a broader and deeper combination of content from all 10 themes, including "Time, Continuity, and Change," should dominate. In both cases, however, content from all of the areas must be included to some degree.
  3. Programs that lead to licenses in both history and the broader area of social studies should address both history and the 10 themes vigorously and the faculty of these programs must justify how they balance the two thrusts appropriately.

Point Five. Both Martel and Norton ignore the pervasive movement in education and teacher education reform toward performance-based accountability that has been driving education policy for the last two decades in the United States. They still describe teacher quality in the form of course-by-course prescriptions of what prospective teachers should have listed on their college transcripts and of which classes they should pass. Martel refers to this as “concrete knowledge.” The Standards on the other hand, require demonstration by prospective teachers of the knowledge, capabilities, and dispositions that they need to possess to begin teaching. Transcript entries and “seat time” are not considered to be adequate evidence of competence to teach, and the teacher education faculty of the prospective teachers are held accountable for the performance level of the people they educate and recommend for licenses. These emphases on the performances of prospective teachers is consistent with (1) national reform expectations for what school students need to know and be able to do as a result of being taught social studies, history, and the other social-science-based K–12 subjects;1 (2) the INTASC principles; (3) the core propositions of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards; and (4) NCATE accreditation standards.

Point Six. Because the Standards hold the program faculty responsible for the knowledge and capabilities of the prospective teachers they recommend, they place the authority for determining who should or should not teach history where it belongs—with the history and teacher education faculty who recommend to the state which students should receive licenses. Norton asserts that there is nothing in the Standards to prevent teachers from being thrust into history classrooms without adequate background in history. On the contrary, the Standards require the professors who teach the prospective teachers to verify that they know history and are prepared to teach it well. If they cannot say this, they should not recommend them. If history professors do not recommend them, they should not get a license to teach history.

Point Seven. The Standards are not simply statements to “guide” the preparation of history and social studies teachers as many other standards are. The Standards have teeth. They are part of an interlocking professional system of teacher quality assurance. All teacher education programs that seek NCATE accreditation must now address them and be evaluated on them by NCSS program evaluators. And, as of this writing, 16 states require the teacher education programs in their states to address them. Twenty-six additional states have agreed to make their state standards for teaching licenses “consistent with” them. Educational Testing Service is beginning a two-year process of revising its Praxis II series of subject matter tests and will base the content of these revisions on the Standards. Thirty-five states now require these tests. Under Title II (1998), the federal government requires (effective next year) that all colleges and universities release their students’ performance data on these teacher content tests to the general public.

In sum, the Standards provide history and social studies faculty more power over which prospective teachers from their institutions become history teachers than ever before. History professors who believe that their state allows inadequately prepared prospective teachers to be licensed have a new, solid device to force a change in that practice. They should put the Standards to use.


1. National Center for History in the Schools, UCLA, National Standards for History (Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools, 1994); National Council for the Social Studies,Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1994); National Geographic Association, National Geography Handbook: Geography for Life (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Research and Exploration, 1994); Center for Civic Education, National Standards for Civics and Government, (Calabasas, Calif.: Center for Civic Education, 1994); Economics America, National Council on Economic Education, Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics (New York: National Council on Economic Education, 1997); American Psychology Association, Internal draft reports on standards, (Washington, D.C.: American Psychology Association, 1996 and 1997).

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