Publication Date

April 1, 1991

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

K–12 Education

On March 22, 1988, Lynne Cheney, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities, awarded a three-year, 1.5 million dollar grant to fund a National Center for History in the Schools, to be located at the University of California, Los Angeles under the direction of Charlotte Crabtree, UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, with Gary B. Nash, professor of history at UCLA, as associate director. The purpose of the Center has been to engage in a broad program of research and dissemination activities to improve learning in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools.

Since then, the Center has assembled a distinguished group of historians of American and world history to serve as Center scholars. They include Kathleen Conzen, University of Chicago; Don Fehrenbacher, Stanford University; Paul Gagnon, University of Massachusetts, Boston; Nikki Keddie, University of California, Los Angeles; Bill Rowe, The Johns Hopkins University; Richard Saller, University of Chicago; Peter Shaw, SUNY, Stony Brook; Thaddeus Tate, The College of William and Mary; Scott Waugh, University of California, Los Angeles; and Michael Winston, Howard University.

The Center’s Advisory Panel has included historians Gordon Craig and Gordon Wood; California’s Associate-Superintendant for Curriculum, Francie Alexander; and three classroom teachers, Wayne Ginty, David Millstone, and Marguerite Navarrete.

The Center’s work is carried on through six major projects, the three largest of which are described here:


Project One: Essential Historical Understandings

Through Project One the Center has addressed the central curriculum questions concerning history in the schools: Why study history? What history? And at what levels of deeper meaning and historical insight as students progress through the years of elementary and secondary education? Addressed to policy makers in state legislatures and school boards of education, to curriculum leaders, and to classroom teachers, The Essential Historical Understandings, written by a group of nationally-known historians, provides the rationale as well as substantive recommendations for the essential understandings and “habits of mind” that should be developed in precollegiate programs in American and world history. Volume 1 of this series includes the following three chapters:

1) Chapter I, “The Case for History in Schools,” presents the justification for history in the education of all children and youth and was prepared by Paul Gagnon.

2) Chapter II, “The Essential Understandings in U.S. History” has been developed by the Center’s scholars in American history, under the leadership of Gary Nash. It includes fourteen units chronologically sequenced from “Three Worlds Meet (1450–1600)” through “Recent America.”

3) Chapter III, “The Essential Understandings in World History,” has been developed by the Center’s scholars under the leadership of Scott Waugh and with the assistance of historians specializing in various regions of world history. The units are chronologically organized and inclusive of the history of all major world regions.

4) Three forthcoming chapters, to be released as Volume II of this project, will provide guidance to curriculum leaders and teachers on how to apply these essential understandings to classroom instruction at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

Project Two: National Survey of History in the Schools

A second major study of the Center is the assessment of the present status of history in the nation’s schools. The Center has conducted a national survey of classroom teachers and department chairs in over 1200 randomly selected public and independent junior and senior high schools throughout the United States. Every 30th public school in the nation enrolling grades 9-12 and every 34th public school enrolling grades 7 and 8 was sampled. Administrators and teachers in over 76 percent of the schools have responded to our survey. World and American history teachers in our national sample were asked to complete questionnaires giving data on the students in their classes, their course objectives, topics covered, time devoted to each, their teaching resources and methods, their school climate and extent of support, and their own degree of professional training, experience, and activities.

David O’Shea, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Los Angeles, who co-directs the study with Crabtree, has identified the three major objectives of the survey as follows: to determine the content of the history curriculum generally being offered in schools; to determine how these offerings vary by geographic region, by different high school tracks, such as advanced placement and general enrollment, by geographic region, and by other school and teacher characteristics; and to compare the curriculum content that is being taught with that recommended by the Center’s historians. Survey findings are now being tabulated and analyzed and will be published shortly. This has been the most extensive study of its kind yet developed, and should reveal important information on how history is being taught in our nation’s schools.

Project Six: Development and Evaluation of Improved Programs for Teaching History

The Center’s purpose in Project Six is to develop for national dissemination a collection of exemplary programs for teaching history in elementary and secondary schools. In a year-long search we have acquired and reviewed hundreds of teaching units which have been reviewed in our publication entitled, Selected Materials for Teaching World and United States History, written by Linda Symcox, the Center’s assistant director, which will be released along with our other publications.

In addition we have brought more than sixty outstanding Teacher Associates to summer institutes over the past two years, during which time they have worked with the Center’s scholars, institute leaders, and professional consultants to develop and test new teaching materials for the schools.

These developmental activities have been under the direction of Gary B. Nash, Linda Symcox, Scott Waugh, and Paul Gagnon. Our purpose in these developmental activities is to demonstrate ways to bring history alive; to stimulate lively classroom discussions; to engage students in probing analyses of the crucial events and issues that occupied both leaders and ordinary people in the past; and to develop the students’ historical empathy. These units are base on primary source documents, maps and illustrations rich in historical content, and offer classroom activities carefully keyed to the material. They provide teachers exciting, in-depth lessons to supplement their classroom texts and will be disseminated nationally upon they’re completion.

Over fifty units are currently being finished and will be disseminated in packets of related units covering, for example, such historical topics as: the ancient Near East; the origins of Greek civilization; the golden age of Greece; Europe in the Middle Ages; Africa from ancient through modern times; the history of China; colonial America; slavery and its legacy in American history; industrial America; and America in the early twentieth century, among others.

Although the first two years of our grant have been largely devoted to research and development, we are now beginning the national dissemination of out publications and newsletter. In addition, we have already presented institutes and workshops in Florida, Washington D.C., and California. We presented a full-day workshop on both the world and American history at the annual conference of the National Council for Social Studies in Anaheim, California, November 16, 1990.

If you are interested in the work of the Center and would like to be kept abreast of our projects as they are released, please send your name and address to the following address and we will place you on our mailing list: Linda Symcox, The National Center for History in the Schools, University of California, Los Angeles, Moore Hall 231, 405 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90024-1521.

Charlotte Crabtree is director and Linda Symcox is assistant director of the National Center for History in the Schools.