Publication Date

April 17, 2024

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

AHA Topic

K–12 Education

Media accounts of a politically charged war for the soul of social studies are overblown. However, no one knows what actually is being taught in classrooms across the United States. In response, the AHA has undertaken a national empirical study on the current state of secondary US history education. This article includes some of the project’s findings.

A gold apothecary scale on a colorful table

History teachers are balancing their own expertise with the shifting demands of administrators. Elena Mozhvilo/Unsplash

When we asked social studies educators across the country how administrators viewed history curriculum, teachers told us a consistent story: “Afterthought.” “Back burner.” “Short end of the stick.” Teachers have long sensed the gradual sidelining of their subject—in attention, resources, and respect—in service of subjects regularly covered by state-mandated standardized tests. More recently, partisan culture wars have revived social studies’ role as a political football, with activists accusing teachers of pushing distorted history into K–12 classrooms. If this is what attention to social studies looks like, many teachers might prefer neglect.

Over the past two years, the AHA’s Mapping the Landscape of Secondary US History Education project has been cutting through the noise to assemble an empirical picture of what gets taught in US history classes. Over the course of interviewing hundreds of teachers and administrators, surveying more than 3,000 teachers, and collecting troves of curriculum from across the United States, we’ve caught a glimpse of the diverse but consistent challenges that teachers face as they try to keep their spirits up. Most teachers are neither completely ignored nor openly attacked. Instead, they navigate a diffuse and complex set of pressures and incentives around a perennial question: Who is in charge of curriculum?

This is a question with a long history. Between the 1980s and the 2010s, so-called “accountability movement” boosters had the answer: the bosses are in charge. State, district, and schoolhouse administrators had a duty to align curriculum with state-adopted standards and to align teachers with one another. State education agencies used statewide common assessment to enforce alignment and accountability. Reinforced by federal mandates, these standardized tests were aimed at core skills in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics—not social studies. Today, only 20 states require assessment of US history content, with stakes varying dramatically. In some states with a history assessment mandate, much of the design, scoring, reporting, and consequences of testing are left up to local discretion.

When history does land on statewide exams, the effects on instruction are clear. In Texas, exceptional among our surveyed states with its state-designed, state-scored, standards-aligned exams for K–12 US history, the effects on grade-level course team alignment are clear: 74 percent of Texas teachers we surveyed report that they and their department colleagues give a common test at the end of every curricular unit, compared to only 33 percent in other surveyed states. Testing at the state level trickles down to the local. Teachers in assessment-heavy contexts voiced mixed feelings. One teacher likened their school to “a factory” where they’re “turning out a product.” Others appreciate a view of clear results and the chance to compete with their peers.

Veteran teachers report a clear trend away from autonomy and idiosyncrasy.

While standardized assessment may be the exception rather than the rule for social studies, three decades of accountability initiatives have nonetheless left their mark on the management of teachers. Large districts tend to grow heavier bureaucracies—and in some cases an ambition for more top-down control. Looking across their careers, veteran teachers report a clear trend away from autonomy and idiosyncrasy and toward course team alignment and common assessment. Commenting on the decrease in teacher autonomy, one Pennsylvania administrator admitted that, while he appreciated having oversight as an administrator, “as a teacher, I would have hated it.”

Even as state agencies, curriculum coordinators, and school principals seek to synchronize and discipline instruction, many administrators confessed that history teachers, especially at the high school level, feel at liberty to resist directives that they find burdensome or intrusive—even in right-to-work states. For their part, teachers often described a whiplash effect over the course of their careers; one administrator might assist their course team’s continual improvement with helpful resources, while the next simply pushes the latest trend, requiring paperwork rituals that teachers comply with in a perfunctory way. Ultimately, teachers ride these waves of attention and neglect, while retaining substantial discretion in deciding what they teach, how they teach it, and what materials they use.

The tug-of-war between management and labor reveals a deeper contest over the purpose of teaching history. Among district administrators, an emphasis on developing skills of nonfiction literacy, inquiry, and argumentation prevails. The stress on skills reflects profession-wide trends in curriculum and instruction—and, again, the ongoing pressures of standardized ELA assessment. Districts tend to organize professional development that reflects managerial priorities, leaving teachers on their own to develop their historical expertise. Administrators often express frustration with teachers they see as too focused on content (names, dates, stories, and concepts) rather than skills. At the same time, teachers typically define their expertise in terms of knowing their content. As one Connecticut administrator complained, he would prefer a focus on “transferable history skills” but instead gets stuck working “with history teachers [who] love their content.” In fact, history teachers have no objections to transferable skills: 97 percent of teachers we surveyed cited critical thinking and informed citizenship as the top learning goals for their students. They are far less enthused when they perceive that an administrator sees their social studies classes as an extra period of “nonfiction literacy” training for the next ELA exam.

Alongside the pressures of accountability is the current culture war over history education. Only 2 percent of the teachers we surveyed say they regularly face criticism related to the way they teach topics in US history. Forty percent say they’ve probably encountered an objection only once or twice in their career. Forty-four percent have never encountered an objection to anything they’ve taught. This data is good news, but it is little comfort to teachers who find themselves working in a hot spot. The stories teachers reported to us were highly contingent on local contexts, with teachers who work mere blocks away from each other sometimes reporting radically different experiences.

Most parents are too busy or uninterested to hammer history teachers with objections.

Political extremes—whether conservative state legislators or progressive district administrators—do not represent the average experience of most teachers. Outside of more affluent corridors where some parents have the time to devote themselves to one side or another of the culture war, most parents are too busy or uninterested to hammer history teachers with objections. Public apathy can be no less damaging to teacher morale, with some teachers wishing that parents had the time and energy to care more about what happened in their classrooms—even if the parents centered their attention on controversial topics. When controversy does strike, teachers point to a shared lodestar of political neutrality. K–12 classrooms contain a wide range of ideological perspectives. Even when they find themselves personally out of step with the dominant views in their community, teachers tend to hold firm to a sense of themselves as neutral arbiters and truth tellers. As one Pennsylvania teacher put the common refrain, “it’s not my job to tell your kids what to think but how to think.”

Many administrators agree, backing up teachers when they face unfair critiques. In other cases, they issue vague directives, telling teachers to “be careful.” Such hazy management creates what a Washington state teacher described as “eggshell time.” Ironically, administrators have found that politicized challenges can be effective tools to encourage alignment with their expectations. A Virginia administrator told his teachers that in “this world of controversy . . . if you want to ensure we’re on your side, always use our materials.” In states with testing and top-down standards, this is even more evident. As one Texas administrator put it, teach to the standards “and don’t get on the news.” In Iowa, state guidance made clear that teachers should not interpret their state’s divisive concepts law as prohibiting any teaching or discussion of the history of slavery, racism, or segregation. But a chill had already set in, with some local administrators encouraging their teachers to use primary documents or student discussion in place of their own professional voice when covering so-called “difficult” subject matter. In Washington state, teachers interpreted a widely used antibias rubric as prohibiting them from covering material from the 19th century unless they were constantly and intentionally “calling out” the injustices of the era. Without administrative support, and unsure of what they can say, some social studies teachers feel like they cannot engage their students in the honest conversations that generate insight, curiosity, and trust.

Within the seeds of the culture war is an affirmation that history matters, in contrast to the testing trends that have made social studies an “afterthought.” A healthy public school system requires public deliberation and administrative oversight over what American schoolchildren should know and be able to do. But overbearing standardization—whether undertaken in the name of test prep, racial equity, or patriotism—runs counter to the long-standing and widely embraced goal of social studies: to foster new generations of independent-thinking, self-governing citizens. If teachers are too scared or too regimented to enact these habits as professionals, they will have little hope of modeling them for their students. Crisis and panic generate energy around education reform; they are also poisonous. The antidote is a slower, more deliberate, more mundane process: restore, reinforce, and reinvest in teachers’ confidence as authentic experts in their subject matter.

Historians, even those who do not work in secondary school classrooms, are not bystanders to these efforts. Whether advocating for more class time for social studies, supporting content-rich professional development opportunities, or standing up to those who seek to degrade the integrity of history, historians have ample opportunities to contribute. Our full research report, to be released this fall, will be useful for anyone with a stake in history and history education to understand this context and draw conclusions about the best approaches to making productive change.

The Mapping the Landscape research team presented a summary of their broader findings on March 14 at American Lesson Plan, an AHA Online event. A recording can be found on the AHA’s YouTube channel.

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.

Whit Barringer
Whitney E. Barringer

American Historical Association

Nicholas Kryczka
Nicholas Kryczka

American Historical Association

Scot McFarlane
Scot McFarlane

American Historical Association