Wanted in America: Good U.S. History Teachers

The Atlantic has posted an essay by Alia Wong on U.S. history textbooks in K-12 classes that is worth reading. The essay focuses on a recent discovery of a ridiculous claim in a history textbook published by McGraw Hill suggesting that African slaves brought to the American colonies from the 1600s to the 1800s were “immigrants” to this land who somehow came here on their own free will. You would think that twenty years after the “textbook wars” of the 1990s and James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong was published to critical acclaim that textbook companies like McGraw Hill would be more careful about the claims they make in these textbooks, but I suppose that is asking too much when a group like the Texas Board of Education wields so much power in determining what gets into history textbooks around the country. You often hear George Santayana’s abused quote about people who don’t remember the past being doomed to repeat it, but it seems that there are times when people who do remember the past and in some cases actively participate in that past are actually more doomed to repeat it.

There is a bigger problem than bad history textbooks in U.S. classrooms, however, and that is bad history teachers. To wit:

Compared to their counterparts in other subjects, high-school history teachers are, at least in terms of academic credentials, among the least qualified. A report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences on public high-school educators in 11 subjects found that in the 2011-12 school year, more than a third—34 percent—of those teaching history classes as a primary assignment had neither majored nor been certified in the subject; only about a fourth of them had both credentials. (At least half of the teachers in each of the other 10 categories had both majored and been certified in their assigned subjects.)

In fact, of the 11 subjects—which include the arts, several foreign languages, and natural science—history has seen the largest decline in the percentage of teachers with postsecondary degrees between 2004 and 2012. And it seems that much of the problem has little to do with money: The federal government has already dedicated more than $1 billion over the last decade to developing quality U.S.-history teachers, the largest influx of funding ever, with limited overall results. That’s in part because preparation and licensing policies for teachers vary so much from state to state.

A recent report from the National History Education Clearinghouse revealed a patchwork of training and certification requirements across the country: Only 17 or so states make college course hours in history a criterion for certification, and no state requires history-teacher candidates to have a major or minor in history in order to teach it.

“Many [history teachers] aren’t even interested in American history,” said Loewen, who’s conducted workshops with thousands of history educators across the country, often taking informal polls of their background and competence in the subject. “They just happen to be assigned to it.”

A bad history textbook in the hands of a good teacher can be turned into a useful instrument for teaching students about the construction of historical narratives, the differences between history and memory, and, of course, the factually correct historical content. A bad history teacher can lead students towards a lifetime hatred of history, regardless of how factually correct their textbook is.

I did not know that 34 percent of history teachers were not majors or certified in history, nor did I know that only 17 states have required qualifications for someone to teach history in a classroom, but I can safely say that Loewen’s observations about people being “assigned” to teach history are true. They often have “coach” in their title.

I do not mean to suggest that all coaches are bad teachers or lack historical knowledge. My initial inspiration for studying history in college was sparked in large part by a Western Civilization teacher during my senior year of high school who also happened to coach football and basketball. But that was the thing; every student viewed him as a teacher who also happened to coach, rather than as a coach who also happened to teach history. And unfortunately there were several coaches at my high school who were simply unfit to teach history.

Is there a lack of qualified history teachers in the United States for our K-12 schools, or does the problem lie in a lack of opportunities for qualified history teachers to find gainful employment in K-12 schools?


Addendum: If you’re a teacher who is frustrated with the quality of your history textbook, I highly recommend that you take advantage of The American Yawp, a free online history textbook that is collaboratively written by some of the best and brightest historians in the country. It is designed for a college classroom but I have no doubt that high school students, especially those in AP classes, could use it to their advantage.

6 thoughts on “Wanted in America: Good U.S. History Teachers

  1. The problem as I see it is the bureaucratic rigmarole surrounding teacher certification. Someone who is trained in lesson plans and knows nothing about history and may not even be interested in history is deemed more qualified to teach history than someone who knows history but hasn’t been trained in lesson plans. We need to expand alternate certification programs to get more folks who know history into the history classrooms.

    1. Hi Al,

      I agree with the thrust of your argument. The rigmarole you allude to is real, and it highlights a larger issue with the training of teachers. Some training programs value educational theory at the expense of content knowledge, but finding a balance between pedagogical and content knowledge is really crucial when finding qualified teachers. Similarly, I think there are plenty of qualified candidates who can’t get in because they don’t posses some other skill such as coaching (or they are perceived as not qualified to coach), which is unfortunate.

  2. In Missouri we have people get degrees in some combination of athletics and education, get their teaching certificate, take the Praxis II test for history and qualify to teach it. Then on the flip side, we see people get a MA or Ph.D in History and then get offered college teaching jobs when they have no idea how to teach.

    It is kind of funny you followed up the lecture post with this one. Lecture is changing. Anyone who lectures for more than 15 minutes at a time is speaking to themselves in most cases. Lecture has value, but not on its own. It must be used in conjunction with learning-centered activities. This will differ on the level of students, but in the lower level courses most lectures are genuine wastes of time. The reason? Most who lecture for long periods have no training in education and it shows.

    1. Great comment, Jimmy. I agree with just about everything you’ve said here. I went to Lindenwood in St. Charles and, to their credit, they load their prospective teachers with a good amount of classes in their content area. I believe that training helped me later on, even though I eventually went a different route towards public history.

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