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Why Students Don't Know Much About History

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College professors regularly complain that their students know little about American history or the history of any other part of the world. And with good reason. On the last national test of American history in 1994, conducted by the federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress, 57 percent of high school seniors were "below basic," as low as it is possible to score. These seniors had taken a U.S. history course in either 11th or 12th grade; their scores were unaffected by whether they studied history in the same year that the test was given. The NAEP results in history were worse than in any other academic subject area.

Why should this be so? One reason is that history too often is taught by teachers who did not study history as undergraduates. The National Center for Education Statistics reported in 1996 that "over half of all public school students enrolled in history or world civilization classes in grades 7-12 ... were taught by teachers who did not have at least a minor in history." Fifty-nine percent of students in middle school and 43 percent of high school students were studying history with a teacher who had not earned at least a history minor in college.

The NCES assumes that teachers who lack either a major or a minor in their main academic field are teaching out of field. Most people now teaching social studies or history in the schools have neither a major nor a minor in history. In some states, people can be licensed to teach social studies without ever having taken a single history course in college.

Based on its Schools and Staffing Survey, the NCES found that an astonishing 81.5 percent of social studies teachers in grades 7 through 12 have neither a major nor a minor in history. Fifty-five percent of those who teach one or more history courses do not have at least a minor in history. Fifty-three percent of those who teach two or more history courses do not have a major or a minor in history; 64 percent of those who teach one history course lack either a major or a minor in history.

What is the educational background of those who are now teaching social studies and history? The NCES reports that 71 percent of social studies teachers took their undergraduate degree in education. Among the 81.5 percent of social studies teachers who did not major or minor in history, 14 percent got an undergraduate degree in social studies education, and 65 percent have an education degree that is not related to any academic discipline, from fields such as special education, secondary education, bilingual education, curriculum, educational administration, or guidance.

Nearly half of the social studies teachers who lack a history education have earned an advanced degree, but few received one in any academic discipline. Among social studies teachers who do have a master's degree, nearly 90 percent earned it in pedagogy, not history or the social sciences.

What is the educational preparation of that 55 percent of history teachers who have neither a major nor a minor in history? Nearly 77 percent have an undergraduate degree in education, 11 percent have an undergraduate degree in a social science other than history, and 5 percent earned their degree in some other academic subject. Nearly half of this group has a master's degree, but few were earned in any academic discipline; more than 80 percent got their master's degree in education.

It is professional malpractice when state officials do not require teachers to demonstrate that they know what they are supposed to teach.

Not surprisingly, the history teachers who earned either a major or a minor in history have a far stronger academic preparation, both as undergraduates and at the graduate level, than their colleagues who did not study history. Among this group, 72 percent have an undergraduate degree in history or one of the social sciences, 22 percent majored in education, and 4 percent in other academic subjects. Of those in this group who hold master's degrees, 30 percent gained one in education, 21 percent in history or a social science, and 1 percent in another academic field.

A picture begins to emerge of the social studies profession in relation to the teaching of history. The vast majority of social studies teachers--81.5 percent--as well as a majority of history teachers--55 percent--did not major or minor in history, nor did they earn a graduate degree in history. The typical social studies teacher has an undergraduate degree in education and, if she or he has a master's degree, it too is in education.

At this point, it seems reasonable to ask: How can teachers teach what they have not studied? How can students learn challenging subject matter from teachers who have not chosen to study what they are teaching? How can teachers create engaging, innovative, and even playful ways to present ideas that they have not mastered themselves? How can teachers whose own knowledge of history is fragmentary help students debate controversial issues?

Today many states expect students to study not only U.S. history, but increasingly more difficult courses in world history. How are students going to learn world history from teachers who never studied world history? How many teachers in the United States are qualified to teach the rigorous content in the standards for U.S. and world history prepared by the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California-Los Angeles?

Why do state officials grant teaching credentials to people to teach a subject that they have not studied? Why is teacher certification based on completion of education courses, rather than on mastery of what is to be taught? Why not require future teachers of history to have a major or at least a strong minor in history?

In what other profession would public officials be so indifferent to professional preparation? Imagine going to a hospital and finding that the credentialling system permits scrub nurses to perform surgery. Or boarding an airliner to learn that ticket clerks have been certified to pilot the plane. In education, placing teachers into out-of-field positions has become the usual, the acceptable, and the normal.

It is professional malpractice when state officials do not require teachers to demonstrate--either by appropriate credentials or examination--that they know what they are supposed to teach. The NCES reports that 39.5 percent of science teachers have neither a major nor a minor in science. Why should American students learn science, mathematics, or history from people who did not study those fields?

Who should prepare history teachers? History teachers should study history in college. They should certainly have at least a minor and preferably a major in history, including American and world history courses. Future teachers should study the history of Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and India. They should study the social sciences and literature as part of their preparation. They should learn pedagogical methods, either in education courses or as apprentices with mentors.

The federal government and the states should offer incentives to liberal arts colleges to prepare future teachers of history, science, English, and mathematics. They should also encourage collaboration between schools of education and liberal arts colleges on the same campus to prepare future teachers to understand and teach to the best state, national, and international aca-demic standards. Together, the different parts of the university should create an appropriate balance between the knowledge and the skills that good history teachers need.

Those who care about history education must insist that states establish a strong history curriculum across the grades and that teachers of history are well prepared to teach it. If those who teach history have never studied it, how can they teach it? If they don't enjoy learning about it themselves, how can they transmit a love for history to their students?


Diane Ravitch is a research professor in the New York University school of education, New York City, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. She thanks Pascal D. Forgione, Marty Orland, Kerry Gruber, Marilyn McMillen, and Steve Broughman of the National Center for Education Statistics for their assistance in assembling the data in this essay.

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