History Teaching Requirements in Many States Fall Short, Report Says

By Erik W. Robelen — May 02, 2013 2 min read
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Many states fail to set entrance requirements for history teachers that would help ensure that those who end up in U.S. high schools would actually be knowledgeable about the subject, a new report from a conservative think tank concludes.

“Today, few states give so much as lip service to the idea that a major in history earned in a serious university department of history ought to be a prerequisite to teaching history to high school students,” says the report, issued last month. “Too often, state certifiers allow an array of alternatives that do not demand study of American and world history in any real depth.”

It contends that “a major weakness” is that in many states, those requirements are focused on credits and scores in social studies, rather than specific knowledge of U.S. history. (And the report makes no secret of its disdain for social studies, what it calls a “big tent” of subjects that often ends up giving history short shrift.) It notes, for instance, that more than two-thirds of states that use the Praxis II content tests for teachers have chosen the social studies version over the history exam.

The report details on a state-by-state basis the coursework and testing requirements for prospective history teachers. And it comes as recent achievement data suggest most U.S. students have a weak understanding of their own history. Results from the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress exam in U.S. history found that only 12 percent—no that’s not a typo—scored proficient or above. For 8th graders, the figure was 17 percent.

Among the states the Lexington Institute draws out for criticism in the new report are New Jersey and California. For example, New Jersey offers certification as a social studies teacher, the report says, but stipulates a minimum of taking just one course in American history. The state also requires teachers to take the Praxis II Social Studies test, on which 20 percent of content is in U.S. history.

“It appears possible that one could teach social studies in New Jersey while possessing precious little knowledge to impart to students about American history,” it says.

In California, the report says, the state has a single subject credential at the high school level, but offers no history credential. Instead, those who wish to teach history must earn a social sciences credential. By contrast, the state does offer such single-subject credentials in other more specialized areas, including the biological sciences and geosciences.

The Lexington Institute singles out a few other states for praise, including Texas and Rhode Island, calling the latter a “sterling example.” Although Rhode Island does not require certification in history (but rather social studies), an applicant must have completed at least 18 semester hours of coursework each in several areas of history: U.S. history, European history, non-Western history, and history of Western civilization. It also stipulates a “major or equivalent in the content area or a closely related field with an emphasis on history.”

To be sure, the report says state requirements are not the only way to ensure that teachers have strong knowledge of history. For wealthier districts, it suggests, “They have the money to hire a Ph.D. to teach history should they choose.” But it argues those “hurt by the low teacher standards are the neediest districts, which have to scramble to fill teaching positions. And. of course, those hurt the most are the students who thereby are deprived of teachers who can impart the basics of their nation’s history.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.