Curriculum

History Group Finds Little Evidence of K-12 ‘Indoctrination’

By Olina Banerji — March 20, 2024 6 min read
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The combination of COVID-19 school closures and rising culture wars put a harsh spotlight on educators, but none had it worse than the nation’s social studies educators.

Social studies has long been a political punching bag, but it reached a new peak around 2021, with teachers accused of indoctrinating students in a variety of political viewpoints, teaching students to “hate” the United States, and coloring key moments of U.S. history with a paintbrush of contemporary “woke” politics.

Pushback hasn’t been limited to conservatives, either: Lessons based on slavery simulations and other damaging, ahistorical lessons periodically go viral and create an uproar.

Fueled by this rhetoric, policymakers in some 18 states have passed legislation or other rules regulating how teachers can discuss issues of racism, sexism, and inequality in the classroom. Discussing critical race theory, the study of institutional racism, and even current events is banned or limited in some states, and under attack in others.

But preliminary findings from a new study by the American Historical Association, a professional organization of historians provides evidence that most middle and high school teachers history teachers strive to keep their lessons politically neutral. In the essay, published in TIME magazine, 97 percent of the about 3,000 teachers surveyed for the study said the top objectives of a social science lesson is to turn students into critical thinkers and informed citizens.

“The divisive concepts legislations that have been introduced by lawmakers make assumptions about what teachers are teaching. We always knew that teachers don’t really teach critical race theory in their classrooms. But not one [piece of legislation] had any data on what’s being taught,” said Jim Grossman, the executive director of the AHA.

Few teachers rely on political extremes to teach their lessons, but still most must navigate the rhetorical accusations that they’re indoctrinating students, the AHA concluded.

Over three quarters of teachers surveyed said they cobble together a multitude of online resources, from such sources as the Library of Congress, the federally funded Smithsonian Institution websites, and YouTube educational series like Crash Course, run by popular YouTubers John and Hank Green. Teachers tend to use textbooks only as a reference, rather than source material.

Teachers’ top paid resources include Newsela (52 percent), which features news articles culled from a variety of media and Discovery Education materials (30 percent), while the top free resources included inquiry-based lessons from the Stanford History Education Group and the archives of various federal museums, as well as Teachers Pay Teachers, a marketplace of lessons priced by teachers.

“We found that teachers don’t use materials from contentious sources, so the accusation that teachers are teaching kids to hate America is simply untrue,” said Grossman.

Decentralization can counter indoctrination

As part of the study, AHA reviewed the K-12 social studies content standards of all 50 states, interviewed district officials and history department heads, and conducted a survey of 3,000 educators in nine states. Collectively, the effort took two years.

The diffuse nature of control over history standards, means that there are local variations in the resources that teachers access, and how they teach history in class. But generally, Grossman said, teachers appear to keep their own politics outside the classroom. “They aren’t telling students to feel guilty about what their parents or grandparents did,” he said.

In fact, the decentralized structure and local control likely acts as a shield against widespread indoctrination, said the authors in their preliminary findings. But it does pose the risk of teachers relying on “unvetted” resources slipping into a curriculum.

Kevin Levin, a history educator who conducts professional development workshops with educators on teaching history, said that vetting digital material—now a primary source of information—is a skill that teachers still need to develop.

“Some teachers do use reliable materials, but just as many are plugging terms into a search engine and clicking the first thing. This has potential to mislead,” said Levin. This danger is heightened now, because technology like ChatGPT can fuel false information that doesn’t come with any warning.

Teachers need training

Most teachers, said Levin, are trying to navigate thorny issues like the legacy of slavery and white supremacy by arming themselves with as much information as possible. “They want to improve their content knowledge, in case they face pushback against their lessons,” said Levin.

But threading this information needle isn’t easy. Teachers that have attempted to use or interpret newer concepts, like white privilege, have gotten in trouble and even disciplined.

History teachers don’t personally have to be politically neutral, said Levin, but they must maintain a balance of diverse of views within their classrooms. Not only does that protect against allegations of partisan teaching, but it also develops students’ skills to grapple with complicated questions. “Students have to be taught how to think. That is different from telling them what to think,” said Grossman.

Levin uses several techniques to expose teachers to different points of view in his training sessions. He shares lectures by historians, travels with them to field trips at historical sites, and shares teaching resources that teachers can take into their classrooms, especially topics that teachers know little about, or find hard to teach.

“When teachers can share more materials in class, it helps students understand that the past is just as complicated as the present, and there’s no one interpretation. Students are not treated as sponges, who only absorb and regurgitate one interpretation,” said Levin.

The AHA recommends better, content-rich PD for history teachers, who are mostly left on their own to find appropriate materials. Teachers, the survey found, have indicated that “missteps” in class happen because they lack information on a particular topic, not because they’re trying a partisan approach.

“School districts should focus on history teachers and keep them up to date on current information or train them better in information literacy. It can help them keep up with how misinformation is spread,” said Grossman.

Some aspects of history education are inevitably challenging, Levin said. Allowing students to arrive at their own conclusions goes against the notion that they should be taught a particular version of past events, as was the case in prior generations where a narrative of American exceptionalism prevailed.

“The controversy we are witnessing is an admission that the past conservative view of history has failed. There is an attempt to turn things back, but in the digital age, its impossible to control the narrative,” said Levin.

The AHA will release its full report this fall. Grossman hopes it will temper the accusations laid against history teachers, and prompt more support for their training and development as educators who inspire critical thinking in their classrooms.

“We are providing an empirical basis to come to the same conclusion that we should’ve come to logically,” he said. “Our data shows that educators are using history [lessons] to develop people who cannot be indoctrinated in the future.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2024 edition of Education Week as History Group Finds Little Evidence of K-12 ‘Indoctrination’

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