Teacher Preparation

Scholars Lament Decline of Ed. History Courses in Teacher Prep

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 16, 2015 7 min read
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Once a ubiquitous course requirement that nearly all aspiring teachers took, the history of education seems to be going the way of land-line phones, floppy disks, and shorthand.

Crowded out by an ever-expanding teacher-preparation curriculum in the latter half of the 20th century, such courses are now almost exclusively electives reserved for graduate education students, according to scholars who have documented the decline.

To put it simply: Is the history of education, well, history? And more to the point, does that matter?

Yes, it does, some teacher-educators say.

Take the increasing segregation of students by race today, a situation with echoes of 1954, the year of a history-making U.S. Supreme Court decision on the issue. Look at Washington state, where just this month the state’s highest court justified scotching charter schools on the basis of a 1909 ruling. Consider age-graded classrooms, the reliance on local property taxes, and all manner of other structures so embedded in K-12 education that often they’re taken as givens, said Katherine K. Merseth, the director of teacher preparation for the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Her popular class Dilemmas in Excellence and Equity in American K-12 Education now requires students to grapple with scores of historical documents alongside contemporary research on key topics like assessment and teacher quality.

“I had never paid much attention to history, but the more I got involved in developing the course, I realized I had made assumptions about certain things,” said Merseth.

It’s such assumptions, advocates say, that education history can help challenge, bringing context to the more technical aspects of the profession. Special education, with all of its complex mandates, is a case in point.

The End of History?

Two historians examined coursework requirements at 151 education schools, across 50 states, from 2010-2013. Very few programs required aspiring teachers to take education history; slightly more required a more general social-science class.


Sources: Lester F. Goodchild, John P. Spencer

“It helps if teachers know that these kids, prior to the [disability-rights] movement and federal law, were in the basement if they were even in school at all,” said John Spencer, an associate professor of education at Ursinus College, in Collegeville, Pa., one of the researchers to document the decline in education history.

“That’s where teaching isn’t just a technical thing,” he continued. “You need the purpose and resolve and the perspective to know why it matters, where it came from.”

Charting a Decline

At one point, history of education was virtually the gateway course into teacher preparation. One 1950 tally found that the course was mandated in more than 80 percent of regionally accredited teacher education programs.

Its hold has since diminished—at an incredibly rapid pace by the standards of higher education.

The History of Education Society, a learned association, called on Spencer and Lester F. Goodchild, now a retired professor of education at the University of Massachusetts Boston, to update the record. In a 2010 project, they examined course titles and catalogs from a selection of colleges in about half the states. Goodchild expanded the project in 2013, analyzing documents from three education schools in each of the 50 states.

He found that just 9 percent of the 611 programs in those colleges required a course in the history of education. And most of them were in graduate-level degree programs for aspiring scholars, rather than in programs preparing teachers; just 5 percent of undergraduate programs required such a course.

Instead, the scholars said, the history of education now appears to be a niche field, preserved in a handful of departments—at New York University, Indiana University, and Iowa University, among others. So what caused such a seemingly steep drop in a course offering? The historians point to several factors.

The 1986 Holmes Group report, which prompted a wave of changes in public university education programs, put an emphasis on content majors rather than on education majors. With those changes, tougher accreditation demands, and new state requirements for teaching special education students and English-language learners, curricular real estate started to shrink.

Second came the rise of the general foundations classes. Those classes, although extremely variable in content, typically wove history in alongside other social-science topics, such as the philosophy of education (think John Dewey) and child-development theory or psychology. Later, law, multiculturalism, and gender studies were added, as was “critical pedagogy” (think Paulo Freire) as social-justice concerns entered the curriculum.

In these catch-all courses, history was usually relegated to a few periods, if not subsumed entirely.

“What you do when you make a ‘smoosh’ of all these topics is take away the disciplinary integrity that is so important to good history, or good anthropology, or good philosophy,” said Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, an education historian at Bard College and the chairwoman of a National Research Council panel that in 2011 conducted a congressionally mandated review of teacher-preparation research.

Even the foundations classes seem to be on the wane as thematic courses on race, law, curriculum, children’s literature, and so on continue to populate the curriculum. Only about a quarter of the undergraduate programs examined required a foundations class, according to Goodchild’s review.

Finally, the discipline itself deserves some blame, the historians acknowledge: Traditional classes on the history of education often just weren’t very good.

“I think the old history of education classes were deadly, a kind of forced march,” said Merseth, of Harvard. “I don’t know if they used original documents, but they certainly did not pull up the contention that was bubbling.”

Nor were the classes connected to broader programming goals.

“The problem is that the people teaching those courses were not really engaged with teacher education,” Spencer added. “They were not rigorous about asking themselves, ‘What does this actually contribute to the preparation of a teacher?’ ”

In policy circles, it’s popular to opine that teacher preparation hasn’t changed in 50 years. The historians’ research suggests that, on the contrary, it has changed a lot. But the coursework has grown more, rather than less, diffuse.

Arthur Levine, in his 2006 critique of teacher education, famously called the curriculum a “grab bag of courses,” a description Goodchild believes largely hits the mark.

Curiously, the main debates on teacher preparation today generally overlook the place of history. Instead, they’re focused on whether teacher preparation should be primarily philosophical—"the teacher as public intellectual"—or practical. To the dismay of those who argue for balance, the pendulum continues to swing.

Report after report over the past decade, for instance, has emphasized hands-on training, such as through yearlong student-teaching supervised by well-trained mentors teachers. In less than a decade, the Relay Graduate School of Education, a largely practice-based program that mostly prepares teachers for charter schools, has grown from one outlet in New York City to eight different locations in five states.

Its approach has garnered praise for its applied, hands-on pragmatism—as well as criticism for what some perceive as an overly technocratic curriculum.

To some, a renewed focus on education history could point a path forward that does double duty by respecting both intellectual rigor and practical relevance. That’s the take of a well-known critic impatient with loosey-goosey teacher education curricula, Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

“I do think it matters a lot for teachers to have a solid grounding in at least those factors in recent times which gave rise to such phenomenons as charters and [the No Child Left Behind Act],” she said in an email. “Every teacher should have some understanding about the federal role in education versus local and state, the achievement gap, the impact of poverty on educational outcomes, segregation.”

There is also, it appears, a hunger for such information.

Merseth’s Harvard class can accommodate 80 students. This semester, some 425 vied to secure a spot by lottery. Though the course is not a formal requirement, Merseth expects many of the enrolled students to apply for a newly created teacher-preparation program that begins in the senior year of undergraduate study.

Nancy Beadie, a professor and historian of education at the University of Washington, and her colleagues have taken a different approach.

In the education college’s two required foundations classes, all teachers are taught to bring historical methods to bear on the schools in which they’ll be working. Among other assignments, teacher-candidates look at historical accounts of the communities in Seattle, trace the purposeful segregation of its neighborhoods, and conduct oral histories with community leaders.

What happens in the four walls of a teacher’s classroom isn’t just shaped by policy, but by policy history, Beadie argues.

“If you want to be effective, I’d argue you need to understand the context in which you are trying to be an agent,” she said. “You may need to access community support in order to do your job well: political support, the board of education.”

Goodchild said he is heartened by such efforts, but still worries that the capacity isn’t there yet to declare a renaissance in the field. After all, membership in the History of Education Society has fallen as courses have dwindled. Fewer historians of education are being prepared.

“I worry that the tradition is too based on great professors, on an idiosyncratic tradition at specific institutions,” he said.

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2015 edition of Education Week as Scholars Lament Decline of Courses on Ed. History


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