Social Studies

What’s Really Going on in History Classrooms? A New Project Aims to Find Out

By Sarah Schwartz — December 15, 2022 2 min read
Compilation of images including an urban cityscape of Washington, DC. National Archives Building, Lincoln memorial, United States Flag.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Over the past two years, U.S. history classes have been at the center of public debate and discussion.

Conservative pundits and politicians have said that teachers are “indoctrinating” students to hate America and making white students feel ashamed of themselves. Teachers and school leaders have roundly denounced these claims, explaining that they don’t have an agenda outside of teaching kids to identify historical evidence and make arguments.

At the same time, examples of history lessons gone wrong—gamified simulations of the Underground Railroad, for example—continue to surface in local news reports, a reminder that some students are getting watered-down, ahistorical versions of the harder chapters of the American story. In the worst case scenario, these kinds of activities can reinforce racist power dynamics and traumatize students.

These examples show that despite all the angst over history class, it’s very hard to know exactly what’s happening in classrooms writ large. Now, one new project aims to change that.

The American Historical Association, a professional organization for historians, educators, and others in the discipline, is conducting research into how schools choose materials and set instructional priorities in secondary history classes.

The AHA’s analysis will look at decisionmaking across the system, said Nicholas Kryczka, the research coordinator on the project. Kryczka and his team plan to examine state standards and legislative actions that dictate what teachers should—or should not—cover in classes. (That’s similar to a recent thread of Education Week reporting, which has documented how recent political discourse has resulted in changes to state standards in Florida, Louisiana, South Dakota, Texas, and other states.)

But the AHA project will go one step further: The team will also interview district curriculum coordinators about how they select materials and organize professional development. The project will also include teacher surveys. The AHA will release a report with the findings at the end of the two-year effort.

This attention to what district leaders and teachers say they’re doing—rather than just examining what states say they should do—sets the AHA project apart from other recent reports that have traced trends through state history standards.

And it might yield surprising results, said Jim Grossman, AHA’s executive director, during a panel at the National Council for the Social Studies’ annual conference earlier this month.

“For all we know, there’s more warmed-over Frederick Jackson Turner being taught than [the 1619 Project],” Grossman said, referring to the 19th century historian famous for his “frontier thesis”—the idea that settler colonialism in the West was central to the development of American identity.

The research team also plans to examine what history practices schools teach—how they want students to evaluate and make arguments about historical evidence.

Schools often frame history education in terms of the civic values educators hope to instill, Kryczka said.

See also

10 Citizen Z Illustration
Stephanie Shafer for Education Week
Social Studies Project How History Class Divides Us
Stephen Sawchuk, October 23, 2018
18 min read

“For a century, maybe two centuries, the basic rationale for why history is taught to children has been pretty consistent,” he said. The goal, as often articulated in state standards and frameworks, is to instill a sense of belonging in the American narrative and prepare students for citizenship.

But history shouldn’t just be taught as a civic tool—there are skills of academic inquiry that kids should learn, Kryczka said.

“There is a discipline to the approach about studying the past that belongs in those history classrooms.”

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
Challenging the Stigma: Emotions and STEM
STEM isn't just equations and logic. Join this webinar and discover how emotions fuel innovation, creativity, & problem-solving in STEM!
Content provided by Project Lead The Way

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Social Studies Opinion What Black Parents Think About How Black History Is Taught
The preferences of Black parents are rarely the focus in debates over Black history instruction. Here’s what these survey respondents had to say.
LaGarrett J. King
3 min read
A group of parents look at a book, another parent blocks a child's access to the book
Camilla Sucre for Education Week
Social Studies Opinion What I Wish I Knew About Teaching Black History Before I Left the Classroom
Bettina L. Love explains how she struggled to portray Black icons as real people in the early days of her teaching career.
4 min read
Photo illustration of colorful 60's geometric design patterns mimicking screen-printing over historic photograph. - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center, addresses a gathering in the riot-torn area of Los Angeles, Aug. 18, 1965. Bayard Rustin, King's aide, is at left.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week + AP Photo/Don Brinn, File + Getty Images
Social Studies Opinion Who’s Improving Black History Education for Everyone? Three Stand-Outs
Recent highlights in Black history education, from the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education’s LaGarrett J. King.
LaGarrett J. King
2 min read
Overhead view of people interacting with colorful books on a table.
Camilla Sucre for Education Week
Social Studies Opinion I Train Teachers to Teach Black History. Here’s What I’ve Learned
Here’s how I’ve tried to reclaim Black history from the margins—and how you can do the same.
Abigail Henry
4 min read
A group of teachers gather around a textbook excited about the content.
Camilla Sucre for Education Week