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.
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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.

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“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.”

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