One reason for Americans’ alarmingly shallow knowledge of their own nation’s history may be the low priority that state-teacher certifiers assign to the preparation of high school history teachers.
A study commissioned by the Lexington Institute found that few states give more than lip service to the idea that a history teacher should have majored in that discipline in college. Many states, including Virginia, tuck history into a wildly multidisciplinary subject called “social studies” (covering everything from archaeology to psychology), and treat historical knowledge as incidental at best.
Virginia’s endorsement to teach high school history requires a passing score on a standardized exam, called the Praxis II Social Studies Content Knowledge test, of which American, world and Virginia history combine for just 20 percent of content.
Fortunately, the minimum passing score for Virginia on the test is among the nation’s highest. But theoretically, a teaching candidate could ace sections on sociology and philosophy, and answer few history questions correctly – yet be certified as a fully qualified teacher of history.
Many other states also use this same requirement for teacher candidates: given the choice of Praxis II tests of social studies or history, more than two-thirds of states choose the social studies version, even though it contains little historical content.
Paradoxically, Virginia and other states with relatively rigorous coursework requirements for teachers to become certified, prefer the Praxis II social studies test. Perhaps that reflects the predominance of social studies in public-school curricula at the expense of history.
A 2011 analysis by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave Virginia’s K-12 content standards for U.S. History a grade of ‘C,’ despite noting a “good deal of high-quality historical material.” The inconsistent detail and context found in the report place added importance on teachers and their own background of history.
It is not as though Americans themselves have devalued history. A survey of adult citizens by the American Revolution Center found that 90 percent believe it is important for a good citizen to know the nation’s founding history. However, only 17 percent of them could pass a simple test about the American Revolution.
Tests of student knowledge are no less depressing. Fewer than one fourth of students sampled in the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for U.S. history scored proficient or above.
There is a short honor roll of states with substantive standards for history teaching. Texas is exemplary in that its institutions of higher learning do not offer a degree in professional education. Instead, a future teacher must complete an academic major along with educator-preparation courses. Additionally, aspiring history teachers must graduate with an approved certification in history (grades 8-12) from an accredited university, plus must pass exams for the subject and grade levels they wish to teach.
When states maintain soft teaching requirements, the effects are felt disproportionately in low-income schools that generally have a harder time attracting and retaining the best teachers. Wealthier suburban school districts with more competitive applicant pools can regularly count on candidates with advanced degrees in history.
Soft requirements also give university officials much more discretion over how much formal study of history they should offer candidates.
Apart from state-to-state differences, the national picture for state teacher certification is a mishmash of social studies-influenced requirements with little respect for the basic history that should be taught high-school students.
What could be done? To raise public awareness, it would help if Virginia and other states followed Massachusetts’ lead and developed a competency test for students in basic facts, principles, and developments in U.S. history. Bay State leaders abandoned the initiative in 2009, but they should revive it, and other states should follow suit.
Beyond that, states should function as a true laboratory of democracy and learn from each other. What about requiring a history major instead of an ed-school grounding in methodology? Why use a test for history teachers with minimal historical content? Shouldn’t certifiers look more deeply into flabby electives masquerading as history courses in certification programs outsourced to universities?
Ultimately, in this constitutional Republic, it is up to citizens to let their representatives know they want history to be taught fully and competently again in their schools.
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