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School history shifts toward accuracy & diversity

Growing range of digital sources makes high school history instruction more engaging for all students
  • At Fairfax County Public Schools, ESOL students, like the one above, research a specific culture and develop a presentation for a Global Awareness Technology Project. As a result, students develop research, writing and oral communication skills.
  • Fairfax County Public Schools students work with the Colchester Archaeological Research Team on a dig. (Sandra Brennan/Fairfax County Public Schools)
  • Anton Schulzki, a high school history teacher at Colorado Springs School District 11, incorporates primary sources into his lessons, rather than relying solely on the history textbook.
  • A Fairfax County student examines records at the Historic Fairfax County Courthouse. (Sandra Brennan/Fairfax County Public Schools)

American history could be in trouble.

Decades of reliance on contentious textbooks and rote memorization have driven students away from the subject, despite its influence on contemporary issues.

“U.S. history should be one of the most important subjects in the curriculum,” says historian and sociologist James Loewen, author of the 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. “It helps explain how Americans got this way, in all of our glory and with all of our problems. If faced openly, it can lead to conversations among students under the watchful eye of faculty that build community in the school.”

Instead, a combination of textbook dependence and ineffective teaching put history and social studies courses among students’ least favorite classes, Loewen says. Just 8 percent of American adults identify history as the most valuable subject they learned in school, according to a 2013 Gallup poll.

Inexperienced teachers are part of the problem—34 percent of history teachers neither majored in the subject nor are certified in it, as of 2011-12, according to a report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Only about one-fourth of history teachers had both credentials. Comparatively, at least half of the teachers in each of the other 10 subject areas studied (including math and English) had both majored in and been certified in their subject.

Many history teachers may also be insecure about their content knowledge, or have strict state or district standards to cover in class, leading to over-reliance on teaching to the textbook, Loewen says.

And then there’s Texas. It’s one of the nation’s largest textbook consumers, buying 48 million books per year, and its adoption system drives the content of many books. In 2010, the Texas State Board of Education adopted new history standards that critics say politicized the teaching of history.

A growing number of high school teachers and administrators are fighting to fundamentally change the way U.S. history is taught. Some states and districts offer more flexible standards that allow teachers to go deeper into a given historical topic.

And thanks to online resources, students can now work like historians, studying primary sources and asking deeper questions that connect the material to the modern world.

Content controversy

High school U.S. history textbooks are usually chosen at the district level, on adoption cycles of seven to 10 years.

“U.S. history textbooks are the longest, heaviest books ever inflicted on K12 students,” Loewen says. “They may have made sense in 1960, when there were few resources for teaching history besides the textbook. Today, almost every student has the internet, with its hundreds of thousands of primary sources.”

Textbook changes are often influenced by the politics surrounding state standards, says Anton Schulzki, a high school history teacher in Colorado Springs School District 11 and member of the National Council for the Social Studies board of directors.

Texas, California and New York are the three largest textbook purchasers in the nation, and therefore have the most influence over content.

“There is a notion [among politicians] that we’re leaving something out, overemphasizing something, and underemphasizing something else,” Schulzki says. “There’s a fundamental misunderstanding, particularly by politicians, as to what really happens inside a classroom and how history is taught.”

The number of online primary sources should encourage teachers to incorporate lessons on critical reading and examining different viewpoints of the same event, rather than relying solely on the secondary source of the textbook, Schulzki says.

“We, as a country, would love to have a simple narrative, but that has never been part of our nation’s history,” Schulzki says. “It became easy for textbook publishers to come through with a simple narrative, but that doesn’t do anything for the diverse students in our classrooms.”

The history of many groups, including African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Native Americans, was largely left out of U.S. history textbooks until recent years.

“Native American representation in history books is both historically inaccurate and largely invisible,” says Matt Remle, Native American liaison at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Washington. “Typically the only things you see in K12 about Native Americans is a short bit around when Columbus lands, Thanksgiving and maybe a mention of the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890,” Remle says. “After that, it’s as if we stopped existing.”

While textbooks have improved greatly in including more history about women, African-Americans and some other minority groups in the past decade or so, they do not include much analysis of continuing problems, such as sexism and racism, Loewen says.

“History textbooks don’t give students a way to think rationally about race, gender or class problems today,” he says. “They in general are not relevant to the present, whatever the issue.”

A changing tide

In the late 1980s, researchers from the Stanford History Education Group at Stanford University began working on a new way to teach history that goes beyond the textbook and engages students in the problems of today’s society.

Founder and executive director Sam Wineburg and his team developed a curriculum called “Reading Like a Historian,” used today in thousands of schools in all 50 states and worldwide.

Reading Like a Historian approaches instruction as a series of questions that historians debate, such as “Was Abraham Lincoln a racist?” “Was the image of the 1950s happy housewife accurate?” and “Was the New Deal a success?”

Each lesson begins with such a question, and students then analyze primary sources such as newspapers, letters and documents to develop their own interpretations.

“The curriculum is based on the notion that historical understanding demands multiple voices, and must go beyond the single, homogenized voice of the textbook,” Wineburg says.

Stanford researchers introduced the curriculum at five schools in San Francisco USD in 2008. After six months, Reading Like a Historian students outperformed their peers in traditional classrooms on reading comprehension, historical thinking, recall of facts and general reasoning.

In 2013, the American Historical Association awarded the Stanford History Education Group with two top awards for the curriculum. All lessons are available free online.

“The issue for students is no longer where to find information, but how to decide whether the information we find should be believed,” Wineburg says. “The job that used to be the work of historians and librarians now rests on the shoulders of every citizen, and our democracy hangs in the balance.”

Memorization should be history

Dense history standards and guidelines in some districts leave teachers with only one option: to cover the material quickly and move on to the next topic. But since 2013, more than half of all states adopted the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Inquiry in Social Studies State Standards.

The National Council on Social Studies developed C3 to better align history with Common Core goals for language arts and literacy.

C3 is not a prescriptive set of standards, but a guide for states as they revise social studies instruction. Similar to the Stanford curriculum, C3 asks students to develop questions, find and analyze evidence, draw conclusions and take action.

Instead of simply lecturing on the causes of a historical event, teachers can pose a question—such as “What were the causes of World War I?”—and allow students to dive into the historic sources seeking answers.

“Kids are turned off when history is just date after date, and they don’t really know why the dates or people are important,” says Bruce Lesh, coordinator of social studies for the Maryland State Department of Education. “It’s that central question that intrigues them. Once you’re intrigued, you have a reason to familiarize yourself with the dates and names as you start to wrestle with an answer.”

In September, Virginia schools will roll out a revised a state social studies curriculum that involves more skill-based inquiry.

“In the past, we’ve been accused of teaching trivia, and we recognize now that this is an information age and kids have access to answers at their fingertips with technology,” says Alice Reilly, coordinator of K12 social studies at Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.

For example, one teacher developed a lesson called “What’s in a Name?” for a unit on imperialism.

The teacher began the unit with a short presentation on modern naming controversies, such as the East Sea/Sea of Japan or Persian Gulf/Arabian Sea, and a lesson on how names have changed over time. Students would research current issues and participate in a discussion to share their knowledge.

Another day, students might discuss a political cartoon on 19th century colonialism in Africa, and research the fighting between the European powers who dominated the continent.

Fortunately for social studies teachers, many museums, nonprofits, government agencies and historical societies are moving their resources online, Reilly says.

For example, the Library of Congress has a rich collection of digitized primary source materials, and offers professional development and grants to districts that want to use the documents, photos and articles to enhance classroom instruction.

“Teachers have a large bank of resources to pull from, and it allows them to teach the content from multiple perspectives and make it more interactive,” Reilly says. “They are finding that when they provide a structure for students to do their own investigation, the kids are much more engaged.”

Help history teachers succeed

Historians and administrators recommend the following steps for district and school leaders in covering historic events:

  • Offer guidance to teachers who want to experiment with new ways of teaching history. Provide teachers with suggestions for where to find appropriate resources online, says Alice Reilly, coordinator of K12 social studies at Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.
  • Send your history and social studies teachers to history-related conferences and workshops, such as those offered by the National Council for Social Studies and the National Endowment for the Humanities, says James Loewen, historian and sociologist, and author of the 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.
  • Know what an effective history class looks like. “When administrators walk into a U.S. history class, they should see kids engaged in thinking—wrestling with questions, finding evidence and developing answers, rather than simply receiving the already-determined answers from a teacher or textbook,” says Bruce Lesh, former high school history teacher in Baltimore County Public Schools and coordinator of social studies for the Maryland State Department of Education.

Alison DeNisco is news editor.