A Historical Conundrum: The Work of Historians Versus the Expectations of Secondary Education

National History Education ClearinghouseNote: This post is the second in a series of posts on sessions presented at the 123rd Annual Meeting. See also the introduction to this series, and the first post on “Teaching and Learning through a Teaching American History Grant”.

Though it may seem easy to blame the implementation of state regulated standardized tests on No Child Left Behind, frankly, secondary teachers have been grappling with teaching to selective curricula for decades. This panel discussed the challenges of teaching effectively while still preparing students for standardized tests. The heart of the issue was: What kind of education are we promoting?

John Shedd, from State University of New York at Cortland, presented his paper Efforts by Departments of Education to Make Good Citizens: Examples from High School World History State Syllabi. During the 1980s, he said, the focus was, as a whole, on students, yet secondary teachers and university professors found that high school students were graduating with little to no scholastic competence because of all the breaks they were being given. As a college professor, Shedd found his history students turning in short, superficial history papers. The high number of high school diplomas being issued to students with inadequate reading levels instigated state-regulated scholastic standards. Though a good idea in theory, now the issue, according to Shedd, is the somewhat ideological framework secondary teachers are forced to adhere to, hindering sophisticated thinking imperative at a university level. Though this implementation of standards, arguably insufficient standards, attempted to create a strong, educated citizenry, they, in effect, did little to alleviate the issue of an ill-educated populace.

In his paper Sources, Standards, and the Teacher’s Dilemma, Timothy Shannon, a professor at Gettysburg College, continued Shedd’s examination of balancing historians’ need to teach critical thinking with state mandated tests, which in effect favors fact memorization over content comprehension. As a professor at a Pennsylvania school, Shannon used the Pennsylvania state standards as a sort of case study, which he believes is a system with some merits because it does promote comprehension over simple recollection of facts. He believes all students need to have a “common cultural literacy,” arguing that each community has a shared historic background, a common foundation.

Richard Hughes continued with the standardized testing argument in his paper, Preparing History Scholars and Teachers? Content Exams of Teacher Certification in the Age of Accountability. He added to the historical background of standardized testing, looking back not only to the 1980s, as Shedd did, but also to the 1930s and 40s. The difference between these time frames is that the testing in the 30s and 40s wasn’t for students, but rather for teachers. After all, teachers were expected to know more than their students, but not too much more. The crux of his argument, though, was that standardized testing fails to give teachers the flexibility they need to impart fully their knowledge to students. In the end, how much content comprehension can a multiple-choice test truly show?

Scott Maoriello discussed the sort of trials and tribulations he faced preparing for the New York State Teaching Certification Exam in his paper, Why Aren’t College History Credits Enough? State Historical Content Qualifying Exams for Social Studies Teachers. Having extensively studied and taught history courses, Maoriello thought he had a sufficient background to do well on the exam. Because he studied American history, he reviewed world history to ensure he had covered all his bases before the exam; however, this was not enough. Although he scored 260 out of 300, a passing score, Maoriello was left questioning whether the exam equally tests content knowledge and pedagogy. The exam was designed for teachers to take right after college before pursuing their secondary teaching careers; however, Maoriello found that having teaching experience before the exam better prepares teachers than just having a college education. Learning through teaching is an invaluable skill that can’t be measured in a standardized test. Instead of implementing such narrowly focused exams, Maoriello argued teachers should have the option of taking additional courses that can help either refresh or deepen their knowledge in various historical eras.

In her paper, The State Standardized Testing Movement: A Critique of the New York Global History Exam, Noelle Maoriello continued with Scott Maoriello’s argument that standardized tests, whether for teachers or students, test only black and white matter, leaving no room for the grey areas that are ever pervasive in the study of history. Because many teachers admit to teaching to state mandated standardized tests, it begs the question of content coverage because of their near promotion of superficial teaching—breadth over depth.

Although many teachers dislike standardized testing, the conundrum lies in other methods of regulating and maintaining teaching and learning standards. The big question: If not standardized tests, then what?

The session profiled here was chaired by Sarah D. Brown, Ball State University and was a National History Education Clearinghouse session. It took place on Friday, January 2, 2009, at the 123rd annual meeting.

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  1. Kelly Woestman

    These insights underscore how important it is for historians to work with their colleagues at the PK-12 level and to interface with those working toward the same goals in the colleges of education and in the state department of educations and in school administrations. We need to continue to get more involved if we want to effect any substantive change.

    The National History Center is finishing up its work exploring state standards and is moving next to investigate teacher licensure practices. Even if we do not directly work with future history teachers in a teacher education program, we all have expertise to share. Additionally, we have to find ways to grapple with the reality that most history teachers also teach geography, political science, economics, and other related subjects.

    Additionally, supporting the work of researchers such as Sam Wineburg and Bob Bain will provide the evidence that students need to do history to learn history and keep repeating that more generic learning activities unrelated to historical content simply do not lead to the long-term development of historical thinking skills.

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