What's a historian's favorite joke?
Q: What's the name of the History teacher in an American high school?
That joke showed up again a few Sundays ago in a New York Times story about History museums. Whenever a specialist wants to point to the trouble with Americans' historical understanding, he or she points to the schools.
"Students do not understand as much about the founding of our nation as they used to," says Ann Phillips Bay, associate director of education at George Washington's Mount Vernon, in a typical version of this refrain.
Teachers are used to getting the blame for society's problems, but today's social studies teacher has a particularly lonely post. The federal No Child Left Behind law doesn't test History, so there is little money coming from the federal and state governments for History education. And thus local school districts and principals shave away the minutes that can be spent on social studies instruction by insisting teachers spend more time on the things that are tested, such as reading and math.
Many elementary teachers don't feel prepared to teach History anyway. They are trained in school on the methods of teaching, but not much of the broad range of content they will have to teach. This produces teachers in Virginia who confess to not knowing who Robert E. Lee was or why they have to teach him on the Virginia Studies part of the state's Standards of Learning.
A 2005 national survey of social studies teachers found only 17 percent of fifth-grade teachers had more than 10 courses in History or the social sciences while they were undergraduate students themselves. Only 10 percent of second grade teachers had more than 10 courses in History as undergraduates.
The same survey asked teachers what their greatest needs were for professional development. Of eight choices, the top two were: to learn how to present content better and to learn more subject matter themselves.
"Basically, anybody can end up in a History classroom. In Texas, a lot of times it's the football coach," said Linda Salvucci, a History professor at Trinity University in Texas.
The 1990s wave of state standards was meant to correct that. Almost every state put into law a set of classroom goals for teachers and students to meet. The hope was that the standards would point the way for struggling teachers. If tests showed the teachers and students weren't meeting the goals, bad teachers could be weeded out.
Virginia's Standards of Learning have some of the longest curriculum lists in the nation. In some cases the detailed roadmap led to more bad teaching, said Jeremy Stoddard, a professor in the education school at the College of William and Mary.
"There's so much to review that teachers simply lecture or use flashcards to cover it all. They're just spitting facts out at students," he said. "The SOLs are supposed to be the low bar and you go beyond them in class. But teachers are teaching to the testable items and not to the whole social studies SOLs."
Sherry Cashwell has taught since 1978, most of that time in South Carolina. She likes how her state has continually revised its social studies standards since they were first adopted in 1998, to make more clear what the students need to know.
"I don't have a big problems with the standards. It's a much better guideline than teaching a textbook. A textbook naturally leaves some things out. The standards give me a chance to use a wide variety of methods, as long as I eventually address the standard," said Cashwell, a seventh-grade teacher at Summit Parkway Middle School in Columbia, S.C.
Her classroom has an interactive whiteboard known as a "SMART board" for multimedia presentations and 25 computers, on which her students play games about world geography at a Great Britain Web site.
And yet she returned to this low-tech ditty to teach the Christopher Columbus date: "In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue." She teaches three classes pulled from the same pool of students, and for some reason two of her classes didn't catch on to the lyric, but one class did.
For some teachers, computers and technology haven't changed age-old patterns. Now some teachers comfortable with teaching-through-lecture just read their script off a PowerPoint show - packing in even more text and more facts.
Ken Sklar, a social studies teacher at Radnor High School in a Philadelphia suburb, will use a PowerPoint presentation with a new audience at a one-time lecture. But he said PowerPoint would detract from his own preparation for working in a classroom with a group of students over several months.
"If I make a PowerPoint, I'm taking time away from my own reading and research. Will a PowerPoint make a qualitative difference to my students?" he said. "I'm not sure that just because a technology exists, it's necessarily better."
Stanford University history professor Jack Rakove will use PowerPoint only to bring illustrations to his talks. After teaching for 30 years, his lecture points are set.
But now he can sit at his computer half an hour before class and easily pull some images of historic documents into a PowerPoint.
"For this generation, I think they need the distraction. Fifty minutes is a long time to listen to someone," Rakove said.
Isn't there another way to teach History - beyond building a better lecture?
To answer the uproar over History being excluded from the No Child Left Behind legislation, the U.S. Department of Education emphasized its Teaching American History program.
Last year the program passed out about $120 million to improve the training of social studies teachers. An average award of about $500,000 would go in competitive grants to the winning groupings of school districts that came up with a multi-year plan to strengthen their teachers' skills.
An example of the work was a three-year project for fifth-, eighth-, and eleventh-grade teachers to research historical artifacts and recreate them for students so they would have portable props for understanding the Stamp Act or the Boston Tea Party better.
"The Teaching American History grants have energized the teachers," Salvucci said. "It has built partnerships between universities and school districts and between museums and school districts."
Stoddard agrees that teachers can cover the historical facts while their students practice hands-on skills and do research projects, but maintaining a balance between facts and fun is important.
"People have been pushing the use of primary sources, but primary sources without providing a context is not a good thing," he said. "I want teachers who know their content, who know their stories, who know their facts, but who also have the skills to go out and find the stories and the historical evidence if they don't. It's both facts and skills."
Stoddard's graduate students are History majors who get a double major in education, with 10 weeks of student teaching. The first semester of work covers classroom technology and the psychology and practice ofteaching. Second semester covers social studies teaching methods, such as forcing the education students to argue both sides of a historical argument.
Stoddard makes a point of showing how a study of Hitler's rise to power can connect to current event examples of people using fear and hate to gain power today.
William and Mary professor Gail McEachron trains the teachers headed for elementary schools. She is using the campus' Muscarelle Museum of Art to show them how to use art as a historical source - say, a mural by Diego Rivera to understand human resources and capital resources. She hears from many of her students - 95 percent who are women - that they are wary of teaching social studies because they didn't enjoy it themselves when they were in primary and secondary schools.
She is breaking that cycle with her emphasis on interdisciplinary teaching, which takes plenty of preparation for a teacher.
"I don't believe that if I find the perfect lesson plan online that the material will teach itself," McEachron said.
Sklar learned that himself during his 35 years of teaching. He remembers his own graduate school training at the University of Pennsylvania as "pretty worthless" because it focused so much on the how of teaching, but not the content he would be teaching.
"I feel like I'm self-taught," he said. "I do a lot of reading in my field, a lot of travel in my field. My content comes from that. It doesn't come from anything I got in graduate school."
Now Sklar feels he's at a professional crossroads. In his school there are teachers older than him who are unable to use the Internet and teachers much younger who refer to pop culture all the time. But the subject of the classes hasn't changed.
"Good teaching is all about connecting with the students. It's about establishing relevance. It's about being passionate. You can know your subject matter, but if you don't have those things then you don't reach them. There's no impact," he said.
Ruth Smith left the classroom because she thought she could make that impact elsewhere. After 16 years in Middle Peninsula schools, she began working for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation in 1994.
Her job title is interpreter, but she calls herself a "costumed educator" who can now reach all age groups, not just one pack of fourth graders.
"It's still teaching, but it's a whole different situation. You're not bogged down with grading papers, you don't have someone telling you what to say," Smith said. "You can get to people emotionally."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times