Sam Wineburg v. the Teaching American History program

20 04 2009

As somebody who’s been involved in the Teaching American History Grant program for a long time now, I had heard about Sam Wineburg’s speech before the TAH conference at the OAH Meeting in Seattle last month but I didn’t realize precisely what he was proposing until I read Rick Shenkman summarize it on HNN this morning.

I certainly agree with this critique of the program:

And how do we generally measure the effect of the TAH programs on teachers? By having them take multiple choice questions found in an AP history exam. Wineburg was incredulous about this. “In other words, we are paying millions of federal dollars per fiscal year to assure that school teachers possess the level of factual knowledge that we expect of bright seventeen year olds.”

It’s actually worse than that. Many programs only give the same multiple-choice questions twice; once at the beginning of the course of study and another at the end. Assuming the questions match the course of study (which may be a big assumption if they’re using AP questions) even a ten-year old should be able to do better the second time simply if they’re paying attention.

Wineburg is generally right that assessing the success of TAH programs is a huge problem. Anyone involved in the program for any length of time already knows that. However, suggesting that existing assessment mechanisms stink does not necessarily mean that the program itself has failed to teach teachers (or even students) anything.

Looking at Wineburg’s proposed solutions, it strikes me that he wants to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

1. “Set aside 20 percent of TAH fiscal year funds for competitive grants … to independent researchers … to assess and evaluate projects in experimental and quasi-experimental ways.” This is needed because one of the gravest threats to the integrity of the evaluation process is the cozy relationship that often grows up between teachers and evaluators, he said.

There goes 20 percent of the money that might have gone to teachers to something other than teaching teachers history. Since huge percentages of grant money already go to evaluators, why not make them do it with that existing pot?

2. “For every $20 million in awards, [we should] set aside $1 million for new research and the development and testing of new measures to assess historical understanding and knowledge.”

Again, why can’t this be done within the cost structure of the existing program?

3. “We need to stop testing teachers with multiple choice items.”

Agreed, but since school districts will have to come up with new assessment tools anyway, why not make them do so with their existing grant money?

4. While communities love to invite marquee historians to do their summer workshops these are often not the right historians to be involved in TAH. “We need to engage those historians who are working on the scholarship of teaching and learning … those people who are trying to create college classrooms where our students are thinking and working beyond the use of historical facts. These are the historians we must keenly engage in our projects so we can begin to articulate the problems between elementary and secondary and tertiary education.”

The purpose of TAH program is to improve teacher content knowledge. While some historians certainly do a better job at this than others, what makes Wineburg think that people who think the same way he does will do this job any better than the ones who are doing so now? If he wants money to improve schools of education he should find someone in Congress who agrees with him and try to start a new grant program. I would certainly support that effort.

5. “I dare anyone in this audience to dispute the following claim: We will not change history teaching by continuing to ignore how new teachers are trained. It’s that simple. We need innovative approaches for combining the strengths of university history departments and schools of education to create the kinds of courses and practice teaching assignments that put new teachers into the classroom already possessing deep knowledge and appropriate skill. We need new ways of thinking about alternative certification for history teachers and ways to deliver teacher training on-line. By ignoring how we socialize new teachers into the profession, we delude ourselves. More than any other issue, this one is the elephant in the TAH living room.”

My problem with how history and social studies teachers are trained is that they spend too much time in education classes and too little time learning the content that they’ll teach. Robert Byrd created the TAH program precisely in order to fix that situation. Sure, we cover how to teach the new material as well as what to teach, but just because program participants have not proven learning effectiveness to Wineburg’s satisfaction does not necessarily mean that the entire focus of the program should be changed.

In our grants, we’ve moved towards new models of assessment involving document-based questions for both teachers in the program and for their students. Other higher-order assessment models exist like this one which might be adapted into a TAH context.

Using the word “boondoggle” at this juncture to describe a program that has already done so much non-quantifiable good just doesn’t strike me as particularly helpful.

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8 04 2011
Grant Evaluation, Inc. » Teaching American History Grant Program: No Evidence? -Part III

[...] more pertinent observations, in a speech at the 2009 OAH conference (and many others responded like this).  These complaints have merit but ultimately fall short when it comes to the Teaching American [...]

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