Coaches Shouldn't Teach History


Ms. Ravitch is Research Professor of Education, New York University.

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Testimony Ms. Ravitch gave on April 10, 2003 in support of a bill by Sen. Lamar Alexander to promote the teaching of history.

History education is one of the most important responsibilities of our schools. Unfortunately, for many years, the teaching of history had a low priority. In the 1970s and 1980s, history in many schools was replaced by a mishmash of ill-defined social studies courses that taught things like group decision-making, consumer education, and social science concepts. In 1983, for instance, the New York State Education Department intended to replace the chronological study of history with a thematic approach in which events were merged with big concepts and taught without regard to cause and effect. A popular outcry prevented that from taking place.

In many states, history was submerged into social studies programs, and states adopted social studies standards that ignored chronological history. Civics too suffered when it was separated from the study of American history. The study of history has been making a comeback in recent years. Ten years ago, only four states-California, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Texas-had history standards to guide teachers. Today, after ten years of popular support for academic standards, about half the states now have history standards.

We know from the tests given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that our students, especially in their senior year, have low scores in American history. In fact, the performance of seniors on the NAEP in U.S. history is worse than in any other subject, whether science, reading, or mathematics.

The greatest need in history education today is for well-prepared teachers who have studied history and who know how to make it vivid for youngsters.

Too many states have very low requirements for those who plan to teach history. In part, this is because of a longstanding tradition that anyone can teach history; just stay a few pages ahead of the students in the textbook, and you too can be a history teacher. That method is not good enough for teachers of math or science, and it is not good enough for history teachers either.

Our young people should study history with teachers who love history, who can go far beyond the textbook to get youngsters involved in learning about the exciting events and controversies that bring history to life; we need teachers who know enough about history to awaken the curiosity of their students and to encourage them to read more than the textbooks tell them and even to question what the textbooks tell them.

Sadly, the majority of those who teach history in our schools are teaching out of their field. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, a majority of history teachers in grades 7-12 lack either a college major or minor or graduate degree in history. In many cases, they majored in education, not in an academic subject. The only field that has more out-of-field teaching than history is the physical sciences, that is, physics and chemistry.

Many states recognize that they must make extraordinary efforts to reach out and recruit qualified teachers of physical sciences, but there is no comparable awareness of the conspicuous shortage of qualified teachers of history. In part, the problem is one created by short-sighted state policies, which put more emphasis on pedagogical degrees than on knowledge of one's subject. The young person with a history degree who wants to teach may be required to take many courses in pedagogy, even another master's degree in pedagogy, whether relevant to teaching ability or not.

Another reason for the shortage of qualified history teachers is that our universities have not addressed this need. With few exceptions, their history departments have become highly specialized; in addition to narrow specialization, university professors tend to pride themselves on taking a highly critical, adversarial attitude towards American history and culture. Nor do university professors believe that it is their role to teach civics along with history. Few universities have programs geared to produce teachers of history and civics for the K-12 classrooms; they leave that to the social studies educators, who see history as only a small part of their very large and diffuse subject.

This is a case where Congress can help with very clear and specific goals: Supplying academies for teachers of American history and civics, as well as programs for motivated students of American history and civics.

The need is clear. We simply do not have enough teachers who are well prepared to teach these basic subjects. The legislative program is equally clear: to provide academies where teachers can gain the knowledge and skills to teach American history and civics effectively.

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Ed Darrell - 2/6/2005

Asking whether we're insulting athletic coaches rather misses the key issue.

Especially here in Texas, most schools and school districts understand what is required to produce a championship team in football, or basketball, or baseball. Hit books and movies are made about this stuff -- for example, *Friday Night Lights.*

Successful football programs, for example, start no later than seventh grade. In our little town, each middle school has an A and B team in football, for seventh grade and eighth grade. Ninth grade football and junior varsity football make it possible for a kid to step up through 7 different levels before making the varsity team, picking up skills and playing time at each level. Coaching staffs are no fewer than three people at each level.

Why not do that in history? Why not do that in math? Why not do it in drama, in band, in painting, etc., etc.?

In our district, in fact the band program has a similar structure. And so does the math department, with an integrated program starting with seventh graders and continuing through AP calculus.

Pick the coaches. Adopt their methods. They know how to make champions. Let's learn from them.

James Kabala - 4/19/2004

The real point of the article is that the history teacher should have his or her degree in history. My excellent high school AP History teacher also happened to be the baseball coach, just as the football coach was a phys. ed. teacher or the golf coach was a science teacher, but his B.A. was in history. The problem is not history teachers who also coach; it is coaches who also teach history, if you know what I mean.

Stu Johnson - 1/16/2004

I only have one question; can history teachers coach? I don't mean theoretically I mean are they allowed to hold the position? I got your point and I agree... and I coach.

PS Rykken - 5/2/2003

Thanks to Diane Ravitch for her commentary. This is a subject very dear to my heart since I have taught history for 24 years and coached Cross Country and Track. I attended college in the middle-70s and it was during the transition to the "broadfield" Social Studies major. Fortunately, I was able to avoid that and emphasize in history. Later, I earned a Master's in history and am so thankful for the depth that afforded me in the content. There's no question that the old attitude that "anyone can teach history" just doesn't cut it anymore. History has been under attack for years, probably due to the perception people have of it being taught poorly and in a boring manner. Schools of Education need to get with it on this thing and clear the deck a bit for those history education majors. The major has become too crowded due to the education requirements.

Derek Catsam - 5/1/2003

Two points:
1) To reiterate something I said in another post -- Ravitch's column was not about coaching. To put a finer point on it, the word "coach" (or coaches, coaching, coached) never appears in her essay. So Diane Ravitch does not say anything about history teachers not being "coaches who are seen as 'unable to teach anything else.'"
2) Are we really going to get into the duelling anecdotes game? Someone tells of a bad coaching/teaching combo, someone else tells their stories about wonderful teaching/coaches we've had? Isn't the question supposed to be about valuing good or bad teachers, and so is not throwing out coaches a red herring AND a straw man all at once? My worst high school teachers were not coaches. So from this may I generalize that all teachers should HAVE to coach?

Mike Styer - 5/1/2003

Your article title certainly grabbed my eye as I am both a History teacher and a coach myself. For some odd reason, however, I remember in college that it was the PE degree programs that most "coaches that wanted to be teachers" were enrolled in.

I consider myself as a TEACHER first and foremost. Teaching American History is my passion while my coaching duties are just added enjoyments that take place after the regular work day is over.

Finally, let us not forget that HISTORY is one of the very few, if any, areas that has content added to it on a daily, if not hourly, basis! To be a teacher of History, one most also be a student.

Nathan Williams - 5/1/2003

Interesting. I should not have assumed my personal experience was rule. If only Prof. Ravitch would comment here and end the mystery...

Mary Beth Norton - 5/1/2003

When I was in jr high and high school in the 1950s in md-southern Indiana, all my history courses were taught by the track coach. He was a nice guy, but as a history maven even then I actually knew more than he did about some subjects. I went to college to study history despite him, not because of him. History students, as Diane Ravitch says, should have school teachers who want to teach the subject, not coaches who are seen as "unable to teach anything else."

John Moser - 5/1/2003

Mr. Williams offers his personal experience with HNN regarding the titling of his article, and concludes that it is "highly unlikely that it was altered without her [Professor Ravitch's] consent." My experience was different. The title that I used when I submitted my piece was "Who Are the Real McCarthyites?" When it appeared last week it ran as "McCarthyism: This Time It's Found a Home on the Left."

I have no objections to the change, and am therefore not complaining about it. However, it does show that HNN apparently reserves the right to assign its own headlines without the consent of the authors. I believe that this is the way most newspapers and magazines operate as well.

Herodotus - 5/1/2003


Your points are welcome and valuable...and my question was honestly asked, and I'm glad for the information!


Nathan Williams - 4/30/2003

As the original critc of the title of this piece, I'll try and cap the outpouring of vitriol. I have personally written several pieces for HNN and, on occasion, have had alternative titles suggested. Often these titles were more eye-grabbing than my intended title, but I have never had a title forced on my article without my consent. I think it's quite likely this was not Ms. Ravitch's original title, but highly unlikely that it was altered without her consent. A case could be made for sensationalism, but not dishonesty.

Don McArthur-Self - 4/29/2003

I also have a Master's Degree in history and a very good undergraduate history education. I am teaching history in a public high school, and very much enjoy it.

Unfortunately, much of what Diane Ravitch has written is largely true. Our school requires four years of English to graduate...only two years are required of "social science", and only one year - U.S. History - is really required to be "history" (in spite of this, Illinois' learning standards for history are so extensive and broad that few college students could meet them). Much of the "historical" education our students pick up comes (not always accurately, I'd like to point out) from the English department, which has decided that it is more enjoyable to teach thematic units on historical topics out of context than it is to actually deal with grammar and writing. Illinois requires a unit on the Holocaust; since all students take English but not all students take our History of the Western World class, English now teaches an extensive Holocaust unit which is big on empathy and very shallow on history.

I sympathize with Mr. Hall's experience. I entered the job market with a Master's and was constantly passed over before finally getting my first job. At one job fair, an administrator from a large, suburban Chicago district looked very briefly at my resume with its academic accomplishments, and then asked me, "what do you coach?" I finally secured a position from a school that desperately needed someone before the start of classes, which was, at that point, about 8 days away.

Luckily, I have had the great fortune to work under department administrators in three different high schools who appreciated historical education and high standards, though I cannot say the same for building and district-level supervisors or school board members. Because of my day-to-day experiences with students and colleagues, I am happy with my job, though sometimes frustrated at the general lack of appreciation for teaching in general and the study of history in particular.

Herodotus - 4/29/2003

I think there's a trend here of the editors of HNN putting provocative titles on these articles, even when (in the case of the Juan Cole piece from last week) the original title was far less provocative.

It would appear dishonest to give a title where the author gave none, or to replace titles without making it clear that the author consented to a change in titles.

Derek Catsam - 4/29/2003

I could not agree more with this comment. What were the editors thinking? Ms. Ravitch is not writing about coaches at all -- I was prepared to be furious with her piece, almost all of which I in fact agree with. But why single out coaches? I have a PhD, have seemed to have established myself pretty well as a teacher and am pretty pleased with my scholarship as well. I also am a coach -- the last two years at the high school level and this year as a volunteer assistant coach at my university. this gives me a chance to do something i love only behind history, coaching a sport I am passionate about, working with students ina way that most professors never get to do, teaching in a different way, and in fact teaching something that most of my athletes will remember more than most students remember any single class. My old coaches, high school, college and beyond, have a profound place in my life, and I respect them for their commitment, for their love for their sports but also their athletes, and for what they did for me. How dare the editors besmirch a whole group of people who coach and teach, sometimes damned well.

Nathan Williams - 4/29/2003

I agree with very much of what Ms. Ravitch writes here. My only real contention is with the title. My high school history courses taught by coaches weren't distinguishably worse (or better) than those taught by non-coaches.

I understand this is hardly a significant sample, but the schools' problems stem much more from the obstacles imposed by the pedagogical requirements Ms. Ravitch mention and, most of all, low pay. As a graduating history student, I can vouch that these were principally responsible in keeping me out of this level of teaching.

Donn Hall - 4/29/2003

Wouldn't it be nice if, as a History major (master's degree) with certification to teach in public schools grades 5 - 12, it was possible to get a job teaching in a public school. With a master's I felt I would be even more qualified and a better prepared History teacher than someone with an education degree. Guess what, with a master's degree you cost more to hire than someone with a bachelor's degree, no matter your qualifications, acquiring a position is impossible. Finally, I found an Adjunct position, working up to teaching over 100 students a semester in a junior college, six sections each semester, spring and fall, and 3 in the summer, all for less than $20,000 a year. I work hard on any committee and additional duties needed, have been nominated for the excellence in teaching award and becoming a teacher was the worst mistake I could have made career wise. It is truly a shame but I never recommend teaching to anyone deciding upon a career. Unless they want to work their ass off for peanuts in compensation, end up with no retirement, no benefits whatsoever and making well under what a graduate with a master's degree in any other field would make. One good outcome, my children, after seeing how poorly teaching is valued in the United States are convinced never to work in education. My oldest son will graduate high school as valedictorian of his class and he will begin his university studies in the fall with the aim of becoming an accountant, breaking the chain of three generations of teachers produced by my family. The rhetoric about education being important is just that; rhetoric for public consumption back up with nothing.