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Nearly 20 years ago, the first national assessment of student achievement in U.S. history yielded disappointing results. Although policy-makers and researchers expressed great concern about the low scores, the federal government did not undertake large-scale efforts to address poor student performance, and few research dollars were dedicated to uncovering the causes of the problem. In 2001, after the release of another report describing the woeful state of history education, Congress acted, charging the Department of Education with creating the Teaching American History (TAH) Program to improve teacher content knowledge of and instructional strategies for U.S. history. In its first two years, the program's total funding increased from $50 million to $100 million and grants were awarded to 174 local districts that proposed to serve a total of 24,000 teachers.
During this time period, the TAH program found a receptive audience and appeared to be providing the resources needed to meet its stated goals. The evaluation of the 2001 and 2002 grantee cohorts indicates, however, that the projects may not have reached those teachers typically considered most in need of additional professional development, and that the training provided did not always match research-based definitions of effective professional development.
The following executive summary provides key findings from this evaluation, which examined the implementation of the program and characteristics of the activities, content, and teacher participants for TAH projects awarded during the first two years of the program. The findings are based on surveys of participants and project directors, case studies, extant documents, and a pilot study of teacher-produced lesson plans.
TAH grants funded projects in districts with high-need student populations.
The grants went to districts that served large numbers of high-need students. Generally speaking, students in grantee districts were more likely to be from minority backgrounds, limited in English proficiency, and eligible for free and reduced-price lunches than students nationally, according to the Common Core of Data.
The teachers who participated in TAH projects were often not those traditionally thought of as most in need of history professional development. Participants were most likely to be experienced secondary teachers (70 percent) with academic backgrounds in history. TAH project participants averaged 14 years' teaching experiencethe same as the national average reported in the 1999-2000 Schools and Staffing Survey. Almost all TAH teachers were certified (97 percent), although not necessarily in history. Compared with a national sample of secondary teachers who teach mostly social studies, TAH participants were more likely to have history degrees (38 percent vs. 30 percent) and far more likely to have either a major or a minor in history (61 percent vs. 37 percent). TAH participants also reported that they had completed numerous college-level American history coursesbetween one and five courses for 49 percent of participants; between six and 10 courses for another 26 percent; and more than 10 courses for 22 percent. These findings, coupled with the fact that many teachers voluntarily participated in time-intensive TAH projects, suggest that TAH projects likely reached those teachers most interested in American historynot necessarily those most in need of additional professional development.
TAH projects partnered with a wide range of organizations and institutions.
Although the law requires that grantees partner with at least one institution, projects have the flexibility to choose partners that will best suit their needs. [ 1 ] The partners were instrumental in providing teachers with historical expertise, planning for professional development, working with teachers to design lessons and unit plans for classroom use, and providing teachers with historical materials and resources. Although projects experienced varying degrees of success, the participation of historians appeared to be key to successful projects.
Summer institutes were the professional development activity offered most frequently. Intensive summer institutes were key among the array of training opportunities projects offered to meet grantees' and participants' needs (see Exhibit E-1 in the full report). Institute activities averaged 10 days in length and were attended by 76 percent of TAH participants. [ 2 ]
Projects covered a wide range of historical content, thinking skills, and methods. TAH projects exposed participants to historical content from early America to the present. The American Revolution and the Civil War were the most frequently covered periods in TAH projects, and the four NAEP U.S. History Framework[ 3 ] themes were covered during TAH professional development (see Exhibit E-2 in the full report). TAH projects also exposed participants to the historical thinking skills outlined in "Ways of Knowing and Thinking about U.S. History," the cognitive dimension of the NAEP Framework. The projects also exposed participants to a variety of historical methods (see Exhibit E-3 in the full report).
Quality and Effectiveness
TAH project activities display some, but not all, of the research-based characteristics of effective professional development. Project directors' and participants' reports suggest that TAH professional development offered active learning, promoted coherence, and encouraged professional communication; however, generally speaking, the use of traditional training formats hampered most projects' ability to offer other characteristics of research-based, high-quality professional development. Follow-up activities also fell short of meeting teachers' classroom needs. Although 92 percent of project directors reported that project activities were sustained through follow-ups, only 31 percent of participants reported that a TAH project representative visited their classroom more than once. Ten percent indicated that a representative visited their classroom four or more times. Other forms of follow-up included dissemination of additional materials (reported by 73 percent of participants); additional workshops, training sessions, and meetings (71 percent); mailings (69 percent); and e-mail (84 percent).
Internal evaluations lacked the rigor to measure projects' effectiveness accurately.
Teacher self-reports were relied on by 91 percent of project directors to assess project professional development activities. Substantially fewer directors reported using other evaluation methods like analyzing the work products of teacher participants (64 percent), observing the classrooms of teacher participants (48 percent), or analyzing student or participant content knowledge in American history (46 percent and 41 percent, respectively) (see Exhibit E-4 in the full report).
Project directors and participants reported positively on the effectiveness and quality of TAH projects. Project directors reported that participants improved their interest in teaching American history a great deal (44 percent) and that their content knowledge of American history substantially improved (50 percent); 29 percent indicated that student performance improved a great deal or substantially. Many participants also strongly agreed that the projects increased their ability to use historical methods (59 percent) and taught them to use historical resources (47 percent). (See Exhibits E-5 and E-6 in the full report).
While TAH teacher work products demonstrated teachers' knowledge of facts, they also revealed participants' limited ability to analyze and interpret historical data. Findings from the exploratory study of teacher work products (lesson plans and research papers) indicated that while teachers had a firm grasp of historical facts and some lower-level historical thinking skills, they had difficulty interpreting and analyzing historical information. Although the teacher work products reviewed ranged in quality, nearly all products earned low scores on historical analysis and interpretation.
Coordination and Support
TAH projects were not well-integrated with other local, state, and federal teacher development initiatives. The first two cohorts of TAH projects were not primarily organized to help meet No Child Left Behind's goal of providing a highly qualified teacher for every student. In addition, TAH projects were not always well-integrated with state and local teacher development strategies and programs. The extra time, effort, and energy required to participate in TAH may have discouraged teachers who needed to meet specific professional development requirements to attain or maintain their teaching certification from participating in the program.
A lack of research on effective professional development for American history teachers made project directors' decisions about professional development somewhat subjective. The lack of definitive research on professional development in American history left project directors to use their best judgment to plan activities that they believed would increase teacher knowledge and improve student achievement.
Avenues for projects to disseminate and share their materials were insufficient.
In seeking to share the materials and experiences of TAH participants with wider audiences, projects encountered technical and logistical obstacles. Ultimately, there was no systematic way to ensure that exemplary lessons and materials were distributed to a wide audience.
Expanding TAH project grants to include the preparation of prospective American history teachers could result in a more comprehensive approach to the improvement of American history teaching and learning. TAH projects demonstrated the effectiveness of having practicing historians provide professional development to experienced teachers. Enlisting colleges and universities that provide preservice history teacher training could help ensure that beginning teachers enter the profession already prepared to teach U.S. history.
- In accordance with the No Child Left Behind Act, the law authorizing the TAH Program, each grantee was required to partner with at least one of the following institutions: (1) an institution of higher education, (2) a nonprofit history or humanities organization, or (3) museum or library.
- Source: SRI International, TAH Participant Survey.
- National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), U.S. Department of Education. (2001). U.S. history framework for the 1994 and 2001 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington, D.C.: Author.