Suppose you could find someone who taught history in three different high schools in two cities between the 1950s through the early 1970s. Suppose further that this person had been trained as an historian and had kept personal records such as a journal, student grade books, scattered lessons, school yearbooks, and student letters from those year of teaching. Suppose even further that this person could reconstruct from those sources and official school archives what it was like to teach history in those three largely minority high schools a half-century ago. And, finally, suppose that this former high school history teacher (who had ended up as a university professor researching curriculum, teaching, the uses of technology in classrooms and school reform) could then go to those same three high schools–still largely minority–in two different cities today, yes, today, and observe how teachers teach history now.
If all those “supposes” could happen, would those pictures of teaching history then and now in the same high schools a half-century apart reveal anything worthwhile to policymakers, practitioners, researchers, parents, and reform-minded non-educators?
My answer is yes. And that is what I propose to do over the next two years.
I taught history and social studies at Glenville high school (Cleveland, Ohio) for seven years beginning in the mid-1950s. I and my family moved to Washington, D.C. in 1963 and for nearly a decade I taught history and social studies in two different DC public high schools (Cardozo and Roosevelt) while also serving as a district administrator.
Last month, I proposed to a foundation that I would reconstruct my teaching in those three high schools a half-century ago and then return to those same high schools and watch contemporary teachers of history teach students in 2014. I wanted to answer one question: Over the past half-century, amid enormous changes in the political, economic, and social context for public schools, what has changed in the content I once taught and how I taught it and what has remained the same?
Of course, I and other scholars have examined this question in past decades. I have found that subject matter has changed in the sciences, math, English, and the social studies. I have also found that most teachers in organizing the content they taught incrementally blended elements of teacher-centered (sometimes called “traditional”) and student-centered (sometimes called “progressive”) ways of teaching. In one book, I called the blended instruction “teacher-centered progressivism.” In a later book, I saw these hybrids “hugging the middle” of the teaching spectrum in grouping for instruction, using textbooks, adopting new technologies, and assessing what students have learned. In short, most teaching practices blended the old and new, creating change while maintaining stability. That mix of new and familiar practices may explain to outsiders looking inside classrooms such as policymakers, researchers, and parents why they find classroom lessons very familiar to what they experienced years earlier as students.
What I propose doing is to track those classroom changes in more intimate ways by looking at what and how I taught history decades ago and comparing and contrasting what I can reconstruct from that earlier period with what I observe of history teachers today in those very same high schools that I spent a substantial portion of my career. But not only record my teaching.
I need to look at how my colleagues in each high school taught. When I taught then, I tried out new materials and experimented with different ways to organize the teaching of history while mainly using teacher-centered practices. I need to track down whether there were differences in how my peers and I taught.
To determine how other history teachers in the schools within which I taught conducted their classrooms—to see if there was variation among my peers—I would use school yearbooks, student accounts of their teachers, journalist articles, etc. to craft a coherent description and analysis of their teaching as well as the district, school, and classroom contexts in which we taught.
By necessity, portions of the “coherent description and analysis” will be autobiographical. I would include vignettes of my teaching in those years. I am fully aware that there is a natural tension between writing an historical account as I have done in other studies and constructing a personal narrative. Writing autobiographically, in fact, has become a genre in of itself for historians with its own complications and dilemmas. I will note those tensions and deal with them explicitly in my written account.
For the current district, and school contexts in 2013-2014, I would collect documents and interview key district and school participants. In the three high schools, I will observe and interview as many teachers of history who would be willing to participate. I have written extensively about the national context of school reform over the past quarter-century and will determine to what degree those reforms became state policies and then filtered into the two districts and classrooms I observe.
The key part of the analysis of both time periods would be parsing what the words “change” and “stability” mean. There are, for example, different kinds of institutional change over time (e.g., incremental and fundamental). Are the changes I identified occurring over the past century mostly incremental (e.g., higher teacher certification requirements, high school courses added and dropped) or were there some fundamental changes in organizing curriculum and instruction (e.g., project based learning, middle schools replacing junior highs)? Sorting out such changes gets complicated when, to give another example, changes are made that end up reinforcing traditional patterns of teaching (e.g., more tests and accountability regulations turn into teachers spending more instructional time on preparing students for exams). Moreover, school structures and cultures that affect what is taught and how it is taught shift over time within schools (e.g., schools get larger and smaller, daily times schedules for classes get longer and shorter, professional learning communities arise and disappear).
Consider further the varied meanings of “change” when one examines teaching practices. Take a teacher, for example, who agrees to use laptops stored on a mobile cart in one of her five history classes. She is deeply interested in using primary sources and wants students to analyze those sources. That decision involves risk on her part in having students distracted by the devices and being off-task in achieving the objectives of her lesson. Yet, she is willing to experiment. . During the 50-minute class period, she has students use the laptops to look up vocabulary terms in the textbook chapter on the Great Depression of the 1930s. She then asks them to find photos of dust storms and farmers leaving the Midwest—all of these tasks are for a homework assignment. There is little discussion of the definitions students found that differ from what the textbook says and the different photos students found. She has adopted a technological innovation to further her goal of students parsing words and photos but uses it conventionally in her lesson.
Has she altered her teaching? The teacher says yes. She is using laptops in one of her five daily lessons and students collect information from different sources. An administrator who visits her classes also says yes. The researcher, however, looking to see whether the teacher has students analyze primary sources and come up with interpretations of what those photos say about the effects of dust storms on Midwest farmers might say no. From the researcher’s perspective, the teacher is surely using laptops to investigate what occurred on many farms during the Great Depression in one of her five classes. Yet when she does have students use these devices, their use reinforces existing teacher-centered practices that the teacher has always used. These multiple perspectives have to be considered when determining whether colleagues and I have altered daily teaching practices.
Thus, the complexity of the concept of change has to be unpacked, analyzed, and fit to the contexts and teaching that I describe in earlier decades and now.
To sum up this project, I propose that a working historian of education who had taught for nearly 15 years in three urban high schools a half-century ago, revisit those high schools and districts to answer the thorny question of what has changed in both the content and pedagogy and what has remained the same. It is not an easy question to answer but important to informing policy decisions for current and future policymakers, researchers, parents, and reform-minded activists who seek to improve teaching and student learning not only in history but also in other academic subjects as well.
This is what I intend to work on for the next two years.