A journalist I have known for decades and have great respect for recently asked me a question that required me to think, click on a bunch of websites, and re-read the work of a popular historian who died in 2010.
The Washington Post‘s Jay Mathews has written about education for nearly a half-century.* He emailed me the following question:**
Hi Larry—I hope you are well. In any of your wonderful excursions into actual classrooms, have you ever tested the thesis that US history teaching has gotten kind of lefty in recent decades? I think it’s untrue but I have no data.—jay**
Here is my response to Mathews:
Hope you and your family are in good health.
When I got your query, Jay, I looked up the most obvious “lefty” influence insofar as textbooks and readings are concerned: Howard Zinn and his People’s History.
The Poynter Institute did a piece on Zinn’s influence on teaching U.S. history in 2015 (see: https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2015/apr/15/rick-santorum/book-howard-zinn-most- [politifact.com] ). There is no data on how many teachers in U.S. public schools use the book, popular as it has been since published in 1980. While many teachers to prove their lefty credentials cite Zinn’s work–critics like Sam Wineburg have demolished his credibility as a historian. There is far more rhetoric from a minority of teachers, I believe, citing Zinn than actual lessons using the latter’s concepts in class.
Now my own experiences in visiting history classes over the past decade (I did write a book called Teaching History Then and Now), support your hunch that those who charge that teachers are turning politically progressive has little basis in what I have observed. The only exception I came across was in Oakland when I visited a bunch of history lessons at one high school that was clearly pushing a progressive agenda but not using Zinn’s book insofar as I could tell.
Overall, then, my experiences support your hunch.
Stay well, Larry
My answer to Jay’s question is short and missing much information. What got me to look at the question more deeply were the comments of national politicians on teachers turning to the political left in their teaching. For example, the question of whether left-of-center political ideology has influenced social studies teachers in what and how they teach is self-evident to some who position themselves right-of-center. Consider former Senator Rick Santorum (PA) who said in a speech to the National Rifle Association In 2015:
Do you know the most popular textbook that’s taught in our high schools in America is written by a man named Howard Zinn, who is an anti-American Marxist, and that is the most common textbook?
Then recall that in 2021, President Donald Trump created the 1776 Commission “to support patriotic education….” Trump said:
Our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character. We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.
Trump continued to say that schools must end the “[c]ritical race theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history”, which he said was “toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country,”
Historians of education and informed educators know full well that tax-supported public school teachers have been pushed back-and-forth repeatedly over the past century to achieve the political ends of various groups. The central tendency, however, of most teachers is to not foist their political views, right or left of the political center, on their students (see here).
None of that knowledge entered former Senator Rick Santorum’s statement. Fact checkers at the Washington Post and other mainstream media outlets (forget fact-checking when it comes to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media) would have added inches to Pinocchio’s nose in assessing his 2015 statement about the prevalent use of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in teachers’ classes across America. Why the added inches to the nose?
First, because no one really knows how social studies teachers teach U.S. history. There are about 200,000 social studies teachers in the U.S. (2012). We know little about how they teach daily. There are a few surveys, case studies, and interviews of these teachers but few–let me stress “very few”– direct observations of what lesson plans, texts, supplementary readings, and activities they engage in during actual lessons (see here, here, and here). No one can say with even a moderate degree of confidence how social studies teachers teach except in one area–nearly all of these teachers use a textbook approved by the district and state. And that is my second point.
For better or worse, textbook teaching is pervasive (see here and here). That is not a negative or positive statement. Given that the majority of public school teachers in secondary schools face anywhere from 125-150 student each day–yes each day–having a common source of information for groups of students becomes a necessity, especially at a time when district and state curriculum standards appear on tests that cover content and skills students are expected to know.
Not only are textbooks used as a basis for most lessons taught by social studies teachers but also a high proportion of these textbook-bound teachers use supplementary materials to enhance, elaborate upon, and dispute what is in the text. Importantly, many teachers seek out sources for students to consider beyond the text. The 1619 Project created by the New York Times and made available to schools (see below photo) is a recent instance of getting at multiple perspectives beyond the textbook.
So I now I return to Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States which, by the way, I have yet to find on any list of textbooks researchers examined for bias. For a book supposed to be so influential upon social studies teachers’ mindsets, it is missing in action when scholars list the texts they analyze for bias.
There is one exception that I have found. A recent article looked directly at teachers who were not only members of the Zinn Education Project (at time of the survey there were 35,000 members) but also responded to researchers’ online survey (n=378) that they used the book in their lessons often, sometimes, and occasionally. Of those who took the online survey, 120 volunteered to do follow-up interviews. In a second stage of the study, the researchers identified 14 of the volunteer interviewees who used A People’s History frequently and were willing to describe their classroom practices (p.91).
And what did the researchers find from their survey and interviews of social studies teachers using the Zinn book?
The most common reasons that teachers gave for using APH (A People’s History) included developing students’ critical thinking skills, engaging students in the classroom, and exposing students to different voices in history. All of these reasons, however, were couched in an overall dissatisfaction with both traditional ways of teaching history and district- or school-provided textbooks.
Most teachers saw APH as a pedagogical resource that allowed them to accomplish curricular and pedagogical goals in their classrooms that would have been difficult to do otherwise. The most common reasons that teachers reported for using APH were (1) because students found it to be an interesting, engaging alternative to their textbooks; (2) APH allowed them to “dig deeper” into historical events than their textbook allowed; (3) APH was a useful comparative tool alongside narratives found in both the textbook and other supplemental sources; and (4) APH illuminated the “hidden voices” of history not traditionally found in their textbooks.
While this cluster of themes around APH as an alternative pedagogical source to their textbooks was
present in most interviews, interview data indicated that it was very rare for teachers to report using APH to meet Zinn’s articulated goals of empowering students to take action (p.93).
Severely limited data on actual lessons taught by U.S. social studies teachers, their common use of state-approved textbooks for lessons (and the absence of A People’s History from such lists), and the reasons why a small group of teachers use the book undermine completely what former Senator Santorum and former President Donald Trump had to say about “lefty” tendencies in U.S. social studies’ classrooms.
“Jay Mathews is an education columnist for the Washington Post, his employer for nearly 50 years. He is the author of nine books, including five about high schools. His 2009 book Work Hard. Be Nice about the birth and growth of the KIPP charter school network was a New York Times bestseller. He created and supervises the annual Challenge Index rankings of American high schools. He has won several awards for education writing and was given the Upton Sinclair award as “a beacon of light in the realm of education.” He has won the Eugene Meyer Award for distinguished service to The Washington Post.”
**Mathews gave me permission to publish his email.