To the Editor:
Perhaps if Sam Wineburg, in his “Obituary for a Billion-Dollar Boondoggle” (The Chronicle Review, September 16), had spoken to a larger number of those of us who actually ran and managed some of the funded programs he discusses he would come away with a better impression. I received two Teaching American History (TAH) grants here at Florida International University, working closely with the Social Studies Department at the Miami-Dade Public Schools, the fourth largest school district in the nation. The head of that department contacted me about applying because he was desperate for anything that could improve the content knowledge of his history teachers, which he knew varied widely.
At a time of tightly focused testing on “basic skills,” history was getting short shrift in the classroom, if any shrift at all. We used our funding to provide cohort based MA programs for a total of more than 40 teachers. Each cohort went through a three year Master’s Program at the university, taking classes at night while they continued to teach during the day. The funds paid a substantial portion of the teacher’s tuition costs, paid for substitutes during times when they had to be out of their classrooms, provided stipends for the teachers’ books and materials, allowed a number of them each summer to visit historic sites in different parts of the country, supported a Ph.D. graduate assistant to work with the teachers, many of whom had not had a university level course for decades, and paid the salaries of faculty who taught the graduate seminars.
Each seminar was run on the same standards as a normal graduate class, though having the teachers go through this curriculum as a cohort substantially increased the level of interaction and group learning. In addition, a faculty member form our School of Education worked with the teachers in each class so that they could take what they learned back into their own classrooms. The capstone of the degree was a two semester research seminar, where the teachers produced an original piece of scholarship from primary sources.
No doubt Wineburg will see all this as merely anecdotal. Measuring the impact on students is extremely difficult and attempts to link teacher performance to student “value added” are riddled with problems, but I can report what some of the concrete outcomes were. The teachers universally praised the experience as “life changing.” It gave them the opportunity to engage with their love for history, something they rarely had in their daily professional lives. More importantly, they learned to treat history as an open-ended inquiry filled with ongoing debates. It showed them how history is produced and allowed them to become producers. Many of them reported how they were now able to bring primary sources to their students with confidence, even drawing on the papers they themselves had written.
What about more material and longer term payoffs? Several of the teachers decided to enroll in our Ph.D. Program, on their own with no additional support, while continuing to teach. We were also able to use the same model developed with the TAH funds in a successful grant to the State of Florida Department of Education, enabling us to provide an MA program to another cohort of teachers. As a result more than 60 graduates of these programs are now teaching in Miami Dade Public Schools. The head of the school system’s social studies department sees them as crucial resources in leading their departments and helping to educate fellow history teachers. Florida, like many states, has promoted dual enrollment as a way to speed time to graduation from the university and to lower the costs of higher education. Whatever one thinks about this policy, at least many of the public school teachers providing these classes are the graduates of our TAH program. We are also now launching a teacher oriented MA in our regular graduate program.
Finally, if it is only metrics that will satisfy, and I believe that is an extremely narrow way to measure a program like this, we tested and measured every cohort and every class to see what they learned and how their view and approach to teaching history had changed. After the programs ended, Miami Dade Public Schools continued to follow up on measurement, and has found, consistently, that when the students of teachers who graduated from our programs are tested, they perform better than comparable groups of students who have other teachers.
By insisting that a next-to-impossible metric is the only way to justify the funds spent on Teaching American History, Wineburg sets a standard by which it is bound to fall short, as indeed almost all education is bound to fall short. If TAH allowed lots of experiments like ours, I’d say that was a pretty good use of funds.
Professor of history
Florida International University