The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Get important education news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox

Choose from our newsletters

No matter whether elementary teachers return to physical or virtual classrooms, this will be a year for the history books. Even kindergartners have plenty of questions about the presidential election, the pandemic and the movement to end systemic racism.

What’s less clear is how prepared elementary school teachers are to put these seismic events into context.

More aspiring elementary teachers failtheir professional entry exams on the first attempt than pass them, a rate unheard of in other professions. The rate of failure for aspiring Black and Latinx teachers is even higher than for aspiring white teachers, making lack of content knowledge preparation yet another obstacle to the diversification the teaching profession so dearly needs.

This problem has been created in large part by institutions’ failing to acknowledge that elementary teachers need to acquire specialized content knowledge — not just professional coursework — to be effective.

Many working on an elementary education degree are given free rein to take whatever general education course interests them, and one called The Sexual Revolution of the 1960sno doubt proves more compelling to the average college student than a course entitled From the American Revolution to the Civil War.

A look at the courses required by teacher preparation programs reveals scant attention to the broad social studies knowledge aspiring elementary teachers need to provide essential context to world events. At most of these institutions, the deficiency is not about a lack of sufficient credit hours. Instead, it’s a failure, first, to diagnose knowledge gaps at the point of admission to a teacher preparation program, and second, to narrow choices available to aspiring teachers with demonstrable gaps in their knowledge.

Not until the end of their preparation, with most of their coursework under their belts, do most aspiring teachers find out what they don’t know — a rude awakening when they get back the results of their state’s licensing tests.

Some teacher educators have pushed back at me on this point, asserting that it is the job of the K-12 system to have provided this basic knowledge. They say college should not be a time for a lot of survey courses.

While I share their nostalgia for a time in the history of public education when that might have been true, the damning performance by the nation’s 12th graders in U.S. history, civics and geography (with history scores much lower than in science) should disabuse us of that notion.

Regardless of where the fault lies, higher education institutions have no choice but to remedy these knowledge gaps — or condemn yet another generation of teachers to struggle with poor preparation.

The problem of insufficient subject matter knowledge may not be acknowledged by teacher educators, but it is by classroom teachers.  Only 42 percent have said they felt very well prepared to teach social studies.  When it comes to the social studies portion of these tests, pass rates are notably lower than in ELA and math, with nearly one in five aspiring teachers unable to pass in social studies even after multiple attempts.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to prepare an elementary teacher across four subject areas, as some assert. However, while the content elementary teachers should know is indeed broad, it is not nearly as deep as the content commonly covered in other professional studies programs.

Not until the end of their preparation, with most of their coursework under their belts, do most aspiring teachers find out what they don’t know — a rude awakening when they get back the results of their state’s licensing tests.

Nor is it infeasible to deliver, given that most institutions carve out a substantial number of credit hours for general education courses. There are also many teacher preparation programs that partner with their arts and sciences colleagues to do what a general education course may not, without sacrificing rigor.

These efforts are scattershot, however, and a great approach to providing specialized science knowledge rarely crosses over into something similar for history or government.

This is not a problem of higher education’s making, but a failure of public education writ large. However, it is still higher education’s opportunity to fix. Aspiring teachers look to their higher education institutions to provide a clear path to success, not an ambiguous, irrelevant choice of courses with a few test prep booklets scattered in.

A cynical observer may assume that institutions need not worry about aspiring teachers’ knowledge of history or government, simply bow to a broader trend in K-5 education where only reading and math instruction are emphasized.

This is not what is good for students, and if we are ever to alter this flawed model of schooling, we will need a knowledgeable teacher workforce.

In “The Knowledge Gap,” journalist Natalie Wexler explains the crucial mistake we make when we focus reading instruction exclusively on abstract skills — critical thinking, comprehension, even writing — at the expense of building student knowledge across many subjects, including history, civics and science.

There are many people responsible for making sure elementary schoolchildren get a strong education — including the districts that set educational priorities, the principals who structure the school day and the experts who write curricula, along with the teachers who do the teaching.

But it’s the job of our nation’s higher education institutions — not just their education departments — to ensure new teachers can teach the concepts they may not have learned themselves in K-12.

Anyone who thinks a future elementary teacher can get by without thorough preparation in history probably hasn’t turned on the news lately.

This op-ed about teacher quality was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletters.

Kate Walsh has served as the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality since 2003, leading work to ensure that every child has equal access to effective teachers.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Kate Walsh is the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *