Identifying a Need
In 2015, Monticello partnered with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, researchers from Teachers College, Columbia University and Tufts University, and colleagues at Mystic Seaport Museum and Mount Vernon to develop an evaluation tool based on national content, skills, and professional development standards to assess teacher education programs at historic sites. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF) owns and operates Monticello, the historic plantation home of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Since the 1990s, professional development (PD) for teachers has become a significant part of the programming in the education departments of museums and historic sites, as both are called upon to help remedy the persistent reproach that many teachers lack both content knowledge in history and enthusiasm for the subject. Yet despite two decades of intensive work with teachers, little evidence-based research existed on the effectiveness of historic sites’ role in teacher education. Much of the earlier research consists of short, qualitative, program-specific evaluations or surveys that are too site-specific to be generalized or applied to other sites, or connected to classroom practice.
This research project came at a critical time in the role of museums as learning centers for K-12 educators. Following the discontinuation of Teaching American History grants from the Department of Education budget in FY 2012, local educational agencies and individual teachers were left in need of continuing education for social studies and few options. Museums recognized their value in addressing this void, but lacked quantitative tools to demonstrate the effectiveness of their teacher PD programs. Without a clearer understanding of what it is that teachers are or are not learning at historic sites, the value of these sites is often reduced to simplistic “enrichment” activities, rather than opportunities for deep exploration of historical events, persons, and places that meaningfully support teachers’ classroom work.
As a result of the lack of appropriate measures, museums are allocating resources blindly, rather than strategically supporting the most effective initiatives. Furthermore, government and private funders are increasingly requiring program evaluations that are more robust and nuanced than the ones currently used by most museums. As a field, museum professionals must demonstrate why and how their teacher programs are essential to promoting the successful teaching of history throughout the country.
The relevance of this research goes beyond educators at historic sites or museums. Within Teacher Education, this issue is so acute that in March 2014, the American Education Research Association (AERA), the largest education research organization in North America, with more than 25,000 members, sponsored a research conference entitled “What are History Teachers Learning at Historic Sites?” At this conference, researchers from the US and Canada were gathered (by invitation) to assess the state of the field and develop a research plan. One of the primary recommendations to come out of this conference was the need to develop a set of assessment tools and evaluation protocols that build evidence-based generalizable understandings about teaching and learning at historic sites. This project was proposed to address this gap.
Unlike other research methods typically used to capture visitor data, such as surveys, we used Q methodology, which seeks to determine why people believe what they do as opposed to how many people believe a certain thing. Q methodology, an adaptation of factor analysis, offers a rigorous, quantitative study of subjectivity which is uniquely suited to address the complex problems of teaching and learning that history museums address. As the research taught us about teachers as professionals, we learned even more about ourselves as teacher educators. Our key findings can be found on the home page and in the research section of the resources.
Sharing & Collaborating
Presenting our research at national conferences morphed into informal gatherings where teacher professional development facilitators from a variety of sites exchanged ideas, compared programs, and uncovered mutual struggles. These exchanges culminated first in a Summit at Mount Vernon in September 2019, and then in the forthcoming handbook and the resources and community found on this site.
Our hope for this handbook is that it will be a practical guide for those looking to start, improve, or grow their institution’s teacher professional development offerings. The offered expertise comes from our quantitative research, the qualitative research of others, and the combined knowledge of dozens of program facilitators. While our research is limited to historic sites and museums, our work is an interdisciplinary effort between formal and informal education and we welcome all who want to contribute and learn.