Why Are We Doing This?

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 exists on the effectiveness of historic sites’ role in teacher education. Much of the existing research consists of short, qualitative, program-specific evaluations or surveys that are too site-specific to be generalized or applied to to other sites, or connected to classroom practice.

This research project comes 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” activitiesv, 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, this is the time for museum professionals to work together to 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. We concur and propose this project to address this gap.