History of NCHE

The history of the National Council for History Education (NCHE) is an inspiring story of championing the cause of history in school and society, and a story of people with a vision of the importance of history in every citizen’s education. In 1990 NCHE embarked on a crusade to bring a new, broader understanding of what history is and why we study it to both the world of education and the larger society: history as the core of the social studies (before and since 1990 NCHE was the only comprehensive national membership organization arguing forthrightly for history as this continuing core), and history as an integrative discipline with its overarching themes, narratives, and habits of the mind. As stated in the original NCHE Mission Statement, American children cannot afford to live in the 21st century ignorant of everything that preceded their own time and ignorant of the history and culture of other nations. An education in history prepares youngsters to understand not only their own society but other societies and civilizations around the world.

A second principle in NCHE’s mission, from its very beginning, was to bring together all the various participants in the history education community: Kindergarten through grade twelve teachers (the majority of its membership), historians from college and university settings, history curriculum and learning specialists, publishers and authors, and individuals in the world of public history, such as historical libraries and museums. Again, NCHE from the beginning saw the organization "not as a top-down imposition, but out of the collaboration of scholars and teachers across all levels of schooling, working together as equals who educate each other at every step of the way."

A third focus encompassed a related set of ideas, in that NCHE was continually striving to uphold the principles of effective professional development. These ideas of collegiality, colloquia, collaboration, customization, and content, have been well identified and explained in the NCHE core documents on professional development: Doing History: A Model for Helping Teachers (1994);  The History Colloquium Manual: Energizing Professional Development for History Teachers (1994); and the History Matters! article, The History Colloquium: Continuing Education for History Teachers (V. 14, N. 5, January 2002).

From its inception, NCHE had as a fourth goal to create models, plans, guidelines, voluntary standards of a kind, blueprints, and principles for imaginative history courses and creative history teaching—including U.S., Western, and World histories as well as local and regional history and history in the early primary grades. NCHE adopted position statements as published in Building a United States History Curriculum, Building a World History Curriculum, and Building a History-Centered History Curriculum in Grades Kindergarten through Four that would, as part of their initial aim, be disseminated, implemented, and copied or adopted by others. This was a crucial part of the pro-active stance toward improving the teaching and learning of history in the schools. All NCHE Board members have been encouraged to study these and the above core documents.

A fifth guiding principle for NCHE was this: nonpartisanship in our promotion of history to a wider audience. In effect, the history of NCHE was a history of ambassadors of history, people with a passion to preserve its study in K-16 schools, and prove its worth to society as a whole, whether liberal or conservative. NCHE leaders worked hard to move beyond partisan arguments, as will be seen in their activities regarding such policy issues as high school graduation requirements, reviews of state standards during the 1990s and early 2000s, history teacher preparation programs, and assessments.

Bringing a New Vision of History: Background of the NCHE Founding
In 1985-1986, Elaine Wrisley Reed and Joseph P. Ribar approached the Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with some ideas about promoting the study of history in schools and creating programs to help history teachers, both in elementary and secondary school settings. Those discussions led to Ms. Reed being asked to become the Administrative Director of the Bradley Commission on History in Schools, and Mr. Ribar to become the Communications Director. Chaired by Columbia University historian Kenneth T. Jackson, the Bradley Commission was composed of leading historians in U.S., Western, and World history, history education specialists, and classroom history teachers. The Commission members came from several walks of life and every political persuasion, but all shared a passion for history and a concern for the way it is taught, both in and out of the classroom. It was the task of the Bradley Commission to look at the state of history education in the USA, and to make recommendations for its improvement in 1987 and beyond. Aided greatly by their Chief of Staff and Principal Investigator, the late Paul A. Gagnon, the Bradley Commission published a report, Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools (first printing 1988), and a hardcover (and later paperback) book of essays on history education, Historical Literacy: The Case for History in American Education (1989), and a monthly newsletter called History Matters! whose initial purpose was to help spread news of the Commission’s ideas. The Bradley Commission’s papers are currently housed in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Division of the Columbia University Libraries, New York City.

Although in 1986 the Bradley Foundation had conceived the Commission to be a one-year, closed-end project, they extended its funding through the middle of 1990 in order to help disseminate its ideas around the country. The Commission had resolved that four years (two years of U.S. history and two years of Western and World history) be required somewhere between grades seven and twelve, and that a K-6 social studies curriculum be history-centered. Further, they resolved that the completion of a substantial program in history (preferably a major, minimally a minor) at the college or university level be required for the certification of teachers of social studies in the middle and high schools.

The Bradley Commission guidelines also included several scope and sequence patterns for K-12 history teaching, selected topics for American, Western, and World history, vital themes and narratives, and several historical perspectives and modes of thoughtful judgment derived from the specific study of history that they called History’s Habits of the Mind. They also made particularly eloquent pleas for why history must be studied by all citizens, and for its place in the early grades.

Because of the overwhelmingly positive response to the Commission’s principles and recommendations, perhaps because of their nonpartisan nature, and because of the endorsement of both the Organization of American Historians and the Teaching Committee of the American Historical Association, when the Bradley Foundation funding came to an end Chair Kenneth T. Jackson believed that there was important work being done and that there needed to be an independent organization, open to much wider membership than the 17 Bradley Commissioners, that would continue the revolutionary philosophy and initiatives begun under the Commission.  Jackson, with the help of Gagnon, Reed, Ribar, the Bradley Commissioners, and 186 Founding Members (including such leaders as Joyce Appleby, Bernard Bailyn, Jacques Barzun, Mary Bicouvaris, Ernest Boyer, Ken Burns, Philip Curtin, Robert Dallek, Natalie Zemon Davis, Carl Degler, Ross Dunn, Michael Ebner, Frances Fitzgerald, Will Fitzhugh, Geno and Jana Flores, Eric Foner, Shelby Foote, John Hope Franklin, John Lewis Gaddis,  Howard Gardner, John Garraty,  Carol Gluck, John Goodlad, Patricia Albjerg Graham, Daniel Gregg, Darlene Clark Hine, Akira Iriye,  Daniel P. Jordan, Morton Keller, Roger Kennedy, Stephen Kneeshaw, Lawrence Levine, Arthur Link,  Sherrin Marshall, Lawrence McBride, James McPherson, Vicki Ruiz, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.,  Albert Shanker, Nancy and Theodore Sizer, George B. Tindall, Maris Vinovskis, Geoffrey Ward, Robert Weible,  Bernard Weisberger, Sean Wilentz, Peter Wood, and Arthur Zilversmit, among others), brought the National Council for History Education into existence in June of 1990, and incorporated it as the successor organization to the Bradley Commission. The first Chair was Kenneth T. Jackson; the first Executive Secretary was Paul A. Gagnon, who later resigned to go to work for the U. S. Department of Education and then returned to the NCHE as a Board of Trustees Member; the first Administrative Director was Elaine Wrisley Reed, who later became Executive Director upon Gagnon’s resignation and continued as such until her retirement in December of 2006; the first Communications Director (including newsletter editor) was Joseph P. Ribar, who later also became Finance Officer; and the first Treasurer was Earl P. Bell, who was also a member of the Board of Trustees.

NCHE Founding Trustees came from all political persuasions and walks of life, to continue the principles Jackson had implemented with the Bradley Commission. Founding Trustees included leading experts of history and education:
Earl P. Bell, University of Chicago Laboratory School;
Marjorie Wall Bingham, St. Louis Park (MN) High School;
Allan L. Damon, Horace Greeley (NY) High School;
Chester E. Finn, Jr., Vanderbilt University;
Marilynn Jo Hitchens, Wheat Ridge (CO) High School;
Byron Hollinshead, Americana Magazine;
William E. Leuchtenburg, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill;
Leon Litwack, University of California at Berkeley;
Gary B. Nash, University of California at Los Angeles;
William H. McNeill, University of Chicago;
Mary Beth Norton, Cornell University;
Verne Oliver, New York State Association of Independent Schools;
Theodore K. Rabb, Princeton University;
Diane Ravitch, Teachers College, Columbia University; and
Elihu Rose, New York University.
The three Vice Chairs represented the tripartite alliance of NCHE members: Bingham, the K-12 history teacher-scholar; Ravitch, the historian of history education; and McNeill, the historian of World history.

One of the very first acts of the new NCHE Board of Trustees was to adopt the report of the Bradley Commission, Building a History Curriculum (available for download, free of charge, from the NCHE website at www.nche.net) as their founding principles, including perhaps the most essential of all: the knowledge and habits of mind to be gained from the study of history are indispensable to the education of citizens in a democracy. A second act, and perhaps most critical for the longevity and outreach of the organization, was the adoption of the History Matters! newsletter, begun in 1989 under the auspices of the Commission, as a means of disseminating “notes, news and ideas about history education.” It was originally 6 pages (short but regular and frequent enough on a monthly basis that it would remind all of the importance of history often), but the editor, Joe Ribar, extended it to 8 pages because of the proliferation of activities of the Council. Often the circulation was over 10,000 per month, and contained a substantive history or history education article on Page One, with several special series to follow inside: Why Study History? What Have You Been Reading Lately?The Council Calendar, a Membership Page, and Conference Corner.  The Editor worked with such authors as David McCullough, Joy Hakim, Will Fitzhugh, Gordon Craig, Diane Ravitch, James McPherson, Theodore Rabb, Mary Beth Norton, Edward Ayers, Fritz Fischer, Paul Gagnon, Carol Berkin, and David Kennedy, to name only a few from over the years. Topics ranged from a series on the vital themes of history, assessment, how to give a good lecture, writing in history, the Civil War, to what was going on in the states in terms of history education issues. It was V. 2, N. 10 of HM! which gave the formal “launch” of the organization in its Page One article, Main Engine Ignition, written by Ribar himself. History Matters! continues to be published monthly during the school year.
Bringing Together the Full Spectrum
As NCHE has grown, the Council has reached out to its members through the development of national conferences. These meetings have grown from small gatherings of a little more than 100 to become annual meetings attracting more than 400 - 800 participants. These built on the successes of the two major symposia of the Bradley Commission on History in Schools in Spring of 1990, New Ideas in the Teaching of U.S. and World History, held in DC and San Diego, respectively.

Several NCHE conferences were especially significant to the history of the institution:
  • a 5-year retrospective conference on the meaning and consequences of the Bradley Commission report of 1988, convened by the NCHE on a Bahamas cruise ship in June of 1993;
  • a symposium to build on the Bradley Commission’s resolutions and to propose further reform recommendations for the states, and to reinvigorate history in U. S. schools, held at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC in March of 1996;
  • 3 conferences promoting the role and importance of history in the elementary grades, entitled Kids Learning History and held in 1998-1999 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC and at Cincinnati Museum Center;
  • several conferences commemorating significant events in U. S. and World history: one in 2004 in St. Louis, held in part for the anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition; one in Pittsburgh in 2005 for the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War;
  • one month after 9/11/2001, NCHE members convened in Washington, DC in order not to allow terrorism acts to disrupt our plans and to support each other’s efforts to teach history in that extremely troubling time;
  • two conferences focusing solely on effective preparation of knowledgeable teachers of history, one held at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin in 1997, and the other held at the University of Virginia and Monticello in the summer of 2006.
Readers will note that the main focus of these NCHE conferences was the substantive content of history along with sessions on subject-specific pedagogy. Conferences were often held in sites with history-rich settings, such as Colonial Williamsburg in 1995 and 2007, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in 1998 and 2001, Saratoga Springs, NY in 2002, Charleston, SC in 2011 commemorating the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, and St. Augustine, FL in 2013. In all of these, public historians were crucial to the success of the conferences. Others were held in larger NCHE membership population centers such as Sacramento in 2000, Los Angeles in 2003, and Austin in 2006. NCHE conferences continue to draw history educators and supporters each year.
Upholding the NCHE Principles of Professional Development
In 1991, the NCHE received a 3-year grant from the U. S. Department of Education’s FIPSE (Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education) to research and develop a new model for the professional development of history teachers. In the initial research stages, NCHE examined the weaknesses of after-school “in-service training” and vowed never to use that phrase again; these programs typically focused on classroom management or other pedagogical fads. Though rich in historical content, NCHE found that at that time the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) summer institutes for teachers were dominated by a single historian, rather than a team approach. Most programs in local school districts for history teachers--what few there were in 1991—had no focus on updating historical knowledge or scholarship. What may have been even worse was the nearly total lack of communication between K-12 teachers and historians from colleges and universities; between college history departments and schools of education; and between K-12 teachers and the world of public history. The NCHE leadership vowed to begin to change all that.

What resulted was the “colloquium” model, and its timing turned out to be “serendipitous” (Fritz Fischer, in his chapter 11, p. 205, History Education 101: The Past, Present, and Future of Teacher Preparation, edited by W. Wilson and D. A. Cantu, 2008, Information Age Publishing). Fischer went on to say that “the design of the colloquium provided a perfect blend of theory and practice at the perfect time.” The colloquium (meaning to come together) format called for the collaboration of a team of three leaders: a professional historian; a history education specialist, some in school curriculum, some in methods/learning, others in museum education and use of primary sources; and a master teacher from a K-12 classroom, again following the principles of NCHE to bring together all the various participants of the history education community to model how we can all learn from each other, and in response to research pointing to the need for more collaboration and communication. There was no dichotomy between content and pedagogy. “Thank you for not talking down to us.” That was the most frequently written comment on the evaluation sheets from the NCHE Colloquia, and expresses the relationship which developed between the colloquium leaders and the participants.

A bedrock conviction, and a drastic change from the “inservice training” workshop, was that teachers in a colloquium would come to see themselves as history professionals, as teacher-scholars. Teachers were hungry for content, wanting to talk about history, and wanting to be treated as professionals who did know something and wanted to add to it. NCHE leaders custom-tailored the agenda of each 3-day (or sometimes 5 or 2 days) program to meet what the participants themselves told us ahead of time were their needs and desires. The customization principle meant that no two colloquia were ever alike, since every teacher, every local school district, and every state had different history frameworks. Therefore, as the basic curriculum syllabus or “menu” of choices for discussion for the colloquium, the leadership team used Building a History Curriculum, and later, Building a United States History Curriculum. Having already made the hard decisions about what students ought to know and be able to do in history, the Bradley and NCHE guidelines documents were indispensable in giving NCHE a starting place, from which to make adjustments and choices without neglecting the broad scope of U.S. history. 

NCHE teams conducted the research and development of this colloquium model during the FIPSE grant in 1991-1994 in dozens of school districts and with hundreds of K-12 teachers around the nation, including Alaska and Hawaii, and continued to refine it in several ways. NCHE received a grant from the U. S. Department of Education to convene a History Academy for Ohio Teachers at the Ohio State University in 1992-1993, with Academic Director Arthur Zilversmit; and a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to conduct a Summer Institute for K-6 teachers at the University of California at San Diego in 1995 with Academic Director Paul Gagnon; sessions focused on Historical Narrative and Biography of the 19th Century. During the rest of the decade NCHE continued to respond to requests from local school districts for professional development sessions in both U.S. and World history—the colloquium model worked for either one.

Along came the year 2000 and Senator Robert Byrd’s landmark legislation creating the funds for the U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching American History (TAH) program, with its first round of grants to be given in 2001, and renewed funding each year thereafter. The NCHE Board decided to become a major participant in this professional development program, and was ready to “hit the ground running” because we had not only the course syllabus, but also the colloquium model for delivery. By the end of 2006, NCHE had 71 TAH partner school districts in 30 states with which NCHE was working on professional development in history.  Alex Stein, senior program analyst at the U.S. Department of Education from the inception of the program, specifically cites the work of the NCHE and our “intense history content seminars”  as the model for TAH grant activities (Alex Stein, The Teaching American History program: An Introduction and Overview, The History Teacher V. 36, No. 2, February 2003, pp. 179-180). Another form of sincere flattery was when NCHE found that several other institutions conducting TAH programs were following a general model that closely resembled the NCHE’s colloquium model—most notably the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
Creating Models and Guidelines, Course Plans and Blueprints
The NCHE continued to promote, disseminate, and follow up on the 1988 report of the Bradley Commission, Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools through its work with local school district curriculum committees, state framework committees and state boards of education, as well as with numerous presentations at professional conferences of other organizations besides NCHE.  The report had not been attacked by either the “right” or the “left” and its recommendations succeeded in being implemented by hundreds of local school districts and many states in their curriculum framework documents during the early 1990s. Many of the NCHE guidelines anticipated ideas embedded in the national history standards movement of the mid-1990s. The NCHE was invited to convene four focus groups for feedback and critique of various aspects of the national history standards as they were being developed at the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA throughout 1991-1994. The NCHE Board of Trustees voted to support the U.S. History standards, but never took a vote on either the World history standards or the K-4 standards. Following their publication in 1994, what ensued has been described as “a series of nasty political controversies” (F. Fischer, p. 204, History Education 101) and as “a sensational national controversy” by the leaders of the standards movement itself (G. Nash, C. Crabtree, and R. Dunn, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past. NY: Knopf, 1998). The U.S. Senate voted against the proposed standards in a vote of 99-1.

Responding to numerous requests from NCHE's own members and school districts who were somewhat overwhelmed by the negativity of the history standards controversies (NCHE got more requests for help with curriculum design than ever before), in 1995 the NCHE Board decided to take a different track in order to move history education forward by producing our own series of history curriculum publications. These would aid teachers with the principles of selection of historical topics and habits of the mind without establishing a mandated national curriculum, while at the same time being useful in implementing whatever state history standards were being developed during those years (because the national standards had been so poorly received, the action in the mid-late 1990s moved to the states for the development of their own standards, and no two states’ standards were alike). These new NCHE curriculum guidelines were elaborations of Building a History Curriculum: Building a United States History Curriculum, Building a World History Curriculum, and Building a History-Centered Curriculum for Kindergarten through Grade Four.  As always, the guidelines producers were made up of the tripartite alliance of NCHE members. By the end of the 1990s NCHE had a syllabus of history content ready that had no detractors in the discussions of what history is needed for all students to know, plus the habits of mind necessary to go beyond critical thinking to historical reasoning and wise judgment. In short, NCHE was “sitting pretty” when the Teaching American History program was being discussed in 2000, as NCHE already had a curriculum for what content, topics, habits, themes and narratives teachers needed to know in order to help their students best learn U.S. History at the K-12 levels.
Promoting History on a Non-Partisan Basis
NCHE’s promotion of history was, from its inception in 1990, a comprehensive synthesis of initiatives on several simultaneous fronts:
  • Professional development to support history teachers
  • Conferences focusing on substantive history content
  • Teacher preparation reform recommendations and Occasional Papers
  • Curriculum development, as in the Building a History Curriculum series
  • Networking and communication among members through the newsletter History Matters! and the website at www.nche.net.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, three additional promotional activities deserve special attention: 1) the development of state councils allied with NCHE, 2) campaigns to promote history education policies at state and local levels, and 3) a strong relationship with the U.S. Department of Education.
  1. By the end of 2006 there were 41 states with NCHE State Coordinators, with many of them having assisted in the development of state history councils, providing testimony at state hearings on history education policies such as state standards and high school graduation requirements, producing state history conferences for teachers, and communicating through both print and electronic newsletters. The first of these state councils was the New Jersey organization, NJCHE, which began in 1992 under the leadership of John Pyne and Henry Kiernan and their team of trustees. They became known as the “flagship” state council of the NCHE, in part because of their high-quality but fairly simple format for the state conference held at Princeton University every December, with 4-6 of the leading nationally-known historians on selected themes from both U.S. and World history. The second state council was that of Michigan; MCHE was formed by Jim and Annette McConnell in 1993-1994. The state coordinators were originally conceived of as state “liaisons” between the states and the national office of NCHE, to be the “eyes and ears” to alert the national office when issues regarding history education policies were forthcoming at their state levels—a sort of “committees of correspondence” system. The coordinators could also help with their state councils if they wished, and often did. Some state coordinators turned out to become the President of their state council, while others served on its Executive Board, or in a couple of cases, served as its Executive Director. There was no affiliation or regulatory process made formal, due to a desire to have state councils be fiscally responsible for their own affairs, and this proved to be a wise position to date, one that was well-received by state leaders.
  2. Campaigns to promote history education policies began in 1991-1992 with the NCHE Task Force to aid in the development of a U. S. History Framework for the National Assessment Governing Board, in its project to assess history knowledge at the 4th, 8th, and  12th grade levels. Policy work continued at the state and local levels in the mid-and-late 90s and early 2000s, through invitations from states for NCHE to review the development of its history and social studies standards and framework documents. This resulted in letter-writing campaigns, testimony at state hearings, and written critiques, some of which were paid for by states and others which NCHE provided as a part of our mission. This resulted in the strengthening of history in many such states as Massachusetts, Indiana, Wisconsin, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, Michigan, Illinois, and Florida, to name only a few of the more memorable campaigns. Paul Gagnon, Mary Beth Norton,  Stephen Ambrose, Mitch Yamasaki, Diane Ravitch, Theodore Rabb, Larry McBride, John Pyne, and Sarah Drake Brown were some of the leading NCHE members in this difficult work.
  3. A strong relationship with the U.S. Department of Education developed over the years of the NCHE’s nationally known work in history curriculum and professional development, so that when Senator Robert Byrd was instrumental in the passage of the Teaching American History funds through the U.S. Congress in 2001, the NCHE office in Westlake, Ohio was called by the Department to come, with its representatives, to the U.S. Department of Education to discuss how the monies should be spent, and what the criteria for good professional development in history should be. Byrd had stated that the money was to be administered to local school districts for traditional American history, and he specified that this was not social studies. NCHE’s core principles and documents proved our readiness, and the evaluations of our history colloquia, history academy, and history institute proved our worthiness. When we told the Department that collaboration and communication among those in the field of history education was nearly missing, and that teachers in schools needed a “marriage broker” in order to strengthen their professional development, these ideas were incorporated into the requirements for proposals in the Teaching American History grants program: that a local district, in order to obtain funds, must collaborate in a partnership with non-profit historical agencies such as historical societies, museums, professional history associations, or history departments of colleges and universities, etc. Thus began what some have called the largest and most significant influx of money into history education in the entire history of this country.

About NCHE

The National Council for History Education promotes historical literacy by creating opportunities for teachers and students to benefit from more history, better taught.