Left-leaning and more liberal historians and high school social studies teachers are furious over the latest announced changes in curriculum guidelines for Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) classes. They charge College Board, the not-for-profit organization that makes and markets AP® tests, succumbed to political pressure from the right, and of course they are correct. The funny thing is that before the revisions were announced, right-leaning conservative groups historians made the same accusations about earlier proposed curriculum changes when they were shouting left-wing bias. Lost in the latest round of history wars is any serious discussion over why secondary schools offer advanced placement classes and whether the program makes academic sense.
The 2012 AP®USH framework that went into effect in 2014 emphasized debate rather than lists of names, places, and events and an increased emphasis on historical thinking. According to a statement issued by the American Historical Association, "The authors of the framework took seriously the obligation of our schools to create actively thinking and engaged citizens." It stressed that the frameworks were guidelines and not a curriculum that limited academic choice.
Conservatives, including the Republican National Committee, charged that the revisions in the Advanced Placement United States history curriculum overemphasized negative aspects of U.S. history, focusing on conflict rather than on commonalities and shared ideals. Moves were made to block APUSH classes and testing in Georgia, Oklahoma, and Colorado.
The 2015 revisions seem designed to promote patriotism and a belief in "American exceptionalism" rather than the critical examination of history. According to a review by the Atlantic Constitution, they emphasize national identity and unity, the ideals of liberty, citizenship, self-governance, the role of its founders in establish these principles, the sacrifices of military personnel during war, the importance of religious groups in shaping American society, and the productive role of free enterprise, entrepreneurship, and innovation in shaping U.S. history.
According to a spokesperson for College Board, "This new edition addresses the legitimate concerns expressed about the 2014 framework. Every statement in the 2015 edition has been examined with great care based on the historical record and the principled feedback the College Board received. The result is a clearer and more balanced approach to the teaching of American history that remains faithful to the requirements that colleges and universities set for academic credit." Neither the 2014 or 2015 revision requires a change in textbooks. The Spring 2016 APUSH test is already written. It is unclear how the 2015 revisions will affect future exams.
Jon Butler, a retired professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University and current president of the Organization of American Historians has tried to take a more conciliatory position. Butler described the 2014 APUSH framework as a "running long jump in a positive direction and the "2015 revision as "another positive step. It takes everything that was good and makes it better."
Much of the right is still not satisfied with the 2015 revisions. Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, charged, "The College Board continues to be under the influence of leftist historians." Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, threatened that his group would work with conservatives to replace the College Board APUSH program with their own curriculum.
Although I lean left, my concern as a history teacher is less with the battle over the AP® frameworks, which allow districts, schools, and teachers some leeway to shape a curriculum, than with the big push to expand AP® classes and testing. In 2010, almost 30% of graduating seniors in United States public high school took an AP® exam and the numbers keep growing. In New York City, School Chancellor Carmen Fariña bragged that in 2013-2014 ten percent more students took AP® exams than the previous year.
These are my observations based on my experience as a high school teacher and a professor in a School of Education. I have asked teachers affiliated with the Hofstra social studies education program to add their comments and they are included at the end of this blog.
- Too often schools push unqualified students into AP® classes so they can advertise that the classes are being offered without regard for the academic needs of the students.
Three social studies teachers join the APUSH debate
Jennifer Quinn, Long Beach (NY) High School: I am grateful to teach IB History of the Americas (HOTA) after teaching APUSH for 10 years. In International Baccalaureate's HOTA we spend three months the first year studying slavery (starting in Africa then moving across the Atlantic to the Americas) then pick the topic up again with Civil War and Reconstruction. In year two of HOTA one big unit is Human Rights where we specifically will look at South Africa and United States Civil Rights Movement. There are a lot of topics to chose from but in our school we try to select topics that will be of greater interest to the students and helpful for the state Regents Exam, although that is of secondary importance. We are having greater success with IB than with AP primarily because there is so much freedom to plan and explore and it does not have the AP mentality of "one day, one test." Assessment is based on essay writing and student research on topics of their choice. The IB program also allows students to earn college credit.
Brian Rodahan, Long Island, NY: As a social studies teacher for eleven years, I find it interesting that politicians seem to always have a "new solution" to the problem of education in the United States. Whether it is No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top or the Common Core, these solutions have never produced the desired outcome. Ironically these new educational policies have led to an increase in oppositional grassroots movements such as the opt-out movement. What is the true goal of the AP curriculum framework? All classes in school teach the same skills? Analyze a problem and seek the best option for addressing the problem most effectively? Schools encourage students to take these classes to increase the ranking of the school; it doesn't matter what score the students receive. Why do politicians care so much about an option a student can take in history? Maybe they see a way to influence an educational program they do not yet control. Perhaps the Texas Board of Education is upset they do not influence publishers like they once did. Perfection does not exist in any society including the United States. By looking at the conflicts in American society, teachers help students understand solutions to social problems tried in the past (whether succeeded or failed). I think the ultimate goal for all of us is the struggle to become a more just person. I have no problem with the initial revised AP course because the teacher is able to teach in a way that aligns with the community values and students will still do well on the exam. I am able to take the interests of my students and go more in-depth with some topics and not so much in others. The major issue I had with the initial revisions was the lack of examples of how students would be assessed, which made it difficult to prepare them for the test. Politicians love to create new abstract educational policies that always fail in practice. Maybe politicians should stick to what they are good at, increasing federal deficits for posterity to pay back.
Michael Pezone, High School for Law Enforcement, Queens, NY: I was asked to teach APUSH at my high school. I turned down the offer, and would do away with the AP program in its entirety, for the following reasons. (1) Teaching to the test is pernicious. It promotes an instrumentalist view of learning. Instead we should promote true love of learning, learning as an "end-in-itself," to use Kant's formula. (2) Recently the city mini-school where I work created an APUSH class with a roster of about 25 students. Students were enrolled whether or not they had a genuine interest in history or the capacity to master the curriculum. The school is interested, naturally, in attracting future quality students and in boosting school ratings by offering AP classes. Students are primarily interested in the prestige and possible college credits. There's that instrumentalist view again. (3) AP classes represent tracking on steroids, with the egos of AP students inflated and all other students deflated. ("Those are the smart kids.") (4) I'd like to see the AP test results in all subjects broken down by gender, race/ethnicity, and economic status. I know the College Board once published such data for the SATs that show clear racial/ethnic disparities and a steady rise in scores as you move up the family income ladder. I suspect the same disparities exist in AP scores, but would like to see the data. If significant disparities exist, I would ask "who is advanced by advanced placement?" Are we rewarding those the most who need it the least? (5) Finally, in relation to the changes in the APUSH curriculum: a good teacher will have students analyze the curriculum itself, including its embedded biases. No single view of history should be privileged in the classroom, not by the College Board, the teacher, or anyone.