Taking the Politics Out of American History (and Out of A.P.)

Cecilia Capuzzi Simon, New York Times, April 8, 2016

On May 6, more than 470,000 students will sit for the Advanced Placement test in United States history. The exam distills 525 years of American history into 55 multiple-choice questions and six short and long essay questions. {snip}

Shockingly, few are complaining about the exam or the latest framework for teaching the course. At least not loudly.

That’s a sharp contrast from the sturm und drang surrounding the College Board’s introduction of the 2014 framework, the first major overhaul of the course in 60 years. That revision was meant to address teacher complaints that the previous framework was thin and lacked direction, especially on what to focus on for the exam.

The framework grew from nine pages of course guidelines to 115, and incorporated a contemporary approach to teaching history: It moved away from rote memorization and introduced “historical thinking skills,” encouraging the use of primary documents and chronological reasoning to examine events and figures in the context of their own period as well as their influence on and connection to other periods.

But change comes hard, and perhaps it was the College Board’s bad luck to ambitiously update a course so potentially political in an acridly partisan and culturally divided time. The framework quickly became a hot-button issue. Conservatives called foul on a range of inclusions and omissions and a perceived left-wing bias infused with identity politics and anti-American sentiment.

Where was John Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill” speech? Or Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers? Why give more prominence to Chief Little Turtle than to Ben Franklin? Granted, a reference to the “established colonial elites” who fueled the “independence movement” had been written in. {snip}

But even liberals scratched their heads over a few descriptions, like calling Ronald Reagan “bellicose” in his dealings with the Soviet Union or describing Manifest Destiny as a belief in “white racial superiority” without also explaining its philosophical mission to spread liberty, democracy and technical innovations.

Larry Krieger, a retired A.P. teacher in U.S. history and now an exam coach and textbook author (many on how to ace A.P. exams), led the charge against the 2014 framework with a single-spaced 18-page critique. “It was poorly written, poorly organized and poorly balanced,” Mr. Krieger says. Jane Robbins, a senior fellow at the American Principles Project, picked up on his ideas, arguing that the framework had been “scrubbed of American exceptionalism.”

“What we saw was a progressive outlook,” Ms. Robbins says. “It was a non-American, globalist perspective on a lot of issues. We were one country among many, and not a very good one at that. It was a depressing, slanted view of American history.”

Mr. Krieger and Ms. Robbins took their message around the country, persuading legislators in Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma and other states to try to change the course narrative or prohibit schools from teaching it. They even got the attention of the Republican National Committee, which demanded that the framework be delayed and rewritten, and that Congress withhold funding from the College Board.

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{snip} After an initially defensive posture, [College Board] conceded that critics had valid concerns. Or maybe they decided that intransigence was not good business strategy given its flagging SAT flagship and today’s political climate.

College Board officials reached out to critics, held meetings, attended hearings and listened. They rewrote and reorganized the curriculum, ridding it of partisan sentiment, real or imagined.

What emerged was a framework praised for achieving “an impressive middle ground,” says Jeremy A. Stern, a historian who had criticized the 2014 framework in an article for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. {snip}

“We don’t see this as a narrative of ‘2014 got it wrong’ and ‘2015 got it right,’ ” says Trevor Packer, College Board senior vice president in charge of Advanced Placement. “We had some problems, and we addressed those problems.” The enormous amount of feedback on the framework was “heartening.”

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The current framework is not perfect. Liberals and conservatives can agree on that. But how could it be, encompassing five centuries of American history and walking a balance beam of regional, political and pedagogical needs?

In the classroom, where it counts the most, a majority of teachers (85 percent, according to a College Board poll) said the 2014 framework was “the right approach” to the course. Many saw the 2015 framework as a better-organized, politically corrected version.

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