A few weeks ago, I visited one of the best public high schools in the United States. Its students constantly achieve the kind of world-class scores that cause parents to plaster those “My Child Is So Amazing” stickers all over their cars. But Ridgeview Classical Schools’ faculty treat these same exams with scorn.
In study hall, a former university professor oversaw middle students as they wrote research papers, snapping at them when they started to titter. Dr. R. McMahon had previously taught at a massive state university and said he left when its hatred for undergrad teaching became too strong. McMahon sputtered in derision when I asked about testing. He told me about visiting another school district, which Ridgeview teachers must do regularly for professional development. The teacher he visited was well-known as a top Advanced Placement teacher.
This teacher rolled carts of “The Great Gatsby” into the classroom, had students pull them off, then open to a particular section he knew was likely to be excerpted on the AP test. They read the 10-page selection, put the books back on the cart, and shipped them away, McMahon said. Students never read entire books. They just prepped for the test. Excerpt after excerpt they read to regurgitate.
That approach can net high test scores, McMahon said, but “it is a preparation with no academic integrity whatsoever.”
Politicizing U.S. History
A lack of academic integrity seems to run far deeper in College Board’s AP program. For one, its new U.S. History course, appropriately nicknamed “A-PUSH,” has departed from College Board’s reputation for offering objective measures of students’ preparation for serious academic work. A former AP teacher whom the College Board has given numerous awards and now makes his living from teaching kids to ace the tests has begun to publicize that new A-PUSH dictates revise more than the curriculum—they appear to revise history itself.
He and my erstwhile coauthor Jane Robbins have published their latest critique at Breitbart:
Imagine having your teenager emerge from a U.S. history course with only a vague recognition of the name “George Washington.” Suppose that course mentioned the father of our country with reference to only one speech – no discussion of his military leadership and triumphs, his personal sacrifice to accept the call to become the first President, or his wise and steady leadership during the tumultuous first years of our nation…
Beginning in August, such a course will be offered to 500,000 of America’s most talented high-school sophomores and juniors – the College Board’s new AP U.S. History Framework. The new College Board Framework will replace the traditional 5-page topical outline with a 98-page document that dictates how teachers should cover the required topics. George Washington gets one brief mention; other founders, such as Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, none. The Declaration of Independence is referred to in passing in one clause of one sentence.
If the Framework virtually ignores the most important men and documents in American history, what does it find worthy of attention? The answer is, pretty much anything that casts a negative light on our country. The redesigned Framework inculcates a consistently negative view of American history by highlighting oppressors and exploiters while ignoring the dreamers and innovators who built our country.
The College Board’s Trevor Packer has so far responded largely by smearing Larry Krieger and attacking things he did not say rather than responding to Krieger’s arguments. That is also troubling, since it is the hallmark of a true academic institution to promote open inquiry and spirited debate.
Dividing the American Mind
AP U.S. History is not the only area of concern. After hiring the architect of new national curriculum and testing mandates as its president, College Board has recently been on a spree of “reforming” its curriculum and tests to fit those mandates, called Common Core. One outgrowth is the A-PUSH changes. Packer told the American Association of School Administrators that College Board is changing all its AP classes to be “less about simple memorization and more about critical thinking and synthesizing information.” The organization is even considering offering schools AP algebra instead of calculus because Common Core does not prepare students for calculus, he said. AP biology was one of the earliest to be redesigned, then U.S. history, and next it’s physics, chemistry, European history, world history, and art history.
A central reason College Board gives for the redesign is slimming down the burgeoning amount of material AP teachers have to teach in order to expose students to every possible thing they might encounter in college survey courses. They claim they’re trying to reduce having kids speed through excerpts of works, as in the Colorado school with the book cart. Curiously, though, the A-PUSH revision dramatically expands the material to cover (while omitting some of the most important), making rushing through material more likely. What’s going on?
The College Board is easy to blame, especially for those with Common Core in their sights. But it may be fairer to blame the degradation of American universities and ultimately we, the American people, for two reasons.
First, we now have a divided mind about what is good and true. As The New York Times explained in 2011 when these changes were first announced, core university classes exposed students to similar material back in the 1950s, when AP was born. So all AP had to do was find out what college survey classes taught, and move that material down into high school. That was far easier before people started disagreeing about what material survey courses should include, and professors started to wildly diverge from each other in the decades since. Now, it’s well-known that if there even are core classes in a given college (and that is quite doubtful), the likelihood they will cover roughly similar ideas is much smaller. So, to keep up, AP courses had to throw at high school students more than they were likely to encounter in the particular college they enrolled in.
This points to a larger phenomenon in U.S. education: People have stopped agreeing about what children should learn. As Diane Ravitch has extensively documented, communities across the country used to hold a shared understanding of what kids should read and learn. Now, we don’t. The breakdown in shared culture has affected our curriculum, among many other things. Attempts to address this have led to central mandates known as “education standards,” of which Common Core is just the latest incarnation. Now College Board is joining the party. As the Times notes, the AP changes mark a shift “from its origins as a purveyor of tests to a much more deliberate arbiter of what the nation’s top students will study.” In the absence of the spontaneous order that arises from people to freely organize themselves and associate based on mutual interests, chaos arises, which in turn prompts a demand for order. If that is not provided by returning to freedom of association, it is met with authoritarian coercion, such as the new A-PUSH curriculum or Common Core.
Wake Up: K-12 Is Politicized
Second, this also illustrates what has also been happening now for several decades: Academia’s politicization has trickled down into K-12. This was inevitable, of course, not least because all teachers are forced through academia’s liberal mind-meld to get a job. (They’re also forced into regular re-education by “continuing education” mandates from the worst university departments—education schools.) For one thing, 7 in 10 professors of teaching believe their job is to produce teachers who will be “to be change agents who will reshape education,” and one in ten thinks a teacher should be a “conveyor of knowledge” to children.
It has by now been well-documented that American universities are now largely façaded credential mills. Their main function is in puffing people up with the appearance of knowing, but not its substance. How does this relate to the A-PUSH changes? They’re along the same lines, and probably at the behest of false intellectuals who think George Washington doesn’t merit mention in advanced U.S. history classes because he held slaves. Such “academics” are cheap and exponentially proliferating. So it’s easy to lather AP programs and curriculum changes in people with letters after their names, but that doesn’t prove the curriculum is still trustworthy. In short, it is politically correct to eviscerate history, but it is not intellectually honest.
All of these things, by the way, hurt the middle class and those who aspire to it. Impartial credentials like an AP test score are steps on a ladder of opportunity. When they are impartial and open to all comers, they offer people of all backgrounds the chance to prove their merit. Academic dishonesty places hungry termites on this ladder. Kids who take AP classes hoping to show colleges they’re serious thinkers and hard workers are hurt when the actual classes do not teach them what the title implies, or gives a lopsided version of it. A person is not educated if he knows next to nothing about George Washington. Cheap academics deprive students of opportunities to actually make them what the resulting credential certifies. Reading an entire classic work (or preferably carts full of them) is how students develop the work ethic and serious thinking colleges, employers, and life demand. Reading political tripe or snacking on 10 pages is not.