It took nearly five months for College Board president and Common Core architect David Coleman to address critiques of his nonprofit’s new U.S. history curriculum that omits key events and people and endorses leftist ideas. But his response Monday still leaves unanswered questions about what half a million of nation’s brightest high school students will learn about their country’s character and history each year.
In a graciously worded letter, Coleman called the curriculum whistleblowers “patriots,” and included a link to a publicly released sample exam that previously had been restricted to evaluators who had signed confidentiality agreements. Advanced Placement teachers who had seen the confidential exam have confirmed that it is the same as the released exam. But he also made a few assertions that don’t fit the evidence, and the public has yet to see any improvement to the major source of the controversy: College Board’s massive expansion of dictates to teachers about its Advanced Placement U.S. history course (known as APUSH), which expanded from five pages of guidelines to 98.
One of the earliest justifications for changes to this and a host of other AP classes, was to simplify them so teachers didn’t have to cram so much material into classes. Drastically expanded outlines do the opposite. The second major bone to chew has been the content of this bloated document. The Republican National Committee passed a resolution Friday decrying that the makeover “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing the positive aspects.” It followed an August 4 open letter opposing the changes, which anyone can sign. The last two probably put a bee in Coleman’s bonnet.
Some Historical Context
Before we get to more breaking newsfeed, first some history. (It only seems appropriate.) Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum, teacher training, and tests are owned by The College Board, which also owns the SAT. More than a quarter of U.S. high school students take at least one AP class. They essentially work like honors classes, and are supposed to be on par with freshman college classes. Students take a test after the course and can receive college credit for high scores. As Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, writes in his in-depth analysis of the curricular changes, “AP courses account for many of the brightest and most intellectually ambitious members of their age cohort. These are the students who matriculate to the best colleges and will eventually comprise a hugely disproportionate share of the leadership class of their generation.”
This spring, a retired AP teacher named Larry Krieger took a look at the new APUSH guidelines that had started to circulate. He has examined the AP tests for decades because he coaches for the exams (and, not incidentally, has won awards from College Board for his AP teaching). What he saw alarmed him. He teamed up with American Principles Project fellow Jane Robbins, who is nationally known for her incisive criticism of Common Core. In March, they published their first critique of the changes (disclosure: I managed the publication where that article ran and so edited it myself).
They made a number of charges. First: “By providing a detailed course of study that defines, discusses, and interprets ‘the required knowledge of each period,’ the College Board has in effect supplanted local and state curricula by unilaterally assuming the authority to prioritize historic topics.” Second: “The new Framework inculcates a consistently negative view of the nation’s past. For example, the units on colonial America stress the development of a ‘rigid racial hierarchy’ and a ‘strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority.’” Third, they noted that the new framework ignored pivotal figures and events in favor of less-important individuals and events that reinforce a leftist narrative of U.S. history: “It excises Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and the other founders from the nation’s story. George Washington’s historical contributions are reduced to a brief sentence fragment noting his Farewell Address. Two pages later, the Framework grants teachers the flexibility to discuss the architecture of Spanish missions, suggesting it merits more attention than the heroes of 1776.”
Krieger also conducted a meticulous dissection of the anti-American themes and anti-knowledge gaps in the extensive new curriculum framework. These include emphasizing exploitation, racial conflict, and economic determinism, and omitting the Pilgrims, all Revolutionary War battles, Alexis de Tocqueville, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and much more.
Their analysis and Wood’s also make it quite clear that the new curriculum is nowhere near objective, or even even-handed, philosophically, and is, moreover, organizationally incoherent. Tweaks cannot remedy its defects. It quite clearly needs to be scrubbed and begun anew.
These two analyses of the changes are so evidence-laden (a quality Coleman claims to prize) and thoughtful that my judgement departs only in one respect. I think it’s perfectly appropriate for private organizations to create curriculum that schools are free to purchase or not purchase as their leaders and constituents see fit. The market problem with AP is that it is in bed with government. Many states finance AP classes and test-taking, and many state universities use AP scores to excuse kids from some classes (although, as Wood points out, if colleges ever require a U.S. history class, and many do not, its course of study is likely as twisted and anti-American as the new APUSH curriculum that wishes to reflect college classes). There is no competitive counterpart to AP. For the top quarter of high school students, it is often the only demanding course option. It is almost alone among classes students can take that will also count for college credit, except those offered by universities, the tuition of which typically states do not finance as they do public school classes. So the College Board may think it has weight to throw around. In fact, it does. But hubris is a funny thing, as ancient Greek heroes always seem to discover too late.
Back to Recent Events
While College Board did not publicly respond for several months, parents began to pester their elected officials and word began to spread. On NRO, Stanley Kurtz picked up the story, and it caught the attention of Texas State Board of Education member Ken Mercer, who is sponsoring a resolution to strip the curriculum from the state. Robbins, Krieger, and Mercer also held a national teletownhall with Concerned Women for America to discuss the changes, and ensuing publicity from Glenn Beck certainly didn’t hurt. In Georgia, local school board member Kathleen Angelucci is demanding action from the state board of education.
A few words about Coleman. The gentleman—and he typically speaks like an eloquent one, although he’s been pilloried for criticizing navel-gazing school writing assignments because “as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or what you think”—is known as the “architect” of national Common Core mandates for math and English tests and curriculum. For this, he has earned a great deal of suspicion among parents whose children are affected by his poorly constructed instruments of miseducation and government coercion.
He has begun attempting to make amends, but more with words than actions so far. One was a conference call with homeschool families in which he assured them that the SAT, which is also being altered on his watch, will not force them to teach Common Core in order for their children to perform well. Another was an article in National Review Online defending Wheaton College, one of the most intellectually well-respected Christian colleges, against those who said its statement of faith violates academic freedom. Coleman’s voice is not particularly pertinent to such a discussion (although friends of religious freedom are thinning these days, so better any than none), but he apparently desires to earn goodwill from conservative quarters and his prominent position comes with the communications staff to place his opinion where he wants it. His APUSH response treats his critics with respect and ascribes to them good motives, which is more than can be said for many anti-Common Core activists. And he promises College Board “will soon release a clarified version of the course framework.” But his exercise of power, or the actions that must follow fancy words to prove them genuine, so far belies him. In short, David Coleman’s words are wonderful, but his track record sucks.
Or, as Hamlet would say: “Words, words, words.”
Hire A Factchecker
Although Coleman appears to exude as many good intentions as he grants to his critics, his assertions about the APUSH changes still don’t match the facts. One example: “We hope that the release of this exam will address the principled confusion that the new framework produced,” Coleman wrote in his Monday email. “The concerns are based on a significant misunderstanding. Just like the previous framework, the new framework does not remove individuals or events that have been taught by AP teachers in prior years. Instead, it is just a framework, requiring teachers to populate it with content required by their local standards and priorities.”
Au contraire, noted Krieger and Robbins, in an initial response: “Unfortunately, facts are stubborn things. The redesigned framework omits Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Dorothea Dix, William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Roosevelt, Jonas Salk, Rosa Parks, Dwight Eisenhower, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other notable American heroes.” These are not just omitted in the abstract. They appeared on previous AP U.S. history exams. Krieger knows. He keeps a list of their topics.
Coleman points to the released exam, which has a passage from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and other “founding documents,” as evidence that, although these are not in the 98-page monstrosity of a curriculum, that doesn’t mean they will be abandoned. The Ben Franklin questions, however, can be answered with essentially no prior knowledge of the man—the answers are patently within the short chunk of text on the test. (Quite possibly a carryover of the “close reading” theory also embedded in Common Core, which attempts to eschew context when reading.)
There is plenty of other evidence College Board’s response so far is not as forthright as Coleman’s letter sounds. Review some of it yourself. His letter may be an initial splash forecasting a torrent of substantive, meaningful response, but that’s doubtful. The RNC resolution, like Robbins and Krieger, petitions for a one-year delay of the changes while overhauling the overhaul. Coleman promises “a clarified version of the course framework.” The two don’t sound much alike. So is Coleman listening because he may shift course, or is he appearing to listen because that’s good PR?