Confessions Of An AP Teacher: College Board’s New History Curriculum Is Terrible

Confessions Of An AP Teacher: College Board’s New History Curriculum Is Terrible

Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum needed a redesign, but not this kind.
M. Jane Rodgers
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Proponents of the College Board’s redesigned Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) curricular framework claim it provides flexibility for teachers and a welcome answer to traditional courses demanding the memorization of what Charles Dickens might call, “imperial gallons of facts.” The APUSH redesign emphasizes historical thinking skills and its framework document features key themes and concepts rather than laundry lists of topics.

Critics of the College Board’s redesigned APUSH framework decry it as a Common Core-inspired, leftist attempt at the social engineering of our best and brightest. APUSH students will be lulled into viewing the United States as an oppressor of the underserved through a course of study which eliminates from consideration key figures, facts, and events essential to an understanding of America as a nation with a conscience.

Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between. It is hard to believe the College Board’s intent is leftist indoctrination. However, the current criticism of APUSH is hardly “much ado about nothing.” The redesigned curricular framework could use a redesign.

Let’s Start with the Obvious Bias

The framework begins with an anti-Anglo Saxon colonial bias. On page 36 of the framework, we read under Key Concept 2.1 of the “strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority” which caused the British system to embrace slavery and violently confront “native peoples.” The framework earlier describes this British system as a “rigid racial hierarchy,” since, unlike their Spanish, French, and Dutch contemporaries, “who accepted intermarriage and cross-racial sexual unions with native peoples,” the English rarely “intermarried with either native peoples or Africans” (35).

Thus it continues: the depiction of colonists as bad Englishmen whose ancestors will rebel against other bad Englishmen and become ugly Americans.

To proclaim that no English colonists were racist would be naïve. Were their policies toward the Native Americans always just? No. Yet to suggest that colonial racism was limited to the British is equally naive. The theme of burgeoning British racial superiority continues on page 39 of the framework, where teachers are tasked with emphasizing the “racial stereotyping and the development of strict racial categories among the British colonists” as opposed to the more charitable inclinations of the Spanish and French, with their “acceptance of racial gradations.” And thus it continues: the depiction of colonists as bad Englishmen whose ancestors will rebel against other bad Englishmen and become ugly Americans. I don’t think that is what John Winthrop envisioned, flawed Englishman that he was, in his “City on a Hill” sermon to the Puritans aboard the Arabella—a document and philosophy traditionally taught in U.S. history classes but conspicuously missing from the redesigned framework.

Were there no tolerant English colonists? The Englishman Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island, treated Native Americans fairly, as did the Quakers, who were also English. And in 1775, was not the first anti-slavery society in the world founded by similarly-English Pennsylvania Quakers? Since when did the communal acceptance of interracial sexual unions become the litmus test of whether or not one is racist? Try teaching that concept to high school juniors. Winthrop would blush.

The History Curriculum Needed a Redesign, But Not This Kind

Yet teaching high school juniors is what I do. I have taught APUSH for the past eight years at a private college preparatory school in Dallas. I appreciate the opportunities AP provides our students. Our top kids graduate with 30-plus hours of college credit. Admission to many universities occurs more readily with AP courses on transcripts.

A test with a 60 percent failure rate may have some problems.

Still, I have found trying to teach “imperial gallons of facts” to my APUSH students daunting. For decades, diligent educators have faithfully compiled, shared, and augmented lists of events, facts, figures, laws, court cases, and other subjects that have appeared on APUSH exams. Instructors have experienced an ever-increasing burden to cover massive amounts of material, if only briefly. The perverse need to identify every tree in the forest. The old APUSH course became, in the words of a presenter at a 2014 Dallas-Fort Worth SAT regional workshop for counselors, “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Meanwhile, success on the old APUSH exam remained difficult. The Associated Press reported that in 2013, some 47,500 Texas students took the APUSH exam; of these, about 18,600 earned college credit. These figures corroborate the College Board’s statistics supplied to participants in the 2014 APUSH summer institutes. So in 2013, over 60 percent of those taking the exam in Texas failed it. Since many colleges only give credit for scores of 4 or 5, students who made 3s, while technically passing, may not have received college credit. The passing rate at my school is considerably higher but, bottom line, the old APUSH was one tough test. A test with a 60 percent failure rate may have some problems.

What This Looks Like from the Classroom

I applauded the College Board’s efforts to limit the topical scope and emphasize historical thinking skills in the redesign…at first. Then I saw the curricular framework which was supposed to make my life easier and reinvigorate my course. Where before the College Board had provided APUSH teachers with a five-page topic outline listing subject areas to cover, now we must navigate a 98-page framework. (Now it’s grown to 142 pages.) Decoding said framework has not made my life easier and sent me to a summer institute to join dozens of colleagues—veterans and newbies alike—for four days to learn how to teach the redesigned course.

The old APUSH exam was 40 percent social history, much of it focused on minority issues: the rights of women, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, LGBT Americans.

The old topic outline offered a clear list of subjects and, contrary to what critics have suggested, emphasized voices of the underserved in addition to stories of the majority. In fact, the old APUSH exam was 40 percent social history, much of it focused on minority issues: the rights of women, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, LGBT Americans. The old APUSH was by no means a xenophobic, homophobic pep rally for the white man and his “burden”; if anything, it was an attempt to tell the stories of all Americans. Perhaps that was its shortcoming: it tried to do too much.

Critics of the redesigned APUSH course say that the framework omits significant figures in American history from Ben Franklin to Martin Luther King Jr. The College Board denies this, touting the framework’s flexibility that allows teachers to select the examples from U.S. history to emphasize. Both sides have a point.

The framework does not exclude major historical figures as much as it fails to explicitly include them.

The framework does not exclude major historical figures as much as it fails to explicitly include them. Thus, in the framework’s section on the American Revolution, under the subheading, “Teachers have the flexibility to use examples such as the following,” we find listed in gray boxes: “Stamp Act, Committees of Correspondence, Intolerable Acts, Sons of Liberty, Mercy Otis Warren, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.” George Washington’s Farewell Address is mentioned on the next page…but not Washington himself. Neither are Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord, Yorktown, Benedict Arnold, or Patrick Henry.Does this mean teachers are not to cover these subjects? No. The consensus at my AP summer institute was that we are to teach our traditional history course. We spent a day brainstorming how to flesh out the framework with—wait for it—history. All we must do in addition is to integrate the concepts and themes, choosing examples to emphasize, all the while encouraging critical thinking amongst our “apprentice historians,” a.k.a. students (9).

The Lack of Necessary Content

Supporters of the redesign extol its emphasis on critical thinking, as if the old APUSH were devoid of such. It was not. In fact, the former document-based essay resembled an actual college-level critical historical paper. Students had to generate and support a thesis by integrating evidence from documents while including substantial outside historical information. About what are students to critically think if they do not have a grasp of the facts? The devil is in the details. While content-driven, the old APUSH emphasized analysis and viewing events from varying perspectives. It offered meat, not milk.

Students will not learn all there is of significance regarding the founding of our nation without a sufficient grounding in the people, places, events, documents, and rhetoric of the Revolution.

Because most Texas students have not studied U.S. history since the eighth grade, unless we teach sufficient content, we are counting on their excellent memories or vast knowledge of the History Channel to fill in the gaps. But the minds of our increasingly busy and technologically occupied students do not work that way. They will not learn all there is of significance regarding the founding of our nation by an in-depth study of the Sons of Liberty or by comparing Bernard Bailyn’s “Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” to Howard Zinn’s Marxist take without a sufficient grounding in the people, places, events, documents, and rhetoric of the Revolution. If I were a new AP teacher, I would have taken great comfort in the original APUSH topical outline. The redesigned framework would have terrified me with its lack of explicit content.

I received a report regarding a recent graduate, now a freshman at Texas A&M University. Gifted intellectually yet dyslexic, he scored a 3 on the 2013 APUSH exam No matter—he is enjoying a college U.S. history survey course taught by a former West Point instructor. On the first test, he made the highest grade in all the instructor’s classes. The subject? American colonialism. He told his mom to tell me thanks. He is taking a survey of American history, and from the looks of the syllabus, it resembles that of a traditional APUSH course. Isn’t a survey what APUSH is supposed to be?

By the way, said test was a 120-question, multiple-choice examination on the facts of the colonial experience. My daughter’s freshman history course at another university featured similar assessments.

This Teacher Recommends

What is one to do? Here are my recommendations to the College Board.

  1. Amend the redesigned APUSH curricular framework. In fact, why not go back to the topic outline? It really was not broken, but we had made too much of it.
  2. Keep the redesigned multiple-choice questions if you must, although students who do not earn a passing score on the APUSH exam will likely not encounter these types of questions in college. Such questions, based upon interpretive consideration of small reading passages, are far more difficult to write than traditional ones…and the answers are easier for gifted students to overthink.
  3. Why not order the multiple-choice test questions chronologically on the APUSH exam? We teach history chronologically. People tend to think chronologically. Cause and effect happens chronologically. Even the brightest will pause when asked to jump from 1865 to 1790 and then to 1945. Whatever statistical model caused APUSH to abandon chronology on the exam is deeply flawed.
  4. Return to the old document-based essay question, which demanded a synthesis of sources in support of a claim (good writing) rather than a simpler analysis of sources. And if you do, why not give the kids a heads’ up on the subject area to study each year in preparation? The announcement could be easily made: “This year’s question will concern the time period of 1875-1900.” Do we surprise kids on tests? Why not de-mystify the document-based question?
  5. Rethink the exam’s new 45-minute short answer section, which replaces the old test’s thoughtful 35-minute second essay with four multi-part questions requiring the brief explanation of facts. It tests the kids’ rate of recall rather than critical thinking. At approximately 11 minutes per answer, it is tough to complete.
  6. Since none of this is likely to happen, explain the statement on page 10 of the framework: “Beginning with the May 2015 AP U.S. History Exams, no AP U.S. History Exam questions will require students to know historical content that falls outside this content outline.” Since relatively little content is actually listed in the framework except items in the “gray boxes” that teachers have the “flexibility” to reference, what content are we discussing? Further confusing the issue, on page 30 of the framework, teachers are reassured, also in bold typeface, that “AP Exam questions will not require students to be familiar with the information contained within the gray boxes.” What? The College Board is even removing the optional comfort of the gray boxes? Well, at least those instructors who have already started compiling lists of content in the framework’s gray boxes can set down those pens, take a deep breath, and soldier on.

On Friday, September 19, 2014, the Texas State Board of Education voted 8-4 (with one abstention) to recommend that the College Board redesign the redesigned APUSH framework. Earlier that week, the board had voted to require that all Texas public school history students, including those in APUSH, be taught the history standards in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (state curriculum requirements). How this titanic stand-off of College Board v. Lone Star State will issue remains to be seen. In the meantime, we teachers try to do what is best for our students, preparing them to tackle the new APUSH exam while giving them what they need to become the thoughtful American voters that they will become, APUSH or no, in just a few years.

Photo By: Mike Licht
Photo By: fivehanks
M. Jane Rodgers is writer and teacher who lives in Rowlett, Texas.

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