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APUSH in the wrong direction? Looking at revised U.S. history curriculum for AP students

The College Board — which oversees the SAT test and Advanced Placement courses — made sweeping changes to the AP U.S. history outline. Critics say the new 134-page APUSH Framework format has resulted in a negative, limited spin on U.S. history
The College Board — which oversees the SAT test and Advanced Placement courses — made sweeping changes to the AP U.S. history outline. Critics say the new 134-page APUSH Framework format has resulted in a negative, limited spin on U.S. history
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Last year, the College Board — the nonprofit organization that writes, administers and grades the Scholastic Aptitude Test as well as the 30-plus Advanced Placement courses for high school students taking college-level classes for college credit — replaced its five-page topical U.S. history course outline with a 134-page APUSH Framework. Rather than center on the detailed and expansive overhaul, the resulting buzz instead focused on the Framework’s overall tone that some label as a cynical, limited and negative view of United States history.

Here are just three examples:

• Jane Robbins, the education senior fellow of the American Principles Project, joined with former AP U.S. history teacher Larry Krieger in The Heartland Institute to say the Framework conveys “a consistently negative view of the nation’s past,” citing the colonial America units “stressing the development of a ‘rigid racial hierarchy’ and a ‘strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority.’” They also point to the “dismissal” of the Declaration of Independence, adding “the Framework’s entire discussion of this seminal document consists of just one phrase in one sentence: ‘The colonists’ belief in the superiority of republican self-government based on the natural rights of the people found its clearest American expression in Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and in the Declaration of Independence.’”

• Stanley Kurtz, an Ethics and Public Policy Center senior fellow, wrote in the National Review: “The new APUSH Framework shorts political and economic history in the post WWII era as well as at the Founding, and is top-heavy instead with bows to various left-leaning movements of the 1960s and 1970s ….” Kurtz postulates “this had more to do with political cheerleading than a balanced presentation of history.”

• Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, wrote for Real Clear Politics that “the framework emphasizes the European conquest of native peoples, economic exploitation and environmental abuse. It subordinates the formation of American national self-awareness and sovereignty to global forces and multicultural perspectives. It stresses the distinct group identities that have developed within the United States but gives little space to American citizenship. It showcases the rise of early 20th century progressivism, the mid-20th century New Deal, and 1960s liberalism as bold responses to real world challenges but presents post-World War II conservatism as grounded in fear and belligerency. And it dwells on America’s sins, real and imagined, while soft-pedaling America’s remarkable achievements in lifting people from poverty, assimilating immigrants from all over the world and security liberty at home and abroad.”

A group of 55 academic historians penned an open letter earlier this moth to criticize the College Board’s sweeping change, saying it “deemphasizes content and promotes a particularly interpretation of American history. This interpretation downplays American citizenship and American world leadership in favor of a more global and transnational perspective.”

The group is welcoming other academic historians and scholars to join their open letter, which includes this charge: “We believe that the study of history should expose our young students to vigorous debates about the nature of American exceptionalism, American identity, and America’s role in the world. Such debates are the warp and woof of historical understanding. We do not seek to reduce the education of our young to the inculcation of fairy tales, or of a simple, whitewashed, heroic, even hagiographical nationalist narrative. Instead, we support a course that fosters informed and reflective civic awareness, while providing a vivid sense of the grandeur and drama of its subject.”

The College Board has promised to revisit and review the APUSH Framework this summer after its initial implementation over the 2014-15 school year, when an estimated half-million high school students took what for most would be their final U.S. history class ever, since the AP class will fulfill most colleges' U.S. history requirements.

Some critics say the College Board should return to its earlier and briefer conceptual outline, thus allowing those overseeing the education — states, school districts and parents — to come to their own decision as to what to teach and emphasize.

Others point to the monopolizing control that the College Board has over the SATs and the AP classes. States and school districts can’t simply drop the AP course out of dissatisfaction or protest — that ends up penalizing the student. One suggestion is to have competing AP curriculums for a selection of options, with some pointing to the fact that the oft-maligned Common Core has its two testing consortia from which to select.

Our future generation shouldn’t get a short shrift when it comes to learning the lessons of history, which should be a balanced curriculum blended with founding principles, achievements, struggles and self-reflection. Teaching the development of democratic entities, the role of religious tolerance and the like shouldn’t come at the expense of underscoring negative events or marginalized interpretations.