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Published in Print: March 4, 2015, as Rewrite of Framework for AP U.S. History Raises More Hackles

Rewrite of AP Framework for U.S. History Criticized

Marchers in Golden, Colo., top, protest a proposal last fall from the Jefferson County school board to ensure that AP U.S. history courses emphasize patriotism and downplay civil unrest.
Marchers in Golden, Colo., top, protest a proposal last fall from the Jefferson County school board to ensure that AP U.S. history courses emphasize patriotism and downplay civil unrest.
—Brennan Linsley/AP-File

Policymakers push back in four states

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Concerns about an overhaul to the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum framework have been spreading through a growing number of states over the last few months, with critics saying it emphasizes negative aspects of the nation's history and downplays "American exceptionalism."

Policymakers in Colorado, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Texas have pushed back on the new framework, which outlines the concepts and skills students need for a college-level history course. The Republican National Committee also condemned the guidelines last summer, calling them "radically revisionist."

In response, the College Board, the nonprofit New York City-based organization that administers the Advanced Placement program, says that the framework was written by history educators and historians, and that AP teachers widely support it. The group also emphasizes that it's only a framework—not a detailed curriculum—and that teachers should populate the course with more specific content.

AP courses and exams are voluntary for both schools and students and are considered as rigorous as college-level courses. Many universities will award college credit to incoming students who scored at the highest levels on AP exams.

The critics of the framework have tended to be right-leaning legislators and state board of education members who also oppose the Common Core State Standards, the set of expectations for student learning that are now being implemented in 43 states and the District of Columbia. The AP framework and the common core are not expressly connected, but the College Board has said that the history framework "dovetails" with the common standards for English/language arts. College Board President David Coleman, who took over the job in October 2012, was previously a lead writer for the common standards.

However, there's little evidence so far that the criticism of the AP U.S. History framework will result in significant changes. About 500,000 students are expected take the history test aligned to the updated framework this spring, and supporters of AP have come out in full force against policies proposing to derail the course.

'Not a Curriculum'

The College Board released the revised framework for AP U.S. History in 2012. That framework was developed over about five years; it was written by a core group of nine history professors and high school teachers, with input from other educators. AP teachers began using the new framework at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year.

The new framework isn't just a series of tweaks to the old one—in fact, it's a re-envisioned document. The old framework was just five pages long; the new one is close to 80 pages.

Revisiting 'Manifest Destiny'

Some critics of the new framework for teaching AP U.S. History point to its treatment of Manifest Destiny as evidence of a negative slant on the nation’s history. The revised version notes that the idea “was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.”

Previous Framework on Manifest Destiny:

Territorial Expansion and Manifest Destiny

  • Forced removal of American Indians to the trans-Mississippi West
  • Western migration and cultural interactions
  • Territorial acquisitions
  • Early U.S. imperialism: the Mexican War

New Framework on Manifest Destiny:

As the nation expanded and its population grew, regional tensions, especially over slavery, led to a civil war—the course and aftermath of which transformed American society.

Key Concept 5.1: The United States became more connected with the world as it pursued an expansionist foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere and emerged as the destination for many migrants from other countries.

  • Enthusiasm for U.S. territorial expansion, fueled by economic and national security interests and supported by claims of U.S. racial and cultural superiority, resulted in war, the opening of new markets, acquisition of new territory, and increased ideological conflicts.
  • The idea of the Manifest Destiny, which asserted U.S. power in the Western Hemisphere and supported U.S. expansion westward, was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority, and helped to shape the era’s political debates.

While the previous framework was essentially a list of topics broken into 28 time periods, the new framework describes key concepts within nine time periods, and is focused more on analysis than memorization.

As the framework notes, it "is not a curriculum and thus does not consist of a list of the historical content (names, events, dates, etc.) that teachers will choose for classroom focus."

(The College Board declined Education Week's requests for comments for this article. A spokeswoman did, however, send links to public documents regarding the group's stance on the history framework.)

Some critics have pointed to the lack of specific content as a problem with the framework. "There are serious omissions of very important historical characters that have played very important parts in American history," said William Ligon, a Republican state senator in Georgia. "Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] is omitted from the framework."

Emma Jones Lapsansky-Werner, a professor emeritus of history at Haverford College in Haverford, Pa., who served on the committee that wrote the framework, explained that it's understood teachers will include Dr. King in a discussion of the 1950s and 60s.

"The fear is that if we make a list, teachers will feel compelled to teach only what's on the list, and critics on every side will battle against and critique the list," she said. "We want to leave teachers some latitude to decide what parts of specific content they will use to knit together a larger story."

In addition, she noted that the previous five-page framework didn't include specific historical references either—including to Dr. King.

Too Negative?

Some of the earliest criticism of the new framework can be traced to retired AP U.S. History teacher Larry S. Krieger, who published several articles last spring attacking the guidelines. A piece he co-wrote last March for the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank in Chicago, states that the framework "inculcates a consistently negative view of the nation's past." Mr. Krieger points to the framework's treatment of Manifest Destiny as evidence of that negative slant: "Instead of a belief that America has a mission to spread democracy and new technologies across the continent," he writes, "the framework teaches the nation 'was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.' " (Mr. Krieger declined to be interviewed for this article.)

In August 2014, the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution stating that the framework "deliberately distorts and/or edits out important historical events" and recommending that Congress withhold federal funding to the College Board pending a rewrite. The AP and International Baccalaureate programs receive about $28 million in federal funding combined.

Mr. Coleman, the College Board president, responded by releasing a full-length practice exam in AP U.S. History to the public, which the group had never done.

"We hope that the release of this exam will address the principled confusion that the new framework produced," he wrote in a letter. "The concerns are based on a significant misunderstanding."

The professors and teachers who wrote the framework issued an open letter defending their work as well. The redesign was motivated, they wrote, by previous AP teachers' complaints that the old framework "provided too little guidance about what might be on the AP exam, causing them to rush their students in a quick march through a list of historical events. There were too few opportunities to understand the 'why' of U.S. history, and or to make its deeper meanings come alive to students."

Pushback Begins

However, once the revised AP courses rolled out to students at the beginning of this school year, pushback started surfacing in the states.

In Jefferson County, Colo., the school board, with a newly elected conservative majority, in September proposed setting up a committee to review the framework, with the goal of ensuring it promotes patriotism and downplays civil disobedience. Ironically, the move sparked protests: Hundreds of students walked out of classes, viewing the proposal as an attempt at censorship, and enough teachers called in sick that four schools were forced to briefly shut down.

The board announced last month it would not pursue the framework review.

In Texas, state board of education members sought in September to block the new AP exam statewide, but the board's counsel found it lacked jurisdiction to do so. Ken Mercer, a Republican on the Texas board who led the push, argued the new framework violated a state law forbidding the use of the Common Core State Standards.

Common Opponents

Most recently, Republican state legislators in Georgia and Oklahoma have led charges against the revised AP course. Mr. Ligon introduced a resolution at the end of January, using the same language as the resolution by the RNC, calling on the College Board to return to its previous course framework.

In an interview, he criticized the new framework for painting free enterprise in a negative light and for "viewing America through the lens of race, class, and gender identity. It's focusing more on what divides us instead of what united us."

State Rep. Dan Fisher, a Republican from Yukon, Okla., who has said the AP framework focuses on "what is bad about America," introduced a bill last month to the House education committee that would have effectively forbidden schools from teaching the framework. The bill passed committee, but after attracting national attention on the issue, Mr. Fisher decided to pull it. "We're trying to fix the bill," he told The Oklahoman. "It was very poorly worded and was incredibly ambiguous, and we didn't realize that, so it's been misinterpreted. ... We're very supportive of the AP program." Mr. Fisher could not be reached for comment.

Both Mr. Ligon and Mr. Fisher have opposed the common core as well. (Oklahoma is one of three states that initially adopted but later repealed the common standards.) Mr. Ligon explained that he has pursued the two issues separately. "But I think in a way this illustrates some of the concern people have had over the common core," he said, "in the sense that you have this one entity controlling the framework for AP history. Well, is the common core one organization that's kind of writing the framework for what's being taught in math and English?"

Work in Progress

In response to the claim the framework is overly negative, Ms. Lapsansky-Werner said: "The new framework is designed to help all of the people who live in the country to be excited about the things we as a nation have done well, and to ... dream about the things we could do better. To do that, we have to really examine with some care the places where we've made mistakes."

Related Blog

The College Board has been accepting feedback on the framework since Oct. 1, and will close the comment period Feb. 28.

In a written release, Trevor Packer, the senior vice president for AP and instruction for the College Board, said, the professors and teachers who wrote the AP course materials will then use that public feedback to make "any appropriate edits" to the framework this summer.

Vol. 34, Issue 23, Pages 6-7

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