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10 Thoughts on the New AP U.S. History Framework

By Rick Hess — September 08, 2014 8 min read
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The College Board’s revision of the AP U.S. History curriculum framework has ignited a firestorm. The new framework was released in 2012, but it’s only drawn notice in the past few months. It’s been blasted as an ideological rewrite of U.S. history, with critics providing examples and raising questions that have given me cause for concern. As a former high school social studies teacher, this is an area that strikes close to home. I’ve been holding off on opining until I had a clearer grasp of things. Now I feel like I’ve got it, so please excuse the length of today’s post--it’s too long, just because I feel like there’s a lot to say.

On Thursday, the College Board’s Trevor Packer was kind enough to visit with me at length. (Packer is senior vice president for AP and instruction, which means he oversees the College Board’s Advanced Placement program.) Packer explained that the new curriculum framework is the first rewrite for AP U.S. History in recent memory, with the new 80-odd page framework displacing the five-page topical framework that had been in place for decades. Packer says that the effort started in 2006 as a response to concerns that the U.S. History test was a grab bag of historical trivia, driven by the personal agendas of higher ed faculty who submitted the questions, and forced teachers to skim through so many topics that they couldn’t teach deeply or well. The rewrite process was driven by a set of volunteer history professors and teachers. An initial committee generated a list of “must-teach” topics. The College Board sent these to fifty-odd professors for reaction. That cut the list down considerably. A second committee took that handiwork and revised it. The result was an extensive and reasonable process, but one that, I fear, was allowed to reflect the biases and blind spots of participants. Here are 10 thoughts I have on the new framework:

First, I see no evidence of conspiracy or untoward behavior on the part of the College Board. As I understand things, it seems that the College Board ran a responsible process. That said, I think Packer put it very fairly and very well. He noted, “It’s very difficult, given the dominance of liberal perspectives in college and high school history departments, for faculty committees to avoid unintentionally muting, eliding, or obfuscating the perspectives of the right.”

Second, given that reality, it seems to me that the College Board has not done enough to push for intellectual diversity. I believe the College Board is trying--but it needs to do better. Packer argues, convincingly, that the rewrite was intended, in part, to encourage teachers to make sure they are teaching a more balanced and robust history than many were reportedly doing. (For instance, he notes that AP U.S. History syllabus studies since 2007 show an extraordinary omnipresence of Howard Zinn.) Even so, for reasons I’ll discuss momentarily, I’m concerned that the rewrite has in many places resulted in ideological coloration that’s more explicit than in was in the older, vaguer framework.

Third, the College Board is correct that a number of specific complaints are inaccurate. The rewrite did not remove historic personages like Benjamin Franklin or MLK from the framework. They were not in the old framework, nor are they in the new. The old framework was a set of 28 time periods, each with three to six subtopics (e.g. “Compromise of 1877,” “Urbanization and the lure of the city,” etc.), with no names other than those of select presidents. The new standards do not ignore the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. So, some of the criticism is misleading.

Fourth, although several specific charges are untrue, I have real concerns about the framework. I see remarkably little attention to America’s motivating ideals or to the resulting governing institutions. In the new framework, the only mention that the American Revolution might have had any historical significance is a clause mentioning that it had “reverberations in France, Haiti, and Latin America.” There is little or no discussion of the intermediary institutions that are so critical to American culture, society, and government. While the standards talk often about ethnic and gender identity, I don’t see any room for a discussion of whether there emerged any kind of distinct American “identity.” There’s little about economics that’s not about government efforts to combat injustice. Students are introduced to decade after decade of American depravity, but there’s nothing to offer context for 20th century U.S. international engagements. The old framework’s attention to World War II-era “fascism and militarism in Japan, Italy, and Germany” is gone. Discussion of U.S. involvement in World War II and the Cold War mentions our “dominant” role and “position of global leadership,” with nary a mention that we might’ve been on the side of the angels. On the other hand, the framework explicitly suggests that some of our actions in World War II, such as internment of Japanese Americans, debates over segregation, and dropping the atomic bomb, “raised questions about American values.”

Fifth, the coloration is especially evident when things get partisan, as in the treatment of prominent Democratic and Republican presidents. FDR and LBJ are discussed in glowing terms, variously battling to “provide relief to the poor,” “stimulate recovery,” “end racial discrimination,” and “eliminate poverty.” Indeed, the framework explains that “liberal ideals were realized” with the expansion of “democracy and individual freedoms,” only to trigger backlash from conservatives who “mobilized to defend traditional visions of morality” (whatever that means) and “the proper role of state authority.” Indeed, where FDR and LBJ are warriors for justice, Reagan is described as a man of “bellicose rhetoric” who later “developed a friendly relationship” with Gorbachev. There is no sign of cause and effect, much less any discussion of Reagan’s efforts on taxes, regulation, or much else.

Sixth, the new framework takes the old list of periods and subjects and suffuses them with painful academic malarkey. The new framework starts with nine pages of “Historical Thinking Skills,” like “patterns of continuity and change over time” and “periodization.” That’s followed by eight pages of “Thematic Learning Objectives,” which break American history into seven “themes:" “identity,” “work, exchange, and technology,” “peopling” (?!), “politics and power,” “America in the world,” “environment and geography- physical and human,” and “ideas, beliefs, and culture.” The problem is that this exercise makes it easy to defend dubious choices as reflecting these priorities--even if these priorities are a bizarre frame for making sense of American history. Thus, it becomes easy to say nothing more about Manifest Destiny than that it was justified by beliefs in “white racial superiority” and “American cultural superiority.” Indeed, mentions of racism, oppression, inequity, and exploitation are so frequent, and mentions of American virtue are so scarce, that I can’t help but feel like the framework portrays a one-sided and negative view of American history.

Seventh, the framework seems driven by social history, even though the AP U.S. History course is supposedly driven by diplomatic and political history. I’d be more okay with that if the social history struck me as balanced and thoughtful. Instead, much of it reads like an anachronism--like American history as distilled by professors with a taste for 21st century identity politics. For instance, the framework repeatedly refers to “whites” (as opposed to Native Americans or Africans) for much of the 18th and 19th century, which is a bizarre way to treat the immense divisions between Anglos, Irish, and the rest. Discussion of Catholicism and anti-Catholic sentiment is essentially absent. Special attention is paid to Mexican immigrants in the 1930s and 1940s (a relatively tiny population), yet the crucial Irish-Italian tensions of the early 20th century are entirely absent. One typical example notes that late 19th century “business leaders consolidated corporations into trusts” (presumably on an evil whim, since there were apparently no other forces at work) and then defended their “resulting status and privilege through theories such as Social Darwinism"--rather than, say, in less loaded terms like thrift, hard work, self-discipline, or merit.

Eighth, I believe the College Board is a responsible actor and therefore think it’s possible to address these concerns. One of the virtues of the new model, Packer relates, is that it can be revisited and revised on an annual basis. Critics would do well to reach out and communicate their concerns, giving the College Board a chance to act. We can then see the response and what changes actually get made. On this, as with much else, I’m inclined to abide by Reagan’s old “bellicose” maxim, “Trust, but verify.”

Ninth, I have sympathy for the College Board’s situation. Packer says the College Board is concerned about ideological bias, and that the “old” framework inadequately guarded against intellectual imbalance. He says, “There has been a significant shift in the focus of the American history survey and its teaching in college and high school over the past 20 years...What we have increasingly seen in the past two decades is college history surveys dominated by just a single theme of identity politics or cultural history.” He adds, “An examination of the ‘old’ AP exam questions show a consistently negative depiction of the Cold War, economics, religion, etc. and a plentitude of questions that required students to respond with a correct ‘interpretation.’” So, whatever you think of the result, understand that one aim of the new framework was to enhance balance.

Tenth, as a starting point, Packer encourages folks to go check out the new AP U.S. History test (which will be released annually) and see what they think. Packer points out that, with the old framework, exams were released only every five to eight years, providing little transparency or accountability. I think Packer’s suggestion is a fine idea and a good way to promote serious discussion. You’ll find a practice exam aligned to the new framework here. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

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