AP U.S. History controversy becomes a debate on America
Adam B. Lerner
The simmering national debate over Advanced Placement U.S. History, an optional high-school course whose final exam can earn students college credit, boiled over this week when an Oklahoma lawmaker sought to replace recommended course guidelines with his own.
On Tuesday, the Oklahoma State House of Representatives’ Education Committee passed a bill that would defund the current AP U.S. History course framework and replace it with a curriculum deemed more pro-American by the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Dan Fisher (R).
“Under the new framework, the emphasis of instruction is on America as a nation of oppressors and exploiters,” Fisher said. His new proposal called on the State Board of Education to form a new curriculum by the 2015-2016 school year that required a series of specified documents. The state would also cease providing funds geared toward preparing for the new AP U.S. History course’s exam.
Liberal critics pounced.
They harped on the bill’s inclusion of speeches by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and omission of any documents from their Democratic contemporaries (though it did include Malcolm X’s “Ballot or the Bullet” speech and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” speech).
Amid the controversy, Fisher withdrew the bill for revision, telling a local newspaper that it was “poorly worded.”
The national battle over AP U.S. History has been raging since the middle of 2014, when the College Board, which administers AP tests, implemented a new framework designed to encourage critical analysis of America’s founding narrative.
Conservative critics have attacked the new course guidelines as rewriting American history.
One objective in the framework said that students should be equipped to “investigate how American foreign policies and military actions have affected the rest of the world.” Another “key concept” the framework cites said that Ronald Reagan transitioned from “defense spending, military action, and bellicose rhetoric” to a “friendly relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.”
Presidential contender Ben Carson said in a speech last fall that “most people when they finish that course, they’d be ready to go sign up for ISIS,” the Iraq and Syria-based terrorist group. On Thursday, Fox News’ Andrea Tantaros said that the course material contains “meaningless liberal crap” that’s “trickling down to our kids’ level.”
For his bill, Fisher solicited testimony from Larry Krieger, a retired history teacher who, along with activist and attorney Jane Robbins, launched an open letter campaign credited with inspiring the Republican National Committee’s resolution condemning the framework as “radically revisionist” in August 2014.
Oklahoma is an unlikely site for the battle over AP U.S. History: Fewer than 3,500 of the 460,000 students who took the exam last year did so in the state — and only 40 percent of those students were deemed “qualified” for college credit after taking the test, compared with more than 50 percent of all those who took it.
But conservative groups have challenged the course across the country in a variety of localities and states, including North Carolina, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia and Colorado, where students in Jefferson County staged a walkout over what they saw as the local school board’s efforts to censor their curriculum. The Jefferson County School Board announced Friday that it decided not to pursue changes to the course.
The critics’ complaints vary, but a common theme is that the framework encourages students to debate whether America is a uniquely virtuous country — or a flawed nation like any other.
Ted Dickson, a high school teacher who helped write the framework as co-chair of the College Board’s AP U.S. History Curriculum Development and Assessment Committee, said in an interview that the new course outline encourages teachers to introduce the idea of American exceptionalism as something that should be “wrestled with.”
But he defended that approach as crucial to developing students’ critical thinking skills.
“Do you encourage citizenship and patriotism by only talking about what’s great about the U.S.? Or do you encourage citizenship and patriotism by talking about not just the positives aspects of our history but also the parts that are negative and how we as a country strive to overcome those?” Dickson said.
Stanley Kurtz, an education scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a leading critic of the new framework, said that the guidelines are “hostile” to his idea of American exceptionalism. “I don’t object to critical analysis, which is a crucial part of the framework,” he said. “But I tend to believe the critical analysis is applied one-sidedly and unevenly.”
Fisher echoed this point of view on the floor of the Oklahoma House when he said that he wanted to emphasize more positive aspects of American history, “not just to make students critical thinkers so that they can right injustices.”
The debate over AP U.S. History has, at times, spilled over into a larger national debate about the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by nearly all 50 states but have since come under attack from the left and right. Kurtz, a conservative critic, said that both represent efforts to “nationalize” education priorities at the expense of local control — though AP U.S. History is voluntary for students while the Common Core standards are not.
The fact that David Coleman, the president and CEO of the College Board, played a key role in crafting the Common Core standards has also been a sore spot for conservatives. Following a round of complaints about AP U.S. History last year, Coleman released a letter that emphasized that he began his post at the College Board in October 2012 — after the framework was first developed and released.
But unlike with the debate around Common Core, both AP U.S. History’s supporters and its critics say that their goal is to empower localities to customize the teaching of American history. The College Board argues that the framework liberates teachers from pressure to teach rote memorization geared toward passing exams, while its opponents prefer locally crafted guidelines like those under discussion in Oklahoma.
The old course guidelines contained a list of topics that could potentially appear on the exam, but teachers were expected to adjust their courses according to practice exams released by the College Board or other materials given by local school boards.
Dickson argued that the framework’s emphasis on critical analysis will allow teachers to encourage thoughtful debate on ideas like American exceptionalism, rather than proposing it as an unquestionable, sacred principle.
“America is exceptional in some ways,” he said. “Perhaps the most important narrative of our history is our ongoing struggle to live up [to our] inspiring ideals.”