As students head back to high school this fall, they and their parents will quickly discover that much of traditional American history taught in Advanced Placement (AP) courses for college credit is being rewritten with a distinctive left-leaning bias.
The organization behind these changes is the College Board, the same organization that annually administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) to soon-to-be college freshmen. The College Board is led by David Coleman, the architect behind the controversial and much-criticized Common Core Standards.
It appears Coleman’s group hopes to change AP history in many of the same ways it changed math and English standards under Common Core: overhaul the standards, reduce quantity and place an emphasis on thinking skills. The new history standards will be in classrooms beginning this fall. However, the pushback has already started. About 400,000 students take AP History exams annually. While it’s true the AP exam is optional, the exam’s widespread use and its importance to college admissions will essentially force all high schools – public and private – to change the way history is taught.
The best way to understand the changes the College Board has made to teaching of US History is to read the document AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description. This document provides the overview and framework for the changes. The changes are numerous. They replace a five-page topical outline with a 98-page document that directs how teachers should cover historical topics.
The framework which guides the changes is global in approach. It also reflects a consistently negative view of America’s history. Units on Colonial America emphasize the development of a “rigid racial hierarchy” and a “strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority.” This strong emphasis on the pre-colonial period and Native Americans, West Africans and Spaniards is unfortunately coupled with the downplaying of the growth of freedom in the New World.
With regards to Colonial America, the new AP History bypasses such figures as Roger Williams and Ben Franklin. There is little or no content on themes of religious toleration, or on the growth of democratic institutions such as the New England town meeting or the Virginia House of Burgesses, which contributed mightily to the emergence of American democracy.
Little time is given to teaching the ideas and principles behind constitutional government. When key historical figures such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are mentioned, the references aren’t likely to be about their positive contributions to the nation’s founding. Instead, references are usually negative and often confined to ideological claims about class, gender, race and ethnicity. It seems students are supposed to study the Constitution not for the superiority of the ideas but as an example of how the colonists thought their own culture more superior to others.
The framework intended to guide AP History raises other problems. The framework’s emphasis on “key concepts” is meant to “relieve the pressure for teachers to cover all possible events and details of U.S. History at a superficial level.” Thus “key concepts” in essence become “the required knowledge for each period.” In determining a priority of historical topics, the College Board has set itself up as judge and jury of history and taken away the power of individual communities and states to determine what is taught in their schools and transferred it to groups of unelected individuals accountable to no one.
As might be expected, journalists and reviewers have not been kind to the new AP History Standards. The objections are too numerous to detail here. However, if you’re interested in reading some of recent stories and comments go here, here and here.
So what are the reasons for all the changes? Reviewers wanted less emphasis on memorization and more on “historical thinking skills.” Students and teachers have long complained that the current AP exam was a mile wide and an inch deep. Critics complained the exam tested memory more than thinking.
To remedy that, teachers have to make history more engaging. Everyone acknowledges students read less, so there is more emphasis on how subject matter is presented; there is less emphasis on facts and more time spent on relating secondary sources back to primary sources. The goal of the new AP is to have students think like historians. However, the change in approach requires placing more responsibility than ever on teachers. Unfortunately, with the education establishment dominated by liberals, reforms opened the door for left-leaning ideas to dominate. Reviewers developed the new exam to foster “critical thinking skills” – but apparently confused “critical thinking” with “criticism of America.”
That doesn’t sit very well with most conservatives, nor should it. The emphasis on historical thinking skills over facts and dates gives students the mistaken impression that history is merely a recitation of personal interpretations.
Creating students who think like historians sounds high-minded. However, it also assumes students have a basic grasp on facts, dates and concepts. How can you be a “historian” without having a thorough grasp of the basics? The new framework asks students to understand and interpret events but fails to provide them a solid understanding of facts or the context in which events took place. The fact is, AP History covers less and provides a left-leaning view of history. It asks teachers to do more to “interpret” history and engage students – but that also provides the opportunity to indoctrinate students.
Those who favor the new standards say local communities will still be able to choose textbooks and a curriculum to support the standards. Where have we heard that before? Furthermore, the whole point of standards is to drive what is taught (i.e. the curriculum). Those who favor the new AP History say local communities can still decide what is taught and how. My question: Since the AP exam will reflect the content of the standards, what incentive is there for any teacher to include something that won’t be tested? Also remember that new AP-aligned history books and guides (curriculum materials) are already being developed.
Regretfully, the College Board’s new history standards reject the ideals that founded and continue to animate this nation. They rewrite our history, telling it through the lens of race, class gender and ethnicity, highlighting the lows and expunging the distinctive ideas and achievements that have made America an exceptional nation.
These are disturbing developments. However, it’s not too late to act. Parents, educators and lawmakers are beginning to discover the new AP History. Questions are already emerging as to whether the new AP standards conflict with existing history standards in a number of states. Read NC History Essential Standards and judge for yourself. That’s a question that will soon face the State Board of Education. Let’s hope Board members will join members in other states in asking for a one-year delay in implementing the AP History standards. The delay will allow parents, educators and policymakers time to fully review the new history standards and ask for needed changes. As written, AP History has too many problems. We have an obligation to tell the true history of the nation we love. We owe it to those who came before us and all those who will come after us.
Share your views with your State Board of Education.