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Martin Luther King Jr., Benjamin Franklin, George Washington Carver, James Madison and Rosa Parks. If you’ve heard that the new AP U.S. History course description doesn’t mention these legendary Americans, you have not been misled.
But whether the new version of the class skips over key moments in United States history – and even disparages the nation – are still being hotly debated across the country.
Here’s a look at how the controversy began, what’s really different in the new APUSH (a nickname for the class that critics and supporters still agree on), and how the national war over Common Core is influencing the battle.
In October 2012, College Board, a nonprofit that develops and distributes not only the AP exams but also the SAT, revamped APUSH to encourage teachers to go more in depth into fewer topics. The class is College Board’s second most popular, after AP English Language and Composition, with 442,890 students taking the exam in 2013. After the changes, the course description for the first time also called for teachers to impart critical thinking skills to their students, ideas in line with the Common Core, a set of guidelines for math and English that most states have adopted. These changes first went into effect this school year.
The new course description raised little notice until July, when some members of the Texas State Board of Education expressed concern that the class would bring Common Core into Texas schools. State law bans Common Core.
In August, the Republican National Committee brought national attention to the controversy when it passed a resolution asserting that the new curriculum “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.”
The fight reached a boiling point in September.
On September 19, the Texas State Board of Education passed a resolution asking that the AP U.S. History curriculum be rewritten “in a transparent manner to accurately reflect U. S. history without a political bias.”
Around the same time, Julie Williams, a school board member in Jefferson County, Colorado, a district of more than 84,000 students just west of Denver, proposed completely revamping the college-credit-earning course in the local schools because she said the new version had “an emphasis on race, gender, class, ethnicity, grievance and American-bashing while simultaneously omitting the most basic structural and philosophical elements considered essential to the understanding of American History for generations.”
In response to the proposal, hundreds of Jefferson County students skipped school in protest, citing concerns that the plans would lead to censorship.
And in South Carolina, a group calling itself S.C. Parents Involved in Education also raised concerns about what isn’t explicitly mentioned in the new course – the founding fathers, civil rights leaders and wartime heroes – and what is – “wartime experiences, such as the internment of Japanese Americans.”
The critics are correct that the class has seen some significant changes, but not all claims about the new APUSH pan out.
What’s new, and why
Previously, College Board only released a list of suggested topics APUSH teachers should cover, but did not guarantee those would be the only ones covered on the exam. There were concerns that this led to an encyclopedic approach, where teachers tried to teach everything that could possibly appear on the test.
Now, unlike in the previous APUSH course description, there is a curriculum that outlines specific concepts that must be covered. The concepts are broad. For example: “Africans developed both overt and covert means to resist the dehumanizing aspects of slavery.” For this concept, the guide suggests that teachers could use slave rebellions, acts of sabotage or escapes to illustrate this point. So while students would need to understand the concept for an exam question, they could, for example, cite the specific rebellion they were taught.
Critics and supporters alike have linked the changes to the Common Core State Standards, and the AP controversy is in some ways an offshoot of the ongoing political fight over Common Core. Though the shift to Common Core in most American schools doesn’t directly apply to AP U.S. History, the math and English standards were meant to influence the teaching of other subjects, and the College Board has acknowledged that elements of the new course align with the goals of the new standards.
“The redesigned AP U.S. History course emphasizes developing students’ ability to analyze historical texts and to support their written responses using valid reasoning and relevant evidence,” reads a Frequently Asked Questions guide put out by College Board. “This emphasis dovetails with the Common Core State Standards for reading and writing literacy in history.”
Critics have pointed out that David Coleman, who is sometimes called an “architect” of the Common Core, is now the president of the College Board. But Coleman didn’t step into the role until after the AP U.S. History framework was released.
Instead of responding directly to questions, a representative from the College Board pointed to a series of documents and prior statements on the topic. But in response to concerns over anti-American bias, the College Board released a full sample exam for the new AP U.S. History course. The group says the new course is more balanced than previous versions, as it requires “teachers and students to look at multiple sides of an issue.”
And while it’s true the new course framework does not mention Martin Luther King Jr., Benjamin Franklin, George Washington Carver, James Madison or Rosa Parks, neither did the previous course description, in effect from the 2010-2011 school year through the end of the last school year.
“Any United States History course would of course include King as well as other major figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Dwight Eisenhower,” read an open letter penned by the authors of the new AP U.S. History course, a group of current and former high school and college history teachers. “These and many other figures of U.S. history did not appear in the previous AP framework, either, yet teachers have always understood the need to teach them.”