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An overview of the AP U.S. History controversy

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The national debate about the revised Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History course has arrived in North Carolina.  Are there legitimate concerns about the course?  You bet.  Is there any easy solution?  Not really.

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North Carolina legislators, education officials, and concerned citizens are debating two aspects of the Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History course, which has been revised recently by the College Board.

  1. Does the revised Advanced Placement U.S. History course meet the statutory requirements of the Founding Principles Act (Session Law 2011-273)?
  2. Does the course content provide a satisfactory interpretation of American history?

Currently, a N.C. State Board of Education policy allows students to supplant two required high school courses, American History I: The Founding Principles and American History II, with AP U.S. History and one social studies elective.  The Founding Principles Act, however, requires students to take American History I: The Founding Principles to learn about specific events, concepts, and documents delineated in the 2011 law. 

Some argue that high school students who enroll in AP U.S. History will not receive content mandated by the Founding Principles Act.  On Monday, the State Board of Education discussed both sides of the issue with retired teacher and author Larry Krieger and John Williamson of the College Board.  Krieger argued that the AP U.S. History course covers some, but not all, of the Founding Principles Act curriculum and is not aligned with North Carolina’s American History I course.  Thus, he recommends that the state require students to take American History I before they enroll in AP U.S. History.   Williamson and state education officials disagree.

On Tuesday, Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson spoke before the state legislature’s Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee.  Superintendent Atkinson contends that the course that precedes American History I, Civics and Economics, meets all of the requirements of the law.  As such, she suggested that the Civics and Economics course be renamed American History: The Founding Principles, Civics, and Economics. Second, she argues that there should be an "ongoing review of the curriculum content used in courses addressing The Founding Principles," as well as professional development for AP U.S. History teachers.  It is not clear how state legislators feel about these recommendations, but at least they are listening.

Compliance with state law is an interesting issue for legislators, bureaucrats, and policy wonks, but those who object to the revised AP U.S. History course do so because of its ideological bias.  The debate over the ideology underlying the revision of the AP U.S. History course has been contentious in North Carolina and elsewhere. 

Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute provides an overview of those concerns in a thoughtful blog post titled "10 Thoughts on the New AP U.S. History Framework."  Hess reviewed the new course framework and discussed its development and content with a representative of the College Board.  He dismisses unfounded conspiracies and rumors about the revision process, but that is not to say that he was pleased with the current product.

Hess observed that the new AP U.S. History curriculum pays "remarkably little attention to America’s motivating ideals or to the resulting governing institutions."  In addition, he finds that "the [ideological] coloration is especially evident when things get partisan, as in the treatment of prominent Democratic and Republican presidents." In other words, the course miscasts conservative leaders and shortchanges conservative ideas.  Opponents of the redesigned course share Hess’ concern.  Whether it is by design or coincidence, the course veers left, sometimes radically so.

That is not to say that the authors of the revised course offer an invalid interpretation of American history.  Professional historians and educators widely acknowledge the legitimacy of the authors’ identity politics-based and internationalized interpretive frameworks. 

The problem is that high school students often do not appreciate the nuances of historical interpretation.  Except in those rare instances when the instructor highlights those differences explicitly, students are likely to mistake historical interpretation for historical consensus.  As a result, those who ask different questions about the past are considered outside of the "mainstream" and, in the eyes of students, should not be taken seriously.  At this point, the process of inculcating our nation’s highest-performing students with a liberal worldview is well underway.

In the end, legitimate concerns with the ideological slant of the revised AP U.S. History course are a problem only because there is no apparent alternative to the College Board’s Advanced Placement monopoly.  Simply put, no other company or organization offers AP-type courses.  Even if they did, it would be difficult to convince colleges and universities to accept successful completion of them for credit.

If the College Board had to compete for students, they would feel compelled to create AP curricula and exams that were balanced in a way that appealed to key segments of their audience.  In a competitive environment, high school students who objected to the content or ideology of an AP course would be able to enroll in a course (of equal rigor and for college credit) with an alternative provider.  Until that competition exists, the College Board, like any other monopoly, will do whatever they choose.

Facts and Stats

According to AP Program Participation and Performance Data, the College Board administered 13,778 AP U.S. History tests in 2014.

Acronym of the Week

APUSH — Advanced Placement United States History

Quote of the Week

"As I read through the document, I saw a consistently negative view of American history that highlights oppressors and exploiters."

– Larry Krieger quoted in "What’s Driving Conservatives Mad About the New AP History Course" by Pema Levy, Newsweek, August 14, 2014

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Dr. Stoops is the director of the Center for Effective Education. Before joining the Locke Foundation in 2005, he worked as the program assistant for the Child Welfare Education Programs at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. He… ...

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