Assessing the AP Course in American History: A Few Thoughts
This year I am serving on a committee that is assessing our school’s AP program. Our responsibilities include surveying teachers in various subjects as to their experiences as well as completing a report based on our findings. I decided to write-up my thoughts regarding the AP American History course.
This is my fourth year teaching the AP course in American history and during that time I have thought quite a bit about the pros and cons of the curriculum. This critique should not be interpreted as a more general analysis of the AP program since my experience is specific to the course in American history. The curriculum emphasizes breadth of knowledge that covers the entire expanse of American history along with relevant knowledge in world history and analytical writing skills. At the center of the curriculum is the Document-Based Essay (DBQ) which tests students’ ability to properly interpret a set of primary sources as part of an analytical essay. Students who score a 4 or 5 on the exam [graded on a 1 to 5 scale] have demonstrated mastery of the content [80 multiple-choice questions] along with strong writing and interpretive skills. The AP History curriculum has much to offer both teachers and students. For teachers with little or no training as historians the AP curriculum offers a taste of the skills that define the historical process. Students looking for a course that goes beyond the traditional survey course can expect to be challenged in the areas of content mastery and analytical writing and thinking. The AP History curriculum arguably serves best those schools looking to offer an advanced course in history that do not have the resources necessary to offer viable alternatives.
While I acknowledge that the AP History curriculum has much to recommend it it has prevented me from teaching the kind of course that I believe to be appropriate for advanced learners. The fundamental problem is that the AP course leaves little room for divergence. Teachers are forced to cover a wide breadth of material superficially, leaving little time for in-depth analysis; semesters feel like a race against time rather than a serious exploration of historic events. This is exacerbated by a reliance on textbooks which force teachers to schedule the year around individual chapters. Chapters typically receive the same amount of attention even if the instructor acknowledges a hierarchy of historic events. In other words, the Civil War and Reconstruction may receive the same amount of time as chapters that are not deemed to be as significant. The adherence to a strict schedule is also frustrating for students as conversations and debates are often cut short. Students also get bogged down memorizing facts that by any standard are not important. I often find myself spending entire classes making sure that students understand the factual information. I am the first person to admit that any serious history course must be driven by mastery of information, but that content should be tailored to the other skills to be included in an advanced course.
I am confident that I have the skills and resources to develop a more creative and flexible curriculum that still demands rigor. In fact it may even be more demanding and rewarding for students. My advanced or honors course would look very different from my current AP course. Perhaps the most significant change would be the a move away from the textbook as the core text for a short list of secondary sources. A range of studies, including books and articles would be utilized to provide students with a more accurate understanding of how history is written and often rewritten. Such an approach would immediately move the focus of the course away from history as memorization to interpretation. Different approaches to the study of history could be introduced such as gender, social, racial and political history. Topics could also be organized thematically rather than along strict chronological lines that define the textbook format. In addition, textbooks almost always sacrifice interpretation for a narrative that is neutral and exhaustive in terms of content. Class discussions would focus as much on factual content as on the decisions made by individual historians that enter into any analytical study.
Primary sources and DBQ-type essays can easily be introduced. More importantly, the narrowing of topics will leave more time for research-oriented projects that allow students to engage in serious research that utilizes online databases such as the Valley of the Shadow project out of the University of Virginia. It is only from doing research that students learn to think as historians. Students in Charlottesville have access to one of the largest archives at the University of Virginia as well as local historical societies. Any number of projects could be assigned that would provide hands-on experience handling primary documents. I do not mean to suggest that various supplements to the textbook or additional assignments are not possible in an AP course, but that the schedule makes it very difficult. Again, there is always a calendar hovering overhead that serves to remind the instructor and students that it is time to move on.
Over the past two years I’ve felt held back by the AP curriculum. I don’t feel as if my talents are being fully utilized in the classroom. To do so would involve having the freedom to create a curriculum for advanced learners from the ground-up.