Conservatives such as Stanley Kurtz can’t seem to say enough about the recent revisions made to College Board’s AP US History Curriculum. These changes will go into effect for this school year. Kurtz and others believe that the new curriculum reflects a dangerous turn to the left, though in the entire article the author fails to address what the new standards actually say. In other words, Kurtz fails at one of the basic skills taught in an AP History class: claim and evidence. Instead we are treated to claims laced with conspiracy.
The origins of the new AP U.S. History framework are closely tied to a movement of left-leaning historians that aims to “internationalize” the teaching of American history. The goal is to “end American history as we have known it” by substituting a more “transnational” narrative for the traditional account.
It goes without saying that I didn’t find these quotes in any College Board documents. Sharing one’s belief that it was a set up from the beginning may tell us more about the author’s mindset, but it tells us nothing about what is in the curriculum. It does little more than feed people who have never taught the class and already harbor fears about public education generally.
I’ve read through the curriculum. It’s not perfect. No curriculum is and this definitely is a departure from the previous model. At the core of it is the goal of pushing students to make broader analytical and interpretive connections between different periods in American history whereas before there was much more emphasis on a straightforward narrative/linear approach that could be seen in both the multiple choice and most essay questions.
The curriculum is organized around what they call “key concepts” which function as the organizing idea(s) for a specific time period. You can review the key concepts for the Civil War era on pp. 56-59. The emphasis is primarily on critical thinking and the big picture. Each individual instructor will have to design a curriculum that fills in much of the content. The move is, in part, a result of wanting to push students further in the direction of interpretation, but it also reflects what all of us who have taught the course are painfully aware of and that is that we simply don’t have enough time in a given year to teach an inclusive course.
What I found striking in my read through the document was the sample test. Take a few minutes and try it yourself. It’s not easy.
Ultimately, the concerns expressed by Kurtz and others has not as much to do with politics as it does with the question of how to teach history. I suspect that what the test’s detractors find troubling is that College Board has moved away from anything that resembles their preferred narrative of American history. It leans too heavily toward analytical thinking that allows students to arrive at their own conclusions rather than the simple communication of an unchanging and self-congratulatory narrative. Let’s just call it for what it is.
I suspect that most AP teachers are in the same position as my colleague who is still trying to get his head around these changes. For most teachers this is going to be a year of taking chances and experimentation in order to bring teaching practices in line with this new curriculum. The indoctrination that Kurtz and others are so worried about will probably take a backseat for the first few years.