The Leftist Take-Over of College Board

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.

Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

11 comments… add one
  • Ben Allen Aug 28, 2014 @ 8:09

    “The indoctrination that Kurtz and others are so worried about will probably take a backseat for the first few years.” I take it you are joking, right? 🙂

    Anyway, for all its imperfections, I heartily applaud this measure. If AP U.S. could change my outlook from that of essentially a Rainbow Confederate to, eventually, a more moderate kind, then this curriculum will ensure that all but the most recalcitrant pupil might change their perceptions to some degree or another.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2014 @ 8:19

      Yes, joking.

      …this curriculum will ensure that all but the most recalcitrant pupil might change their perceptions to some degree or another.

      Given that this is the first time most students are exposed to a serious look at U.S. History it’s probably more a matter of teaching them how to develop ideas about history than it is about changing prior assumptions.

      • Ben Allen Aug 28, 2014 @ 8:32

        “Given that this is the first time most students are exposed to a serious look at U.S. History it’s probably more a matter of teaching them how to develop ideas about history than it is about changing prior assumptions.” Oops. I forgot that most people are more like my Mom, who pretty much has an average knowledge of history and historiography. Then again, in rural Virginia, there are few students who don’t have prior assumptions about the American Civil War. There, mental blank slates probably are mostly those who recently moved from somewhere outside the south; recent immigrants; Latinos (I’m a big exception); and exchange students. Developing ideas might be more of a characterization of AP U.S. History taught in the North and West.

  • Jimmy Dick Aug 28, 2014 @ 7:12

    I primarily deal with higher education issues. Currently I am working on the issue regarding the general lack of a pedagogy in the discipline of history. One of the major problems higher education has faced over the years has been that of the content specialist versus the teacher. Many teachers know the content, but do not know how to teach it. They often have little to no pedagogical training. At the K-12 level many states require their teachers to have 20 or more credits of EDU or EDUC courses, and many of those also require specific education courses tailored to the grade level they will be teaching in.

    Higher education often requires no pedagogical training of any sort. More often than not, instructors are hired with their MAs and expected to teach. This is unrealistic, but in the world of community colleges and adjuncts it is far more common than many think. There is a reason why retired high school teachers often get the first shot at some jobs in local community colleges. They can teach and have experience whereas those that have not taught often are learning the hard way.

    Some educators think that is how higher education teachers are supposed to learn. They do not consider pedagogical training necessary for teaching in higher education. Fortunately, these are a vanishing breed, but I do run across them more than I would like. The weird part is this often is tied to political ideology. It sounds crazy, but it is true. That is why I think there is something deeper going on here with this issue. Some people reject change of any sort and that is their reason for being conservative. Reason is just not possible with these people because they adamantly refuse to even listen to the evidence that proves them wrong.

    It is not that these people believe in the GOP or Tea Party per se, but the fact that these groups are aligned and use rhetoric about preventing change. As for NAS, that group is purely resisting this AP change for political ideology. I think Kevin hits the nail right on the head. This is about changing the way people think. However, something that is not being mentioned in this conversation does need to be brought up.

    The business sector is screaming at the colleges for graduates who can think. It is the number one issue for them. This is not a list of issues type thing, but a major demand that outstrips everything else on their list. This inquiry based pedagogical model is made to address that concern. Critical Thinking is something we have to promote in all disciplines, not just STEM. If the business sector is demanding graduates that think and certain right wing groups are rejecting that idea, then I think we can all figure out what is going to happen. The right wing is going to squawk very loudly and lose.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2014 @ 7:18

      I got into teaching history as a content specialist. I’ve never taken a class on pedagogy and up until recently I never really had to think out of the box in terms of my pedagogy. I now teach at a school that strongly emphasizes pedagogy and reflection and it has not been easy for me, but I am a better teacher for it. It’s funny because I know many people believe that I spend my time thinking about how I am going to influence and corrupt young minds, but to be honest, most of my time is now spent thinking about how to introduce a primary source to students.

  • James Harrigan Aug 28, 2014 @ 6:46

    People like Kurtz have no interest in the teaching of the actual history of the United States, in all its contradictory and messy reality. What they want is indoctrination into patriotic mythology and free-market ideology. In that sense, Kurtz and his ilk are quite correct to see the new AP standards as a threat.

  • Barbara Gannon Aug 28, 2014 @ 5:27

    Here is a quote from the manual. “The College Board strongly encourages educators to make equitable access a guiding principle for their AP® programs by giving all willing and academicallyprepared students the opportunity to participate in AP. We encourage the
    elimination of barriers that restrict access to AP for students from ethnic,
    racial, and socioeconomic groups that have been traditionally underserved.
    Schools should make every effort to ensure their AP classes reflect the
    diversity of their student population. The College Board also believes that all
    students should have access to academically challenging course work before
    they enroll in AP classes, which can prepare them for AP success. It is only
    through a commitment to equitable preparation and access that true equity
    and excellence can be achieved.”

    They need to think about making changes that only better schools can make. This is all well and good for some schools, but do you improve access if you leave behind students who go to schools who do not teach in this way, or WILL not teach in this way. Most REALLY good schools look at AP scores, so are they just contributing to the education have and have not issues that plays an important role in economic inequality.

    • Andy Hall Aug 28, 2014 @ 5:43

      Excellent points. Good secondary schools with well-prepared (and not exhausted) teachers do this anyway, and probably won’t have too much trouble with this, either in terms of the approach to history or its implementation. It’s going to be much harder for schools and classrooms where just getting by is a challenge.

      • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2014 @ 5:46

        Barbara makes an excellent point. The schools that are going to benefit most from this shift are those that have thought carefully about analytical and interpretive skills building throughout their history curriculum.

    • Jimmy Dick Aug 28, 2014 @ 6:45

      I think part of this is the push to implement an inquiry based pedagogical model. Many teacher preparation programs are teaching this model. However, history tends to be the one subject that gets shoved to the side in smaller schools that need to have space for coaches. That is only one part of the problem though. Some older educators are just not going to change and will resist any attempts to make them change. Others just do not care.

      With that said, many do prefer this inquiry based model and use it. However, they run into problems with it which if they have not been taught how to deal with the problems pose barriers to successfully implementing the model. I can see based on the studies I’ve picked up about this model (I am currently working on a paper regarding this subject for a course) that it is working.

      I have looked this over and I don’t see the problem with what is being taught. It is all about how it is taught. Are we supposed to keep the same model that has consistently shown to fail in transferring knowledge? At what point do we say that’s enough and it is time to make a change? This new pedagogical model works. Now is the time to advocate for it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.