After a year of defending its 2014 framework for the AP U.S. History course against conservative criticism that it was presenting a negatively biased view of American history, the College Board just released a new “clearer and more balanced” course guide and framework that includes many of the subjects the critics had complained were missing from the previous one.
The College Board, which owns the Advanced Placement program, said in statement published on its Web site that “feedback gathered over the last year” has guided the changes. The statement, published a day after College Board President David Coleman met with a chief framework critic, said in part:
Every statement in the 2015 edition has been examined with great care based on the historical record and the principled feedback the College Board received. The result is a clearer and more balanced approach to the teaching of American history that remains faithful to the requirements that colleges and universities set for academic credit. The new edition has been embraced by educators, including AP U.S. History teachers who reviewed it at the recent AP Annual Conference.
The 2014 framework was created after AP U.S. History teachers complained that the old version forced them to race through topics without time to immerse students in major ideas. The 2014 document took a view of U.S. History as a series of conflicts over power, and did not mention important American historical figures by name, including Benjamin Franklin and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Just as soon as it was released, it was savaged by conservatives, including the Republican National Committee, which passed a resolution last summer saying that the framework “emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” They called for a congressional investigation. Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon who is a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, said that “most people” who complete the course would then be “ready to sign up for ISIS.” (Yes, he really said that.)
And last month, a group of historians from a wide range of schools, including Harvard, Stanford, Yale and Princeton universities, as well Lynne Cheney, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the wife of former vice president Dick Cheney, issued an open letter to the College Board opposing the 2014 framework. The letter said that the framework posed “a grave new risk” to the study of America’s past, in part because it ignored American “exceptionalism,” an idea that broadly views the United States as a country unlike any other, with a special democratic and freedom-loving character. It said in part that the framework granted “extensive attention to ‘how various identities, cultures, and values have been preserved or changed in different contexts of U.S. history with special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial and ethnic identities.’”
The new framework makes a shift from “identity” to “identities.” Indeed, the new  framework is so populated with examples of American history as the conflict between social groups, and so inattentive to the sources of national unity and cohesion, that it is hard to see how students will gain any coherent idea of what those sources might be. This does them, and us, an immense disservice.
For the last year, College Board officials defended the controversial course document, saying that it was not a complete curriculum but merely guidelines to help teachers write their own lessons. The authors of the 2014 framework — history teachers and professors — issued an open letter last year, saying that critics misunderstood the document. It said in part:
Many of the comments we have heard about the framework reflect either a misunderstanding of U.S. history or a very limited faith in history teachers’ command of their subject matter. The Curriculum Framework was written by and for AP teachers — individuals who were already experts in U.S. history and its teaching. Based on feedback from other AP teachers outside the Curriculum Development and Assessment Committee, we did not think it necessary to specifically identify Martin Luther King, Jr., among the post-war “civil rights activists” mentioned in the framework. Any United States history course would of course include King as well as other major figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Dwight Eisenhower. 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. Critics who believe we have omitted them from the course are misunderstanding our document, and we request that they examine the AP Practice Exam as evidence of our determination that AP students must be exposed to a rich and inclusive body of historical knowledge.
Protests by students, parents and teachers erupted last fall when some members of the Board of Education in Jefferson County, Colo., decided to form a committee to review the framework to see if it promoted citizenship and patriotism. And some historians defended it, including Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson, who said it was “a sound framework that will help teachers improve the teaching of AP History,” and he said that the criticism seemed “motivated mainly by right-wing politics.”
If that is indeed what motivated the criticism, the College Board decided it had better take it into account in the 2015 course guide and framework. Its statement said:
We heard from and engaged with a wide range of stakeholders over the past year as part of our public review process. Teachers and historians, parents and students, and other concerned citizens and public officials from across the country all provided feedback.
In the new guide, American exceptionalism is now specifically mentioned as a topic to be discussed in the AP History class, though it doesn’t say how teachers should present it. Under the theme, “American and national identity, the course guide now says:
This theme focuses on how and why definitions of American and national identity and values have developed, as well as on related topics such as citizenship, constitutionalism, foreign policy, assimilation, and American exceptionalism.
Here’s what else is new in the 2015 course guide, framework and exam description, according to the College Board’s release:
Every section in the new framework has been reviewed and improved. The following areas received the greatest public comment, and reflect the most significant changes:
- American national identity and unity
- American ideals of liberty, citizenship, and self-governance, and how those ideals play out in U.S. history
- American founding political leaders, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin
- Founding Documents — including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers — as reflected in a new recommended focus section
- Productive role of free enterprise, entrepreneurship, and innovation in shaping U.S. history
- U.S. role in the victories of World War I and World War II, particularly the contributions and sacrifices of American servicemen and women in those wars
- U.S. leadership in ending the Cold War
Some former critics are pleased with the changes. For example, this story by my Post colleague Lyndsey Layton quoted Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, a group of academics created to challenge what it calls “the rise of campus political correctness,” as saying:
“It’s definitely better than 2014 in a number of ways,” said Wood, who met Wednesday with Coleman. “When we started raising criticisms about this in July last year, the pushback from the College Board was arrogant and dismissive. And they stayed in that tone before they began to see that maybe a better way to handle this is to look at the content of the criticism. I think the College Board is taking the position that it has something to learn from its critics.”
Other critics, however, said the changes didn’t amount to much. Layton quoted Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, as saying, “The College Board continues to be under the influence of leftist historians.”