The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In my AP Government classes, I teach current elections. National curriculums would say I’ve gone rogue.

Students sit in a classroom at Scituate High School in North Scituate, R.I., in November. (Adam Glanzman/For The Washington Post)
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Glenn Sacks teaches social studies at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

In teaching Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics to my high school students this year, I did several things I should not have done.

I covered the 2020 presidential election in detail. This included a look back at the primaries, analyzing Donald Trump’s and Joe Biden’s campaign ads, and watching and discussing the debates.

Worse, I also covered five state ballot propositions.

Not only are elections relevant and interesting, but my students, who are seniors, are often involved in them. Some serve as poll watchers, some even vote. What could be wrong with AP Government teachers devoting class time to elections?

They're not on the AP exam.

Every minute spent on these engaging current events is a minute I should have spent explaining the difference between client politics, entrepreneurial politics, interest group politics, and majoritarian politics, between layer cake, marble cake, cooperative and competitive federalism. It’s time we should have spent reading and analyzing all of Federalist Papers 10, 51, 70 and 78, and on a raft of other generally worthy but somewhat arcane topics.

Taking the time to properly cover our current elections harms my students’ ability to pass the AP exam. I can’t complain about their scores — they’ve done much better than the national average each year. But the perverse incentives built into AP Government mean I’m continually forced to choose between the best things to teach them vs. teaching to the test.

AP teachers are put in the peculiar position of thoroughly covering elections and their politics with our non-AP students, but largely avoiding these topics with our most advanced and dedicated students.

As a former colleague who teaches AP says, “The name of the class is ‘AP U.S. Government and Politics’ — why is there so much more government than politics?”

Today, liberals and conservatives are hotly debating social studies curriculums. Laws against critical race theory have been introduced and debated in more than two dozen states and passed in some, and there’s a major battle over how numerous aspects of U.S. history should be taught.

But here’s something both sides can agree on: AP Government curriculums should include the elections that happen during that school year.

In teaching controversial issues such as the Jan. 6 riot, I know I’m expected to approach it in a neutral way, without revealing my beliefs. But when teachers do this, it’s boring for students and gives them the disagreeable feeling that there are important things you’re refusing to tell them.

So I don’t pretend to be neutral.

I often give credit to the other side and rip into my own. I challenge students to challenge me. I put them on the spot and enjoy it when they rise to the occasion. When a quiet student speaks up, beaming, I’ll say, “Did you see that? Alma just roasted me!”

If parents are unhappy, I invite them to share their views with the class. But problems over controversial subjects are rare — there’s an unjust stereotype being promoted that teachers are narrow-minded indoctrinators who, upon being challenged, will collapse.

So how do we fix AP Government?

The College Board, which has run the AP program since 1955, needs to treat AP Government differently than subjects such as AP Calculus and AP Chemistry. Why? Because while current events have little impact on chemistry or calculus, they have an enormous impact on government.

The current AP Government curriculum has five sections, covering such topics as the foundations of American democracy, civil liberties and civil rights, and political participation. The College Board should add a sixth section: current elections, which would include some of the major contests in general and primary elections, selected ballot measures and special elections of interest.

Had such a section existed, the 2021 exam would have included questions directly relating to the November 2020 presidential election. The 2020 exam would have had questions concerning the presidential primaries. The 2019 exam would have had material on the 2018 midterm elections.

To assist the teaching of these subjects, the College Board could distribute a mini teacher’s guide during the year to explain which aspects of these elections might be included in the exam, such as special elections or state ballot measures on universal issues of interest. The 2021 curriculum could have included California’s Proposition 18, which would have given primary election voting rights to many 17-year-olds. The 2022 curriculum could include the state’s Sept. 14 recall election, which will ask voters whether they want to remove Gov. Gavin Newsom (D).

Elections and the major political battles around them are what our students and their friends and families are discussing and debating. It’s what they’re posting about on social media. They’re a great learning opportunity, and our students are living through them in real time.

Let’s stop impelling AP teachers to ignore current elections, and instead put elections in the AP curriculum — where they belong.