J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

The “5-Page Topic Outline” and the “98-Page Framework”

One of the common complaints about the new Advanced Placement U.S. History Course guidelines is that they’re so much longer than they were before. For instance, World Magazine reported:
The new framework is 98 pages long, compared to the five-page topic outline teachers used previously, [critic Larry] Krieger said.
That criticism from Krieger, founder of Insider Test Prep (shown here), has been echoed on a lot of websites; just look for the phrase “five-page [or 5-page] topic outline” and the mention of “98 pages.”

That struck me as another claim about the College Board’s new course guidelines (P.D.F. download) that could be objectively tested. So I looked for the older guidelines, and found a set labeled for May 2006 and May 2007 (P.D.F. download). And I looked at them side by side. Does that comparison hold up as accurate and fair? Not really.

To start with, I can’t figure out why Krieger describes “the new framework” as “98 pages long.” The entire booklet is 142 pages, including title page, contents, index, and those pages paradoxically printed “This Page Is Intentionally Left Blank.” The Framework starts on page 9. Ninety-eight pages later takes us to page 106, which is in the middle of the sample questions. The page header “The AP U.S. History Curriculum Framework” continues until page 119. So that actually looks like 111 pages of Framework material, not including the index for it.

The pages under the “AP U.S. History Curriculum Framework” header include sections titled “Introduction,” “Historical Thinking Skills,” “Thematic Learning Objectives,” “The Concept Outline,” “The AP U.S. History Exam,” and “Sample Exam Questions.” So if we want to fairly compare the Framework’s length to the older version, we have to include all the equivalent sections in the older booklet.

Turning to that older booklet, I find that the “five-page Topic Outline” actually takes up five and half pages, so that count is off by 10%. Furthermore, that “Topic Outline” looks like the equivalent of the “Concept Outline” section in the new booklet—i.e., just one of the relevant sections. The earlier booklet also contains sections titled “Introduction,” “The AP U.S. History Exam,” “Themes in AP U.S. History,” another page about teaching the course, and “The Exam” with sample questions. Those total to 33 pages.

Obviously the expansion of 33 pages into 111 is significant—the new guidelines are more than three times as long as the old ones. But Krieger and everyone parroting his figures (without apparently checking them) have transformed that into an explosion from 5 pages to 98—more than nineteen times longer! That doesn’t show a great concern for accuracy or fairness.

Turning from quantity to quality, the older booklet’s “Themes in AP U.S. History” simply lists topics. Here’s one section as an example:
4. The American Revolutionary Era
The French and Indian War
The Imperial Crisis and resistance to Britain
The War for Independence
State constitutions and the Articles of Confederation
The federal Constitution
There’s no exact equivalent to that section in the new guidelines, but to show how they treat some of the same ideas, here’s Key Concept 3.2.II on the transition from the Articles of Confederation to the new Constitution.

Obviously, the new treatment has a lot more words. It’s not just a short list of concepts and buzzwords, but a series of complete sentences connecting those concepts. And it offers more concepts to consider, as well as possible examples for discussion.

In fact, if one were interested in educating young people about the historical transition from the Articles to the Constitution, one might even say the information in the new guidelines is important, pertinent, and useful.

But apparently it’s too long.

TOMORROW: The missing names.


Jimmy Dick said...

I really have to question the validity of the groups behind the attacks on the AP History course. Looking at Larry Krieger's dislike for the changes, we find his comments distributed across a multitude of conservative forums and websites. Also, many of them are religiously based and I have a strong feeling that is playing a major role in the reaction to the changes. I am not going to attack Krieger because the man obviously has been an educator for quite some time.

I just do not see what Krieger sees. You've noted that in several instances what Krieger says is not true. In fact, as I go through Krieger's comments I am left wondering if Krieger is not guilty of falling behind on current scholarship in most of these cases.

What I really think is going on is that Krieger is from the older school of teaching US history which relied upon a top down approach via the so called Great Men of History. This new AP course is reflecting the current scholarship with a varied approach that relies a lot on the bottom up method. When I break down what Krieger says that seems to be the key element linking all of it together.

One thing that is important in the teaching of history in courses like this and the survey courses in the delivery method and the instructor themselves. That matters a great deal. I've got my textbook from my courses right here for the American History to 1865 portion and it is closely aligned with what the AP History course is saying. I did not select the textbook as I had no say in the matter (it was here when I got here), but this text has been around for a while now.

One of the problems with the survey course has always been the amount of content to cover and short time to do so. That has not changed and sooner or later will have to. Hopefull these politically driven attacks on the teaching of history will fade away and we can get on with actually teaching.

J. L. Bell said...

Krieger does have a lot of experience teaching the A.P. course, and he’s put that experience toward a series of test-preparation books. Those books are necessarily based on the old test. The current team at the College Board has said that one of the goals of the new test is to make fact-cramming and other strategies that Krieger teaches less effective. (Whether that can work is another question.) I plan to talk more about that soon.

I don't see Krieger as necessarily aligned ideological with the right-wing (and especially religious right) websites that are quoting his criticisms of the test. It looks more like an alliance of convenience over this issue. Both he and people who have picked up his complaints are misrepresenting the new guidelines, but in different terms and with different emphases.

You're right that the historiography of the new guidelines is very much in line with the field—and, based on your experience, with school teaching. The far right has ideological objections to that approach, as well as baseless suspicion of any change they associate, however tenuously, with the current President (see Common Core). Krieger just seems to find the new approach harder to coach for.

Jimmy Dick said...

The pedagogical model the new AP course is using runs more towards essay answers than multiple choice answers. It is not a joke that test answers are a huge business on the Internet. We are finding whole papers, discussion forums, entire tests, and other stuff from previous years out there for sale. In some cases an entire class's output has been discovered.

Now a great deal of this is due to laziness among teachers who never change anything. I deal with both online and ground classes so I vary my stuff a lot. I am moving more and more of my stuff to essay based assessment with quizzes used as learning tool. I also set those quizzes to random questions out of a large question bank so they never get the same quiz. If they want to memorize the answers to the questions more power to them. But they have to put it into action with the essays so at that point the learning kicks in.

That is a major advantage of using an inquiry based pedagogical model. I did not want to say Krieger was complaining because of business reasons. However, I think you're making a valid point. He is retired and this is a new pedagogy which he would have to adapt to in order to develop study guides. Part of his business is also due to the huge expansion in the AP in the last three decades and that has led to a problem with people actually able to teach the course.

If you plan to address this later, I am more than willing to wait until then. This model does work, but instructors have to learn it in order to use it. As I said earlier, cheating is a big business right now because a lot of college level instructors are more interested in lecturing and do not want to change their model.