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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Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Ongoing Battle over Advanced Placement U.S. History

To continue this series of postings on controversial intersections of early American history and current American politics, here’s an update on the conservative attack on the new Advanced Placement U.S. History (“APUSH”) framework.

As I noted last fall, the school board in Jefferson County, Colorado, voted to create a special committee to review U.S. History classes. This month, however, the board decided the existing curriculum review process could do the job just fine.

In other parts of the country, state legislatures have taken up the anti-A.P. cause. There’s a bill in the Georgia senate that’s closely modeled on the Republican National Committee’s resolution from August. Both claim the new framework
minimizes discussion of America’s Founding Fathers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the religious influences on our nation’s history, and many other critical topics that have long been part of the APUSH course.
As I’ve documented, the new framework explicitly includes the founders and the Declaration, and it mentions religion more often than the previous course guidelines.

The Georgia bill drops the R.N.C.’s easily disproven claim that the framework “excludes discussion of the U.S. military.” It adds “the nature of the American free enterprise system, [and] the course and resolution of the Great Depression” to a list of topics that the framework supposedly misrepresents. (I doubt the bill’s sponsors would be happy with the evidence that the Great Depression was resolved with greater government involvement in the economy.)

The Oklahoma legislature has taken up a different sort of anti-framework bill. Politico noted:
Oklahoma is an unlikely site for the battle over AP U.S. History: Fewer than 3,500 of the 460,000 students who took the exam last year did so in the state — and only 40 percent of those students were deemed “qualified” for college credit after taking the test, compared with more than 50 percent of all those who took it.
Oklahoma accounts for 1.22% of the U.S. population but only for .7% of the students taking the A.P. exam. When a smaller group of students feels qualified to take the test, and those students perform worse than the national average, that suggests the teaching of U.S. history in Oklahoma may need improvement.

The Oklahoma bill differs from the R.N.C. and Georgia resolutions by spelling out what students should study in U.S. history classes. The original bill (P.D.F. download), as Talking Points Memo reported, included the mythical “Mecklenburg Declaration” among that material. The bill as it came out of committee (P.D.F. download) did not. And the Tulsa World is now reporting that the bill’s sponsor plans further rewrites because he feels it wasn’t clear enough.

Politico reported that sponsor had “solicited testimony from Larry Krieger,” the author/publisher of test prep books who was one of the early critics of the new framework. As I wrote back here, Krieger’s business gives him an economic incentive to keep the test as it was, or at least to obtain samples of the test (as the R.N.C. included in its demands). Actually shutting down the exam, on the other hand, would be against his interests.

Both state bills are explicit in demanding that history classes teach about American specialness. The Georgia bill refers to “the uniqueness of America’s place in the world.” The Oklahoma bill mandates study of “American exceptionalism.” But of course champions of that notion don’t just want to hear that the U.S. of A. is distinct from other countries—it must also be a Good Thing and/or The Best.

As Andrew Hartman wrote about the framework controversy at The American Historian, “One prominent front in the culture wars has been the struggle over whether the purpose of American history is to make Americans proud of the nation’s glorious past or to encourage citizens to reflect on its complexities and even its moral failings.”

Critics of the A.P. framework say it “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” (That’s a line from the R.N.C. copied into the Georgia bill.) Their opponents say those critics are the ones skewing history because they want to minimize negative aspects of the past and emphasize positive ones. And of course the perception of how much negativity or positivity is too much is subjective, tinged by one’s politics. Based on how the framework’s critics continue to misrepresent the framework, however, I’m not convinced by their claims of being more accurate.

TOMORROW: The Oklahoma reading list.

[The picture above shows the Oklahoma state house, from this N.P.R. story on an oil and gas bill from last year.]

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