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, September 14, 2014

Looking for the R.N.C.’s “Critical Topics” in A.P. U.S. History

Having found the 2006-07 version of the College Board’s guidelines for the Advanced Placement U.S. History test (P.D.F. download), I decided to test it against the objections listed in the Republican National Committee’s resolution from last month.

The R.N.C. based its complaint on the claim that the new guidelines (P.D.F. download) omitted “critical topics that have always been part of the APUSH course,” though without specifying evidence for that assertion. “Always” is an easily tested claim.

The committee’s specific complaints about the new guidelines (as opposed to hard-to-measure value judgments) are:
little or no discussion of the Founding Fathers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the religious influences on our nation’s history, and many other critical topics that have always been part of the APUSH course.
The 2006-07 booklet doesn’t mention “the Founding Fathers.” It doesn’t include the phrases “Continental Congress” or “Constitutional Convention.” The names of Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson appear in connection to the early Presidency but not the founding moments. The booklet doesn’t mention Franklin, Adams, Madison, and most other political leaders of the period at all.

That booklet includes the Declaration of Independence only as an example of “familiar classics” that might be part of the test’s document-based essay questions. It doesn’t discuss the Declaration’s “principles.”

The older booklet lists “Religion” as one of the “Themes” in American history to be considered. The word “religion” appears 7 times in that 54-page booklet, as opposed to 29 times in the new 142-page booklet; in sum, that word appears significantly more often in the new guidelines.

the Framework excludes discussion of the U. S. military (no battles, commanders, or heroes)
The old guidelines mention “the attack on Pearl Harbor” but no other battle. Washington, Jackson, and Kennedy appear, but as Presidents, not as “commanders, or heroes.” I saw no individual wartime commander or hero named.

Variations on the word “military” appear 5 times in the older booklet, thrice in the sample multiple-choice questions. Again, that word appears significantly more often in the new booklet: 32 times.

the Framework…omits many other individuals, groups, and events that greatly shaped our nation’s history (for example, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Tuskegee Airmen, the Holocaust)
Not one of those “individuals, groups, and events” appears in the 2006-07 guidelines.

The R.N.C.’s complaint thus appears to be that the old course guidelines were better even though they didn’t include those “critical topics” because the new guidelines, while including much more material (and therefore being much longer), don’t include every topic that critics can think of.

That objection doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As I wrote before, it’s obvious the College Board isn’t trying to limit A.P. class teachers to only the topics specifically mentioned in the new booklet. It states themes and explicitly gives teachers flexibility to choose how to cover those themes while naming a few examples. If teachers “always” covered subjects that weren’t explicitly mentioned in the guidelines before, there’s no rational reason to conclude they won’t cover those same subjects now.

Second, at the same time the R.N.C. was making the complaints above, it was also complaining that the new guidelines don’t “respect the sovereignty of state standards.” In other words, the committee said there should be no national standards, but also that advanced U.S. history courses are fatally flawed if they don’t include the names, topics, and messages its members prefer.

Like most people who have argued for “state sovereignty” in U.S. history (like the Vice President pictured above), the R.N.C. would actually like to apply its own policies to the whole nation at once if it only could.


Xathos said...

I think, J.L., that when you get right down to it, the RNC's reaction is strictly a political maneuver. It costs them nothing to make an objection while at the same time satisfying their more radical right wing elements. A lot of this type of stuff is nothing more than pure political rhetoric meant to inflame the base. In this case, those that prefer to believe what they're told without bothering to check for the facts themselves get a good dose of garbage.

I have found it very interesting how most of the critics of the AP course are not historians and are not educators. Many of the individual comments on the HNN boards are from people who are neither as well and who also hide behind anonymity. Many express a deep seated belief in American Exceptionalism. I think that is rather telling of why they make the comments they do. It comes back to change which they do not understand because they are not taking the time to understand why the changes are being made.

J. L. Bell said...

On that topic, I note that the 2006-07 guidelines include “Views of the American national character and ideas about American exceptionalism” among the “Themes” for the test or course to cover.

Because those older guidelines list themes are nouns, not as concepts in complete sentences, they don’t get into the thorny question of what “American exceptionalism” is or whether the idea holds up to scrutiny. But people who strongly believe in that idea can interpret those guidelines to say that it’s part of the course.

I’m struck by the big overlap between complaints about the College Board’s changes and complaints about the Common Core standards developed by state education departments.