AP U.S. History framework remains flawed; college board needs competition

The College Board has revised its framework for the teaching of AP U.S. History. The College Board has done so, it says, in response to the “principled criticism” and “legitimate concerns” of its 2014 framework by non-liberal scholars. Based on my quick review, the new framework looks like is an improvement.

Power Line has promoted criticism of the 2014 framework by scholars and intellectuals like Charles Kesler and Stanley Kurtz. We have also supplied criticism of our own. We welcome the improvements.

But let’s not pop the champagne. Kurtz argues that the changes to the framework are largely cosmetic:

The College Board has removed some of the framework’s most egregiously biased formulations, yet the basic approach has not changed. Since the College Board has said that the revised framework will not require modifications to textbooks, there is reason to believe that we are looking at largely cosmetic changes.

The textbooks are what students actually see. If the latest revisions won’t change the texts, they can’t mean much.

Textbooks aside, Kurtz finds that the framework remains badly flawed:

The first historical period (1491-1607), for example, is still shaped by a “three worlds meet” approach descended from the leftist National History Standards of 1994. In other words, the revised framework remains aggressively relativist, avoiding consideration of the deeper cultural sources of Western expansion and success. The emphasis instead is on mutual interaction and influence among European settlers, Native Americans, and African slaves.

There was mutual influence among these three groups, of course, but the core story of how the Renaissance individualism, learning, innovation, science, and enterprise sparked a world-changing cultural transformation is evaded.

The College board has added a a theme on American and National Identity, and it even uses the phrase “American Exceptionalism.” However, the nod seems token:

I’ve so far seen little new substance to fill out the meaning of that theme. There is still no treatment of John Winthrop’s City on a Hill speech, or of the broader point that the New England settlers saw their venture as a model for the world. New England town meetings are briefly referenced, yet without any explanation of how this led to a tradition of localism in America quite different from Europe.

Merely referencing the words, “American exceptionalism” isn’t enough. To be meaningful, the concept has to be filled out with powerful examples.

My quick review of the framework revealed what strikes me (a non-historian) as additional shortcomings. For example, in the “historical period” 1754-1800, the U.S. Constitution continues to get short-changed. It’s buried under the “key concept” that “the American Republic’s democratic and republican ideals inspired new experiments with different forms of government.”

Surely, the Constitution is at the top of the list of powerful examples of “American exceptionalism.” You wouldn’t know it from the framework.

The framework carves out 1844-1877 as a “historical period” and identifies as its first key concept:

The United States became more connected with world, pursued an expansionist foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere, and emerged as the destination for many migrants from other countries.

This seems bizarre. Why is 1844-1877 a defining historical period? Why isn’t the Civil War the first “key concept” of whatever epoch one places it in?

The answers, I suspect, reside in the College Board’s desire to begin the discussion with the war with Mexico and end it with the failure of Reconstruction. In this telling, the abolition of slavery becomes a fleeting moment of good work in a sea of land-grabbing, racism, and oppression.

Finally, a word about the College Board’s “shout out” to its “principled” critics. It stands in stark contrast to its initial reaction, which Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, aptly described as “arrogant and dismissive.”

Why the change in attitude? Kurtz offers a more than plausible answer:

Clearly, the College Board is worried about competition. Its initial response to critics was to dismiss their concerns. Only after I raised the issue of competition here at NRO—and especially after the Georgia State Senate passed a resolution calling for competition in AP testing—did the College Board change its tune, acknowledge errors, and promise revisions.

The revisions are welcome but, preliminary review indicates, in adequate. As Kurtz says:

The only real solution is to nurture competition in AP testing. Whatever limited improvement we’re now seeing is due to the specter of competition. Only competition in AP testing can restore choice to the states and school districts that by rights ought to control their own curricula. Without competition, whatever the College Board says, goes.

The College Board remains bent on (1) gaining effective control of the nation’s high school curriculum and (2) using that control to push a leftist agenda. This is clear from its new AP European History framework which, in Kurtz’s words:

is egregiously biased in all the ways that the 2014 AP U.S. history framework was. It downplays national identity, focuses overmuch on the evils of colonialism, is hostile to capitalism, downplays the excesses of the left and the problems of communism, and gives short shrift both to religion and to the sources of the classic Western liberalism.

Only competition in AP testing can restore meaningful choice to the teaching of history.