School board begins sifting through AP US history dispute
Posted December 1, 2014
Updated December 2, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina's state school board on Monday began picking through a controversy over whether new Advanced Placement U.S. history guidelines give adequate time to the nation's founding documents and characters, although board members took no immediate action.
State lawmakers will use an oversight committee to tackle the same subject Tuesday, as a movement fueled by conservative writers suspicious of the motives behind the new history course pushes the issue onto the state's policy-making agenda. Critics say the framework put forward by the College Board, which creates AP tests, does not adequately address ideas such as American Exceptionalism or introduce students to important documents such as the Mayflower Compact.
Representatives of the College Board said teachers should incorporate those ideas in the broad AP U.S. history course. Critics say that answer is insufficient and disguises an effort by those who designed the new tests to foist a politically liberal point of view on students.
"These professors had an agenda. We've already alluded to it. Basically, they saw America not as an exceptional nation but one nation among many in a global society," said Larry Krieger, a former high school history teacher and opponent of the standards.
Krieger, who has authored a test preparation book on the AP exam and written critiques of the new course for conservative websites such as Breitbart.com, has become one of the leading voices calling for additions to the AP U.S. history guidelines. He also argues that the new guidelines are incomplete – failing to include study of important historical documents such as the Magna Carta.
It's unclear what actions the state board will take. State school boards in Texas and South Carolina, as well as a county board in Colorado, have been critical of the standards, although none has abandoned them entirely. North Carolina board Chairman Bill Cobey did not give an immediate indication of what the next steps might be at the meeting's conclusion.
A search for balance
AP courses allow students to receive college credit for courses they take in high school. In addition to history, the College Board offers English, math, biology and other tests. North Carolina State University, for example, gives students different amounts of credit based on how well they do on the history exam, said David Zonderman, a professor and assistant chair of the history department.
"When the goal is to get students to dive deeper, to develop more understanding and critical thinking ... I think I speak for most of my colleagues who would say, 'Great, bring it on.' We would reward this kind of stuff," said Zonderman, who spoke by phone after Monday's meeting.
But Krieger made the case to the State Board of Education that, in its focus on analysis and understanding, the College Board abandoned important concepts. In particular, he pointed to American Exceptionalism, the idea that the United States plays a uniquely positive role in human history, as an idea left behind due to the liberal bent of the College Board's test designers.
James Ford, a history teacher who serves as an adviser to the state board by virtue of being teacher of the year, pointed out that U.S. history is replete with both major successes as well as failures.
"Isn't a more balanced approach appropriate when trying to disseminate curriculum, rather than focus on the conclusion of something being exceptional ... Is the term 'exceptional' required for a framework to be successful and rigorous in its analysis of U.S. history?" he asked.
Ford suggested that the idea is a conclusion that students should be allowed to reach for themselves rather than something that should be taught as fact.
Krieger said that, while the United States has had its failings, the College Board's framework is "highly negative."
In a follow-up question, Ford referenced Krieger's objections to themes in the College Board's framework related to early concepts of white superiority and African-American and Native American subjugation.
"Is the point of contention that it did not play a key role in the formation of America, or is there some other point that was problematic for you?" Ford asked.
Krieger replied that the College Board's presentation of those subjects was not balanced.
"The concern is the phrases 'rigid racial hierarchy,' 'white supremacy' are presented as facts. They are not presented as nuanced statements. The framework is not balanced," he said.
Making room for N.C. requirements
Zonderman, who did not attend the meeting, said that the idea of American Exceptionalism itself was a narrow one and did not present a full picture of history or historical figures.
"You can't say that Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence and leave it at that. You also have to talk about Jefferson the slaveholder," he said.
The idea, Zonderman said, is not to undercut Jefferson's ideas of individual freedom and equality, but to present the full picture of history. "I'm saying you've got to understand this whole man."
History professors like Zonderman influence the construction of the AP test and guidelines, said John Williamson, who is in charge of curriculum and instruction for the College Board.
"In order to continue to secure college credit and placement, the AP courses must reflect content that is deemed as required by college faculty," he said.
Williamson argued the new course, which is being taught for the first time this year, responds both to the college professors who demanded better ability to spot historical patterns and themes and high school teachers who said they had to "race through U.S. history." Rather than emphasize students' ability to recall dates, names and other specifics, the new exam presses students to analyze and interpret what they've been taught.
That jibes with Zonderman's sketch of what he said students should know coming out of an AP course. Yes, he said, they should know major historical figures and be able to place important historical events in their proper chronological context. But just as important as names and dates is the ability to evaluate source material and think critically.
"We look for skill development. Do these students know what an historical source is? Do they know how to read it? Can they take sources and use them to support an analytical argument?" he said.
Critics such as Krieger say the new AP curriculum does not meet the requirements of a 2011 state law called the Founding Principles Act. That law says every student must have a semester-long course of study that includes exposure to specific documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, as well as certain concepts like equal justice and rule of law.
Williamson said the College Board had developed a document that aligns the AP history framework with state requirements. But, he said, the school board might decide that all students need to take a different course, such as civics and economics, in order to meet their Founding Principles Act requirement before taking AP U.S. history.
In some respects, this debate is akin to arguments over the Common Core, a set of national standards for English and math. As with the Common Core debate, there seems to be some confusion between the broad guidelines to be tested and the particular curriculum a school system develops.
Williamson pointed out that the new testing regime isn't unique in not pointing out key historical references.
"In the old course framework, many of the concepts Mr. Krieger said are missing were not included, but they were still taught in AP U.S. history courses," Williamson said. "For example, in the old framework, you won't find the Mayflower Compact or Franklin or the Magna Carta or Federalism."
Lawmakers eye involvement
Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, who has served on several key education committees at the General Assembly, said he has been hearing from parents concerned about the points Krieger is making. After listening and asking questions during Monday's meeting, Horn said there seemed to be points upon which Krieger and Williamson agreed.
He said he was particularly worried that the AP course could gloss over topics state law requires to be studied.
"When things aren't in the framework, then just because of the heavy load that teachers carry, how can I be assured that these concepts, these fundamental concepts of what makes America America, are, in fact, going to be communicated?" Horne said.
While Horne said Krieger raises a salient issue with regard to whether all the founding documents can be taught within the context of the AP U.S. history course, he's less certain about whether the College Board has any liberal agenda.
"Did he make a strong case? Not for me. But there are those in our legislature who will be disposed to believe that," Horn said.
Lawmakers, he said, would hear about the controversy during a Joint Legislative Oversight Committee meeting Tuesday. Although the committee has the ability only to recommend legislation, presentations to the committee are sometimes prelude to lawmaking.
Horn said it would be his preference for the school board to sort out the controversy rather than having the General Assembly step into a curriculum fight. But that may depend on what steps the Board of Education takes.
"I call for the N.C. State Board of Education, an influential board of education, to stand up for America and call upon the College Board to rectify this situation by revising the framework," Krieger said, pushing the board to take a more critical stance toward the new test and guidelines.
At least one state board member who participated in the phone call seemed to agree with the view that the AP U.S. history course needs to adequately imbue students with a sense of America's unique character.
"The whole notion of Exceptionalism is just so deep and rich and full of it all that I would hope to see the College Board has found a way to embed that concept in the framework," said board member Olivia Oxendine, an assistant professor in the school of administration at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.