Putting politics ahead of facts on AP U.S. history

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker

Advanced Placement U.S. history has long been one of the most highly regarded American high school courses. An advanced, college-level class, AP U.S. history has for years challenged students in Texas and across the nation to develop an in-depth understanding of the essential events, ideas and seminal figures in our nation’s history.

More than nearly any other course, AP U.S. history builds the critical-thinking, problem-solving and participatory skills that prepare our nation’s young people for college, careers and, perhaps most importantly, civic engagement.

The good news is that the AP U.S. history course is being strengthened to further support teachers and to help ensure that students will be more prepared for college — and to participate in our democracy.

It’s disappointing that a small, fringe group is misrepresenting what the course’s new framework is all about, going so far as to falsely claim that it pushes aside the Founding Fathers and other Americans who left a lasting, positive impact on our nation. These critics, many of whom are from Texas, have decided to put politics and self-interest ahead of facts.

So as any teacher would do, let’s discuss the facts — and why the new framework is beneficial to educators and students.

In October 2012, the College Board announced a new U.S. history course framework as part of a comprehensive redesign effort meant to align all AP courses and exams with college-level learning.

The design of a new history course framework was led by those who know the subject — and the students — best: AP U.S. history teachers and college-level U.S. history professors.

Teachers committed to AP U.S. history and its positive impact on students have embraced the new framework. The National Council for the Social Studies — which supports educators who teach students the intellectual skills and civic values necessary for fully participating in a democracy — also welcomed the improvements to the course. We saw that the changes would provide teachers with a transparent and flexible approach, offering guidance on what might appear in the AP exam and providing teachers with an opportunity to focus on the things that matter most for college and career readiness.

This is a framework, not a full curriculum, so it allows teachers to design their course in a way that meets local and state standards and priorities.

Under the framework, teachers will continue to ask students to have an in-depth command of facts and think critically about the people, events and ideas that have shaped our nation’s history. 

Contrary to one of the most unfounded charges, the new framework places great emphasis on America’s founding documents and their critical role in our history.

It puts documents like the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights — and the ideas put forth by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and other Founding Fathers — at the forefront of our students’ examination of the past.

Students will also be asked to read and demonstrate their understanding of the writings of Thomas Paine, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, the authors of historic civil rights documents and Ronald Reagan.

Previously, the framework included only a minimum of required content. There was no specification that students study the writings and contributions of particular Americans or that historical documents be a course focus.

The College Board recently took the welcome step of releasing a full sample exam for the new course. The first question on the exam highlights Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

We welcome the increased transparency. The AP U.S. history exam used to be released only once every five to eight years. It will now be released every summer. This will help teachers determine what students must know and should be able to demonstrate on exams. It will also show how wrong critics are to charge that key figures have been left out of the course.

As schools prepare for a new school year, we’re encouraged to see so much attention on AP U.S. history, a course that countless students have benefited from over the years. Unfortunately, too often the discussion over the framework has been overtaken by distortions and has disregarded the widespread support from teachers across the nation.

To educators, the new AP U.S. history framework provides flexibility, transparency and helps us prepare students for success in college, career and civic life. That’s something everyone should welcome.

Susan Griffin

Executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies