Revised AP U.S. History Standards Will Emphasize American Exceptionalism

AP US History Battle
Opponents of the 2014 AP U.S. history standards, seen by some as anti-American, rally in Golden, Colorado, on October 2, 2014. On Thursday, the College Board will release a new version of the standards, which adds, among other things, a section on "American exceptionalism." Rick Wilking/Reuters

The company behind Advanced Placement courses for U.S. high school students will release a revision to the standards for AP U.S. history on Thursday morning, after significant pushback from conservatives who claimed the redesigned course framework, released last year, painted American history in too negative a light.

[Related: Newly Revised AP US History Standards Take Softer Tone on Racial History of America]

The new framework significantly pares down last year’s framework, simplifying and condensing the course’s Thematic Learning Objectives from 50 to 19, according to an official at the College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers AP exams. In the process, a new section on the concept of “American exceptionalism” has been added. Some names that were omitted from last year’s framework, such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, have been added—a key sticking point for critics of the prior document, who objected to Founding Fathers being omitted and negative aspects in American history being more emphasized, they claimed, than positive periods. Ben Carson, a GOP presidential candidate, said the curriculum was so anti-American that students who complete it would be “ready to sign up for ISIS.”

The revised framework will be effective immediately, and doesn’t require a change in any textbooks, according to the College Board. High school classes in many parts of the country begin in three weeks. Teachers Newsweek spoke with say that AP tests are typically written a year in advance, and said they expected the test will be reviewed in light of the changes. According to College Board, however, the test has not yet been written.

Last year, after the College Board released its redesigned standards for AP U.S. history, a document more than a decade in the making, Oklahoma, Georgia and Texas all introduced bills threatening to pull the course altogether. The Jefferson County school district in Colorado convened a board committee to review the curriculum, stating that all materials should promote “patriotism” and “respect for authority,” and “should not encourage or condone civil disorder.” The district stopped pursuing the review after hundreds of students walked out of classes in protest. The issue made it to the Republican National Committee, which passed a resolution accusing the AP U.S. framework of promoting "a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects," and recommending that Congress withhold federal funding to the College Board pending a rewrite.

In October, the College Board began accepting comment from teachers and the general public on the standards. In April, Trevor Packer, College Board’s head of AP, announced that revisions would be published in July based on the feedback.

Teachers Newsweek spoke with, who sat on a committee to draft the framework, stressed that the document was never meant to be a description of the totality of what an AP U.S. history teacher must teach, but rather a simplified outline that guides the course toward certain themes. The impetus for the original revision, published last year, was to redirect the course away from rote memorization of facts and more toward “historical thinking skills,” according to Ted Dickson, a teacher at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina. For example, when he used to teach about the Protestant Reformation in the United States, his students “had to learn 20 different names. Now with the new course it’s more about understanding a few of them well.” Dickson has been involved in the drafting of the new revision since its inception a decade ago, and served as co-chair of its development committee. He has taught AP U.S. history for 25 years.

But Geri Hastings, a teacher at Catonsville High School in Catonsville, Maryland, who has been teaching AP U.S. history for 35 years and also helped draft the redesign, said on Wednesday that nuance had been lost on critics.

“The amount of press it got was entirely ridiculous because I don’t think they understood what it was meant to be. It was a framework that meant to let teachers understand the limits of what would be tested. You add examples, you teach it how you want to teach it, just make sure you teach these important concepts,” Hastings said. But critics saw it as excluding, among other things, favorite Founding Fathers and historical events that contribute to America’s legacy, such as its role in winning World War I and World War II. In the new framework, America’s military achievements are given a greater emphasis than in the last document.

The College Board official did confirm that “American exceptionalism” was added to the new document. The official said that the phase didn’t appear in the 2014 edition because the organization assumed it wasn’t something it needed to spell out as part of what would be taught in an American history course.

In other areas, language was changed or eliminated. “If there were places where we felt like the language of the framework seemed to unintentionally indicate some kind of a bias we tried to eliminate that. There were places where some critics...felt like the way things were phrased was anti-American. It didn’t make any sense to me. But if it felt like the way things were phrased indicated any kind of a bias or slant, we tried to neutralize that bias.”

Hastings says that the changes were for the sake of removing some value judgments from the framework, and letting facts speak for themselves.

“Some of the changes sound less pompous. Less morally judgmental,” Hastings says. “I think if [language] was tamped down, it was less about the criticism, but [rather] to make it less value-based. Just to put it out there, and teachers could then massage it as they taught it. I think before it was a little more value-laden. Now it’s like, here are the facts, teach it how you want to teach it.… I think it’s just more balanced, more mainstream, yet it doesn’t push things under the rug. There have been problems in our country. We enslaved people, and it was horrible. Again, you can’t just focus on that to the exclusion of other things.”

As the College Board put it in a statement to Newsweek , the revised framework will “clarify and encourage a balanced approach to the teaching of American history, while remaining faithful to the requirements that colleges and universities set for academic credit.”

“Given the substantive feedback we have received from educators and the general public representing a range of political viewpoints, we are confident that the concerns some have expressed over the past year will be resolved by the new edition.”

Correction: This article incorrectly stated the new guidelines reduced the mentions the word "slavery" from last year. There are roughly the same mentions in both documents. This article also added comment from the College Board on when the AP tests are written.

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