What's Driving Conservatives Mad About the New AP History Course

A copy of the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson Brendan McDermid/Reuters

As a high school history teacher for more than 40 years, Larry S. Krieger felt it was his duty to teach his students what made America great.

Before retiring in 2005, Krieger, 66, liked to begin his Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) course each year with the story of John Winthrop, the early Puritan leader who famously called the new colonies a "city upon a Hill."

"It sets the theme of American exceptionalism and the ideals of this country," Krieger explained last week. He believed the taxpayers of New Jersey, where he spent most his long teaching career, weren't paying him to be subversive or revisionist.

So Krieger was horrified last September when he read the new framework for APUSH, a course taught to around 500,000 high school juniors every year. It didn't mention Winthrop, or Thomas Jefferson, or even Martin Luther King, Jr. Instead, Krieger read the new framework—which takes effect this fall—as pushing a revisionist view of American history that elides heroic individuals and emphasizes oppression and conflict.

Krieger got angry, then decided to fight back. For months he's been raising awareness about the new curriculum. He has conservative activists on his side and just last week won the official support of the Republican Party.

The College Board, the nonprofit that administers Advanced Placement (AP) tests as well as the SAT, designed the new APUSH framework to foster critical thinking skills. The lengthy document outlines how the end-of-year AP exam, which typically earns well-performing high school students college credit, will test skills such as "periodization," "contextualization," and "comparison," and themes, such as "identity," "work, exchange, and technology," and "America in the world."

In teaching these new themes and skills, the framework is not meant to exclude any figures or events but give teachers the "flexibility across nine different periods of U.S. history to teach topics of their choice in depth."

On its website, the College Board stresses that it revised the APUSH framework based on input from thousands of teachers. "The teachers and professors participating in the AP U.S. History program expressed strong concerns that the course required a breathless race through American history, preventing teachers and students from examining topics of local interest in depth, and sacrificing opportunities for students to engage in writing and research," the site reads.

But Krieger is convinced that the fact that the framework fails to mention most of America's greatest historical figures by name means that they won't be on the test and therefore won't be taught. And he's aghast that events and themes he always considered part of America's greatness appear in the framework as, well, not so great.

"As I read through the document, I saw a consistently negative view of American history that highlights oppressors and exploiters," Krieger said on a conference call sponsored by two conservative groups fighting the new APUSH framework. He read quotes from the framework to illustrate his point: "Instead of striving to build a city on a hill, according to the Framework our nation's Founders are portrayed as bigots who 'developed a belief in white superiority'—that's a quote—that was in turn derived from 'a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority' and that of course led to 'the creation of a rigid racial hierarchy."

To his continued horror, Manifest Destiny suffered the same fate as the Founders. An idea Krieger taught for years as "the belief that America had a mission to spread democracy and new technology across the continent" was described in the framework as "built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority."

Perhaps most dispiriting to Krieger was the framework's treatment of World War II. "There's no discussion whatsoever of the valor or heroism of American soldiers," Krieger said on the call. He then quoted from the framework: "Wartime experiences such as the internment of Japanese Americans, challenges to civil liberties, debates over race and segregation, and the decision to drop the atomic bomb raised questions about American values."

Angry over the new guidelines, Krieger turned to the Internet, where he came across a YouTube video of conservative education activist and attorney Jane Robbins, who is working to stop the adoption of the Common Core educational standards across the country. He reached out to her in November of 2013. By this spring, the two had become a team, drafting an open letter to the College Board (as of the time of writing it had 1,136 signatures) and publishing op-eds on conservative news sites opposing the new curriculum. Robbin's group, the American Principles Project, and the conservative Christian group Concerned Women for America (CWA) have taken up the cause—and sponsored last week's conference call.

Their cause has also been adopted by the conservative National Association of Scholars, which pushes against multiculturalism in higher education. The group's president, Peter Wood, called the framework politically biased. One of his many complaints is about immigration: "Where APUSH sees 'new migrants' supplying 'the economy with an important labor force,' others with equal justification see the rapid growth of a population that displaces native-born workers from low-wage jobs and who are also heavily dependent on public services and transfer payments."

Krieger and Robbins's work got its biggest boost yet last Friday when the Republican National Committee (RNC) adopted a resolution calling the new framework "a radically revisionist view of American history." The resolution, drafted largely by Robbins, urged the College Board to delay implementation until a new framework could be drawn up and called on Congress to investigate the framework and withhold federal funding from the College Board until the framework was changed. It was approved unanimously.

Conservative activists fear losing local control over what is taught in schools, particularly when it comes to the meaning of American history. In interviews, they expressed an uneasiness with a view of history that examines groups rather than focusing on heroic individuals. While they decried the fact that civil rights figures like Dr. King were not explicitly named in the framework, they could have done without the mention of leftist groups that defined the 1960s like the Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers. They also disagreed with the College Board over how children should learn, with Krieger and his allies preferring a curriculum based on memorizing facts to one based on critical thinking.

Even before the new framework, it's clear that these conservatives disagree with how history is taught in colleges, part of a general mistrust of American universities as a bastion of liberal ideas. As Wood of the conservative scholars group wrote in his APUSH assessment: "When the College Board says it is modifying AP U.S. History to make it like a 'comparable college course,' I regret to say that that is probably true."

But Krieger and those who joined his campaign were able to tap into more than a longstanding distrust of scholars; There was already a fresh conservative anger simmering over the Common Core education standards -- a major issue for Tea Party and conservative groups around the country who objected to the adoption of uniform education standards. It doesn't help that the president of the College Board, David Coleman, is also a key architect of Common Core. As one conservative activist put it, Coleman is a "red flag."

"One benefit of the Common Core is what it did is it coalesced a cohesive groundswell and it woke people up to what was happening in education. Those same people never have gone away," said Tanya Ditty, the president of the Georgia state chapter of CWA and a former APUSH teacher, describing a new momentum behind the anti-APUSH effort.

With the RNC finally on board, the College Board responded to the campaign early this week. In a letter, Coleman was careful to distance himself from the standards—he wasn't president when they were adopted and he didn't help draft them—but he describes conservatives' anger over the framework as based on a "significant misunderstanding."

"Just like the previous framework, the new framework does not remove individuals or events that have been taught by AP teachers in prior years," he said. "Instead, it is just a framework, requiring teachers to populate it with content required by their local standards and priorities."

The College Board also released to the public a sample test based on the new framework, to prove that they are not excluding anyone from being taught in APUSH courses. But when Newsweek reached Krieger by phone this week, he said the sample test in no way allayed his concerns. In fact, Krieger explained, the sample test is evidence of the framework's "revisionist, progressive bias."

Krieger demonstrated his findings by going through the sample test, beginning with the multiple choice section of the test. In this, students are given a prompt or "stimulus,"—a quote, an image, or a graph, for example—then asked several multiple choice questions about it. Krieger's first example is a photograph by journalist Jacob Riis, who famously drew attention to the squalid living conditions in New York City's tenement housing in his 1890 book "How the Other Half Lives"—a staple of U.S. history courses.

The photo in the sample test likewise depicts late-19th century poverty in New York. The first question is, "Conditions like those shown in the image contributed most directly to which of the following?" The correct answer is, "An increase in Progressive reform activity."

"That's historically true but note that progressives are going to be the heroes in this narrative," Krieger pointed out.

Then he moved onto the second question, which asked what caused the poverty in the picture. The correct answer is, "Low wages earned by workers in the late nineteenth century." This was also true, Krieger allowed, but he felt many such workers, often immigrants, were victims of their own limited skills and poor knowledge of English, not any structural injustices.

Finally, Krieger gets to the third question: "Advocates for individuals such as those shown in the image would have most likely agreed with which of the following perspectives?"

Krieger read the correct answer: "The answer is—and this is the classic progressive answer—'Government should act to eliminate the worst abuses of industrial society.'"

Krieger believes the answers are written to send kids a message. He stresses that a wrong answer to the final question is, "Capitalism free of government regulation would improve social conditions"—even though that would be the opposite of what the Progressive movement believed.

Krieger moved on to the next set of multiple choice questions, this time based on a 1909 quote from the pioneering environmentalist John Muir. The answers in this section hit on Muir's belief that "government should preserve wilderness areas" from "exploitation of western landscapes" and that this new environmentalism was opposed by "companies involved in natural resource extraction."

This was not only true then, but you need look no further than battles between the Chamber of Commerce and the Sierra Club to see that the same dynamic persists today. Krieger even admits he personally agrees with Muir. But, he said, it's not his job to "indoctrinate kids."

"What we have here is a repetition of a theme: There's another problem, the progressives come to the rescue, and who are the villains?" he asks. "Well, American companies are the villains, of course."