APUSH, Not Common Core, Threatens Concept of American Exceptionalism

Jan 23, 2015 | 

Kevin T. Brady

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APUSH, Not Common Core, Threatens Concept of American Exceptionalism

Jan 23, 2015 | 

Kevin T. Brady



I look at the APUSH guideline debate from a somewhat unique perspective, having long had a foot in both the academic world and the world of education—two distinct worlds that know very little about one another.  While being trained as an historian in graduate school, I taught at both the middle and high school levels. A few years after receiving my doctorate, I formed the American Institute for History Education (AIHE) and began to write and service U.S. Department of Education Teaching American History (TAH) grants. We ran roughly 100 TAH grants throughout the United States from 2005 to 2013.  Teachers would attend at least 10 days of colloquia and summer institutes each year, for three to five years.  They would also participate in field studies to historic sites around the country. The strong focus of our TAH Liberty Fellowships® was always content, with a secondary focus on the various methods and strategies that would bring substantive content into the classroom.  During each day of a colloquium, teachers would discuss prescribed historical topics with university historians for three to four hours.  The remaining three hours would be spent with master teachers and history education specialists. We made sure to include both conservative historians and more liberal historians for the teachers to experience.  We insisted on substantive historical content and our historians were competent scholars, not political or social activists.  The historians taught history using solid scholarship, and the overwhelming majority of the teachers could not tell whether the historian was a political liberal or conservative.  The historical education specialists and master teachers would work to make sure diverse historiographies were always presented during the colloquia.

Teachers usually attended Liberty Fellowship® colloquia on a voluntary basis.  These groups of 40-50 educators had the initiative to improve their content knowledge and skills.  Most of them loved history, and if they did not at first, they developed a strong love for history over time.  These were the better teachers in the school districts.  What we found most distressing during these grants was the sheer lack of historical content knowledge that the teachers brought to the sessions. AIHE had independent evaluators survey thousands of history teachers across the nation.  Surprisingly, teachers with a history major in college collectively scored only 59% on assessments of their knowledge of what they taught in class. Teachers with a history minor collectively scored 53%. Teachers with no history credits collectively and surprisingly scored 58%.  We know that there were genuine content experts within the groups, particularly among the history majors. But there were also many teachers who knew much less than 59% of the historical content they taught in class, sometimes scoring only in the teens and twenties.  Those with little content knowledge relied heavily on the textbooks’ narratives.  Fortunately, these teachers went onto to register scores in the mid to high 80s after going through the Fellowships.  Consistently, and much to our pleasure, separate independent evaluations of the Liberty Fellowships showed that AIHE teachers on average increased their content knowledge by 36%, with one group of teachers increasing their scores by an astounding 130%. On content tests that included items of both nationally validated questions and content-specific test items, teachers increased their scores by 40% on average after participating in training and field studies.

A new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences concluded that “humanities teachers, particularly in K-12 history, are less well-trained than teachers in other subject areas.(1) Trained largely by education programs that emphasize methodology over content, few teachers appreciate the unique heritage of America or have any context in which to address crucial issues facing the United States in the modern world.  These low levels of teachers’ content knowledge translate into extremely low National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) U.S. History scores for American 12th graders.  When eighteen-year-olds leave high school, 88% of them score below a proficiency level, meaning their U.S. history knowledge is below grade level as they enter the adult world.  Tragically, 55% of the same 12th graders are below even a basic, partial mastery of the content.  Teachers with little content knowledge and students with even less content knowledge are susceptible to any narrative, philosophy, or ideology that comes down the pike.

The reason I first want to discuss the lack of content knowledge among America’s history teachers, is to highlight the danger of having the new APUSH serve as the historical guideline for the nation’s top high school students and subsequently as the historical guidelines presented to all American students.  As K.C. Johnson so aptly points out, individual state standards, many times, have much deeper content requirements that students need to master; these may come into conflict with the APUSH guidelines.  Unfortunately, many state and local districts take their cues from AP courses, so students in the same district learn the same content, only at different levels. The APUSH guidelines will have an influence on state content standards and on commercial textbook narratives.  The left-wing account will become the standard K-16 narrative.  As Peter Wood points out:

If we had to infer the course from the questions on the final exam, it would be pretty clear that the College Board has turned AP U.S. History into a briefing document on progressive and leftist views of the American past.  It is something that weaves together a vaguely Marxist or at least materialist reading of the key events with the whole litany of identity group grievances.  

Teachers with little content knowledge are susceptible to adopting whatever the commercial textbook presents to them, without researching and presenting any contrary contemporary views or historiographies.  Furthermore, the little content that history and social studies teachers do receive tends to be of the radical variety. Howard Zinn’s infamous A People’s History of the United States, first published in 1980, remains the nation’s best-selling survey textbook, selling about 125,000 copies each year.  Robert Paquette gives us a real-world illustration of the very common use of Zinn in American classrooms. Zinn has heavily influenced many of today’s commercial textbooks.  His work is infused with a clear theme: America is a corrupt nation founded upon the lie of equal opportunity but designed in reality to empower the wealthy.  “The Constitution,” Zinn writes, “reflects the interest of the wealthy elite.”  On numerous occasions, Zinn has stated that the world would be a much better place if the United States had never existed. (2)  Consequently, thousands of students never hear about America as a force contributing a positive good in the world today and throughout history.  The APUSH guidelines follow a similar path.  As these guidelines are turned into text narratives, we will see more themes of America as a corrupt nation founded upon the lie of equal opportunity but designed in reality to empower the wealthy.  

In his review of the APUSH, Jonathan Bean asks us not to fret too much over the new guidelines.  I could not disagree more with Professor Bean.  He acknowledges that most college textbooks are far more “progressive” than the AP guidelines, but notes that the guidelines leave, “ample room for AP faculty to pick a college textbook (presumably of their own choosing) and work within the APUSH framework.”  Like Bean, I would be the “contrarian high school teacher teaching AP under the APUSH guidelines,” and I too would “roll my eyes at the examples of bias cited by critics but could easily work with it.”  The problem remains that most AP teachers will not be contrarians, and they do not possess Professor Bean’s vast content knowledge.  In all likelihood, they will assiduously follow the guidelines and the narratives presented in commercial texts that follow the guidelines, in a sincere desire to have their students earn the higher 4 or 5 scores on the AP tests.  They will pick textbooks that claim to methodically follow the guidelines.  Normally, one would think that most AP teachers have a strong sense of content knowledge, but our research does not verify that.  Surely, many AP teachers do have a better command of the content than other history teachers, but as Professor Bean had mentioned, they used textbooks in college that were even more “progressive” than the APUSH guidelines.  Thus, if anything, they would tend to pick texts that are even more left-wing than even the actual guidelines.  Teachers who use the more “progressive” textbooks may never have had the opportunity to study or explore diverse American history narratives and historiographies.  American exceptionalism, most likely, would have been mocked and ridiculed in college, steering many future teachers away from any traditional narrative.  Consequently, new teacher recruits then become very eager to debunk American exceptionalism in their high school classes.  

I would like to make the case that scholars, teachers, parents, inter alia, must endorse and advocate a far more traditional narrative in K-12 curricula of American exceptionalism. This is especially important because “most college textbooks are far more ‘progressive’ than the AP guidelines.”  With a very “progressive” or left-wing narrative throughout the K-16 curricula, American students will never be exposed to the United States as a positive good, let alone as an extraordinary phenomenon in world history.

Common Core

Many might say that there is nothing we can do about the guidelines and the narrative because the commercial textbook companies listen to the progressive political and educational elite, and that they have an ideological monopoly in schools.  Nevertheless, we have witnessed many grass roots objections to the Common Core standards (CCSS) that have forced states to reevaluate their commitment to Common Core.  Unlike many on the Right, I happen to like the English Language Arts and Social Studies Common Core standards.  I actually read them and understand that they are not content standards.  There is no secret conspiracy to change the content students are exposed to within the CCSS.  A perusal of the “Appendix B” exemplars will reveal that a district can create a very liberal curriculum, or use the standards to create the most conservative curriculum that most districts ever had. When I give talks on Common Core, I explain that a school can use the CCSS with the Holy Bible as the informational text or they can use the Communist Manifesto.  It is up to the local district.  The CCSS are not content standards, they are skill standards.

I introduce Common Core here to demonstrate that the APUSH can be changed if a similar grass roots movement mobilizes to change them.  Most of the objections to the CCSS from conservaive critics really are not about the standards.  They are instead about the standards should require students to learn.  People read about a lesson or text that claims to be aligned with CCSS.  At a talk I gave about Common Core a few months ago, I met an intelligent young woman who had thoroughly researched opinion pieces regarding the Standards.  She complained that her children were being exposed to materials that were contrary to her traditional worldview.  I asked her for an example, and she told me that the article was from Weekly Reader.  I explained to her that the Weekly Reader piece was not Common Core, but as a text, students could use it to develop and apply CCSS reading and/or writing skills.  The text had been chosen by the local teacher and the payment for Weekly Reader must have been approved by the local district. The same teacher could have easily had the students read Mein Kampf or the Confessions of St. Patrick.  Common Core are not content standards; they are agnostic to the actual text, as long as it is a grade appropriate, “complex text.”  There is no real danger of Common Core teaching students a leftist or “progressive” view of American history, unless the teacher or local district chooses to present “progressive” narratives and curricula.  What opponents of the Common Core do not realize is that there is a real danger of the APUSH guidelines creating a left-wing narrative of American history for our brightest students, who will only have that left-wing view reinforced and amplified in college.  The “progressive” APUSH guidelines will also trickle down into the non-Advanced Placement curricula through high school and middle school.

Threat of National Curriculum?

The USAPH also serves as a much greater threat to create a national US history curriculum than Common Core does. Scholars such as Peter Wood, Joseph Kett, and Chuck Chalberg have sought to expose what is in the guidelines and have even made good suggestions of what should be in the guidelines.  I propose that the guidelines take a more - dare I say- exceptional view of American history and emphasize what are the most important events, issues, and personalities in our nation’s history, the very things that led us to become the richest, most powerful, and freest nation on earth.  There is no reason American students should not study America, their country, and their heritage, “warts and all,” as a positive good in the world.  Some may say we are the richest, most powerful, and freest nation on Earth because of all of our nefarious dealings.  Well, great!  Include those views in the narrative, and they can enter the debate. From a “base” curriculum that offers a positive view of America, students can look at other opposing views and historiographies. An “exceptionalist” curriculum, of course, must include the contributions and experiences of minorities and those others who were “underrepresented” in earlier American history curricula, yet contributed to the nation’s exceptionalism. 

Since we are teaching young people to be citizens first and not history specialists, maybe we need to initially examine why this American phenomenon actually happened and how we got to where we are today.  Once students understand how their country developed, they can then go into more specified examinations. I often ask the teachers I teach (and students when I taught) to do a few things when examining any historical events, issues, or personalities.  I tell them to always challenge any given narrative and teach their students to challenge the narrative with vigor.  Always examine multiple perspectives.  Look at all events, issues, and personalities from both a global and historical perspective.  In this way, we can truly judge what had been going on in the United States in proper comparison to what was going on in the rest of the world.  We can always determine how has the American culture, economy, standards of living, civil rights, etc. have improved (or declined) from earlier times.  When students are at least exposed to the positive good the American experiment has brought to the world, they can more easily discern whether any perceived failings of the country can be understood better within a global or historical context.  America looks very different both globally and historically than when studied in a vacuum.

The APUSH guidelines are not a direct threat to change the curricula in themselves. They are as Joseph Kett observes, really unteachable and a “conceptual haze.”  The concepts they propose and the names, events, and issues they exclude, easily allow for a left wing narrative that portrays the United States in a negative light.  Students will not be able to see why America grew into the most powerful, richest, and freest nation of earth.  Commercial textbooks will take their lead from the APUSH guidelines and create (or continue) left wing narratives.  Professor Johnson is correct when he says, “If its (The APUSH report) proposals are to be blocked or modified, resistance must come from the public and state education boards whose role in the curricular process the APUSH members seek to displace.”  Nevertheless, in order to have any salient effect on state boards and/or departments of education, grass root mobilization, like the opposition to the Common Core, is needed.  Bureaucracies move slowly, and movement many times comes organically.  AP teachers using left-wing textbooks come to accept them as the proper narrative.  Commercial textbooks use that narrative at other levels of US history and at other grades.  Teachers who use those textbooks sit on state standards committees and advocate for the commercial textbook narrative.  Only when politicians hear strong objections from constituents, will they force the state bureaucrats to reevaluate content standards. It may be too late to make any changes, because as the grass root mobilizations stay focused on Common Core, the APUSH easily slips into the role of driving US History curriculum and forming a nationally accepted left-wing curriculum that continuously paints American in a bad light.

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Kevin T. Brady, Ph.D., is president of Franklin’s Opus.  Based in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, Franklin’s Opus is the trade name of the American Institute of Historians and History Educators, a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization of educators, academics, and education partners that specializes in improving the teaching and learning of History.

Image: The FW

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1.“The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation,” The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2013.

2. Dennis Prager, On-air interview with Professor Howard Zinn, Wednesday, August 30, 2006.