On the Outside Looking In

Oct 21, 2015 |  Marc S. Anderson

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On the Outside Looking In

Oct 21, 2015 | 

Marc S. Anderson

Marc S. Anderson is an AP U.S. History (APUSH) teacher and the Social Studies Department Chair of Northern High School, Dillsburg, Pennsylvania. In August 2014 he attended an AP U.S. History teacher-training seminar in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, which was run by the College Board and sponsored by an association of Pennsylvania school districts (Central Intermediate Unit 10). Mr. Anderson’s registration fee and expenses were paid by his school district, although he notes that some of his fellow teachers had to pay out of pocket to attend what was officially a voluntary event but which he was strongly encouraged to attend so as to be able to teach AP U.S. History to the new standards. This essay presents Mr. Anderson’s experience of the August 2014 teacher-training seminar he attended. His essay concerns the 2014 APUSH materials, but the revised version of the standards (2015), while an improvement, retains the same fundamental flaws.

 

My primary purpose for attending the APUSH summer institute was to gather information on how to write the new syllabus required by the College Board and align it with the new framework. This was my main concern because the syllabus had to be submitted and approved by the College Board for my kids to receive credit for the course. I also came prepared, however, to discuss and dissect the new framework. I had been reading criticisms of and support for the new framework and test and considered myself well informed for the discussion and debate that might lie ahead. I was determined to enter any such discussion with an open mind and positive approach, but it didn’t take long before I began to think it might be futile to expect that sort of conversation regarding the positives and negatives of the new framework. By the end of the first day I thought, perhaps, I was the only teacher in the room who had significant concerns. By the end of the week, I knew with absolute certainty that I was on the outside looking in.  

My first uneasiness at the week-long training came immediately, when I received the massive manual and supplemental resources for the new APUSH framework. The online description of the new course is 142 pages, but the actual manual, with examples, “applying” thinking skills, process and requirements of the course audit, etc, is much larger. It was the first week of August, which meant I had one month to get a firm handle on implementing a framework which took the College Board 650 pages to explain. It was the first time anyone in the room, with the exception of the instructor, had viewed the manual, but from the minute we received our new APUSH marching orders, the undiscerning cheerleading had already begun. From day one, support for the new framework was overwhelming, yet no one had a full understanding of what was actually in the framework, how to effectively apply it in the classroom, or the intended or unintended consequences of the implementation.

We began our training with an overview of historical schools of thought, which seemed to be a logical and uncontroversial place to start. While discussing historiography, we spent a considerable amount of time, the largest portion of our time, discussing the importance of social history, which was usually described as “teaching history from the bottom up.” This was a red flag to me, but as I looked around the room I noticed there seemed to be no concern on any of the faces or questions on any of my classmates’ lips. I temporarily squashed my cynical fears in an attempt to eliminate what might be my own hypersensitive expectation of bias. We worked our way through the manual, starting with the historical thinking skills. Nothing really grabbed my attention through this process until we entered the APUSH world of the 7 themes. At first glance, the themes look normal. I became concerned, however, as I read them closely and listened to how my colleagues were going to interpret and implement the themes and thematic learning objectives in the classroom. The new themes, as defined by the accompanying learning objectives, are much more biased then they were in the past. If the new themes were being presented in a court room, any decent lawyer would object to them as leading, and any fair minded judge would uphold the objection.

As we moved from the generalized themes to the learning objectives associated with the themes, my concern turned to opposition. It was immediately evident to me that the new learning objectives suggested a much more negative view of American history than they had previously. It was also clear to me that core content was being sacrificed under the guise of “critical thinking skills.” The time had come to speak up. I attempted to frame my questions and points from what I believed to be a neutral perspective by arguing that the learning objectives were incomplete. I really didn’t think this opinion was confrontational in anyway; just a point for discussion. I used the following examples: The fourth learning objective (LO) under Peopling (PEO-4) specifically directs the instructor to teach kids how European migration negatively impacted American Indian populations. I think most all would agree that this is a worthwhile and accurate part of America’s migration history, but there is no such LO that leads a teacher to celebrate the perseverance of founders, settlers, pioneers, etc., or a comparable LO suggesting the positive impact European migration had on the North American continent. The seventh LO under Work, Exchange, and Technology (WXT-7) leads teachers to celebrate movements like progressivism and organized labor, yet there is no LO that specifically implies the significant benefits industrialists or businesses have had on American history. I had no objection to the inclusion of PEO-4 or WXT-7, but I did object to the omission of content and perspectives beyond the narrow concentration of PEO-4 and WXT-7. As we progressed through the week, it became clear that the framework and test were designed to teach history through a narrow and biased perspective. The revised APUSH framework, in terms of content, had become a watered down version of American history, with an obvious bias, whether or not it was intentional. Until this point in the training I had been focused on how the new framework and test format would affect my students, but after a closer examination, somewhere around the end of day two, I was concerned about how the new framework would transform a generation’s view of American history. As I studied the themes and learning objectives closely, I not only recognized the subtle tendentiousness of the new framework but also had a strong sense that I was the only one in the room who either noticed or (worse yet) cared. 

My impression of substantial bias and watered-down content was soon confirmed. We were put in groups and asked to brainstorm types of questions or topics that would appear under specific learning objectives. As a part of this exercise we were told every question on the exam was directly related to a specific LO. This means any question that addresses PEO-4 or WXT-7, for example, will expect a student response that is consistent with the framing of the LO. In other words, a correct answer or written response to a WXT-7 question must be positive in regard to progressive reformers or labor unions. Any answer or response that implies a negative perspective of progressivism or the labor movement will be deemed incorrect. When I brought this up, there was no outrage, concern, or even minimal consideration given to my point of view. I thought I was either so brilliant that no one else in the room could follow my insightful logic, or I was the right wing, conspiracy theorist guy in the room that was accurately labeled paranoid and extreme by one of my colleagues, or I had simply read the themes and learning objectives as written, critically analyzing them as we were expecting our students to do. With one exception, I never doubted the sincerity or good intentions of my classmates or instructor at the training. From what I could gather, the teachers in the room were dedicated to their kids and education as a whole. These were people who worked hard and cared. My frustration was with the absence of discernment. Here we were supposedly promoting critical analysis via the new and improved framework and test, yet no one in the room was critically analyzing the framework itself. The APUSH teachers at the institute didn’t create the framework, but in one month, they would be, at the least, willingly promoting the new themes and learning objectives to allow their students to be successful on the exam, or at the worst, enthusiastically presenting a skewed view of American history, fundamentally altering how students would think about the past and apply their thoughts to the future. 

The debate continued throughout the week, including at breaks and lunch. I argued that the new framework, inspired and driven by a social history approach, only allows for one perspective and restricts the examination of events, environments, or individuals from any position not conducive to the College Board’s vision of a socially sensitive learning experience. It makes all analysis, interpretation, and judgment relative, with minimal consideration given to what is true, factual, or historically accurate. My argument then, now, and forevermore is that this approach to teaching history erodes the necessary foundation to form logical and well-informed opinions. Considering that the bottom up approach is increasingly promoted and utilized in American culture and American classrooms, the new APUSH re-write becomes even more tendentious and biased, because the new framework, narrow and limited in scope, does not include a broad array of individual perspectives and circumstances. I finally just came out and said what I had been thinking all along. Any fair-minded person can see that the re-written APUSH learning objectives are skewed to the left. If I want my kids to be successful on the AP test I am forced to present information through a progressive lens in accordance with the dictates of the College Board. The new learning objectives only tell a portion of America’s comprehensive story, and, in good conscience, I could not be bound to such a document. The College Board claim that the revision inspires and encourages critical thought is a farce. The framework actually restricts critical analysis, as the limited scope of the specific learning objectives witnesses.

By day five, I’m sure it was clear to most in attendance that I was definitely a part of the “fringe,” making it more convenient to simply dismiss my criticism of the new framework. Dissent was not on the agenda, and it was inconceivable that a veteran public school teacher would object to the high ideals and pursuits of the College Board and question its intentions. As I stated earlier, I believe the instructor and the teachers at the training genuinely intended to do right by their students. Even though I was frustrated by what I would deem a lack of discernment, I respected most of them for their commitment to service and learning. I couldn’t help feeling depressed, however, as I made the two-hour drive home on Friday afternoon. What effect would the new APUSH framework and adherence to the incomplete learning objectives have on kids and on our country as a whole? I couldn’t help thinking to myself, how will kids view the history of their nation after taking the College Board’s AP United States history course? We will be producing a generation of young people who view our country as imperialist, oppressive, bigoted, divisive, self-serving, and destructive. Basically, students will be taught that, from Manifest Destiny to greenhouse gases, America is, and always has been responsible for the world’s problems. Kids will not view America as I believe they should…benevolent, sacrificial, courageous, united, welcoming, and a provider of opportunity,. I believe that while America is imperfect, it is a nation that has been the greatest influence for what is good and just in the history of the world. I wasn’t really concerned about how the new framework would influence my kids’ worldview, because the AP institute was not going to alter my approach or methods. I would still provide balance, teaching students to take responsibility for our mistakes, as we celebrate all that is exceptional about America. I was now faced, however, with a brand new problem—how would I prepare them adequately for the test? My refusal to teach history as presented at the institute, or adhere to the framework’s learning objectives, certainly would hurt my students’ performance on the test.

Image Credit: William R. Shepherd (1923), public domain.

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