Colorado seniors hold up a sign during a Columbine High School student walkout on Sept. 25 to protest proposed AP History changes. (Photo: John Leyba/Getty Images)

A Fight Over How to Teach U.S. History Heats Up America’s High Schools

Comparisons to terrorist propaganda and protests from students have plagued the rollout of the new Advanced Placement curriculum.
Oct 2, 2014· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

History, it’s been said, is written by the victors. That old cliché is at the center of a bitter, heated fight over a new high school history curriculum unveiled in schools nationwide this fall.

The growing battle is so intense that when one critic, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, compared it to terrorist propaganda, opponents of the curriculum agreed. When school authorities in Colorado tried to alter it, more than 1,000 students in the state walked out of class for more than a week, drawing a thumbs-up from historians, social science teachers, and the committee that helped draft the course.

The controversy has put a new question on the national education agenda: Who gets to decide history and how it gets taught to the nation’s schoolchildren?

At issue is Advanced Placement U.S. History, or APUSH, a framework for teaching the nation’s creation and development to high-achieving high school students. Developed by the College Board—the same organization that drafted the controversial Common Core State Standards—and created by a committee of historians and educators, APUSH is designed as an outline to help teachers challenge their most capable students and encourage debate and critical thinking skills.

But critics say the new warts-and-all framework rejects traditional U.S. history, omits or barely mentions key figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., and overemphasizes negative, divisive events such as the Vietnam War and the forced displacement of Native Americans. The curriculum outline, they argue, condemns “American exceptionalism” and gives short shrift to the nation’s leading role in shaping modern global history.

“To paraphrase a Sergio Leone movie, the new APUSH curriculum represents the bad and the ugly but not the good of American history,” Ralph Ketcham, a fellow at the right-leaning Pioneer Institute, wrote in a recent report. “The result is a portrait of America as a dystopian society—one riddled with racism, violence, hypocrisy, greed, imperialism, and injustice” and light on “some of America’s great heroes.”

Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and presumed 2016 presidential candidate, said the curriculum “shocked” him. He went a step further: “Most people, when they finish that course, they’d be ready to sign up for ISIS.”

An increasing number of school boards and parent groups across the country have objected to the curriculum or set in motion plans to revise it.

In Texas, opponents demanded that the state board of education remove APUSH from a state-approved curriculum that will grant students college credit; in South Carolina, a similar fight is under way, with one conservative parents’ group declaring that the course has a liberal bias. In Jefferson County, Colo., the newly elected school board wants to create a committee that would ensure that APUSH materials “promote patriotism” and don’t “condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

In response, students walked out of class for a week, decrying what they saw as censorship. Cheering them on were at least six national social studies and history advocacy groups. Several of those groups have noted that the nation was founded on protests, rebellion, and free speech.

Perhaps the highest-profile attack on APUSH came when the Republican National Committee approved a resolution last week condemning the framework. Conservative activists have gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition demanding that the College Board delay its use by at least a year. That call has resonated on conservative talk radio nationwide.

In response, the College Board committee that drafted the framework released a letter saying that the critics have it all wrong. The course, they wrote, is designed as a college-level course and not a student’s first exposure to American history. Further, APUSH is a guideline, not a script, that teachers can use to encourage their best students to think for themselves.

“The goal is to help students acquire a strong command of historical facts and then to be able to understand, formulate, and critique different interpretations of the past and of its meaning for today,” they wrote. The College Board then took the unusual step of releasing a full APUSH practice exam to try to quell the criticism.

UCLA professor Daniel Diaz, the associate director of the History-Geography Project, and James Keipp, a history educator who worked with the College Board, wrote in email to TakePart that the fight over APUSH “may have more to do with our current political climate” than with changes in the curriculum.

“The course, like the new Common Core curriculum, is being politicized,” they wrote. “Teachers have gone from being guided by state or district content frameworks (in the 90s, in California), to state created standards (2000s), to NCLB [No Child Left Behind] and extensive testing and now to Common Core and a revised AP curriculum (several courses have been revised).”

While the fight over the curriculum shows no sign of subsiding, Diaz and Keipp believe it’s important to keep it in perspective, and they doubt the battle over APUSH will have a determinative outcome.

“Do some groups have more resources to dedicate time and effort to engaging and publishing historical findings? That may be a more relevant question,” they wrote. “Will a high school history course set the course for all future discussions of history? That may be giving the College Board more influence than it has or wants.”

History education, they continue, “is an on-going debate that will continue as long as there are differing viewpoints,” and APUSH students have to be sufficiently prepared to think independently. “These may be the historians who decide what history says.”