When controversy erupted a year ago about the lack of balance in the College Board’s new AP U.S. History (APUSH) Framework, the College Board initially dug in its heels and stubbornly defended the new course. But the tone has changed. Now that it’s clear the critics of the framework are serious people — and that they’re discussing the need for a market alternative to the College Board’s AP program — the College Board has adopted a conciliatory stance. Critics are assured that they’ve been heard, and that the APUSH course will be revised this summer to incorporate public feedback.
But will the College Board genuinely abandon its attempt to transform history instruction along more “internationalist” lines? And even if it did, is the problem limited to APUSH? The evidence suggests that a broader ideological agenda is in play here, and that the College Board is active in the effort to centralize education with a more “progressive” perspective. Indeed, the AP courses are strongly linked to the Common Core scheme to nationalize American education — and there is no reason to think a superficial “fix” to one of those courses will cripple the scheme as a whole.
At the outset, note that the radical revision of the APUSH course was not an isolated project. Instead, it’s merely one component of a larger plan to revise many of the AP courses and introduce new ones. Fall 2015 will see the introduction of the new AP European History and Art History courses; a year later, the new AP World History course (along with AP Calculus courses) will arrive.
The College Board’s description of its goals in revising these other humanities courses is almost exactly the same as its explanation of the (now discredited) APUSH revision. The new courses will develop “reasoning and communicating skills” rather than just academic knowledge of history. “A hallmark of the new AP curricula,” the College Board says, “is the pairing of key concepts with skills,” resulting in “learning objective[s]” that are grouped into “overarching themes and concepts.” All of this will be delivered through “[d]etailed curriculum frameworks” that “emphasize conceptual understanding.” In other words, the AP history courses still to come will be cut from the same pattern as APUSH.
This similarity is made explicit in the College Board’s description of the pending AP European History course. The new course “[a]llows students to spend more time learning essential concepts and developing the historical thinking skills … necessary to explore European history by focusing on a limited number of key concepts. (These are the same historical thinking skills that have informed the redesign of AP U.S. History … and AP World History).” So in all these redesigned courses, factual knowledge will be subordinated to “themes” and “concepts” that dictate how the course must be taught. It is reasonable to assume that the themes and concepts for these other courses will bear the same slant as those for APUSH.
But what is the connection between AP and Common Core? The answer lies both in personnel and in philosophy.
David Coleman, the relatively new president of the College Board, is the same David Coleman generally considered the “architect” of the Common Core standards. Other Common Core proponents have recently joined forces with the College Board. For example, Stefanie Sanford moved from the Gates Foundation (the lead financier of Common Core) to a leadership position with the College Board, and Common Core guru David Conley is advising the College Board on APUSH. If “personnel is policy,” we can see where this is headed.
And the philosophy of the AP revisions in many respects mirrors that of Common Core. “Skills” become more important than academic knowledge. Students should focus on “close reading” of nonfiction texts — a particular fetish of Mr. Coleman’s. In fact, the AP English Language and Composition course advocates exactly that. One popular textbook for this course (“Conversations in American Literature”) claims “to help teachers and students explore American literature while balancing the current emphases on nonfiction, rhetoric, argument, and synthesis required by both the AP English Language and Composition course and the Common Core State Standards.” So at least this current AP course seems to line up nicely with Common Core. Presumably, the future revised courses will follow suit.
The “Conversations” textbook also illustrates the same politicization apparent in APUSH — and in a nominally “English” course rather than history. (Because the Common Core English Language Arts standards also include “literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects,” parents have already noticed overtly political content in many of the nonfiction texts recommended for Common Core English classes). Students using “Conversations” will read the Declaration of Independence, but also the “Proclamation of Independence” by Ho Chi Minh. They will offer opinions on whether Jefferson truthfully declared that “all men are created equal.” They will read that the Constitution is “long overdue” for a revision to correct the “depressed … state of American politics.” This content is not only manifestly misplaced in an English class, but completely in keeping with slant of the new APUSH Framework. Again, Common Core and AP are intertwined.
So even if the College Board “fixed” the fundamental flaws of APUSH, which is unlikely, the problems run much deeper than one course. The only way to halt the College Board’s nationalization and politicization of American education is to attack the College Board’s monopoly. Competition, as always, will serve the cause of freedom.
• Emmett McGroarty is director of education at the American Principles Project, where Jane Robbins is a senior fellow.