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Fight Over Politics in AP U.S. History Guide Misses the Point, Historians Say

This week, I wrote about changes to the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum framework—a second iteration of changes, really, since the document was initially updated in 2014. 

I noted that historians, for the most part, are happy with the new document. Several who'd examined it (some of whom represent larger groups of historians) told me they thought it was fair and a good foundation for teachers who will assuredly, and necessarily, add facts, figures, and events throughout the course. 

One thing I heard from several historians in my reporting, though, was that focusing on the content changes between the 2014 and 2015 frameworks was really missing the larger point: Both the 2014 and 2015 documents are significantly better than what came before them.

Prior to 2014, the AP U.S. History framework was only five pages long, and it read like a vague list of topics. Teachers were very unclear on what would show up on the culminating test, so they felt compelled to teach a bit of everything. The course became all about memorization. (That framework, though technically released in 2010, hadn't gone through a major revision in a very long time. The course content stopped at about the 1990s.)

The 2014 revision was closer to 80 pages long, and gave teachers more guidance on what to cover. It underscored historical thinking, crafting arguments, and evaluating historical evidence, rather than just memorization. 

For many historians and history educators, those changes were the significant ones. 

The arguments over the new modifications "overshadow a much deeper and more important issue, which is that the revisions, whether 2014 or 2015, occasion a major shift in thinking about what the AP curriculum should be," Sam Wineburg, a professor of history and education at Stanford University, told me. "The bigger question is, do students have the basic narrative framework, and what do they do in the face of conflicting information? ... In an age where we can pull up Marbury v. Madison on our iPhones, what we need is citizens not merely who can memorize information, but who can think for themselves and discern truth in competing planes."

Maria Montoya, an associate professor of history at Yale University, said the 2015 framework (which she worked on) was better than the previous one, but only because it was clearer and easier to read. Again, the changes that push critical thinking are the important ones. "The framework is just that ... a skeleton on which an AP teacher (who are among the best U.S history teachers in the nation) [can] build their content," she wrote in an email. "From my perspective it is not WHAT the students learn specifically, but HOW they learn.  They need to learn how to read critically and think historically. They can make up their own minds about the politics."

The quibbles over wording in the documents were evidence of an "underestimation of the quality and diligence of AP U.S. History teachers,"  said James R. Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, who supported both the 2014 and 2015 frameworks. "It's not a curriculum, these are not lesson plans. ... This provides teachers with the framework they need to enable students to disagree with one another intelligently." 

Read the full story behind the 2015 revisions, and see a chart on some of the substantive changes, including those related to Manifest Destiny and President Reagan.

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