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A Few Lessons That AP U.S. History Can Teach the Common Core

This morning, the College Board released its newly revised version of the AP U.S. History framework. As readers may recall, last year marked the first time that the College Board put out an extensive framework for AP U.S. History. The resulting framework had real problems. The College Board initially went into a defensive crouch and dismissed critics as uninformed know-nothings. However, the College Board then shifted gears. It talked to critics, acknowledged the problems, and went back to the drawing board. The result was the revised framework released this morning. As one who was quite critical of the initial version, I'll just say that the result has fully answered my concerns.

If you're interested in the particulars, check out this analysis that Max Eden and I published this morning over at National Review. Meanwhile, as I've been noodling on this outcome, it struck me that there are some intriguing parallels to the Common Core kerfuffle. The most obvious is that the president of the College Board who so deftly managed the AP U.S. History imbroglio is David Coleman . . . the same guy who was point on the Common Core state standards (the management of which has not been nearly as deft). At a glance, you might think the history situation would've been tougher to handle. After all, history is more politically fraught than reading and math. AP U.S. History is the work of one none-too-beloved private vendor, whereas the Common Core enjoyed the sponsorship of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Yet the College Board seems to have learned from, benefited from, and largely defused the blowback . . . while the Common Core's path looks quite different.

I think that there are at least four insights worth noting here.

First, someone was actually in charge of AP U.S. History. The College Board had the clear authority to make revisions and could be called to account for doing so. One of the challenges with the Common Core enterprise has been that it has never been quite clear who would make any adjustments or is manning the complaint desk. This posed a design challenge that advocates still haven't really sorted out.

Second, the context of the AP U.S. History rollout meant that the blowback could be addressed. The new framework was rolled out gradually and for just one school subject. This helped make it possible for the College Board to hit the pause button and address concerns. Meanwhile, the Common Core blowback didn't really start in earnest until 2012, when people first started to encounter or hear about the standards that their states had signed onto two or three years earlier. That early, widespread, Race to the Top-fueled adoption of the Common Core meant that the machinery was up and running, making any kind of course correction much tougher to contemplate. And the grand scope and ambition of the Common Core—reshaping instruction and instructional materials for grades K-12 and across the nation in one fell swoop—made that kind of response tougher still.

Third, after some initial missteps, the College Board didn't disdain its skeptics. Instead, it purposefully reached out to them. For instance, I was much harsher with regard to the AP U.S. History framework than I have ever been with regard to the Common Core (about which I've always been fairly ambivalent), and yet the College Board took time to understand my concerns. My own experience is that the panoply of Common Core advocates (outside of CCSSO chief Chris Minnich) have shown remarkably little interest in reaching out to hear or discuss concerns. Instead, figures as prominent as the U.S. Secretary of Education have dismissed Common Core skeptics as an uninformed, conspiratorial "fringe." Of course, this has fueled skeptics' frustrations and concerns.

Fourth, when confronted with blowback, the College Board acknowledged that its process may have been unintentionally insular and initiated a process for incorporating feedback and addressing concerns. The College Board could have protested that it had already done all of this (which it had)—but it instead took its lumps, recognized its process had been a lot less inclusive than intended, and did something about it. The Common Core coalition responded very differently. Common Core advocates insisted that the design process had already been exhaustive, that all legitimate questions had been heard and answered back in '08 and '09, and that there was no point in discussing further revisions. This, I think, is one place where the insistence that the Common Core was "evidence-based" really tripped up its advocates. If standards or frameworks are informed by judgment, then scrutiny and revision seem sensible. But if advocates believe that their handiwork is "evidence-based," it's easy to dismiss skeptics as malicious or merely uninformed.

It seems clear that some of the very elements credited for the Common Core's initial success (e.g., that nobody "owned" it or that Race to the Top fueled rapid adoption) have hampered the ability of advocates to respond constructively to critics. It's equally clear that the tenor and temperament of advocates have played their part as well. There are lessons here, I think, for those inclined to learn from them.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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