Ed Reading: A Review of the New A.P. U.S. History Framework

lendol

Lendol Calder, professor of History at Augustana College, leading thinker and writer on the teaching of History, member of my exclusive Club PLN and family friend, has published an excellent op-ed on the new College Board curriculum framework and test for A.P. U.S. History courses (APUSH). The piece was published in The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, for which I’m certain you have a subscription. And if you do not, consider yourself judged!

In any case, before committing to an elementary education career, I was quite interested, as are most meandering History majors, in teaching social studies and history on the secondary level. Dr. Calder provided some guidance, pointing me in the direction of Bruce Lesh, the Stanford History Education Group, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts by Sam Wineburg and many other good authorities on teaching History who are listed here. In addition, I have collected some of my own social studies and history resources, my list on Twitter, my Google Drive folder and a subscription to the Gilder Lehrman newsletter. In spite of the lamentably limited opportunity to teach social studies on the primary level, my interest has not waned. I am determined to stay current on the best thinking and best practices in the field so that when the opportunity or instructional hours present themselves, I’ll be ready.

Below is a collection of notes and quotes from Dr. Calder’s piece, The Kids Are (Going To Be) Alright. Please keep in mind that I have very little context and expertise from which to judge Dr. Calder’s assessment of the new APUSH framework. I have not taught A.P. U.S. History, nor have I done a deep dive of the new standards. I did take A.P. U.S. by the venerable Dean C. Brink at Roosevelt High School in Seattle. And I did well enough on the APUSH test to earn college credit, which I used to save me some coin without regret. I am also biased towards agreeing with Dr. Calder. So, take my notes for what they are worth; a superficial exploration of a teaching interest.
The APUSH Kids Are (Going To Be) Alright

Dr. Calder starts out by making clear just how much the new APUSH framework has been politicized. And to be fair, unlike science (or maybe just like science), history has always been inherently political.

On the right:

The APUSH framework has been denounced by the Republican National Committee. It has been censured by school boards in Colorado, Nebraska, and North Carolina. APUSH has been threatened with defunding by lawmakers in Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, and Tennessee. Channeling the spirit of Nikita Khrushchev, conservatives believe the College Board’s history test makers are powerful and dangerous.

On the assumed left:

I’ve listened to professors questioning whether the new APUSH will deepen students’ knowledge or just put a College Board stamp of approval on continued ignorance…..There will be professors who say the test makers havespoiled everything,” deemphasizing content knowledge in order to promote mushy ‘thinking skills.’

I guess it takes the current lightning rod issue in education, namely testing, to have Americans up in arms over a subject we infamously ignore; history.

And if you don’t think there can be serious consequences for teachers and students when the politics of the culture wars enter the classroom, think again. Let me remind you of the most recent major U.S. curriculum scandal that grabbed headlines around the world; the banning of Tuscon’s Mexican-American Studies program. Check out Al Madrigal lampooning the ban for The Daily Show here.

In any case, Dr. Calder does not dismiss the APUSH concerns of either conservatives or liberals. Instead, he advocates for acknowledgement and engagement on the part of APUSH defenders, like himself.

The concerns of conservative critics should be welcomed and addressed. And especially in two places, I submit….

Many conservatives like to think of themselves as the party of reasoned deliberation as opposed to the Left’s alleged preference for indoctrination through political correctness. This means that by their own logic, conservatives have nothing to fear from a multi- perspectival history classroom, so long as the teacher doesnt put her thumb on the scale….

The answer – I should say, an answer – to concerns about how to bring coherence tothe APUSH course is to teach the conflicts.

To be coherent, courses need Big Questions. (emphasis added)

For Dr. Calder, the “Big Questions” in regards to the new APUSH framework are the following:

Are the revisions to AP History really changes for the better?

Will the new expectations of the exam make a difference in how teachers teach the course?
And can the new APUSH curriculum survive politicization in the rough and tumble of the culture wars?

The old APUSH model was based on coverage. Teachers were asked to generically introduce huge amounts of U.S. History dates, names, places, factoids and concepts. The complaints from students, secondary teachers and higher ed professors abound about the old “coverage” methodology. In fact, Dr. Calder and his History department colleagues at Augustana College do not accept APUSH test credits because of their founded concerns about the quality and meaningfulness of such a secondary history education.  

Thus, Dr. Calder seems to almost imply that nearly any change would’ve been a good change for the APUSH course and test. Nevertheless, he makes a strong case for the new APUSH framework, that it is not just any old change, but a thoughtful and meaningful one. The new framework drops the coverage model, picks up some research-based learning methods, encourages historical thinking, and gives a nod to what history professors expect of incoming high school graduates.

In the old course, history was one fact after another, a list of subjects to be familiar with. The new APUSH presents history as a murky domain of knowledge in which protocols and habits of mind are necessary to distinguish sense from nonsense and know anything about the past at all. The old test smelled like remember-ology. The new test measures how good one is with the intellectual discipline of history.

Dr. Calder thinks that the new methods and expectations for the APUSH will net serious results, not in small part because secondary social studies teachers are leading the push to improve history pedagogy. The bottom up reform from secondary to higher ed is reinvigorating history instruction in a new generation of academic historians and will, Dr. Calder argues, “work its way out and up to improve history education at all levels.” Indeed, even where history instruction is in need of serious professional development, the new APUSH framework simultaneously provides the guide and the incentive for stepping up to that challenge.

Last, Dr. Calder addresses the political sustainability of the new APUSH framework, a question which is extremely difficult to guess at in our current partisan political climate, but has some history to draw from.

Pushback from conservatives alarmed by the revised APUSH program triggers unpleasant memories of the mid-1990s “history wars.” When in 1994 Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch urged federal funding for voluntary national history standards, she called on UCLA’s National Center for History in the Schools to draft and circulate the proposed standards. In January 1995, after weeks of furious debate among historians, policy elites, and media commentators, the United States Senate voted 99–1 to reject the UCLA standards for presenting “a disproportionately pessimistic and misrepresentative picture of the American past.” No one wants to go there again.

But Dr. Calder doesn’t want the debate about what historical themes are important for us to learn in school, what meanings can be drawn from significant historical events, which historical events are, in fact, significant, and what patterns or continuity can be gleaned from a broad historical perspective. This is precisely why he advocates for engagement with both conservatives worried about anti-Americanism and history academics worried about instructional rigor. Both those debates revolve around what it is in U.S. History that is vital for us to know and think critically about. Thus, Dr. Calder point about teaching the debates.

…as in previous chapters of America’s history wars, disagreements over the new APUSH emerge from fundamental differences people have about the nature and purposes of history. These differences are not easily reconciled. Thus, our primary task as scholars, teachers, and citizens should, arguably, be to nurture the vibrancy of a dialogue that properly crosses ideologies, moralities, and pedagogies.

This call to arms of sorts, for history academics and secondary teachers, is so completely in line with Dr. Calder’s most salient point about how people learn best. There is a wonderful coherence between his point about teaching the debates and getting students to “do” history in order to learn it.

At least conservatives begin with a truth: that ideas matter, that the stories people tell have consequences. But defenders of coverage begin with a falsehood: that facts can be stored in the head like furniture in an attic, there to be pulled down some day when a situation calls for it. But that’s not how memory works. We remember what we do on a regular basis. If we want students to know who did what when, we must ask them to do something with that knowledge again and again.

Learning the relevant history of a past debate made current, or that never was settled, such is the nature of nearly all our culture wars debates, this is a compelling way to engage students in the doing of history.

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The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era / Volume 14 / Issue 03 / July 2015, pp 433-440

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