S.C. opponents of Common Core education standards have set their sights on a new target they say is “anti-American.”
The College Board’s Advanced Placement U.S. history course – offered to S.C. high-school students for college credit – slants left, its “liberal bias” including negative portrayals of American history, according to S.C. Parents Involved in Education, a conservative grassroots education group mounting an effort to fight the history course.
Founding fathers, battlefield heroes and civil rights leaders are missing from the guidelines for the course, the activists say.
Martin Luther King Jr. “is the clearest example of omission,” said the group’s president, Sheri Few, whose third-place finish in June’s GOP primary for state school superintendent centered on fighting Common Core’s education standards for math and English. “If you’re going to teach the civil rights movement in historical context, there’s no way you can leave (King) out.”
At least six national social studies and history advocacy groups have sprung to the course’s defense, sending letters to state education leaders and writing opinion pieces in newspapers.
Supporters say critics are misinterpreting the purpose of the course’s guidelines. They are only a broad overview. The topics excluded from the guideline are areas that teachers know must be taught, they say.
“How would you not talk about Martin Luther King?” said Sue Baumann, who teaches U.S. history, including Advanced Placement, at Richland Northeast High School.
In an open letter to critics, the authors of the guidelines wrote, “Any United States history course would, of course, include King as well as other major figures, such as Benjamin Franklin and Dwight Eisenhower.
“These and many other figures of U.S. history did not appear in the previous AP framework, either,” they added, “yet teachers have always understood the need to teach them.”
Few and other critics are not satisfied, however.
The culprit, Few and others say, is the 140-page guideline – called the course “framework” – that College Board publishes for AP history teachers. That framework outlines the analytical skills students should learn, and the historical periods and themes the course should cover to prepare students for the AP history test.
The history course’s S.C. opponents are joining national groups – also fighting Common Core – to push state education leaders to pressure the College Board to allow high-school teachers to continue teaching the advanced history course using the shorter outline that was used until this year.
If College Board refuses, S.C. activists want the state to stop buying the AP history tests, taken by more than 5,000 S.C. students last year at a cost of about $400,000 to the state.
‘Warn parents about ... this course’
Few and her allies appealed to the State Board of Education last month. On Monday, they will address a panel of the S.C. Education Oversight Committee, the other statewide board that oversees state schools.
The two boards approve academic standards for S.C. schools but have no authority over the College Board. However, they could put pressure on the makers of the AP history test by passing a resolution, asking to use the shorter, older outline. But the boards have taken up no formal actions yet, only hearing from critics in public comment periods of their meetings.
“What concerns me is if we did proceed and ban the U.S. history AP from the curriculum, what’s next? AP English? AP biology?” asked State Board of Education chairman Barry Bolen, who said that board will hear from both sides of the issue again next month. “I’m concerned about an overreach publicly. I’m not sure that they’re not taking things out of context.”
Cutting AP history from S.C. classrooms would not be the best outcome, Few said.
Such a step would put S.C. families “between a rock and a hard place” if their children lose the opportunity to take the AP test, which offers the chance to earn college credits and bolsters college-admissions applications.
But, at the very least, the state should “warn parents about the contents of this course,” Few said.
Echo of Common Core
Driving the fight against the AP U.S. history course is political mistrust of the College Board and the ties its leader, president and chief executive David Coleman, has to Common Core.
“There wasn’t really any objection (to the update) until (David) Coleman became the president of College Board,” said Few, whose group S.C. Parents Involved in Education is a nonprofit that the state pays to develop abstinence-based sex-education materials.
Coleman, a co-founder of a nonprofit that played a key role in developing the Common Core standards, became the College Board’s leader in October 2012, the same month the new AP U.S. history guidelines were finalized.
Few says Coleman and his colleagues are opponents of the idea that the United States, because of its constitutional values and history, is exceptional among countries. “These people are definitely extremely progressive-minded individuals who don’t appreciate American exceptionalism.”
But defenders say the course’s critics are a “small, fringe group ... going so far as to falsely claim that it pushes aside the Founding Fathers and other Americans who left a lasting, positive impact on our nation,” wrote Susan Griffin, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, in an opinion piece in the Texas Tribune.
In a letter to state educators, Coleman also assured that the nation’s “founders are resonant throughout” the test that students will take to measure their mastery of the course material.
“(E)very question on the new AP U.S. history exam now requires students to demonstrate an understanding of America’s important historical documents and leaders.”
‘It’s still my classroom’
But critics say a slew of other important figures and historical events – for example, President Dwight Eisenhower and President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination – are left out of the guidelines, which means they might not be taught or seen as important.
That’s not true, said Baumann, the Richland Northeast AP history teacher.
Her course includes major historical figures and events – including “The Greatest Generation” and the Holocaust in World War II, which critics fear are omitted – as well as topics and people important in South Carolina. But because the course must move rapidly to cover the scope of U.S. history, the class seldom lingers for too long on any specific figure or event, Baumann said.
Baumann said she covers the same broad scope of U.S. history as she did in the course before the new guidelines – from pre-colonial America to, now, the 1980s. What has changed, Baumann said, is the new emphasis on critical thinking about historic events – requiring students to recall historical facts but also to analyze why they matter.
In teaching the civil rights movement, for example, Baumann says she always teaches civil rights leader King. She also teaches “Malcolm X, and we'd talk about Stokely Carmichael and the shift of the civil rights movement in the ’50s and the ’60s” and the movement’s relationship to Reconstruction.
South Carolina’s own history standards also must be taught in AP history classrooms, said Baumann and state Department of Education spokesman Dino Teppara.
Those standards are recognized as “the best in the nation” by the conservative-leaning Fordham Institute, an education think tank, earning the group’s only straight As, Teppara said.
While the state standards and the AP guidelines are rigorous, neither restricts what she teaches in the classroom, Baumann said, adding she still has room to cover topics important to South Carolinians.
Examples include the military and patriotism, she said, noting a week that students spend discussing those topics and interviewing S.C. veterans.
“It’s still my classroom,” she said. “I have a lot of freedom to teach topics of interest to my students.”
Analytical or unpatriotic?
The new emphasis on analysis is evident in a sample essay question provided in the guidelines for teachers. The question asks students to support, change or refute some historians’ claims the American Revolution was not revolutionary in nature.
The guidelines provide a few possible responses. One possible essay argument? “The Revolution was basically a revolt by colonial elites against the elites in England."
The guidelines say a good response might show how George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were powerful people before the Revolution who continued to hold onto their influence after the war.
Critics charge that is an example of an unnecessarily negative view of the United States that lacks balance.
Last month, Michael Acquilano, who represents the Charleston Diocese, told the State Education Board that men like Washington, Jefferson and Adams “pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to defend our God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For the first time in history, man was free from a tyrannical government, and as a result America and Americans flourished.”
As another example of unnecessary negativity, Few cites the guideline’s inclusion of the U.S. atomic bombing of Japan in World War II in a list of “wartime experiences” that “raised questions about American values.”
“It was taught to most of us as having been a brave and heroic decision that ended the war,” she said, adding that if the critical perspective is taught, so should the positive one.
“Nearly every other country in the world teaches their students patriotic lessons about their country,” she said, adding not doing so is “almost a national-security risk.”