Larry Kobrovsky said his Jewish grandparents escaped lives dependent on “who won the latest war” when they came from Lithuania to the United States through Ellis Island.
For them, said the state Board of Education member, the United States was a land of opportunity and freedom.
But, Kobrovsky says, the positive meaning that Ellis Island has for immigrants is not included in the new guidelines for an advanced U.S. history course. Last month, the Charleston attorney asked his fellow Education Board members to send a message of disapproval to the authors of the history course, taken by more than 5,000 S.C. high-school students for college credit.
The state Education Board took no action at its October meeting, agreeing instead to take the issue up this month. Wednesday, the board will revisit the controversy over the Advanced Placement U.S. history course, hearing from teachers of the course and a representative of its authors, the nonprofit College Board.
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Fear that S.C. students are being taught a negative view of U.S. history, one that omits important historical figures and events, is driving a pushback against the AP U.S. history course.
The problem, Kobrovsky and other critics say, lies in a 140-plus- page course outline that does not specifically mention U.S. founding fathers, civil rights leaders and military heroes.
Supporters of the course say opponents are misinterpreting the purpose of its guidelines, meant to provide teachers with a broad overview. The topics excluded from the guidelines – Martin Luther King Jr., for example – are areas that teachers know must be taught, they say.
Many of the examples that critics say are omitted from the new guidelines also were excluded from the history course’s previous, much shorter outline, they add.
Leslie Carter, a Myrtle Beach AP U.S. history teacher, says immigration and the history of Ellis Island, for example, are exciting topics to cover in U.S. history. Any teacher would know to include the subjects, regardless of whether the AP U.S. history guidelines mention them, she adds.
The guidelines are just that, she said, not meant to be comprehensive lists of figures and topics to cover. In the guidelines, teachers see the kind of questions that students should expect on the AP test and the kind of tasks students will be asked to complete – such as reading, analyzing and making arguments about documents.
Critics also are missing an important detail about the guidelines that most directly influence S.C. teachers in the classroom, said Carter, president of the S.C. Council for the Social Studies.
“South Carolina teachers follow S.C. standards, first and foremost, and that is the most important document that we use,” Carter said. “That document is dog-eared. It’s on our desk. It’s highlighted. It’s the most voted document that S.C. teachers use.”
AP U.S. history students also will address state education leaders Wednesday about the course and its guidelines, while seeing “government in action” on an issue affecting them, Carter said.
The history course has come under fire from national and local education advocacy groups, who also are fighting the Common Core education standards. In part, they say the course guidelines ignore important U.S. historical documents and leaders.
Responding to criticism, College Board’s president and chief executive David Coleman wrote a letter to state educators, saying, “(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.”
Opponents want the College Board to allow states to use the old standards as guidelines. Some have said the state should consider not offering the course if the College Board refuses.
That would be a mistake, Carter and other educators say.
Students in rural, poor districts, which do not have colleges nearby offering dual high school-college enrollment, would be disadvantaged if their schools no longer offered the AP U.S. history course, allowing them to earn college credits, or if the state stopped covering the cost of the test, she and others said.
Kobrovsky, who said he enjoyed taking AP courses as a student, said preventing S.C. schools from offering the course is not his goal. He has received hundreds of emails from teachers asking him not to block the course.
But to provide balance and perspective, Kobrovsky says, the guidelines also should include more discussion of “American exceptionalism” – the idea the United States, because of its constitutional values and history, is uniquely great in the world.
Discussions of slavery or oppression in America also should include how women and minorities were being treated in other countries during the same time period, he said. Now, he added, “There's no perspective on anything.”