Complaints about the College Board's recently released Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) Framework raise fundamental questions about the nature of history and the responsibility of history educators. Critics list the individuals, groups, institutions and events that go unmentioned in the Framework and decry its "radically revisionist" approach that "emphasizes negative aspects of our nation's history while omitting positive aspects." The process of selecting events, topics, and themes that constitute the content knowledge of a course curriculum has always been, and remains, one that involves the competing interests and values of academics, administrators, and communities. But it is important that educators and policy-makers recognize and acknowledge the protocols, methods, and instructional framework that constitute best practices in the study of history - history's habits of mind.
The point of education is not simply to acquire a specific body of information. Lifelong learning requires mastering the tools to continue to grow intellectually throughout life: to learn how to find new information, process it, and share it with others. Since the 1988 report by the Bradley Commission on History in the Schools (which led directly to establishment of the National Council for History Education [NCHE] two years later), history educators have talked and written about historical thinking skills - formulating questions, conducting research, separating fact from fiction, sorting by relevance, arguing from evidence, reporting findings - and sought to integrate them into the teaching of history. The development of state history and social studies standards lent momentum to this movement, and by 2011 nearly 80% of states had standards that incorporated historical thinking skills.
NCHE welcomes revision of the APUSH Framework and test in view of the increased emphasis on the teaching and testing of historical thinking. Multiple-choice questions, often derided as "multiple guess," will now relate to historical evidence, such as documents, images, and maps, and require students to reason rather than simply recall. There will be short essays specifically designed to assess proficiency in historical thinking, as well as command of content knowledge. Longer essays, written in response to Document-Based Questions, will also show students' ability to understand, interpret, and apply historical evidence. These skills will serve them well in college and throughout their lives. Of course, historical thinking requires that students have some history to think about, and to that end the APUSH Framework includes a concept outline, but offers teachers considerable latitude in deciding how to flesh it out. Given that latitude, complaints about omissions from, and a political bias in, the Framework seem misplaced. Besides, teaching students how to think for themselves is the best antidote to the dangers cited by APUSH critics.
However, the apprehension expressed by teachers who will teach the course and parents whose children will take it requires more attention. The stakes for them can be very high, and the College Board's roll-out of APUSH failed to offer them adequate preparation for, or even information about, the new order. While many teachers participated in AP summer institutes and workshops, many others did not, so how adequately prepared are they? Wouldn't an extensive professional development program - one that offered more lead time - have served everyone better? Is there still time for that? Since the substantial support materials available in past years - sample tests, sample responses, etc. - are now outdated and useless, are teachers sufficiently equipped to do their best work, and can students initially be expected to perform to the same levels as their predecessors? If student AP test performance declines, will colleges and universities accordingly modify their policies for granting course credit? What measures will the College Board undertake to address the concerns and meet the needs of teachers, students, and parents during the school year now underway? What will it do differently in the future? On behalf of its members and in the interest of history education, NCHE is examining these, and related, issues, collecting thoughts from teachers, educators and other interested parties, and weighing how best to address their concerns. NCHE will convey both those concerns and its recommendations for dealing with them to the College Board.
In view of the fact that the 2014-15 school year has already begun in many districts, NCHE does not believe that a one-year postponement of the new APUSH format is the best course of action. Instead, NCHE will support teachers and their students in adapting to the new APUSH Framework and test.