How the College Board Politicized U.S. History
By Stanley Kurtz
“[A]s on much else, Americans are divided about how best to teach and understand U.S. history. This is precisely why the new, lengthy, and detailed AP U.S. History Framework is such a bad idea…. The College Board has drastically eroded the freedom of states, school districts, teachers, and parents to choose the history they teach their children. That is why this change must not stand.”
The College Board, the private company that produces the SAT test and the various Advanced Placement (AP) exams, has kicked off a national controversy by issuing a new and unprecedentedly detailed “Framework” for its AP U.S. History exam. This Framework will effectively force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a leftist perspective. The College Board disclaims political intent, insisting that the new Framework provides a “balanced” guide that merely helps to streamline the AP U.S. History course while enhancing teacher flexibility. Not only the Framework itself, but the history of its development suggests that a balanced presentation of the American story was not the College Board’s goal.
The origins of the new AP U.S. History framework are closely tied to a movement of left-leaning historians that aims to “internationalize” the teaching of American history. The goal is to “end American history as we have known it” by substituting a more “transnational” narrative for the traditional account.
This movement’s goals are clearly political, and include the promotion of an American foreign policy that eschews the unilateral use of force. The movement to “internationalize” the U.S. History curriculum also seeks to produce a generation of Americans more amendable to working through the United Nations and various left-leaning “non-governmental organizations” (NGOs) on issues like the environment and nuclear proliferation. A willingness to use foreign law to interpret the U.S. Constitution is likewise encouraged.
The College Board formed a close alliance with this movement to internationalize the teaching of American history just prior to initiating its redesign of the AP U.S. History exam. Key figures in that alliance are now in charge of the AP U.S. History redesign process, including the committee charged with writing the new AP U.S. History exam. The new AP U.S. History Framework clearly shows the imprint of the movement to de-nationalize American history. Before I trace the rise of this movement and its ties to the College Board, let’s have a closer look at its goals.
NYU historian Thomas Bender is the leading spokesman for the movement to internationalize the U.S. History curriculum at every educational level. The fullest and clearest statement of Bender’s views can be found in his 2006 book, A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place in World History. Bender is a thoroughgoing critic of American exceptionalism, the notion that America is freer and more democratic than any other nation, and for that reason, a model, vindicator, and at times the chief defender of ordered liberty and self-government in the world.
In opposition to this, Bender wants to subordinate American identity to a cosmopolitan, “transnational” sensibility. Bender urges us to see each nation, our own included, as but “a province among the provinces that make up the world.” Whereas the old U.S. history forged a shared national identity by emphasizing America’s distinctiveness, Bender hopes to encourage cosmopolitanism by “internationalizing” the American story.
Bender laments that history as taught in our schools has bred an “acceptance of the nation as the dominant form of human solidarity.” The growing focus on gender, race, and ethnicity is welcome, says Bender, but does little to transform an underlying historical narrative built around the nation. Even the rise of world history in the schools has backfired, Bender maintains, by making it appear as though American history and world history are somehow different topics.
Bender understands that his transnational twist on American history has profound political implications. He complains that while working on his book (during George W. Bush’s presidency), “a discourse of exceptionalism and policies based on it became omnipresent in American public life.” Bender promises that his transnational framing of American history “will give little comfort” to the proponents of policies based on American exceptionalism.
He worries, however, that his globalizing approach to American history might be used to defend precisely the sort of “hegemonic” American foreign-policy he abhors. To prevent this, Bender urges that American history be taught, not only from an American point of view, but from the perspective of those who are subject to American power. “Americans have always found it difficult to imagine themselves as an enemy, as a problem for other people,” says Bender. By showing us ourselves through our enemies’ eyes, Bender hopes to promote humbler and more collaborative forms of American foreign-policy.
Bender complains about George W. Bush era foreign policy, not only in respect to war, but also in the matters of, “environment, trade, nuclear, and other policies.” Clearly, he hopes that his anti-exceptionalist vision of American-history will encourage a different approach to foreign affairs. Bender also openly hopes that students exposed to a less “national” version of American history will sympathize with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s willingness to use foreign law to interpret the U.S. Constitution, rather than with Justice Antonin Scalia’s rejection of foreign law as an arbiter of American jurisprudence.
In 2006, A Nation Among Nations provoked a sharp exchange between Bender and Brooklyn College professor of history, Robert David Johnson in the journal Historically Speaking. Going on the attack, Johnson calls Bender’s “transnational” version of American history, “little more than an attempt to ensure that students think a certain way about contemporary events.” Johnson warns Bender that “establishing as an outcome for high school history classes the judicial philosophy of Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer . . . will undermine support for public education among citizens who disagree with the preferred ideology.”
Bender parries Johnson’s charges of politicization with a non-denial denial. I offer no “rules for specific actions in the world,” says Bender, nor is my book about “any specific foreign policy.” But Bender doesn’t have to write a policy brief. To achieve his preferred policy results, he merely needs to inculcate a cosmopolitan sensibility and an abiding hostility to American exceptionalism. Bender also denies Johnson’s claim that he wants to “merge” high school U.S. history with World history, yet Bender clearly wants to integrate them in a way that subordinates the American national story to the transnational, globalist perspective.
To understand the deep entanglement of the College Board in Bender’s political and intellectual project, we need to return to 2000, when a group of 78 historians under the auspices of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) issued the flagship document of the movement to “internationalize” American history, “The La Pietra Report.” Bender authored that report, and it prefigures all the themes he develops in his later writings.
The report takes its name from the Italian villa where the meetings took place, from 1997 to 2000. The La Pietra Report makes much of the fact that those meetings were held outside the United States, and that nearly a third of the scholars working to forge a new U.S. History curriculum were non-Americans. One such scholar, in fact, was Cuban.
Francesca Lopez Civeira, of the University of Havana, participated in absentia, sending a paper on American power as “an object of fear” in Cuban historiography. That fit squarely into a central theme of the La Pietra Report, which urges that American students be exposed to evidence of the “controversial power and presence” of the United States beyond our borders, to the point where “one’s native land seems foreign.”
In common with Bender’s later work, an interim report on the 1998 La Pietra conference warns that a newly internationalized American history could inadvertently create a new “…American global city on a hill, the new model for a global culture and economy. There is a danger of a triumphalism that this history could fall into, thus becoming the ideological justification for the latest phase of capitalism.” Again, the La Pietra scholars try to prevent an internationalized history from justifying America’s global economic and military reach by focusing on how America’s alleged victims and enemies feel about the use of our power.
A conclave of historians with a left-wing foreign policy agenda, a third of them from foreign countries, seems an odd inspiration for the ostensibly non-partisan College Board’s redesign of the AP U.S. History Exam. Yet that is exactly what the La Pietra conference and its report became.
In 2002, two years after the appearance of the La Pietra Report, Rethinking American History in a Global Age, a collection of representative papers from the La Pietra conference was published, with Bender as its editor. At the same moment, the Organization of American Historians, which had sponsored the La Pietra Report, moved to strengthen its collaborative relationship with the College Board’s AP U.S. History program. This led to the formation in 2003 of a Joint OAH/AP Advisory Board on Teaching the U.S. History Survey Course. This Advisory Board focused its efforts on fulfilling the goals of the La Pietra Report. So by forging an alliance with the College Board, Bender and his allies discovered a way to transform the teaching of U.S. history.
Ted Dickson, who served as Co-Chair of the AP U.S. History Curriculum Development and Assessment Committee (the body that wrote the new AP U.S. History Framework), was an original member of the joint panel seeking to advance the goals of the La Pietra Report.
In June of 2004, just as the Joint OAH/AP Advisory Board was searching for ways to reshape the teaching of U.S. history along “transnational” lines, Thomas Bender was invited to address hundreds of readers gathered to grade the essay portion of that year’s AP U.S. History Exam. Bender’s talk, still available at the AP Central website, reflects his political agenda. Speaking in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq, Bender argues that historians who offer narratives of American exceptionalism “bear some responsibility” for reinforcing “a unilateralist understanding of the United States in the world.” That attitude, says Bender, must be fought.
Offering an alternative, transnational history designed to combat American “unilateralism,” Bender says that Columbus and his successors didn’t discover America so much as they discovered “the ocean world,” a new global community united by the oceans. The oceans, in turn, made possible the slave trade and the birth of modern capitalism, which improved the lives of European, but brought exploitation and tragic injustice to the rest of the world. Bender concludes that early American history is only partially about “utopian dreams of opportunity or escape”. The beginnings of the American story, says Bender, are also deeply rooted in the birth of capitalism, and the “capture, constraint, and exploitation” this implies.
In other words, Bender wants early American history to be less about the Pilgrims, Plymouth Colony, and John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech, and more about the role of the plantation economy and the slave trade in the rise of an intrinsically exploitative international capitalism.
If the College Board didn’t fully understand the political agenda behind Bender’s La Pietra Report before his talk to the AP Exam readers, they had to understand it after. Yet instead of distancing themselves from this highly politicized and left-leaning approach to American history, the College Board redoubled its efforts on Bender’s behalf.
The OAH-AP Joint Advisory Board decided to publish a collection of essays that would serve as a how-to manual for adopting the recommendations of Bender’s La Pietra Report. So, for example, a scholarly essay on American “cultural imperialism” would be paired with a piece by a high school teacher explaining how the topic of American cultural imperialism could be adapted to the AP U.S. History course. Ted Dickson, future co-chair of the committee that actually wrote the new Framework, was chosen to co-edit this book, which was published in 2008 as America on the World Stage: A Global Approach to U.S. History. Thomas Bender wrote an introduction to the book explaining the philosophy behind the La Pietra Report.
A bit of the material in America on the World Stage—an essay on international responses to the Declaration of Independence, for example—could backfire on Bender by reinforcing an American exceptionalist narrative. Most of the essays in America on the World Stage, however, read like deconstructions of the American story, or catalogues of (alleged) American shame.
Consider the treatment of immigration, which was written by Florida State University historian, Suzanne Sinke, who co-chaired (with Ted Dickson) the committee that wrote the new AP U.S. History Framework. Sinke tells the tale of an early 20th Century ethnically Dutch woman who immigrated to America, merely to leave and go elsewhere. Traditional historians would not treat this woman as an American “immigrant” at all. And that’s the point. Sinke emphasizes that her goal in telling the story of a woman who merely passed through America without deciding to stay and become a citizen is to teach us “to think beyond national histories and the terms that are caught up in them.”
Ted Dickson’s companion piece on how to teach Sinke’s essay (co-authored with Louisa Bond Moffitt), suggests asking students why the term “migration” might be preferable to “immigration.” The answer is that “immigration” implies a specific and permanent national destination, whereas “migration” is simply about the movement of people across borders, without any reference to adopting a national identity. The political subtext is clear: national interest and national identity take second place to the interests of individual “migrants,” whose loyalties are ultimately “transnational.”
So just before they became co-chairs of the committee that redesigned the AP U.S. History Framework, Suzanne Sinke and Ted Dickson worked closely together on a project whose goal was to reshape the U.S. History Survey Course along the lines recommended by Thomas Bender and the La Pietra Report.
Lawrence Charap, the College Board’s AP Curriculum and Content Development Director, is in overall charge of the AP U.S. History redesign process. Presumably, Sinke and Dickson answer to him. So it is of interest that Charap wrote the companion piece in America on the World Stage to the scholarly article on American cultural imperialism. This scholarly treatment of American cultural imperialism, penned by left-leaning University of Michigan historian Penny Von Eschen, is relentlessly critical of America’s economic and military presence in the world. Eschen, for example, touts the Marxist tract, How to Read Donald Duck, by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelhart, as the classic treatment of American cultural imperialism. How to Read Donald Duck explores the subtle and sinister ways in which Disney cartoons advocate “adherence to the U.S. economic system and capitalist values and work ethic,” as if this was a very bad thing.
Charap’s essay highlights America’s commercial advertisements and anti-Soviet propaganda efforts in the Middle East during the Cold War. Charap seeks out off-putting examples of American propaganda and then suggests that students to put themselves in the places of people in the Soviet block or developing world as they respond to the American presence. This, indeed, is teaching students to see their country through the eyes of its alleged “victims” and enemies.
So the three people most immediately responsible for the writing of the new AP U.S. History Framework were intimately involved in the College Board’s effort to transform the teaching of American history along the lines of Bender’s La Pietra Report. What’s more, the AP U.S. History redesign process began in August of 2006, just about the time America on the World Stage was taking shape. Dickson, a co-editor of that book, was on the original redesign committee as well as the later one that actually wrote the new AP U.S. History Framework. Dickson himself notes that his work with the OAH (which largely focused on advancing the goals of the La Pietra Report) was a key factor in the College Board’s decision to appoint him to the AP U.S. History Redesign Commission. How can American conservatives, moderates, and even traditional liberals trust an AP U.S. History redesign effort led by figures who were so deeply enmeshed in a leftist attempt to reshape the American history curriculum?
A detailed analysis of the new AP U.S. History Framework is for another time. Suffice it to say that in its downplaying of America’s traditional national story and emphasis instead on material causation and exploitation within the context of a transnational Atlantic World, the new AP U.S. History Framework is a huge step in the direction of precisely the sort of de-nationalized American history advocated by Thomas Bender and the La Pietra Report.
It is also important to emphasize that the concept of American exceptionalism, which is systematically excised from, and contradicted by, the redesigned Framework, is an integral part of several state curriculum guides, including the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). That raises serious legal questions about the compatibility of the redesigned Framework with state standards.
This is not to say that Bender, the La Pietra Report, and the attack on American exceptionalism are the only important ideological influences on the redesigned AP U.S. History Framework. Several other important streams of political and intellectual influence have shaped the new Framework, and I will be detailing these in future reports.
It is true, of course, that as on much else, Americans are divided about how best to teach and understand U.S. history. This is precisely why the new, lengthy, and detailed AP U.S. History Framework is such a bad idea. The brief five-page conceptual guideline the Framework replaced allowed sufficient flexibility for teachers to approach U.S. History from a wide variety of perspectives. Liberals, conservatives, and anyone in-between could teach U.S. history their way, and still see their students do well on the AP Test. The College Board’s new and vastly more detailed guidelines can only be interpreted as an attempt to hijack the teaching of U.S. history on behalf of a leftist political and ideological perspective. The College Board has drastically eroded the freedom of states, school districts, teachers, and parents to choose the history they teach their children. That is why this change must not stand.
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and can be reached at email@example.com. This article is reposted with permission from the author.
Read this week’s powerful letter by Oregon State Representative Dennis Richardson.
Rep. Richardson’s Newsletter August 20, 2014
Common Core. The Answer to Oregon’s Failed Education System?
I flew helicopters for the Army in Vietnam. In flight school it was commonly known that one-third of us Warrant Officer Candidates would “wash-out” and not graduate. While a one-third wash-out rate may have been acceptable there, it is not acceptable for one-third of Oregon high school students to drop-out before graduation.
There are hard questions about Oregon’s education system that deserve to be answered. What will be the costs to individuals, families and society of having one-third of our students dropping out of high school? How are they going to perform in the competitive 21st century global job market? What is Governor John Kitzhaber and Oregon’s state education leaders doing to stop the race to the bottom, where Oregon currently has the second lowest graduation rate in the country, and the highest rate of chronic student absenteeism?
As families get their school supplies in order and make other preparations to help their students start the new school year on the right foot, many are questioning Oregon’s latest endeavor to fix our failed education system and wondering if it will pass the test. Today’s newsletter will address the misguided solution enacted by the Governor and state education leaders to the abysmal condition of Oregon’s public education system, by implementing the newest in a list of federally-promoted educational programs known as Common Core. To put this discussion into perspective, consider the following scenario: For years, the dilapidated Sellwood Bridge in SE Portland has been a source of concern. Out-of-date and unsafe, it needed to be completely rebuilt to remain functional, a project that is currently underway. Now imagine that because of the dilapidated condition of the Sellwood Bridge, every bridge in the state is to be torn down and rebuilt– all at the same time. Think of the cost, the disruption, the waste. Of course the idea would be ridiculous, but in a way it is exactly what is being foisted on the entire Oregon education system by mandating implementation of the Common Core, and the silence from the Legislature is deafening.
What is Common Core?
Starting this academic year, all Oregon public schools (as well as those in many other states) are scheduled to abandon previously established academic standards and implement a new and untried nationalized set of learning goals called Common Core. The performance of these standards will be measured by new standardized tests. At Common Core’s outset, when the federal government offered “stimulus” money to the state Governors that accepted Common Core, the standards and tests involved had not even been written. In other words, the Governor and state education leaders unilaterally committed all Oregon’s school districts to adopting a new statewide curriculum before it had even been developed, and Oregon was committed without Legislative consideration or approval.
Since then, Common Core’s standards and tests have been created by a group of people with very limited classroom experience, and in many cases NO classroom experience at all. Now, Common Core’s standards are being implemented without any legislative or public involvement, and still have not been fully tested. (The implementation of Common Core sounds to me like our national health plan, which was passed by Congress before any of our Congressional representatives had the opportunity to read it.) Currently many states are seeking to repeal or delay implementation of Common Core, and a great deal of legislation has been proposed across the nation to address this issue. The American Federation of Teachers union, called for a midcourse moratorium on the high-stakes consequences of Common Core. The Oregon teachers’ union (O.E.A.) has also called for a moratorium. Even Common Core’s biggest supporter, the Gates Foundation, has called for a two-year delay. Concern over prematurely implementing Common Core crosses political party lines. People who would normally be on opposite sides of the issues are banding together to speak out against Common Core.
Why is opposition to Common Core so widespread and impassioned?
Let’s ask the teachers, those who work in the ‘trenches,’ in Oregon’s classrooms, those who often spend more time with our children than anyone else. The best teachers will tell you that regardless of low pay or long hours, they are teachers because they are passionate about the subjects they teach, about learning, and about being able to make a difference in childrens’ lives. I can only imagine what it will do to the state of our classrooms if, when summer vacation ends, our teachers must throw out the lesson plans they adjust to meet their students’ needs and instead teach to Common Core’s new standardized tests—replacing curriculum with test preparation activities. The ‘heart’ and the passion that connects our best teachers to their students will be missing when they are relegated to class monitors, provided scripted materials written by bureaucrats and other non-educators. Certainly Oregon’s educational system needs to be overhauled, but Common Core is not ready to solve the systemic needs of Oregon’s failed educational system. Veteran teachers are reporting morale is at an all-time low and it’s attributed to the confusion and sterility of Common Core State Standard’s (CCSS) approach to learning and testing. This concerns me greatly, for if passion and creativity are forced out of teaching, we will lose our passionate and creative teachers.
To make matters worse, the future of our teachers are at risk. The new system will tie teacher evaluations to student success on Common Core tests without provisions made for those who teach our more “high-risk” learners, such as low-income students and those with learning disabilities. It seems an almost foregone conclusion that our at-risk learners will fail and the jobs of their teachers are jeopardized since pro-Common Core State Deputy School Superintendent Ron Saxton expects only 35% of Oregon students will pass the Common Core tests. The Oregon Department of Education has requested the U.S. Department of Education to temporarily let teachers off the hook for expected low test scores of Oregon students, but the schools and school districts will be ranked. Who then will teach our most challenged students, when teachers know their reputations or professional futures could be jeopardized if they work with at-risk students? Add the fact that teachers have been given little or no training on these new standards, and it becomes very evident that there are serious flaws with Common Core. Should we really be implementing something we are expecting students to fail? Who will flourish in this setting? Gifted students will be bored, students who already dislike school will be even more inclined to skip, and students with obstacles to learning will simply be unable to succeed. Teachers in schools that have already begun implementing Common Core tell me how struggling students are being pulled from electives in order to pass early implementation Common Core tests. These teachers are witnessing the marginalization of students whose strengths lie outside of the areas being tested. Many teachers are agonizing that Common Core’s mandate will do more harm than good, and will only compound Oregon’s problems with absenteeism and lack of on-time graduation. Is this really what we want for Oregon’s children? Of course not.
When it comes to enacting these new standards, we have more unanswered questions. How much will it cost to train teachers to implement Common Core? How much to purchase new learning materials and to acquire the technology necessary to administer and track the tests? And, who will pay? With schools already in dire financial straits, where will the money come from to implement yet another federal educational experiment on Oregon’s rising generation? Finally, it concerns me to see that many of the people behind these standards and the requirements of these tests are affiliated with multi-billion dollar companies with financial conflicts of interest.
These are companies that have near monopolies on the contracts to provide the tests and corresponding curriculum. There is a glaring conflict of interest in having mandatory materials designed by those who are positioned to profit from them. And even if profits to its originators didn’t taint this new system, even if good intentions were the sole impetus behind this top-down policy, national control of state education policies is still a bad idea.
Decisions about the education of our children should not be dictated by a select, distant few. Educational decisions are best made by those closest to the students—parents, teachers and local school boards—not far away state and federal bureaucrats and large, conflicted corporate representatives. Oregon’s education standards need local control with rational state oversight and evidence-based practices learned from Oregon’s most successful schools. Currently, Oregon’s on-time graduation rate is second worst in the nation and our student absentee rate higher than every other state. I believe in educational equality for all students and that every student deserves three things—a mentor, a reason to stay in school and an opportunity for a decent job after graduation. I believe action to fix Oregon’s failing schools system must be taken, but it should be based on what is working in Oregon’s most successful schools, not untried educational experiments fomented by national “educrats” and funded with federal largess.
Solutions for Oregon educational system’s tragic failure. Rather than fret over the dismal state of Oregon’s statewide educational system and rather than pathetic attempts by Governor Kitzhaber and his appointed education leaders to address it by implementing Common Core, let’s look to Oregon’s home-grown examples of success. Let’s look to the many stories of exemplary teaching and learning that are setting the standard for academic achievement in Oregon. At Riverdale High School in SW Portland, students in Mark Wechter’s physics class are ranked among the best national and international young bridge engineers today. At Summit High School in Bend, more than 40% of the students take AP classes prior to graduation. Students in the Portland School District have won more National Constitution Team championships than any other city in the nation. Singers in Sue Schriener’s vocal ensemble, “Souled Out” at Wilsonville High have competed nationally and are strong enough musicians to share the spotlight with professional ensembles. And there are many more stories like these. In fact, 77 Oregon public schools were exemplary according to the US News and World Report 2014 list of America’s best high schools.
The list of Oregon schools included four with gold medals (Beaverton’s International School ranked #26 out of more than 19,000 public schools nationwide), 22 with silver medals and 51 with bronze medals. With answers and examples of excellence right here in Oregon, why on earth should we diminish these rich learning environments by focusing on untried, one-size-fits-all nationalized experiments like Common Core? We shouldn’t. I believe it’s in the best interests of our students to stop implementing Common Core. It’s a remotely managed reform measure fraught with problems. Let’s look to model programs in Oregon’s own commendable schools for guidance on how to improve the performance of schools and students that are struggling. We should halt Common Core’s race to the middle and allow local schools who best understand their students to engage in creating Oregon’s educational solutions. We should focus on what it is that engages students and keeps them interested and in school, rather than on high stakes educational experiments written by “educrats” who don’t have an understanding of our children. Simply put, I strongly recommend we join the ranks of states that require “evidence-based” practices and have turned down Common Core.
Since our students are returning to class in less than a month, our Governor and state education leaders should immediately put a moratorium on Common Core. If they fail to take the initiative, our Legislative leaders should be unified in demanding an immediate moratorium on Common Core. We only have one chance to educate a child and all our children deserve better than what they’ll get from Common Core.
Representative Dennis Richardson