Saturday, May 24, 2014

Will "AP" Stand for "Assessment Prep"?

In Which I Have To Take Back Some of the Nice Things I Said About AP Courses

When I last wrote about the AP courses, I praised the looseness of the course design. I should have known better. Alert readers pointed me at the news from AP-land; apparently the looseness is now seen as a design flaw to be fixed.

Some courses, like the Literature and Composition, still sum up the basics in a half-dozen pages. But courses are being redesigned. AP US History is due to roll out new and shiny next fall, and its course summary is now close to 100 pages. Why the added detail?

The redesign of the AP U.S. History course and exam accomplishes two major goals: it maintains AP U.S. History's strong alignment with the knowledge and skills taught in introductory courses at the college level, and also offers teachers the flexibility to focus on specific historical topics, events, and issues in depth.

Yes, by providing a more specific and detailed course outline, the College Board folks will be giving teachers more flexibility, much like a straightjacket provides more freedom and ignorance is strength. In fact, "the lack of specificity put pressure on many teachers: uncertain about what the AP Exam would assess, they attempted to cover every detail of American history."

The AP folks have been working to erase some of that uncertainty for a while now. If you haven't looked under the AP hood in a while, you may not know that for the past five years or so, the College Board has required that all wannabe AP teachers must submit their syllabus for an audit annually. If that seems like a great deal of work, the College Board offers sample annotated syllabi-- in other words, you can now get AP courses in a can. In the case of AP History, it's a nineteen page can.

But if we look under the new extended course framework hood, what do we find? Some conservatives, like the folks at the Heartland Institute, a righty thinky tanky, think we find a newly biased version of history. The framework breaks the course into four areas. Let's look at each:

I. Historical Thinking Skills

These are just what the title implies-- various skills useful in organizing and interpreting historical information, like being able to determine plausible cause and effect linkage. I would be happy to teach this stuff. No problems here.

II. Thematic Learning Objectives

Now it gets dicey. Whether we're talking about the history of the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire or the history of Bob and Ethel's tempestuous dating relationship, we're going to make some judgments about what themes/factors drive the narrative. My college history professor said 19th century European history was all about war, nationalism, class,, something else. (What do you want from me? It was a long time ago!) And that in itself was a judgment.

I was going to get specific here, but there are seven large thematic objectives and each is broken down into several more for a grand total of  fifty specific learning objectives, for example:

Analyze how changing religious ideals, Enlightenment beliefs, and republican thought shaped the politics, culture, and society of the colonial era through the early Republic

Fifty of those, so basically one a week. Holy smokes.

III. The Concept Outline

Uh-oh. Here's the part that's going to start to piss people off.

This breaks down the historical periods that teachers are supposed to use, and provides the conclusions that the students are supposed to reach. For instance:

Reinforced by a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority, the British system enslaved black people in perpetuity, altered African gender and kinship relationships in the colonies, and was one factor that led the British colonists into violent confrontations with native peoples. 

This outline is exceptionally specific, and notable for what it does and doesn't include. It favors economic factors, and is not very interested in social or cultural matters. It isn't interested in military history at all-- wars appear briefly but little is said about how they are fought and won. The outline was also clearly not the product of any historians who believe in the Great Man theory of history-- very few individuals appear at all. Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan are barely seen in relation to the historic moments associated with them. The closer we get to modern times, the more evident are the attempts to touch all the properly balanced or politically correct, depending on how you feel about such things. We cover Japanese-American internment camps, but not the national collective actions to support the fight against the Nazis. And if you think God helped make America great, you will not love the new AP version.

I'm not prepared to argue that any of these things absolutely need to be included in a summary of US history. It's very much open to debate, or at least it's open to debate any place other than in an AP History class. In this large section, the AP folks have imposed one specific reading of American history. Here comes the straightjacket of flexibility for AP History teachers.

Speaking of which, the section begins with a nice outline that tells us how much instructional time to devote to each period, and how much of the test will cover the indicated span.

IV. An intro to the test itself. Let's let that be.

This is going to anger some folks on the right (and it should anger the left as well). The same people who think creationism should be taught in science class will object to this outline's omission of America's exceptional God-given role in the world, or the implicit criticism of America in some of the goals. They are wrong. Some things just have no basis in fact and there's no reason for us to teach them in school.

But they will be right about one thing-- they will call this course outline biased, and in that they will be correct. And when studying history, I don't care whether your bias is widely accepted or Crazypants McFringebob-- part of the whole point of doing history is the give-and-take, back-and-forth, argue-and-support of differing viewpoints about exactly what happened, why it happened, why it mattered, and what happened next because of it. Real authentic history is about the never-ending wrestling matches over these questions-- not the learning to accept the answers that a current authority offers.

Beyond that-- remember back at the top when the College Board said that one benefit of this reboot would be more time to study pieces of history in greater depth? Can we talk about the history of coming up with that claim, because it had to have involved being on some historically strong drugs. Who knew that AP would turn into the class where teachers said, "Boy, I'd like to continue this discussion, but it's Tuesday and we have to move on the next unit right now."

Somehow the College Board (now run by our old buddy David Coleman) has taken AP US History from a loose framework for college-level inquiry and deep freewheeling study and exploration to a hog-tied tightly dictated connect-the-dots learn by numbers course.

But teachers can rest easy, knowing that they will now be able to do a better than ever job of prepping students to take the US History AP test.

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