Advanced Placement United States History: A Fifty-Year Classroom Perspective

tags: APUSH

Luther Spoehr, Senior Lecturer in Education and History at Brown University, taught AP US History for 18 years, served as an AP Reader and consultant, and is co-author, with Alan Fraker, of "Doing the DBQ: Teaching and Learning with the Document-Based Question" (1994).

High school students -- Roxbury, NJ 1955

The current dust-up over the College Board’s new Framework and Examination format for Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) has been cast primarily in political terms. In tones and terms reminiscent of the controversy about the National History Standards over twenty years ago, groups such as the National Association of Scholars and even the Republican National Committee (an organization not ordinarily expected to be concerned with thoughtful historical analysis) have denounced the new version of APUSH as imposing a leftward tilt on the course, one that overemphasizes social history and slights the role of heroic historical actors such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Even a cursory look at the new Framework and Exam, however, shows that within the seven idiosyncratically-named “Thematic Learning Objectives” (Identity; Work, Exchange, and Technology; Peopling; Politics and Power; America in the World; Environment and Geography—Physical and Human; Ideas, Beliefs, and Culture), there are plenty of spaces for the traditionally-minded to explore. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the rest are all there, as are the Founders, even if they aren’t all mentioned by name. No specific interpretation is prescribed. Nor should one be.

But the new Framework, which will provide teachers with guidance for their own syllabi, is problematic in other ways. It is almost 70 pages long, not counting more than 15 pages devoted to the newly-formatted Exam. The “Thematic Learning Objectives” come with their own lengthy lists of questions, are cross-referenced with nine Historical Thinking Skills, and span nine chronological periods (from 1491 to the present). In short, it is a very complex, multi-dimensional grid that will take some time for even experienced teachers to accommodate. Indeed, it is so detailed that some will find it to be less a comforter than a straitjacket.

The new Framework is just the latest in a series of adjustments that the AP program has made to its US History course during the 60 years of the program’s existence. This past year marked the fiftieth year that I have been an observer of APUSH—first as student, then as instructor, AP Reader, AP curriculum consultant, and close observer of American school reform. So I have been able to see how changes in the AP curriculum and assessment have played out in the classroom. And from what I have observed, the form and content of APUSH has been primarily shaped not by political ideology, but by the changing environment of American education itself.

When, as a junior at North Hills High School (a public school just outside Pittsburgh), I took AP American History (as it was then called) in 1963-64, American education was experiencing the brief obsession with “excellence” that marked the immediate post-Sputnik period, between the passage of the National Defense Education Act (1958) and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965). Students identified as academically strong (usually on the basis of grades and/or standardized test scores) were presented with the New Math and other new approaches intended to raise achievement and help American catch up with the Russians. SAT scores rose, and academics, policymakers, and others who had lamented the “Educational Wasteland” of the first postwar decade felt their spirits rise with them.

The AP program, founded in the mid-1950s, was still undergoing its shakedown cruise in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but was well-positioned to take advantage of the new emphasis on accelerated learning. Still working out the kinks in the system, hoping to build credibility with dubious college faculties, it was still small and self-consciously elite, even elitist. To get into the course at North Hills, a student had to have maintained a certain grade average and write a satisfactory (timed) essay. Of the Class of 1965’s 528 members, 15 were chosen for the AP class (I don’t recall how many actually applied), which was frankly described as “experimental.”

At that time, North Hills offered three AP courses: American history for juniors; AP English and/or AP European History for seniors. The same teacher taught all of them. And although I had had a number of fine English and history teachers, Vernon Metz was in a class by himself. Partly because the College Board urged schools to count AP courses as two courses, those were the only three courses he taught (he also ran the speech and debate program). Extraordinarily knowledgeable about history and literature, a superb orchestrator of class discussions, and a shrewd psychologist who knew when to pat students on the back and when to insert the needle, Metz had the perfect background and persona for an AP instructor. He was part of a team involved with Edwin Fenton’s pioneering work on the “inquiry method” at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon University). The syllabus pulled no punches: “You are now enrolled in a college-level course in American history….The course will not be easy, but neither will it be dull.” Right on both counts.

For summer reading, students were assigned three paperbacks: Henry Bamford Parkes’s The American Experience; John Higham’s edited collection on historiography, The Reconstruction of American History; and Richard Hofstadter’s engrossing, sardonic classic, The American Political Tradition. (I remember laughing out loud when coming upon his encapsulation of John Calhoun’s unromantic, legalistic personality: “there is a traditional gibe to the effect that he once began a poem with ‘Whereas,’ and stopped.”) Once classes began, we were immersed in inquiry, reading a textbook (The United States: The History of a Republic, by Hofstadter, William Miller, and Daniel Aaron) and piles of primary sources, many of them in a two-volume set, Sources of the American Republic, edited by Marvin Meyers, Alexander Kern, and John Cawelti, as well as mimeographed essays such as “What Is a Social Class?” Both in volume and sophistication, the summer reading and the daily fare have not been exceeded, and rarely equaled, in any APUSH course with which I am familiar.

The course emphasized politics—or, more accurately perhaps, political culture—but not with the conservative political slant that current left-wing critics might deplore and current right-wing critics might relish. When dealing with Andrew Jackson’s presidency, for instance, Hofstadter, Miller and Aaron did spend a lot of time on the Bank War and Nullification, but they gave pointed attention to his involvement in Indian Removal: “That Jackson sometimes interpreted his own prejudices and those of his often rapacious countrymen as the voice of God is more a criticism of his limited outlook than of his sincerity.” (Today’s Republican National Committee would probably not approve.) When preparing for the Exam, we worked up answers to essay questions from previous Exams, most of them political, but including “Analyze the movement for ONE of the following: women’s rights, Negro rights, and temperance. Consider in your answer motives, methods, leadership, and accomplishments.” And this: “‘Opposition to the immigrant was primarily rooted in economics and politics.’ Evaluate this generalization as applied to any TWO of the following: A) the 1790s. B) the 1850s C) the 1880s D) the 1920s.” As these examples show, social history was not absent from the curriculum even then. The Exam contained several of these relatively “unscaffolded” essay questions.

Most worth highlighting, it seems to me, is not the content of the course (although it was substantially broader and more thorough than it is often credited with being), but the pedagogy. The “New Social History” was just glimmering on the horizon; today’s holy trinity of race, gender, and class were present, but did not preside. But even though the term “Historical Thinking” was not used, that is what we were taught. Constantly investigating primary sources (the “Amherst Series” of thin black booklets was a staple), confronted with open-ended questions without “right” answers, taught to look for evidence, assess conflicting accounts, and anticipate counter-arguments, we got a full dose of instruction that could serve as a model of “best practices” today. Although I believe I’m the only one in my class who broke bad and became a historian, that class and that teacher have been recurrent topics of conversation whenever my classmates and I converge.

By the time I emerged from undergraduate and graduate school over a decade later and undertook teaching the AP course myself, the educational winds were blowing from a different direction, with more emphasis on access and equity. North Hills had a half dozen sections of APUSH (for a substantially smaller school), and public schools across the land were following suit. I don’t know how many students across the country took the APUSH Exam in 1964, but I have learned that fewer than 38,000 Exams were administered in all subjects combined. By 1982, when I had been teaching AP for five years and attended my first Reading, over 40,000 students took the APUSH alone. Last spring, it was over 440,000.

Other aspects of the program were changing, too. In 1973, the College Board added the Document-Based Question, which required students to read a set of primary sources and answer a question based on them. Interestingly, in its first incarnation, students were not asked to supply contextual or other “outside information,” but just to focus on the documents. This essentially turned what was otherwise an arguably “authentic” historical task into a speed reading and writing exercise, particularly as the number of documents expanded. The best DBQ of this early lot included 15 documents, some long and complex, and asked students to discuss “property distribution, social structure, politics and religion” in Wethersfield, Connecticut. It may have given the format a few more years of life than it deserved. (And it was a wonderful teaching tool: my own classes spent several days on it.) But because studies showed that students were spending more and more time reading (at least one DBQ had over 20 documents) and very little time writing, the leaders of the program finally decided to make a change.

In 1982, an eight-document DBQ on John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry introduced the new, shorter format that also required that students supply “outside information.” Ingeniously, the 1982 DBQ was arranged so that many of the documents implicitly “commented” on ideas expressed in at least one other document; the most alert students caught on. However, few of the subsequent DBQ’s approached the sophistication of 1982’s. Most provided documents that served primarily as memory cues to remind students to cover a specific aspect of the question. Although the number and length of documents quickly began creeping upward, that remains the format of the DBQ today.

Introducing the DBQ in the “Back-to-Basics” 1970s, and then refining it in the early ‘80s, was a bold stroke. SAT scores had been on the skids since the mid-‘60s, and writing skills were understood to be skidding with them. But now high school students were asked to employ a number of what we would now call “historical thinking” skills to interpret primary sources in much the same way that historians do. It was to be the last bold stroke the program would venture for the next 30 years.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the content of the course evolved to reflect the changing interests of historians in general. The most obvious change was the growing emphasis on social history, which came to be placed on an equal footing with politics and public issues. And, naturally, the chronological span the course was supposed to cover grew as well. My 1963-64 course had gotten to 1945. By the 1980s, the College Board expected APUSH to go well beyond that—but many, probably most, did not. After becoming a curriculum consultant for the program in 1984, I heard many teachers concede that they were still not covering material after 1945. It took the addition of multiple-choice questions and then essay questions on recent history to prod many teachers to make the adjustment, and even then it was stressful.

Indeed, in 20 years of conducting half-day and multi-day workshops for Fred Wetzel and the New England office of the College Board, the most common concern I heard was “coverage.” Partly this was a function of the way they taught. Many teachers seemed to believe that if they didn’t say it, the students wouldn’t learn it. They saw history teaching the way Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind did: “Facts alone are wanted in life.” The job of consultants like me was to move them beyond this—to be willing to try things other than lecture.

I had plenty of models, from Vernon Metz, to college mentors like Roger Lane and Wallace MacCaffrey at Haverford College, to the inimitably creative Eric Rothschild of Scarsdale High School (who showed me how to get every student involved in formal classroom debate). But I had to admit that many of these teachers I met, worn down by teaching the survey as forced march, faced obstacles that many of my icons had not: not only did they have to “cover” the ‘60s, then the ‘70s, then the ‘80s, but many of them were teaching two or more APUSH sections, sometimes enrolling 25-30 students each, with no course relief because they were teaching AP. Some teachers, mainly those in independent schools and wealthy suburban public schools, managed to duplicate the individual attention we had gotten, but the majority could not.

Moreover, history was falling out of fashion. The new emphasis on standards-based reform sparked by 1983’s alarming (and alarmist) “Nation at Risk” report gave history short shrift in favor of math and “language arts.” Massachusetts, for example, when pioneering its statewide assessment system in the 1990s, made a start at testing students in history, but soon discarded it as too expensive, too time-consuming, too controversial, and, by clear implication, not important enough. So APUSH students arrived in their teachers’ classrooms having learned less history in the earlier grades than we had. That deterioration accelerated after No Child Left Behind, which further marginalized history in favor of math and language arts, was implemented in 2002.

Over the past 30 years, the College Board has found many ways to support teachers, particularly those new to the program. To professional development sessions with consultants were added printed guides with sample syllabi. After years of resisting, they released multiple-choice questions from the Exams themselves. The AHA ran a column on AP History. A friend and colleague, Alan Fraker, and I co-authored a book, “Doing the DBQ: Teaching and Learning with the Document-Based Question,” that provided the documents and commentary for 20 years of DBQ’s. The program published the rubrics for the essays, in official-looking formats that were a far cry from the informally typed ones distributed to Readers in 1982, and sample essays, with the rationales for the grades they had been assigned. Once the internet had arrived in a big way, “AP Central” went online to provide teachers with these materials and a wide variety of other aids.

But the course was outrunning the program’s ability to keep up. Just as higher education became mass education in the years after World War II, the AP program, particularly its “big four”—APUSH, Biology, Calculus AB, and English—became mass education, too. Enrollment in APUSH skyrocketed past 100,000, then 200,000, then 300,000. Instead of being used for placement and credit, the courses and the grades earned on the Exams became a way for students to enhance their college applications, particularly to elite schools. As competition for admission to those colleges became fiercer, students submitted transcripts with six, seven, even ten AP scores on their transcripts. It would have been impossible in 1963-64 to take four or five courses a year as intense as my APUSH was. Even at Los Angeles’s Garfield High School in the early 1980s, where pressures to go to college weren’t so widespread, Jaime Escalante got pushback from teachers concerned that his AP course was too demanding and hurt student performance in their classes. The larger classes, frequently resulting from schools’ “open door” policies in the name of equity and access, put even more pressure on teachers. In some districts, they received performance bonuses when students got 4’s and 5’s, and taken off the class if there were too many 1’s and 2’s. “Teaching to the test,” often lamented in today’s “era of accountability,” came early to the AP program. The idealists among us tried to say that APUSH was a curriculum, not just an Exam; I would tell my students that a course approximating a college seminar was worthwhile for its own sake, and that the Exam was just a “second bite at the apple.” But that became a hard sell, even by the mid-90s.

Under pressure from colleges for assurance that AP classes entailed college level work, the AP program began to protect its brand by requiring that schools wanting to designate courses as AP had to submit the resumes of their instructors and the syllabi of their courses for prior approval. It tightened its standards on the Exam, so that today barely 50% of students get 3’s. It also modified the Exam to accommodate the broad but shallow approach taken in so many classrooms. The Multiple-Choice section grew to count 50% of the Exam score. When students had to write only one free response essay, in addition to the DBQ, their essays became shorter and shorter, not because they were running out of time, but because they had too little to say. So the Exam was modified to require two free response essays (picking one of two from each of two pairs of questions), each of them narrower and more “scaffolded” than anything seen in the early years.

The 2014 version of the Exam is both a continuation and a response to these trends. It adds scaffolding, while attempting to sharpen its focus. Part I begins with 55 multiple-choice questions (a dramatically reduced number, most of them apparently focused specifically on demonstrating understanding written documents, photographs, graphs, maps, and the like) to be answered in 55 minutes. Then, in 45 minutes, students are to write four one-page responses to questions such as this:

“Using your knowledge of United States history, answer parts a and b.

a) Briefly explain why ONE of the following periods best represents the beginning of a democracy in the United States. Provide at least ONE piece of evidence from the period to support your explanation

* Rise of political parties in the 1790s

*Development of voluntary organizations to promote social reforms between the 1820s and the 1840s

* Emergence of the Democrats and the Whigs as political parties in the 1830s

b) Briefly explain why ONE of the other options is not as persuasive as the one you chose.”

One can see the test makers hoping to evoke precision instead of rambling vagaries, probing for depth rather than testing for breadth. Whether they will get precision or just inaccurate specifics that provide fodder for lists of bloopers remains to be seen, but this particular part of the Exam marks the most dramatic change in format for the Exam since the introduction of DBQs.

In the new format, the multiple-choice questions still count for 40% of the Exam, with the short answers worth another 20%. After a break and a 15-minute reading period comes the DBQ, then one of two free response questions “to demonstrate what they know best,” the former taking 45 minutes to write; the latter, 35 minutes.

Got all that? Perhaps it just takes time. Lawrence Charap, the Director of AP Curriculum and Content Development for the College Board, says (in an essay in the National Council for History Education’s “History Matters!”) that “perhaps the most important achievement of the redesign project is … agreement on a set of historical thinking skills that AP history courses should emphasize.” At the same time, there was concern that “teachers had no way of anticipating the specific knowledge that might be assessed on the AP Exam.” The new APUSH Curriculum Framework and Exam is a thorough, well-intended effort to bring historical thinking skills to the fore and let teachers know exactly what to expect.

It may be too much of a good thing. With its lists of coded Historical Thinking Skills and Thematic Learning Objectives (with its own lists of sub-objectives, 50 in all!), all linked to the nine historical periods, to say nothing of the helpful shaded boxes that say things like “Teachers have the flexibility to use examples such as the following: Pueblo, Chinook,” the effect might be overwhelming, even stifling. And how seriously should a teacher be expected to take the false precision of the suggestion that, for example, 13% (not 12%, not 14%) of instructional time be spent on the period between 1844 and 1877 (and another 13% on 1865-1898)? As a classroom observer, I have seen history teachers, pressed for time and short on background knowledge, march their students through the years with factual question after factual question, rarely stopping even to ask students to draw inferences, much less express and defend an interpretation or a value judgment. This new hundred-page Curriculum Framework may well keep that particular ball rolling.

Perhaps this is just another way in which the new APUSH is the product of our own time. Today, reading is often taught by teachers speaking from scripts, and performance is assessed by standardized tests that reward formulaic responses. Lesson plans must account for every second of time, leaving little room for improvisation inspired by the moment. High school principals hustle to “raise the bar” and improve their schools’ prestige by adding Advanced Placement history classes, but in the lower grades history has been pushed to the margins, so students arrive in AP classes less prepared than ever. And now, out of both self-interest and idealism, the College Board produces a new Curriculum Framework and modified Exam that may hamstring teachers as often as it empowers them.

In short, the Advanced Placement United States History program faces an uncertain future. I am not nostalgic enough to think that 50 years ago every APUSH course was taught by a great teacher like the one I had, or naive enough to think that every teacher today can be made great. Despite the overuse of the term, we all know that truly great teachers are few and far between. But one goal of districts, principals, and the AP program itself should be to make the pretty good teachers into good ones, and help the good ones approach greatness. That means making history come alive. And that will only happen if course and student loads are reduced, professional enrichment opportunities are multiplied, and the students heading for high school are given full and well-rounded educations, not placed on the forced marches toward annual, narrow standardized tests that they experience now.

We are truly at a moment when the glass is half full and half empty. On the one hand, well over half of the high schools in America offer Advanced Placement; on the other, an increasing number of prestigious independent schools and public high schools have opted out of AP, banking on their reputations to convince colleges that their own courses, less driven by a detailed Framework, will be superior. On one hand, participation in APUSH is approaching 500,000 students per year; on the other, it is generally understood, if not advertised, that overall student performance, especially writing, has steadily declined over the years. On one hand, APUSH remains arguably the most thorough and rigorous survey taught in the country, at a time when many colleges and universities are dropping surveys entirely. On the other, far too many—perhaps most--APUSH courses are still driven by teachers’ obsession with “coverage”—as Lawrence Charap says, they want to be able to “[anticipate] the specific knowledge that might be assessed.” How many of them will be able to breathe life into the Framework, with so many details to distract them? How many, faced with the new Framework, will even try?

We can only hope for the best. Not every AP US History course can be taught by a Vernon Metz. But we can do it better than we are now. And, the NAS and the RNC to the contrary notwithstanding, it’s still the best thing out there.

Further Reading about the Advanced Placement Program

Eric Rothschild, “Four Decades of the Advanced Placement Program” in The History Teacher, Vol. 32, no. 2 (Special Issue: Advanced Placement, Feb. 1999), pp. 175-206.

Jack Schneider, “Privilege, equity, and the Advanced Placement Program: Tug of war” in Journal of Curriculum Studies, Vol. 41, No. 6 (2009), pp. 813-831.

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