New U.S. history curriculum sparks education battle of 2014

Students Andrea Colmenero, left, and Adriana Gonzales join a march in Edgewater, Colo., on Sept. 29 against a proposal to change the U.S. history curriculum.
(Brennan Linsley / Associated Press)

To improve the Advanced Placement class for U.S. history, some of the best and brightest history scholars in the country worked for six years on a new curriculum.

The idea was to replace traditional memorization with more emphasis on critical thinking and some key periods in American history, such as the 1980s.

It all seemed innocuous enough. Maybe even a tad dry.

Then it exploded.

Just weeks before the school year began, the change sparked a political feud over how children should be taught about American history — and whose version.


From the tea party to talk radio, conservatives have taken aim at the new curriculum, describing it as liberally biased and anti-American.

In August, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution condemning the course, decrying it as a “radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.”

The resolution urged Congress to withhold any federal funding to the College Board, a private company that designed the curriculum, until the course is rewritten. The resolution called for a congressional investigation and at least a one-year delay in implementing the course while a committee of lawmakers, educators and parents come up with a new version that tells “the true history” of the country.

Concerned Women for America, a conservative Christian women’s activist group that claims more than 600,000 members, has told followers to petition local and state school boards to delay the implementation of the new course and be ready to pull their children out of Advanced Placement classes unless revisions are made.

Two weeks ago, the Texas Education Agency overwhelmingly approved a preliminary proposal to favor state-sanctioned educational materials in the classrooms over those provided by the College Board or other outside educational groups.

“No one is against AP classes,” said Ken Mercer, a board member from San Antonio who was behind the proposal. But the tea party Republican said he was deeply concerned about what he called the “liberal bias” of the Advanced Placement materials.

“I’ve had kids tell me when they get to college, their U.S. History 101 class is really I hate America 101,” Mercer said.

The fight over the AP curriculum really took hold in Colorado.

Since Sept. 22, thousands of Jefferson County high school students have walked out of classes in a protest against a conservative school board member’s plan to scrutinize the AP history curriculum after she also found it too negative in its depiction of America.

On Tuesday, students at a middle school in the same sprawling suburban Denver district also walked out. On Monday, two high schools had to close because of teacher sickouts. Earlier, two others were forced to close.

Julie Williams, elected last year to the Jeffco Public Schools board as part of a conservative slate now in the majority, asked that teachers instead use a curriculum that promotes a respect for authority, patriotism and “essentials and benefits of the free-enterprise system.”

She said teachers should avoid materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard the law.”

Williams and other conservatives say the new framework leaves out important positive figures and events in American history by design to tilt the instruction. They complain there are only passing references to the Founding Fathers, to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, and to important military battles won by the United States.

Williams has acknowledge that she only skimmed the framework and did not really know what was in the choice of reading materials vetted by the College Board.

The vitriol against the test has taken the College Board aback. “The curriculum framework that follows is just that — frameworks for conveying the content and skills typically required for college credit and placement,” the group said in a statement.

“The frameworks do not specify the detailed content a teacher will choose to teach,” the statement said.

The College Board added that no historical figures or events had been omitted that were present in previous years.

The board has released a sample test, which is given at the end of the class to determine whether a student receives college credit. The test includes a section on interpreting documents and charts, multiple-choice questions and essays.

Here are a few sample questions. “Briefly explain ONE example of how contact between Native American and Europeans brought changes to Native American societies in the period 1492 to 1700.”

An essay question: “Analyze major changes and continuities in the social and economic experiences of African Americans who migrated from the rural South to urban areas in the North in the period 1910-1920.”

Another: “Some historians have argued that the American Revolution was not revolutionary in nature. Support, modify or refute this interpretation.”

The leadership of the National Education Assn. has been closely watching the controversy.

“There are political overtones all over this. It certainly does appear that this is not isolated. What I don’t know is who is writing the script,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said.

In Tennessee, Hal Rounds, a tea party candidate who recently lost his Republican primary challenge for the state’s House of Representatives, agrees that this fight is political, but he blames the other side.

“I have become real concerned about the way history is being taught. Many people in this country’s subcultures, and I call intellectual academics a subculture, think that it’s not right for America to be on top of the world. So they are teaching the bad things in history and leaving the good things out,” he said.

That notion baffles history teachers who are by turns insulted and enraged.

Stephanie Rossi, a 35-year teacher who has taught AP U.S. history at Wheat Ridge High School in Jefferson County for more than a decade, is stunned by “the assumption that teachers of U.S. history are leading kids astray, teaching them to be un-American and we’re not honoring the history of this country.”

She said critics did not understand the new curriculum. Most students come to the accelerated class already understanding well-known historical characters and events.

Her job, she said, is to challenge them to dig deeper into the role of religion, geography and ideology surrounding history and adding other voices or perspectives that might not be as familiar.

“This notion that we would leave these pivotal figures in American history out is just ludicrous,” said Rossi, who serves as vice president of the Jefferson County teachers union.

“I don’t think of history as positive or negative. I think of it as a story. And within that story there are successes and failures, tragedies and moments of great brilliance,” she said. “I feel very strongly that I have to let my students come to their own understanding, their own conclusions.”