Making history: Battles brew over alleged bias in Advanced Placement standards

Politicians get heated over U.S. history
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Story highlights

  • Several states debating new framework for AP history instruction
  • Conservatives say it is biased
  • College Board says framework is meant to guide curriculum

(CNN)This year, high school students taking Advanced Placement U.S. history in some parts of the country are getting a lesson in current affairs.

And in partisanship.
The College Board, which creates standards for what knowledge students in AP classes must demonstrate to get college credit for taking the course, introduced a new 95-page framework that is causing controversy.
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    Not for what's in it, but for what is left out.
    Conservative school board members in several states say it's biased and not patriotic enough.
    They complain that the new framework does not mention important facts and figures, like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or the Founding Fathers and Declaration of Independence.
    King is mentioned in the guidelines, as are the Black Panthers, but the woman who started the movement against the framework says it's not about specific examples, but what she believes to be a liberal theme.
    The College Board, backed by many teachers, says that a framework doesn't dictate curriculum, it only guides it. And that it's absurd to conclude that teachers wouldn't teach such important issues as part of American history.
    Proponents of the new framework argue it was written by professors and historians who are much more qualified to set standards than local school board members.
    Each side is accusing the other of playing politics with American History.
    In several states, including Oklahoma, Georgia, Nebraska, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, conservatives have introduced proposals to revise the framework to include specific facts, and to make sure that it promotes American exceptionalism, or to withdraw funding from the College Board.
    "When you start omitting things, you're censoring things," said Ken Mercer, the Texas state board of education member who wrote the first piece of legislation against the framework. "I was shocked. They had civil rights and Black Panthers, but not Rosa Parks. What's left out smells of agenda."
    In response, the College Board said, "In the face of these attacks ... AP teachers and students, our member institutions, and the American people can rest assured: The College Board will not compromise the integrity of the Advanced Placement Program."

    Pitched battle in Colorado

    Nowhere has this caused more disturbance than in Jefferson County, Colorado, where high schoolers have been protesting the school board's decision to establish a review committee for the new framework. Some even walked out of school for several days in the fall.
    "This is wrong for Jefferson County, this is wrong for us as students. This is wrong for American history," one student said during public comment at an October school board meeting.
    "True patriotism ought to be based upon accurate understanding of American history, and not a biased promotion of American exceptionalism," said another.
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    Conservative board member Julie Williams wrote the Jefferson County proposal, which states: "Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law."
    "I was stunned that this resolution was even coming before the school board," said board member Lesley Dahlkemper. "It's too extreme. It goes too far and I believe our students deserve an unvarnished view of history."
    A revised proposal that did not include that strong language passed by a 3-2 vote.
    "I was insulted," said Stephanie Rossi, who teaches the class at Wheat Ridge High School in Jefferson County. "The thought that a board member that is supposed to represent an educational institution is assuming that history teachers in her district are going to lead kids to be un-American and unpatriotic."
    The students protested again at the November meeting, reading aloud from their history textbooks.

    "A relentless, negative drumbeat about America"

    Conservative board member Ken Witt, who voted for the framework, said he believes it is the right of a local school board to review the curriculum of all classes students take.
    "You know, there is a national dialogue around AP U.S. history and a lot of concerns have been raised about the balance in that curriculum," Witt said.
    When pressed, he could not give specific examples of his concerns, and said only that he wanted a review of it.
    Williams refused multiple requests to talk to CNN.
    "In my opinion we need to teach the good, the bad and the ugly," said Jill Fellman, the other board member who voted against it. "We need to make sure our kids understand what it is like to be an American."
    The College Board has responded to this by defending the framework, but also allowing public comment through February. The discussion is expected to pick up again in the summer.
    In a statement, it said, "In the face of these attacks ... AP teachers and students, our member institutions, and the American people can rest assured: The College Board will not compromise the integrity of the Advanced Placement Program."
    The furor began with Larry Krieger, a college test prep instructor and former AP history teacher.
    When the College Board made public the new framework and announced it would replace an older five-page version starting this year, Krieger connected with Jane Robbins, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank American Principles Project.
    "There was a relentless negative drumbeat about America, all of the themes all of the concepts."
    Robbins, a leader of the effort against the new framework, said it gives special emphasis to race, gender and ethnic identities. "That is sort of the leftist goal, having all of history viewed through that lens," she said.
    Together, Robbins and Krieger penned an op-ed that barely anyone noticed until Robbins was giving a speech in Texas and mentioned Krieger's complaint.
    "There was a member of the Texas State Board of Education in audience -- Ken Mercer," Robbins said. "He came up and expressed concern and asked what could be done. That led to the resolution he introduced."
    Mercer then wrote a resolution that included language so strong that it was noticed by the Republican National Committee.
    The framework, he wrote, "reflects a view of American history that is critical of American exceptionalism, the free enterprise system and emphasizes negative aspects of our nation's history while minimizing positive aspects."
    An RNC talking points memo followed, and ripped the phrase straight from Mercer's resolution, adding to it a request that "Congress withhold any federal funding to the College Board (a private nongovernmental organization) until the APUSH course and examination have been rewritten in a transparent manner to accurately reflect U.S. history without a political bias."
    From there, it trickled down to local school boards. Resolutions with many of the exact same phrases as the RNC memo appeared in places such as Nebraska and North Carolina.
    "In the past it was five pages, a list of what teachers are supposed to go over," said Texas state board chairwoman Barbara Cargill. "Now it's 98 pages, it's detailed. Me, I'm a former teacher. To me it looked more like a curriculum."

    Concerns for disrupting students' progress

    In other states, the issue has not been as disruptive.
    It was most recently raised in Georgia and Oklahoma. The language from a resolution introduced by Republican Georgia state Sen. William Ligon mirrors the RNC memo nearly word-for-word, as many state resolutions do.
    In Oklahoma, a bill passed an education committee that would have eliminated state funding for AP U.S. history classes unless the College Board changed the framework. But after an outcry, the bill's sponsor said he'd rewrite the legislation and change the wording.
    In North Carolina, there is concern the new framework doesn't meet state standards for what should be taught, state Rep. Craig Horn told CNN.
    "We insist on the study of our founding principles," he said. "We're either going to require them to take a course before APUSH, or find another way, but we're pretty stubborn about it."
    But when a local school board in Hanover County, North Carolina, asked the state Board of Education not to implement the new framework, it raised concerns that students there might lose out on the opportunity to get college credit.
    The chairman of the state board, Bill Cobey, told CNN that they are in a "listening and discussing stage."
    "We're not ready to do anything," Cobey said. "I want what's best for the children and students of North Carolina, and I certainly don't want them to lose any opportunity to take Advanced Placement history."
    In Texas, where it began, teachers are being told to "fill in" the framework with state-issued curriculum standards for U.S. history, Cargill said, adamant that it would not affect the college credits that students can get for taking the class.
    "It's too important. Those AP courses are really critical for (grade-point average) and college scholarships," Cargill said.
    The Republican Party in Douglas County, Nebraska, introduced a resolution that mirrored the RNC memo, and State Board of Education member Glen Flint wrote in a blog post dated October 30 that the board is "currently studying the issue," and "we should take a stand against any attempt to nationalize or circumvent state standards and local control," he wrote.
    In Tennessee, legislation was introduced in November that would create a commission to examine any new AP framework from the College Board.
    "The real controversy is the wording in the key concepts of this framework. Until the College Board revises that wording and bias in there, this issue is not going to die down," Cargill said.