Shortly after his confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986, Justice Antonin Scalia delivered a speech in Atlanta about the genius of the constitutional structure. He began by reading the “bill of rights” from another, unnamed country’s constitution, which proclaimed freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of association – all the liberties we Americans hold dear.
Then he asked the audience to identify the country that had such a wonderful constitution.
The answer was the Soviet Union.
Scalia explained how the “guarantees” of the Soviet constitution were meaningless because the rest of the document didn’t establish the structure to protect them. By contrast, the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution is meaningful not because of the language used, but because the Founders brilliantly crafted a structure of federalism and checks and balances to ensure those liberties would be safeguarded.
There’s a lesson here that applies to the College Board’s new Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) Framework. Responding to outrage about the leftist, revisionist slant to the Framework, the College Board has added language about teachers’ flexibility to bring in content from outside the Framework and about students’ ability to use that content to challenge the themes of the Framework. But like the Bill of Rights, that verbiage is meaningless unless the structure of the greater document protects it. Unfortunately, the structure of the Framework, and of the exam that will be based on it, guarantees that the College Board’s new “flexibility” language will be empty words.
The new Framework is organized into seven major themes “that represent the major historical understandings that colleges and universities want AP students to have developed…” Despite the College Board’s addition of the “flexibility” language, these themes, and all the “key concepts” within them, remain exactly the same after the “clarification.”
To understand why this is important, consider the first theme: identity. The APUSH Topic Outline, in effect for years until the recent radical revision, defined the theme this way: “Views of the American national character and ideas about American exceptionalism.” The new Framework’s “identity” theme strips away any mention of exceptionalism and replaces it with identity politics: “[H]ow various identities, cultures, and values have been preserved or changed in different contexts of U.S. history, with special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial, and ethnic identities” (page 21).
So while an APUSH teacher theoretically has the flexibility to bring in content from his state standards, the Framework dictates that the focus should be on the leftist trinity of gender, class, and race. And the teacher knows that his first responsibility is to teach the Framework so that his students will perform well on the APUSH Exam.
The structure of that Exam, as well, limits teacher flexibility and ensures that the slant of Framework will prevail. The previous Exam gave students extensive opportunities (through two long essays, worth 50% of the Exam score) to discuss content from their state standards – which content was, in fact, welcomed by the APUSH Topic Outline. The new Exam drops one of these long essays in favor of four short-answer questions, which average out to 12 minutes per question and therefore don’t allow for deep consideration and explanation of anything outside the Framework. With such limited time for multiple questions, the students will feel compelled to stick to the Framework. In fact, the new Exam is structured to award significantly fewer points for outside information than was the previous Exam.
And although the College Board maintains that students may disagree with the Framework’s leftist slant and discuss that disagreement on the Exam, it’s obvious that the quickest way to a good score is to give the College Board what it obviously wants. The safe course is to regurgitate the Framework. The students know this, and the College Board knows they know it. The Board’s trumpeting of student as well as teacher flexibility, therefore, is simply disingenuous.
If the College Board were serious about flexibility, it would return to the previous Topic Outline that truly allowed teachers to incorporate their state standards. Its insistence on retaining the Framework that, in reality, obliterates the hastily added “flexibility” language confirms the College Board’s agenda – to create a national history curriculum antithetical to the balanced approach consistently taught in the past. State officials, and parents, should not fall for the College Board’s sleight of hand.
Jane Robbins is the senior fellow of APP Education of the American Principles Project, a conservative advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
Larry Krieger is a retired AP U.S. History teacher from Pennsylvania.