Teaching The Jefferson County Showdown over the Advanced Placement US History Test: A Second Chance for a Failed Dialogue

AHA Session 259
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Mile High Ballroom 3B (Colorado Convention Center, Ballroom Level)
Patricia Nelson Limerick, Center of the American West, University of Colorado, and Colorado State Historian
James Sabathne, Advanced Placement American history teacher, Hononegah Community High School and co-chair, College Board Advanced Placement United States History Development Committee
Stephanie Rossi, Advanced Placement American history teacher, Jefferson County Schools, Colorado
Bradley J. Birzer, Hillsdale College
Dedra Birzer, Hillsdale College
Fritz Fischer, University of Northern Colorado
Jonathan M. Chu, University of Massachusetts Boston and chief reader, Advanced Placement United States History

Session Abstract

As public schools readied for the new school year in 2014, controversy was brewing over the re-designed A.P. United States History course and exam. As proprietor of the advanced Placement program, the College Board had laid out a new framework for the course, placing greater emphasis on assessing students’ mastery of broad themes, as well as their use of historical thinking skills. It also offered an outline of key concepts with a more precise definition of required content. A number of outspoken figures claimed the new curriculum was too critical of the United States, and the framework, by not naming notable American leaders, gave teachers license to exclude them altogether.

Thus began a new tussle over the standards of the historical discipline and the political dynamics swirling around classrooms in public schools. Jefferson County, Colorado, became the epicenter for this conflict. A newly elected conservative school board majority expressed their dismay over the new curriculum and proposed measures to ensure that teachers would promote patriotism by emphasizing American exceptionalism and celebrating the free enterprise system. Although some rallied to the support of the school board, many people in the district dissented. Parents began a letter-writing campaign, teachers staged sick-outs, and hundreds of students walked out of school. In a politically centrist county, in Colorado’s second-largest school district, the AP US History test and course ignited a debate heard throughout the nation and, especially, by history teachers and professors. Perhaps less noted nationwide, a recall election in April of 2016 removed the three conservative school board members who had led the outcry.

This roundtable takes a fresh approach to the politicization of the teaching of U. S. history, challenging the problematic terms of “conservative” and “liberal” as ways to categorize narratives and interpretations, and asking whether some of the bitter disagreements over the teaching of history have involved more noise than substance (though consequential noise at that!). With this discussion, we invite AHA Members to join us in the quest for a deeper understanding of how changes in public school history classrooms affect the historical profession in its entirety.

In this session, an Illinois high school teacher who participated in revising the course and standards will present a grounded overview of the actual intentions and principles that guided the reworking. A professor who has been centrally involved in the operations of Advanced Placement will draw connections between his work with APUSH and the choices and decisions facing professors teaching the U.S. survey course. An experienced and influential Jefferson County teacher of Advanced Placement U.S. History will provide a local perspective on how changes emanating from the national scene shaped options and constraints in her classroom. And two faculty members from the legendarily conservative Hillsdale College will respond to the intentions and contents of the actual revisions, representing the first chance for an informed, evidence-based, and nuanced conservative critique of the APUSH revisions. A historian with an extensive experience in engaging with K-12 teachers will provide commentary and reflections.

See more of: AHA Sessions