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The Oklahoma A.P. Test Controversy Masks the Real Scandal of American History Education

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Last year, between sessions at a conference, I asked a longtime high school teacher in New York City about recent changes to the Advanced Placement U.S. History course framework. Like most A.P. teachers, he praised the revised course's focus on “historical thinking skills.” But he doubted it would make much of a difference. “If colleges don’t teach you how to think like a historian,” he asked, “do you really think high schools can?” 

I thought of this exchange on Monday, when an Oklahoma House committee approved a bill to ban state funds from the course. According to the bill’s Republican sponsor, the new framework emphasizes “what is bad about America” and downplays “American exceptionalism.” 

That’s been a constant GOP refrain about the revised test, which the Republican National Committee condemned last summer for its “radically revisionist view of American history.” A few weeks later, when a suburban Denver school board resolved to review the test—and to ensure that teachers present “positive aspects of the United States,” as one board member said—thousands of students walked out in protest.

My own guild of academics, the American Historical Association, also rallied in defense of the new A.P. test, which stresses the skills of our discipline—framing questions, sifting evidence, and drawing conclusions—rather than the memorization of facts. But here’s the great elephant in the A.P. classroom: Many college-level instructors don’t teach these skills in their own courses. 

In 2005, one-third of undergraduate American history survey courses used a textbook as their only assigned reading; on average, these classes also assigned over two-thirds of their final grade to examinations. Neither practice promises to yield much in the way of historical thinking skills, as a growing body of pedagogical research suggests. 

But most historians probably haven’t encountered that research because they don’t get any systematic induction into teaching. Back in 1999, a survey of graduate students in history showed that just 2.7 percent of them had access to formal preparation for classroom instruction. That fraction has surely crept up since then, but the vast majority of future historians still don’t receive sustained training in how to teach. The “real” work—the work that gets valued, recognized, and rewarded—is the publication of books and articles. 

That reflects larger trends in American higher education. At every type of institution, from community college to “Research One” university, the amount of time that faculty spend on teaching is inversely related to their salary. Universities see research as “measurable”—you can always count the number of publications—and, most of all, as profitable: It brings status to the institution, along with students and (more) research dollars. Not so for teaching, which is evaluated mainly by student surveys—a notoriously imprecise barometer—and rarely enters into tenure and promotion decisions. So the more you devote yourself to teaching, the less you earn; the more effort you expend on research, the more you earn. 

Meanwhile, students are doing much less work than earlier generations did—and their grades keep climbing. About 43 percent of college letter grades in 2011 were A’s, up from 31 percent in 1988 and 15 percent in 1960. Over roughly the same span, the average amount of studying by people in college declined almost 50 percent, from 25 hours to 13 hours per week.

In a recent survey of 23,000 undergraduates at 24 varied institutions, half of the students said they were not taking a single course requiring a total of 20 pages of writing. In a field like history, especially, it’s hard to imagine how you could acquire real disciplinary skills if you’re not writing on a regular basis.

Most of all, it’s hard to see how our A.P. history teachers will instruct those skills if our colleges don’t. A growing number of states now require future teachers to major in the subject they teach, which is exactly as it should be. But that won’t do much good if these people aren’t encountering good models of the pedagogy they’re supposed to provide when they enter the profession. 

Advanced Placement, born over a half-century ago in an effort to cultivate a narrow intellectual elite, now caters to a wide swath of American students. Thirty-three percent of public high school graduates took at least one A.P. exam in 2013, up from 18.9 percent just 10 years earlier. 

This increase in test-taking would be fine—indeed, it would be fantastic—if we could give these kids the tools they need to succeed in college. But we can't do that until the colleges teach those skills, too. Contrary to what you might have heard on Fox News, the new A.P. history exam isn’t a vast left-wing conspiracy to turn our kids against America. It’s a good-faith effort to bring high school teaching in line with what our colleges are supposed to be doing, but don’t do nearly enough.