Alan Singer: Who is Pushing APPUSH?

Aug 15, 2015 by

An Interview with Alan Singer: Who is Pushing APPUSH? 

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Alan, first of all, tell our readers about who you are, and what you do?

I am currently the director of social studies secondary education at Hofstra University where I teach methods and curriculum classes and supervise student teachers. My doctorate is in United States history from Rutgers University and much of my writing is about social studies and history curriculum.

Before that I was a New York City high school social studies teacher for many years. In the 1980s I taught an AP-type United States history class at a high school where students were largely members of minority groups and from working-class and poorer families. We couldn’t call it “AP” because of trademark issues. Although these were the top students in the school we did not have them take the AP®test. Based on their performance on standardized tests we did not believe they would do well on the AP®exam and we did not want the class to become all about test preparation. We offered the class to give students a sense of what college-level work was like and to show them that they had the ability to attend college. Students had the option of registering in an extension program to earn credits from one of the local colleges.

2) Now, you have just published something in the Huffington Post. Could you summarize it and provide the link so people can get to the primary source? 

I write a regular blog for Huffington Post on educational issues. One of my more recent posts was “Historians and Teachers Angry Over Advanced Placement Flip-Flop.” Many left-leaning and more liberal historians and high school social studies teachers are furious over the latest announced changes in curriculum guidelines for Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) classes. College Board, the not-for-profit organization that makes and markets AP® tests, succumbed to charges from the political right that revisions in the Advanced Placement United States history curriculum proposed in 2012 and implemented in 2014 overemphasized negative aspects of U.S. history, focusing on conflict rather than on commonalities and shared ideals. The newest revisions seem designed to promote patriotism and a belief in “American exceptionalism” rather than the critical examination of history.  However many on the right are still not satisfied with the 2015 revisions. One prominent conservative commentator charged, “The College Board continues to be under the influence of leftist historians.”

While I identify with historians and teachers who want to engage students in a more critical examination of this nation’s past, the blog primarily focused on my criticisms of the AP® program and tests. AP® programs are often used to track students academically and can contribute to racial segregation. A big problem is self-segregation. Academically weak White students choose AP® classes because that is where the other White students are. Academically strong Black and Latino students avoid AP® because that is not where their friends are. In some cases schools push unqualified students into AP® classes so they can advertise that the classes are being offered without regard for the academic needs of the students. Perhaps the biggest problem is that despite all the talk about analysis, AP® lessons tend to be “chalk and talk” lectures designed to convince students and parents that they are being taught at a higher “college” level. Memorizing long lists of facts is not the way that historians understand the world or the way history is taught in colleges but that is too often the experience in APUSH classrooms.

3) Let’s talk history and facts – and what I would call pure history — how many names, facts, events, should the typical high school student in an AP class know? Or should there be some interpretation or analysis or investigation as to truth/falsity or perspective?

The issue is not just how many, but which names and events, and what is important to know about them. Part of the rightwing rage is that they feel Ronald Reagan is not given sufficient credit as a great American President. Maybe I am forgetting the 1980s as I get older, but I just do not remember him as that great. This is the President who was committed to breaking labor unions, cut taxes on the wealthiest Americans, proposed an unworkable Star Wars missile defense system, lent United States support to radical Islamic groups operating in Afghanistan, made an arms deal with Iran, increased thenational debt astronomically, invaded Grenada, oversaw the Savings and Loan debacle, and appointed Antonin Scalia to the United States Supreme Court. I think you get the idea.

Historical facts are of fundamental importance as students try to understand the past and present. But the key goal is understand, not memorize. I can name the United States Presidents in order and the capitals of all fifty states. But we are talking about understanding history, not playing Jeopardy. The best way to learn names, places, and dates is by exploring history, drawing connections, and formulating and defending your own interpretations.  

4) Let me take two events – the colonization of America wherein the Indians were pushed onto reservations, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While these events are factually true – there are motivations behind them or there were motivations behind these events. How much coverage should these events have in an AP class?

The AP® course of study leaves some space for teachers to decide which topics they want to emphasize and these are both very good choices. A history class cannot cover every topic in depth, the span of history is much too long and class days are numbered. Some topics a teacher introduces so students are aware it happened and can explore independently or at a later date. But some topics need to be covered in depth so that students understand the process of historical research and interpretation and these are both good examples.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki introduces students to broader debates over legitimate behavior during warfare, whether ends justify means, and the impact of technology on history. Americans like to think this country operates according to a higher moral code. Debate over the dropping of atomic bombs on civilian targets raises questions about the entire notion of “American exceptionalism.” It is also an excellent topic for in depth research and analysis because there are many primary source documents that students can examine.

The treatment of the indigenous population of the Americas introduces students to debates over manifest destiny, American exceptionalism, and genocide. Few people realize that the forced removal of the Cherokee from the southeastern United States was to make way for the expansion of cotton production and slavery in the American south or that President Jackson refused to obey a Supreme Court ruling when he denied the Cherokee federal protection. The same ideas used to justify the displacement of native people from east of the Mississippi River were used to justify American imperialism in the late 19th century. The forced acculturation of native children in boarding schools set the stage for plans to forcibly assimilate immigrant children and to deny entrance into the country to immigrants who were deemed unassimilatable. 

5) Taking the above one step further – slavery – which led to the Civil War – in your mind, how much depth should a historian provide in teaching about who is or was responsible for slavery, or do we just glance over it as a very bad time in our history?

The enslavement of Africans is not just a sad chapter in the history of the United States, but it is a major reason for the growth of this country as a world economic power in the 19th century and explains the continuing significance of race and racism in the contemporary United States. In my book New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth (SUNY, 2008) I examine slavery as a national institution with northern complicity. New York bankers and merchants, including the predecessor bank that became the modern Citibank, profited from financing the slave system and through the sale of slave produced commodities like sugar and cotton. I do not think it is possible to understand American history and society today without an in depth examination of slavery. 

6) Alan, the issue of skimming over events troubles me. We had a period of Prohibition in America.  Should this event be covered extensively? How much depth and attention should be given to an act that was eventually repealed?

As I said earlier, a class cannot cover every topic in depth. This is one that I have always slighted. I usually present Prohibition as partly a result of the Progressive Movement, it had very moralistic elements, but largely as part of Anglo-Americas hostility to “unmeltable” Southern and Eastern European immigrants, mostly Jews and Southern Italians, that ended with restrictive immigration quotas. 

7) In your mind, could you summarize the position of left leaning and liberal historians, and the position of those on the right?

The history wars actually have a long history. In the 1960s and 1970s when I was in college and graduate school the battle was between traditionalists and people advocating form a “new” social history with a broader focus on women, ethnic minorities, the disposed, and other previously neglected groups.

In 1996, the National Center for History in Schools at U.C.L.A., with a grant from the NEH, release U.S. and world history standards that included suggested approaches to the study of history, statements outlining broad historical themes, lists of topics to analyze, and suggestions for how some of the themes and topics could be examined in social studies classes. The classroom suggestions quickly became a lightening rod for conservative discontent with public education, multiculturalism, immigration, ethnic identity movements, a declining U.S. economy, and “eroding family values.” Lynne Chaneyformer chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, called them “grim,” “gloomy,” distorted by “political correctness.”  The standards were widely denounced in the popular media; one columnist charged that they placed “Western civilization . . . on a par with the Kush and the Carthagians,” and they were overwhelmingly rejected by the U.S. Senate.

Of course I lean left, but I think the basic arguments over the purpose of studying history continues. How much focus should the curriculum and teachers place on the negative affects, whether intentional or not, of major transformative forces such as capitalism, nationalism, imperialism, and globalization? Are we teaching students to analyze and understand the past (left/liberal view) even when it means they become critical of actions taken by the United States or is the intent to promote patriotism (conservative view)? 

8) What have I neglected to ask? And what are other teachers, and educational leaders saying about this morass? 

We should always close with the question, “Where do we go from here?’ Some teachers and schools are abandoning AP® as just educationally inappropriate. Michael Pezone, a graduate of the Hofstra program and cooperating teacher teaches at High School for Law Enforcement in Queens, NY. Mike was asked to teach APUSH but turned down the offer because he finds “teaching to the test is pernicious.” He calls AP® classes “tracking on steroids.”

Some of the teachers I work with are advocating for schools to shift from Advanced Placement to International Baccalaureate. Jennifer Quinn, a graduate of the Hofstra program and also a cooperating teacher is at Long Beach (NY) High School. Jennifer wrote me thatshe is “grateful to teach IB History of the Americas (HOTA) after teaching APUSH for 10 years. In the International Baccalaureate curriculum students spend three months the first year studying slavery starting in Africa then moving across the Atlantic to the Americas. In the second year a major unit is Human Rights where students specifically examine South Africa and United States Civil Rights Movement. According to Jennifer, “We are having greater success with IB than with AP primarily because there is so much freedom to plan and explore and it does not have the AP mentality of ‘one day, one test.” Assessment is based on essay writing and student research on topics of their choice. The IB program also allows students to earn college credit. “

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