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Battles Over Teaching History, Then and Now

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A new round of opposition to planned changes in how high schools teach U.S. history is conjuring up its own echoes of the past.

The Republican National Committee is unhappy with the new Advanced Placement U.S. History framework, charging that it “deliberately distorts and/or edits out important historical events,” according to a Monday post at Education Week. The RNC passed a resolution urging the College Board to delay its plans to debut the new framework in the 2014-15 school year.

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While AP courses are electives, they’re viewed as college entrance gateways and are a mainstay in thousands of high schools – nearly 14,000, according to the latest College Board estimates. In 2012, 850,000 public school students took 2.5 million AP exams during their time in high school.

The conservative backlash is not unprecedented. In the 1990s, an ideological war broke out over proposed national standards for U.S. History. Lynne Cheney, the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities who approved a grant for the writing of the new standards, launched a salvo against them a month before they were to debut with an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. Her column led to a caustic back-and-forth between the standards’ supporters and a coalition of mostly conservative groups.

Cheney wrote:

“What went wrong? One member of the National Council for History Standards (the group that oversaw the drafting of the standards) says that the 1992 presidential election unleashed the forces of political correctness. According to this person, who wishes not to be named, those who were ‘pursuing the revisionist agenda no longer bothered to conceal their great hatred for traditional history.’”

According to a book co-written by two of the history standards’ authors, a few days after Cheney’s essay was published, radio personality Rush Limbaugh inveighed against the standards on his program. By early 1995, the U.S. Senate voted 99-1 on a non-binding resolution condemning the standards. In addition to concern over the content of the standards, conservatives also worried about the newly elected administration’s ability to implement those benchmarks.

In 1994, President Clinton signed a bill into law that called for the National Education Standards and Improvement Council that would establish voluntary national standards, including for history. Conservative critics called the council a “national school board” and warned it would upset the tradition of local control of schools in the U.S.

More recently, the RNC’s resolution is consistent with conservative opposition to another set of education frameworks, ones that College Board President David Coleman helped write in his previous position: the Common Core State Standards. In April, the RNC passed a resolution rejecting the common standards, saying they fit “the country with a nationwide straitjacket on academic freedom and achievement.”

Since taking the helm of the College Board, Coleman has pushed to align the SATs with the Common Core; a preview of the revamped college-readiness assessments was released in April and the new SATs are slated to go into effect in 2016. Education Week published a side-by-side comparison of the new SATs and the Common Core standards. The links between The College Board and Common Core are strong.

Some critics of the Common Core argue that the standards undermine the longstanding American tradition of local control of schools. Others have alleged the standards amount to a “national school board” — language reminiscent of the history standards battles of the 1990s.

During EWA’s National Seminar at Vanderbilt University in May, Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday pointed the finger at the Obama administration’s tacit support for the standards as a chief reason behind opposition to the Common Core.

“Everything was going smoothly until the president and the secretary of education took credit for Common Core,” Holliday said.

But federal involvement in standards writing isn’t new. Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, Inc., one of the organizations credited with getting the Common Core standards off the ground, noted that while the standards were state-led, the federal government has contributed funding, but not content, for various standards efforts since the early 1990s. Indeed, money from the federal Race to the Top grants in part went toward training teachers to use the Common Core.

Stray thought: While the College Board is an independent organization, it exerts a large influence over public education. With its president connected to the Common Core, the College Board might be in for greater scrutiny from conservative activists than in years past, and the criticism of the new AP U.S. History framework could be a sign of things to come.