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The New, New Framework For AP U.S. History

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Protesters join hands in Charleston, S.C., after nine black parishioners were gunned down during a church Bible study on June 17.

The College Board has just released the latest curriculum framework for its Advanced Placement U.S. history course, and it appears to have satisfied many of the old framework's critics.

The rewrite comes after anger over its 2014 framework sent the College Board, which administers the AP exam, back to the drawing board.

It agreed to revise in an attempt to quell what had become a national controversy over how to teach issues like imperialism, slavery, racism and American identity.

A Little History ...

America doesn't have a national history curriculum, but the AP U.S. history course comes close. Last year, nearly half a million high school students sat for the AP exam, with top scorers earning many millions of dollars worth of college credit.

The controversial 2014 framework — meant to help teachers prepare students for a new AP exam — was the first update since 2006, and it signaled a big shift away from important names and events toward interpretation and comprehension: debating ideas instead of regurgitating facts.

But critics argued that the new framework presented a view of the country's history that was too negative and too political.

A retired AP U.S. history teacher named Larry Krieger, who now runs a test prep and tutoring company, was among the first to raise the alarm about the curriculum guide. He connected to a network of education activists who had already mobilized against issues like the Common Core and standardized testing.

Eventually, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution that called the framework "radically revisionist." And policymakers in several states — including Oklahoma, Georgia, Colorado and Texas — introduced proposals hoping to force a revision.

Specific objections ranged from the framework stating that the nation's founders believed in "white superiority" and that white Southerners had "pride in the institution of slavery" to a line calling former President Ronald Reagan "bellicose."

What happened next took some critics, including independent historian Jeremy Stern, by surprise. The College Board listened. It reached out and eventually hired Stern as a consultant on a revision. "It's very unusual for any educational organization to respond to serious criticism by actually listening to it," he says. "The usual response is to raise the drawbridge."

The new 2015 framework has been rewritten to create what the College Board called in a statement "a clearer and more balanced approach."

For example, in the 2014 version, Europeans "helped increase the intensity and destructiveness of American Indian warfare." Now it says simply that the Europeans' introduction of guns and alcohol "stimulated changes" in native communities.

In the section on World War II, students are told that Americans saw the war as a fight for freedom and against fascism; last year's version talked about Japanese internment camps and the atomic bomb — with no mention of the Holocaust.

And Reagan? He's no longer "bellicose" toward the Soviet Union but simply gives "speeches" and engages in "a buildup of nuclear and conventional weapons."

Are Critics Happy?

Some of them, yes. Rick Hess, a conservative education expert at the American Enterprise Institute and a former high school social studies teacher, didn't think much of the 2014 version, but he published a piece in the National Review saying the new framework is "not just better, it's flat-out good."

"I thought what came out felt much more robust, much more historically accurate," he tells NPR.

On the other hand, now some liberals and progressives say they preferred the more critical perspective of last year's version. Like Alexandros Orphanides, a high school history teacher in New York City, who writes about education.

"If you are critical of things like income inequality or institutionalized racism, then you won't have the lens to evaluate the present — if you've been indoctrinated in a patriotic, jingoistic, nationalistic view of history," he says.

So what happens now?

In the education policy world, Hess sees a happy ending. Like Stern, he gives the College Board credit for listening to its critics. "Of all the culture wars we've been engaged in, this is the happier outcome," Hess says.

Of course, in a broader sense, the culture wars are very much alive. The debates in the news today — over whether to take down the Confederate flag or sign a nuclear deal with Iran — are forcing Americans to reckon with some very big, very old ideas about American exceptionalism, freedom, military power and racism. And for many young people, those debates start in history class.

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