The College Board Cronyism Behind The New Progressive AP U.S. History Curriculum

Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins Director, Senior Fellow, American Principles Project
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There is rising alarm over radical changes that have been made to the Advanced Placement (AP) American History program –a program heavily supported by federal and state funding. That alarm flushes out another related travesty: The voice of the people has been muted because corporatists and other elites have figured out how to end-run the constitutional structure and are doing so on issue after issue.

To summarize, the private College Board is rewriting its AP courses, starting with AP U.S. History (APUSH). The new APUSH Framework departs radically from the traditional AP course and now reflects a progressive philosophy and leftist bias. Forget the Founding Fathers and the principles of the Declaration of Independence that proclaimed the natural right of freedom and self-government; concentrate instead on the racist cultural imperialism that supposedly built America. Ignore state history standards, all or most of which reflect a fact-based, balanced view of American history.

To objections that students will learn an inaccurate version of American history, the College Board responds that facts aren’t all that important anyway. What’s important are “historical thinking skills” such as “contextualization” and “crafting historical arguments.” This is progressive-education nonsense that will produce historically illiterate students, not informed citizens.

Such changes have escaped scrutiny until now because our system of checks and balances – the system intended to protect our rights and ensure that citizens direct government — is in disrepair. Why haven’t state education officials been riding herd on this and other threats to genuine education? Because they have been compromised through intimidation, exclusion, and institutional conflicts of interest.

The AP program is a case in point. The federal government pays enormous sums of money – over $73 million in direct payments since 2004 — to the College Board (the owner of the AP program as well as the SAT and PSAT tests) for various purposes. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education’s AP Test Fee program makes grants to the states, which in turn transfer money to the College Board to pay the test fees for children from needy families.  And USED’s AP Incentive Program gives money to states to increase the participation of low-income students. Since 2004, the federal government has paid $311 million for these programs, including $93 million for the AP Test Fee Program.

This is not to suggest that the federal executive is calling the shots on APUSH content. However, whenever the federal government funds a particular educational service-provider, it places that provider on an exalted footing. That significantly diminishes the likelihood that the supplicant state executive will have the courage to raise the alarm, or even look into, something like APUSH content. The state executives’ rush to sign onto the national Common Core standards and federally funded standardized tests are cases in point.

The federal executive’s power to signal its winners and losers extends beyond funding. For example, it structured the No Child Left Behind  (NCLB) waiver program to procure the obeisance of the state executives in exchange for relief from federal regulations. Under that program, states must provide “accelerated learning opportunities,” and some states have met this requirement by including the number of students who do well on AP exams as part of the metric used to grade a school’s performance.

With respect to the states, the federal executive branch is largely unchecked. It can bully, coerce, and improperly influence the state executive to adhere to its agenda. And the state executives fall in line.

Under the constitutional design, such federal actions should trigger a congressional “check.” But that is unlikely to happen. With rare and random exceptions, Congress must focus on truly national issues such as war, national security, immigration, the monetary system, and civil rights. How a federal agency treats a state is unlikely to make the cut.

To protect citizens, the Framers provided another layer of safeguards. They intended that state legislatures would form a bulwark against federal overreach, largely by their electing Senators, which ended with the Seventeenth Amendment. State legislators today can help hold the line, they face huge obstacles in state executive agencies that are more interested in conforming to the federal agenda. State legislators lack the research support services to counteract the legal interpretations and policy arguments of the federal and the supplicant state executives.

We now have policy – and not just education policy — driven by private interests that prevail on the federal executive branch to favor them.

We are down to the last check – the people. On Common Core and AP History, they are rising up to reclaim their rightful role. They are America’s best hope.