Response: The importance of rigor in bringing history to life

Chris McNutt
July 16, 2018
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute prides itself on sponsoring college-preparatory schools across Ohio. Particularly, this article is referenced as one of its most popular and aims to promote this pedagogy.

I came across this article as an exemplar for higher standards teaching. It’s not uncommon for policymakers to reference AP Coursework as a defining method of “raising the stakes” for children success. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute prides itself on sponsoring college-preparatory schools across Ohio. Particularly, this article is referenced as one of its most popular and aims to promote this pedagogy.

As someone who had taught AP United States History for years, I believe a response is warranted. Despite the possible best intentions of those involved, their methodology is framed incorrectly and view of coursework is simply wrong. Although I recognize this work is written by a high school student, this highlights the misconceptions many feel about their own educational experience — how do you know what you’ve never been exposed to? The following is not meant to disparage against this student, but correct the narrative of those using this work to sell their point of view. The entire article is quoted below, with my opinionated responses in-between.

I despised history, until I took AP U.S. History. From my elementary and middle school years, there remains a paper trail of get-to-know-you surveys for which I indicated that history bored me to tears, and doodles on notes of the Monroe Doctrine that subtly communicate the same reaction.

The U.S. history class I took in eighth grade is a perfect example. Almost every day consisted of hurriedly copying notes from a dim image projected on the board as the teacher read aloud the words we were inscribing. There were no lectures of substance; we were spoon-fed worksheets pulled from the dry pages of a textbook. The tests were a contest that determined who could regurgitate the highest percentage of memorized facts. Little to no analysis was ever done. We never focused on comprehending the cause and effect of critical movements or comparing past time periods to the modern era. Apparently, it was far more important to know the names of all the generals in the Civil War.

On the occasion that our daily work did not entail unhelpful note taking or memory-based testing, we took part in such educational activities as watching National Treasure or working on a slightly more involved version of a second grade project on African American leaders. I’m still curious as to why we selected one such leader for each letter of the alphabet in a three-day span, rather than learning about their actions concurrently with the rest of the curriculum.

I received an A in the class (as I did in all of my classes throughout middle school), despite having rarely studied, drawn bumblebees on my notes, and often completed my homework in the five minutes before class began. Now, a few years later, I realize it was all irrelevant; I remember almost nothing. I know now that the class demanded bland memorization with no connection to the humanity of history. It offered no tools to aid true understanding. It gave us the how of the story but never the why. I like to think of classes as a telescope through which one can catch a glimpse of a larger universe. Of course, the student must have the wherewithal and ambition to look through the telescope. But what if the lens is smudged? Partially obscured? What if the student cannot get a clear picture of history because the class is woefully lacking?

Well, the lens in my eighth grade history course was almost entirely opaque. But I never would have known just how bad it was if I hadn’t taken AP U.S. History this past school year, as a sophomore.

Our teacher still lectured on a daily basis, but he was engaging and clearly explained why people acted as they did, and how these actions fit a larger narrative. We still took guided notes from a projected screen, but there were always a few lines of text written and updated by the teacher that better explained the larger story and prepared us for the College Board’s AP Exam that we would face in May. Each day, students were called on to identify information from the day before or explain the relevance of a vocabulary term, actively prompting participation in the class. Every night, our teacher expected us to review our notes and read a few pages from the textbook, laying a solid foundation of fact upon which he laid the cultural story the following day. We read and analyzed primary sources on a daily basis that supplemented the information we gathered from our textbooks every night…

Without a doubt, the history curriculum in schools is agonizing. Perhaps the most egregious class of lectures and note-taking occurs within the confines of an American History course. Memorization and regurgitation are common, complex thinking and relevance are not. Instead of seeing history as a collection of themes that span our collective past, it is presented as a series of events — one after another — that inevitably occurred. This is especially concerning in early schooling, when history is so neutral that stories are watered down to irrelevance.

Questionably, when policy experts view the AP curriculum, they suddenly believe this problem is solved. It’s no longer memorization, it’s “critical thinking” — because now the text is harder to understand. More is not always better. Just because we check off even more content knowledge boxes on a grid does not imply that students took away any relevant or applicable information on why we learn history. Slightly better engagement (from an already academically superior and engaged class) is not a sign of a succeeding curriculum. Of course students are more involved in AP classrooms — they’re students who either enjoy the subject or are already on track to succeed in school. However, this is in spite of the class’s instructional methods. If a student dislikes traditional academia, involving more texts and more lectures over even more information is not going to ignite a passion for learning.

For American History in particular, the AP focus on textbook work is brazen with problems. Not only are textbooks deathly mundane, but their writings are politicized. Sure — all history is politicized, but the textbook doesn’t teach that their narrative is demonstrably one-sided. A key facet that any studious historian presents is, “History is written by the winners” — and of course, this is applicable to our educational structures. Therefore, many (arguably, most) children never recognize that the history they’ve learned in school is horribly inaccurate — lacking the perspectives of those marginalized and through a non-US lens.

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Robert Abbott founded The Chicago Defender, a widely circulated newspaper aimed at empowering African American readers.
…We studied women, African Americans, and Native Americans concurrently with the rest of the material. There was no need for a “Women of American History” unit or a special project on African American heroes because we had always included them in the study of each time period.

A major issue I’ve noticed in my classroom are that students claim to not see bias. Many don’t believe that racism exists in their generation or that feminism is still relevant. The problem with the statement above is it’s at odds with all others mentioned. A traditional United States history textbook will not feature proportionate voices of the oppressed. It’s even highlighted in the standards themselves — only 7 of the 66 “key concept areas” explicitly mention women as a point of study, and most of these marks are only one of many points. Given the sheer amount of attention given to the traditional narrative, there’s no room for additional voices. Simply stated, this is the reason why colleges must correct the traditional narrative through entire classes on women’s studies and African American history — the amount of information to add is immense. This is not to say that these voices should not be in the standard curriculum, but that in The College Board’s view they are not equally valued. It’s likely that the author of this piece is not aware of the vast histories of the historically oppressed. It’s incredibly rare for students to recognize Robert Abbott, Mendez vs. Westminster, or Millicent Fawcett.

Nonetheless, our corrective works won’t achieve anything if guided notes are the directive of communication. The majority of Americans (and probably most readers that aren’t history teachers) don’t remember or use much of anything they learned in this class. After all, who couldn’t forget the life lessons of the Anglicization of the British Colonies or the strong platform of the Democratic-Republicans? Dismally, the issue of representation is coupled with a complete disregard for engaging, living history. Instead, history class is the manifestation of the perfect College Board, “knowledge-based” demonstration of learning — content handed down from an expert in front of the room, repeated by passive students, then tested for accuracy — quickly forgotten and demotivating for those left behind.

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Mendez v. Westminster 1947 (7 years before Brown v Board of Education) ruled that segregation in schools for Hispanic Americans was unconstitutional.

However, for AP students this has been presented as “learning.” We have defined “learning” as a block of time that occurs only during school and only for a grade. There’s no point to inquiring into an interest or further clarification if it isn’t on the test. Certainly, there’s no place for a class to go beyond a simple sentence or two into a student’s question — there’s no time to spare, the test is right around the corner. AP students view this competitive, “knowledge-based” curriculum as proof of their academic prowess, but completely miss the opportunity to have their minds applied to creative, actual problem-solving.

The class contained few projects, but they comprised in-depth debates and essays that required students to study the time period as though their lives were the ones being affected by the decisions made. Our two large debates — one on Andrew Jackson and the other pitting Alexander Hamilton against Thomas Jefferson — demanded hours of group-based work that involved extensive study of the writing and beliefs of the time period, as well developing the ability to quickly apply relevant knowledge to support a feasible historical argument. Throughout the year, we practiced specific College Board–defined historical thinking skills (contextualization, synthesis, causation, periodization, etc.) and essay writing that showed our comprehension of the why and so what of American history. And each month, our teacher assigned us a take-home packet that required us to use historical thinking skills, employ an essay-like analysis of primary sources, and identify the causation of events. Yes, we had vocabulary quizzes that required memorization, but the terms were picked specifically for our use on the AP exam essays, and were always tied in to the overall story we were learning.

At the end of each unit, we took an essay assessment and a multiple choice test. While our primary tests were still multiple choice, the questions demanded the ability to compare one time period to another, to identify broader processes, and to contextualize and comprehend why people thought as they did.

Perhaps most significantly, A’s were not handed out like candy.

Aside from claiming (and being taught, I assume) that the College Board defined the common notions of analyzing history, this paragraph encapsulates the problems of AP student motivations. It’s not about learning history, it’s about the test. It’s not about seeing relevance, it’s about a grade. The idea that someone would non-satirically say that memorization was required but only because it’s on the test as a valid argument for its purpose, either reflects an unquestioning of traditional curriculum practice or an obsession with systemic academic success. Substantiated from this mindset is the idea that learning is competitive: one must be better than others. It’s not about working together or even learning for oneself, it’s about proving you know more than everyone else.

Upon completing such an excellent class, I was confused about and disappointed in the sorry state of my eighth grade U.S. history class. What explained the chasm of difference between the two? Myriad things: understanding vs. memorization, the style of tests, the expectation of hard working and self-reliant students, the development of thinking skills, the opportunity to debate differing viewpoints, the exploration of contextualization within larger historical processes, and the telling of history as change shaped by human people rather than bland caricatures.

All of this combined to create a huge and important difference: In AP U.S. History, we learned. We learned about history, we learned to exercise layered comprehension of multifaceted societies, and we learned how to develop an independent work ethic.

The conflation of rigor with learning is worrisome. It’s true that AP classes are harder than their traditional counterparts, and it’s likely true that students learn more in them. However, learning more content versus exploring quality content is a stark differentiator that defines how progressive educators frame pedagogy. Yes, students in AP classes perform better on standardized tests. They are advanced in reading texts, memorizing information, connecting ideas together, and presenting arguments. However, they fail to see the relevance of their work, there’s little connection made to their interests or goals, and the actual purpose of the class is lost. We take history to change how we view the world and hopefully act upon it, not to solely have a basic understanding of famous people and events.

The reason why students enjoy AP classes (myself included when I was in high school) isn’t because they’re so astoundingly well-taught (this student even comments that the delivery of content was practically the same). Rather, it’s because they do traditional better — if my options are between one slow traditional class with discipline problems and disinterested (“non-academic”) students or one accelerated traditional class with fewer discipline problems and more “academically-minded” students, of course the latter is better if I fall into that category. However, if the regular classroom was showing me relevance, was engaging in thematic discussions over the purpose of history, was bringing new stories to the fold, was pushing me into the community to show new perspectives, and was engaging in hands-on coursework, AP would no longer be the shining beacon on the hill. So yes, comparably with bad practice, AP is better, but that doesn’t mean AP is doing much right.

The College Board and its measureable standards deserve much credit. When the reality is “Your students will either learn these skills or earn tangibly low scores that will make you look bad,” work gets done. The lessons get taught. Having an achievable standard to work for is absolutely invaluable to education. Sure, participation and cooperation are important. General competence is a good bar. But at the end of day, the most essential test of effective schooling is the question, “What do you know and what can you do with it?”

Fundamentally wrong with AP classes are the ridiculous standards they’re held to. Nothing a teacher or student does in the classroom matters except for the test at the end. That test looks to roughly access 240 “key concepts” such as “Mutual misunderstandings between Europeans and Native Americans often defined the early years of interaction and trade as each group sought to make sense of the other. Over time, Europeans and Native Americans adopted some useful aspects of each other’s culture” or “Concerned by expansionist Communist ideology and Soviet repression, the United States sought to contain communism through a variety of measures, including major military engagements in Korea and Vietnam.” Each of these concepts could be a course within itself, but given that a traditional classroom meets for 45 minutes, 5 days a week, for 36 weeks, without factoring in standardized testing, school events, or just “days off” from content, this leaves a little over one of the 240 gigantic excerpts of history every 45 minutes. Therefore, you can’t slow down, you can’t check for understanding, there’s no room for errors, there’s no room for student interest.

Fundamentally, there’s no room for innovation. A teacher can’t try new things, they can’t explore project-based learning, and they can’t really listen to their students. Everything is a top-down nightmare — if a teacher explores new methodology, their scores may suffer and they could lose their position. In a regular classroom, it’s possible for students to perform above average on state standardized tests and still engage in hands-on activities, but AP testing is so ridiculously chalk-full of information and “test preparedness” content that not giving a lecture almost-daily is impossible. The only way to teach this much content this quickly is to cram, drill, memorize, or assign numerous amounts of homework — commonly called “grit.” Already stated by Alfie Kohn on numerous occasions,

“Grit is usually justified as a way to boost academic achievement, which sounds commendable. But take a moment to reflect on other possible goals one might have for children — for example, to lead a life that’s happy and fulfilling, morally admirable, creative, or characterized by psychological health. Any of those objectives would almost certainly lead to prescriptions quite different from ‘Do one thing and never give up.’”

Policymakers would have us think that students lack grit — they don’t commit or work as hard as we’d like, and that will set them up for failure. But who can blame students for not identifying with coursework that is irrelevant? Historical thinking is important, but knowing the entire history of the United States is not. Forcing a student to believe that everything we tell them is important and if they don’t believe us they’ll fail in life is not only wrong, it’s hurtful. AP students develop a mindset that because they perform well in “advanced” classes they’re better prepared for the future, but really they’re only improving at skills that aren’t that relevant to begin with.

Every student deserves the opportunity to learn analytical skills at a high level. And only classes like AP U.S. History adequately reveal to students their intellectual capabilities, which in turn unlock ideas, careers, and whole worlds that would be otherwise closed to them due to an all-too-common façade of simplistic worksheets.

At the verge of sounding repetitive — there is a false equivalency placed on AP classes being better than traditional classes. What’s missing are the classes that engage the individual beyond guided notes and poor assessments of knowledge. Perhaps a history class could explore the perspectives surrounding immigration today, interviewing people from all backgrounds then analyzing how it relates to the past. They could formulate an action plan to communicate their beliefs and where policy should go. Maybe a class could look at the history of their city at the local archives and submit their findings to a museum. The point being is that history can be a hands-on, creative, critical thinking course — and it’s not through doubling down on “rigorous” academic work.

AP U.S. History allowed me to genuinely learn the subject matter, analyze historical movements with context, compare my world to past times, broaden my understanding of politics, and truly love the story that history tells. History went from being something I despised to one of my favorite subjects. I now see the people behind the events, and the deep and inseparable humanity that accompanies them. For my entire life, I have been a reader and writer, loving how words paint a picture of a real world. AP U.S. History made that love of mine applicable to our past — and potentially to my future profession. I will always be grateful for that.

… is a rising junior at Gahanna Lincoln High School in Gahanna, Ohio. She is the daughter of Chad Aldis, the Fordham Institute’s Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Again, I do not want to imply that I’m writing to attack this student’s views. Instead, I want to call out the policymakers who have utilized this as a basis to promote outdated, unhelpful practice. I love history and believe every student needs to know our story, but AP courses do not develop that understanding. They do a better job than some, but we cannot seek to continually improve a standards-based system which leaves absolutely no time for student learning. And surely, many students benefit from AP courses — but they could do so much more.

Advanced Placement classes hurt students. In order to be competitive, children are placed in the most factory-style classrooms that exist. It’s not that these teachers are not well trained or fantastic educators, the College Board curriculum just makes it impossible — especially in history — to develop lessons tailored at authentic learning. The solution isn’t to abolish all AP classes instantaneously, as this does nothing to solve the root of the problem: we need all classes to be engaging and relevant to students — valid alternatives that teach this content better. This means classes that take time to empower and listen to kids, actually value student feedback and direction, take time to discuss and develop ideas, and explore interactions with the community and each other. Likely, historical standards would have to be scaled back and focused on the needs of the local community.

Passive classrooms train our students to listen unquestionably to what they’re told. The teacher is unequivocally right and the content reigns supreme. Real critical thought — not the manufactured version sold to students — involves questioning what one learns and standing up for oneself. It’s not clean, rote, or easy to assess. If we want students to succeed, we need to employ them with the necessary skills that matter beyond a classroom’s four walls — skills that are not present by teaching to a test. Students, teachers, and school administrators must examine their coursework and reimagine the curriculum for the modern world.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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