Kansas education official defends revised AP U.S. history standards

A Kansas education official says a newly revised Advanced Placement U.S. history course is “not telling kids what to think or teachers … what to teach,” after criticism that the course omits crucial elements of the nation’s history.

“History is a story, a narrative that is told,” said Don Gifford, education program consultant for history, government and social studies for the Kansas Department of Education.

Charges from some conservatives that the new framework emphasizes negative aspects of U.S. history while minimizing positive aspects is “people trying to validate a particular point of view,” Gifford told the State Board of Education on Wednesday. “They think they’ve found the truth in history, and so they want to prescribe that truth.”

Gifford addressed state board members during their regular meeting in Topeka to update them on state standards and to address recent criticism of the AP U.S. history course, commonly known as APUSH.

The controversy stems from a recent overhaul of the AP test, administered by the New Jersey-based College Board, that was meant to de-emphasize memorization. The new exam will be given for the first time in May and includes a lengthy framework to help teachers better prepare students for the requirements.

Some conservative activists have objected to the new course, the teachers’ framework and the exam itself, saying it is rife with liberal themes and focuses on the negative aspects of U.S. history. Critics say the framework does not mention important American historical figures, including Benjamin Franklin and Martin Luther King Jr., but spends time on some of the darker episodes in American history.

Rosy Schmidt of Andover, an outspoken opponent of Common Core state standards, addressed the state school board on Wednesday to speak against the new AP U.S. history standards, which she called “disturbing.”

Gifford reminded board members that advanced placement courses – which can earn students college credit – are electives. About 15,400 Kansas students take advanced placement exams each year. Of those, about 2,000 take the AP U.S. history test.

The revised course, he said, is “more about inquiry” than memorized names, dates or facts, Gifford said.

“This position views history as a verb, a process of inquiring, discovering and finding out, and less about saying, ‘These are the true things. These are the facts.’ ”

Several board members, including Kathy Busch of Wichita, noted that parents or others who have concerns about the revised framework should address them to the College Board, which developed it, rather than local or state education officials.

Disagreement over what parts of history children should learn is nothing new, Gifford added.

“All history is about choices,” he said.

The Puritans, for example, left England for America because they had suffered religious persecution, but most did not advocate for religious tolerance in New England, Gifford said. Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, had a love affair and fathered children with a 14-year-old slave girl, he said.

“We can teach about Manifest Destiny, and then we can talk about the senseless slaughter of women and children at Wounded Knee,” Gifford said.

The new APUSH framework, he added, is “not telling kids what to think or teachers, for that matter, what to teach.”

Contributing: Associated Press

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