Yesterday I opened the trunk of my 17-year old daughter’s car and found four copies of Alan Brinkley’s United States history survey textbook.  None of them are mine.

Caroline Brinkley

Is it Ironic that the CEO of the College Board is Praising the Virtues of Religious Education?

College Board

David Coleman is the President and CEO of the College Board, “a mission-driven non-for-profit organization, best known for the SAT and AP Program.”  In a recent piece at Christianity Today he sings the praises of religious education.

Here is a taste:

First, religious education celebrates and cultivates productive solitude—the practice of being alone. We don’t need to visit a monastery to recognize the essential link between solitude, contemplation, and prayer. Today’s young people especially need productive solitude as the technology of interruption has grown to outpace the discipline of concentration.

The sometimes-crazed pursuit of college admission tends to destroy such solitude and inhibits excellence in any activity outside of the classroom. Typical college applications have five to ten spaces for activities. There should be no more than three. If you want to do more, so be it. But those pursuits should stem from genuine interest, not the anxiety of needing to fill blanks on an application.

A second powerful practice is reverent reading. Reading deeply—attending to a text with the full powers of the mind and heart—is vital to communities of faith and to academic success. C. S. Lewis describes it best when he compares reading well to looking at a work of art:

We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. We must look and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.

I find that students are often asked more about themselves than the books they have read. Lewis describes true reading as enlarging the soul, a skill critical for the first year in college, when students spend less time in class and more time reading independently.

A third gift of religious education is what many religious communities call “grace and gratitude.” Religious training invites us to strive with all our might while recognizing the limits of our power.

A young person informed by grace and gratitude escapes the illusion that they are entirely in control of their lives. That awareness makes them less fragile in the face of failures and more grounded when successful.

Read the entire piece here.

I endorse everything Coleman says here, but I do find it a bit ironic coming from the guy who brings us the SAT and the AP Exam.  As someone who has taught AP US History, graded AP US History exams, and have daughters who have taken multiple AP exams, it all seems a bit odd.

  1. In my experience, the AP exams and the SAT encourage the kind of ambition and “crazed pursuit of college admission” that Coleman derides in his piece.
  2. In my experience, the AP exams are so geared toward coverage that they force teachers to “teach to the test.”  This hardly allows an instructor to delve deeply into texts and read in such a way that “enlarges the soul.”
  3. The AP and SAT, and the culture of success and ambition these exams have created, seem to exacerbate student anxiety and train them in unhealthy habits of self-mastery and self-control.

Perhaps I am missing something here, but it seems like the SAT and the AP Exams cultivate educational habits that are mostly at odds with the kind of religious education Coleman endorses in this piece.

Having said all this, I think Coleman might be the kind of guy who is willing to think hard about these issues..  Watch this lecture

Fewer Students are Enrolling in College History Courses

Figure1 Brookins.jpgHere is a taste of the latest report from the American Historical Association.

Undergraduate teaching offers many historians their widest audiences, as well as some of the most direct opportunities to maintain the discipline’s presence in the public consciousness. In light of the recent downward trend in the number of history majors (see the March and May 2016 issues of Perspectives on History), and anecdotal reports from some department chairs that overall undergraduate enrollment in history courses has been falling, the AHA conducted an online survey to gauge trends in student enrollment in college history courses.

Conducted this past spring and summer, and targeted at chairs and program administrators from colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, the survey aimed to measure the changing popularity of history courses. Responses show that the total number of college students taking history courses—a broad measure of our discipline’s reach in higher education—has fallen over the past few years. The direction and degree of enrollment changes vary significantly from institution to institution, with public institutions more consistently affected by declines. Initial analysis does suggest, however, that historians at many institutions might be able to support higher levels of student interest in undergraduate history courses with greater outreach and broader faculty participation in recruiting students.

E-mails and postings to the AHA’s Department Chairs community invited more than 800 academic units at a variety of institutions to participate in the online survey. Based on the composition of academic units that elect to be listed in the AHA’s Directory of History Departments, Historical Organizations, and Historians, the survey invitations went disproportionately to administrators in departments at four-year institutions, although the AHA made a parallel effort to recruit responses from units at two-year institutions. Of those who submitted at least some enrollment information, 113 were at four-year institutions in the United States, five were at two-year institutions in the United States, and five were at four-year institutions in Canada. Another 30 respondents began the survey but stopped before submitting any quantitative information. Institutions represented within the category of four-year institutions varied greatly by retention and graduation rates, size, public or private control, types of undergraduate programs offered, location, selectivity, Carnegie classification, and institution level (from baccalaureate-only to PhD-granting). The aggregate number of undergraduate history students represented in responses to this survey was approximately 390,000 in 2012–13 and approximately 360,000 in 2014–15.

From the 2012–13 academic year through the 2014–15 academic year, overall student enrollment in undergraduate-level history courses declined at 96 of the 123 academic units for which we now have data. Total undergraduate student enrollment in history courses rose at only 27 of these institutions. Worryingly, large net declines of 10 percent or more affected 55 of the responding institutions. The median drop in enrollment at public institutions was somewhat higher (9.2 percent) than the median change at private institutions (7.9 percent; see fig. 1). The experience of individual departments in each category, however, varied widely. One private institution saw a 29.8 percent increase in history enrollments, while another saw a 42.1 percent decline. One large public institution’s history enrollment dropped 26.4 percent, while another smaller public institution’s rose by 23.8 percent.

Read Julia Brookins’s entire article here.

What explains this decline.  I have a few hunches:

  1.  Students are taking history requirements in high school through the AP program
  2.  Colleges, in the quest to attract students, are giving college credit for weak scores on the AP exam.  I consider a “3” on the AP U.S. history exam to be weak.  That assessment comes from 7 years of grading AP exams in the late 1990s and early 2o0os.
  3. Institutions often do not have their best instructors teaching the history survey.

I addressed other issues related to this crisis in a 5-part series at this blog entitled “What Should Historians Be Thinking About?

NPR Tackles the Advanced Placement Controversy in Colorado

Over the last few weeks we have done a couple of posts on the controversy surrounding new guidelines and changes to the Advanced Placement history curriculum.  You can read our coverage of AHA President James Grossman’s post here and a post on the protests over the curriculum by students in Colorado here.  At some point, when time allows, and if this is still a live story, I want to read the new AP guidelines and weigh in on the conversation.  

Yesterday National Public Radio tackled the AP controversy, with particular focus on the kids in Colorado who are protesting.  You can listen here, but in the meantime here is a small taste:

The revamped framework aims to de-emphasize rote memorization and instead develop critical thinking skills. But some conservatives say there’s an anti-American bias.

Larry Krieger, a retired New Jersey high school teacher who is leading a national fight against the new framework, testified via video conference before Colorado’s state board of education. He says the new materials don’t mention events like D-Day or key historical characters. “The founders are not discussed,” he says. “Ben Franklin: not there. James Madison: not there.”

But that doesn’t mean teachers will leave out D-Day or the nation’s founders, says Fred Anderson, a history professor at the University of Colorado who helped write the new framework.

“These are usually the very best teachers in a school. You don’t have to tell them to talk about Wilson and Madison, and Franklin and Washington at the Constitutional Convention — they do that,” he says. “They would find it incredibly condescending to be directed at that level, so the absence of mention is not in any sense an exclusion — and it’s a misconception, I think, about the framework that that’s the case.”

In Jefferson County, after two weeks of protest, the original language about patriotism was dropped. On Thursday night, the school board stripped of the most controversial language and then passed the resolution, which still creates a committee to review course materials.

Meanwhile, the College Board, which administers the AP test, says that if a school or district censors essential concepts from an AP course, that course can no longer bear the “Advanced Placement” designation.

I think this story deserves a lot of coverage here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but I just don’t have time to do it–at least not yet.  So at this point I will just report until I get a chance to read the new guidelines and get up to speed. Stay tuned. 

In Defense of Revisionism

It seems like every few years another front opens up in the so-called “History Wars.”  In the 1990s there was the battle over the proposed National History Standards and the fight over the Enola Gay exhibit.  In the 2000s there was the debate over the Texas Social Studies Standards.  Now it seems that people are not happy with the changes made to the Advanced Placement United States History curriculum.  It is apparently too revisionist.

In Monday’s New York Times, James Grossman, the Executive Director of the American Historical Association, tried to calm the critics by reminding the public that all history is revisionist.  He writes:

A member of the Texas State Board of Education has accused the College Board of “promoting among our students a disdain for American principles and a lack of knowledge of major American achievements,” like those of the founding fathers and of thegenerals who fought in the Civil War and World War II. The Republican National Committee says the framework offers “a radically revisionist view”that “emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history.” Stanley Kurtz, in National Review, called it “an attempt to hijack the teaching of U.S. history on behalf of a leftist political and ideological perspective.”

Disagreement is not a bad thing. But learning history means engaging with aspects of the past that are troubling, as well as those that are heroic.

There was a time, for example, when historians didn’t worry much about the slave trade and the emergence of an economy based on forced labor. Historians likened the plantation to a “school,” and emancipated people as children let out of class too soon. Only slightly more than a half-century ago, historians began to “revise” that narrative, examining sources previously ignored or unseen, informed by new ideas about race and human agency. More recently, scholars have revised 19th-century images of the “vanishing Indian,” a wildly inaccurate narrative that lives on in public monuments and popular lore, and has implications for public policy.

This essential process of reconsideration and re-evaluation takes place in all disciplines; imagine a diagnosis from a physician who does not read “revisionist” medical research.

Revisionism is necessary — and it generates controversy, especially when new scholarship finds its way into classrooms…

Stay with us today.  My next post will include some of my own thoughts on revisionism.

Skyping With Tim Beirne’s AP US History Class at The Stony Brook School

The Stony Brook School

Earlier this week I spent about forty-five minutes with The Stony Brook School seniors enrolled in Tim Bierne’s Advanced Placement United States History class.  Tim assigned my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? to the students for their summer reading this year and he thus thought it would be fun for me to get together with the students via Skype. The students had just completed writing a formal review essay of the book.

As some of you know, I taught this very class at The Stony Brook School back in 2002 when Joy was working as the school’s Dean of Students and I was writing my dissertation across the tracks at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The Stony Brook School is an outstanding college preparatory academy.  When I describe it to folks unfamiliar with the world of boarding schools I often tell them that it is like a Christian version of the school in Robin Williams movie Dead Poet Society.

The students at The Stony Brook School have always been sharp and Tim’s AP students did not disappoint.  They peppered me with questions, both about the book’s content and the process of writing it.  Tim had them well-prepared.  When I asked him to give me a sense of what they had been studying, he told me that they had just finished reading and discussing Charles Beard’s famous economic interpretation of the Constitution.  Wow!  I didn’t learn about Beard until I graduate school.  How do I sign up for this class?

Tim is a former student of mine–a 2009 graduate of Messiah College.  I am very proud of the good work he is doing at The Stony Brook School. These kind of experiences are always very rewarding for me.

Thanks for the invitation Tim!

Why You Should Grade AP American History Exams

Back in the day I did a five or six-year stint as a grader for Advanced Placement United States History exam.  At that time the AP exam reading was held at Trinity University in San Antonio.  American historians–both teachers and professors–had the run of the campus.  If we did not spend our nights cruising the Riverwalk listening to jazz and eating ice cream, or watching the Spurs win an NBA championship, we sat around a dorm-room lobby envisioning a book that would eventually become Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. The money was good, but I kept going because of the relationships. The cozy campus of Trinity University was eventually replaced by the sterility of a Louisville conference center and when that happened I stopped attending.

Having said that, I concur with everything Karen Johnson says about AP grading in her recent post at Religion in American History. Here is a taste: 

But beyond the money, the greatest benefit to me has been the educational value that I have taken away from the experience.  The AP grading offers a chance to collaborate with high school teachers who are often at the top of their game, a rare opportunity for those of us who teach at the college level.  I’ve come away with numerous  ideas and strategies for incorporating best practices into my classroom.  Next, the AP grading teaches you to use a rubric, and to use it well.  I have found that this makes my own grading, and crafting of assignments, much easier.  The grading also gives readers a chance to hear great historians speak.  This year Carol Sue Humphrey and Andrew Bacevich spoke to the readers.  Last year we heard from Gordon Wood.  In addition, going to the grading will give you a chance to see how the College Board rolls out its new test.  In the 2014-2015 school year, they are switching from a coverage model of testing U.S. history that requires students to know a little bit about everything to a more skills-based model that requires students to practice historical thinking.  This shift matches much of the discussion going on in history education circles, and the AP grading is a place where conversations about this trend abound. 

A High School Teacher "Warns" College Professors

Kenneth Bernstein is a retired high school government teacher.  He has spent most of his career teaching AP courses at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, MD.  He was the 2010 Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher.

In a revealing piece at The Washington Post (originally published in Academe) entitled “A Warning to College Profs From a High School Teacher,” Bernstein describes how No Child Left Behind and Advanced Placement courses have made students unprepared for college.  He writes: “Please do not blame those of us in public schools for how unprepared for higher education the students arriving at your institutions are.  We have very little say in what is happening to public education.”

Here is more of his piece:

My primary course as a teacher was government, and for the last seven years that included three or four (out of six) sections of Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics. My students, mostly tenth graders, were quite bright, but already I was seeing the impact of federal education policy on their learning and skills. 

In many cases, students would arrive in our high school without having had meaningful social studies instruction, because even in states that tested social studies or science, the tests did not count for “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind. With test scores serving as the primary if not the sole measure of student performance and, increasingly, teacher evaluation, anything not being tested was given short shrift. 

Further, most of the tests being used consist primarily or solely of multiple-choice items, which are cheaper to develop, administer, and score than are tests that include constructed responses such as essays. Even when a state has tests that include writing, the level of writing required for such tests often does not demand that higher-level thinking be demonstrated, nor does it require proper grammar, usage, syntax, and structure. Thus, students arriving in our high school lacked experience and knowledge about how to do the kinds of writing that are expected at higher levels of education. 

Recognizing this, those of us in public schools do what we can to work on those higher-order skills, but we are limited. Remember, high schools also have tests—No Child Left Behind and its progeny (such as Race to the Top) require testing at least once in high school in reading and math. In Maryland, where I taught, those tests were the state’s High School Assessments in tenth-grade English and algebra (which some of our more gifted pupils had taken as early as eighth grade). High schools are also forced to focus on preparing students for tests, and that leads to a narrowing of what we can accomplish in our classrooms. 

I mentioned that at least half my students were in AP classes. The explosive growth of these classes, driven in part by high school rankings like the yearly Challenge Index created by Jay Mathews of The Washington Post, is also responsible for some of the problems you will encounter with students entering your institutions. The College Board did recognize that not everything being labeled as AP met the standards of a college-level course, so it required teachers to submit syllabi for approval to ensure a minimal degree of rigor, at least on paper. But many of the courses still focus on the AP exam, and that focus can be as detrimental to learning as the kinds of tests imposed under No Child Left Behind.

When Did "Small" Become "Horrible?"

Chris Bray, a blogger at Cliopatria (the flagship blog of the History News Network), has been reading Eric Miller’s biography of Christopher Lasch and thinking about the writings of Wendell Berry.

His post raises some interesting historical questions.  When did small-scale solutions to social problems go out of fashion?  Here is a taste:

When did the American left, such as it is, abandon scale as a worthy topic? As a historical matter, where can we locate the demise of “small is beautiful” liberal politics? Why is the argument for a devolution of power right wing? Why is the dial on American “progressive” politics stuck on the “massive” setting? None of this just happened. It’s a development with roots, and with dire effects.


Deerfield Dispatch #7

Katie Garland checks in from the Historic Deerfield Summer Fellowship ProgramRead the previous volumes of the Deerfield Dispatch here. -JF

If I have learned anything during this program, it is that objects and buildings have a wonderful ability to tell stories.  Naturally, I knew that objects were a helpful way of looking at the past before this summer.  I can point to specific times in my life when museum objects spoke to me, like when I saw Judy Garland’s ruby slippers at the Smithsonian in 5th grade and Henry Clay’s portrait in the National Gallery in high school. During this program, I have experienced the power of objects full force like when I saw Clementi’s harpsichord at  PVMA, the Mayflower II at Plymouth, the kitchen at The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, and John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence painting at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.  Everyone connects to different objects.  These just happen to be some of the ones that have resonated most with me.

This may sound obvious, but there is something wonderfully tangible about objects.  They make the past seem so much closer and more alive, yet emphasize its otherness at the same time.  For instance, after walking around the Mayflower II, I have a much better sense of what that trip across the ocean must have been like, but I still cannot truly fathom weeks of living in that tiny space.

While I have always had a healthy appreciation for objects and buildings, this past week I learned about the power that landscapes hold and their ability tell historical stories.  It is somehow too easy to focus on objects and buildings and forget that they were part of a larger context.  We spent a morning last week talking with John Forti, Curator of Historic Landscapes at Strawbery Banke museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  His living object collection contains heritage plants, the genetic strains of plants that people throughout history used.  Forti designs gardens to show how these plants would have been grown.  He actively works to place the wonderful buildings of Strawbery Banke within their historical landscapes, be that within a small haphazard garden outside of a colonial riverfront home, or a Victory Garden behind a 1940s store.  It is amazing how much more powerful the stories of the buildings and their objects were when placed within the larger landscape.

Armed with this new awareness of historical landscapes, I decided to take a trip to Stowe, Vermont this weekend.  Unless you know me well, this may sound a little bit out the blue, but I promise that it is not!  My favorite movie is The Sound of Music and Maria Augusta von Trapp’s The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, the autobiography that inspired the musical, is one of the books that I reread annually.  After fleeing Austria, the Trapp family purchased a farm in Stowe and turned it into a music camp, which today has become a resort.  I have always wanted to visit, and since I finished my research paper early, I had time to make the trip!

Once we finally found the lodge (a surprisingly difficult task), I was initially disappointed.  Although the buildings are lovely, they are nothing like the original, simple buildings described in the autobiography. However, because the original family structures have been replaced with a luxury hotel, I was forced to think about the landscape more than historical structures.  Walking around the mountain and looking at the family graveyard gave me chills.  Knowing how much the family treasured the place, and seeing it for myself, gave me a greater connection to them and to their story. Standing atop the mountain, it is easy to see why the family settled there.  It was indescribably beautiful and remote.  Now that I have a better sense of their land, I cannot wait to go home and reread Maria’s story because I am sure that it will hold a deeper meaning for me.

I hope that my awareness for landscape continues, especially as I prepare to go on our week-long trip next week.  I must remind myself to look, not just at the buildings and objects, but at where they are situated, and to think about how that space relates to the past.

This week’s picture was taken at the Trapp Lodge in Stowe, VT.

Reading and Christian Cosmopolitanism

Over at the Comment magazine blog, Susan VanZanten offers her thoughts on the relationship between Christianity and cosmopolitanism.  Christians, according to VanZanten, should be pursuing cosmopolitan values as part of their vocations as Christ-followers because all human beings are created in the image of God and all human beings have been created to dwell in relationship with other human beings. In this sense, we are all “citizens of the world.”  VanZanten makes a very compelling and inspiring case for the way that reading can help to cultivate this kind of Christian cosmopolitanism. 

I couldn’t agree more with VanZanten, but her piece only addresses one side of the story.

VanZanten writes (the bold-face is mine):

A crucial second aspect of human identity for Christians is the fact that we are created to dwell in relationship with other human beings. We are communal, like our triune maker. Human identity is premised on relationship both with God and with other human beings. While the Enlightenment emphasized individual identity and many non-Western traditions understand identity in communal terms, the Christian story includes both components. In Jesus and the Victory of God, N.T. Wright says that within the Christian worldview, corporate meaning enhances personal meaning. While individualism and collectivism cancel each other out, corporate and personal meaning reinforce one another.

This personal/corporate character leads to a particular plot: the way we are summoned to live. The respect for all humanity grounded in their common imago dei and the love for neighbour stipulated by the Scriptures are not limited to national, religious, or even geographic proximity. When Jesus relates the story of the Good Samaritan in response to the question, “Who is my neighbour?” he tells of how those of similar religious and cultural identity ignore a man who has been assaulted and robbed, while a Samaritan, a man from an ethnic and religious group loathed by the Jews of Jesus’ day, stops and assists the victim. The character who embodies neighbourliness is the ultimate outsider. All first-century Jews knew that they were to love their neighbour, but Jesus has the Samaritan doing the loving. The neighbour is not someone who lives next door, or goes to the same synagogue or church, or claims the same national identity; the neighbour is anyone in need who we encounter. This kind of neighbourliness has been made more apparent and less easy to ignore with globalization.

Again, I can’t argue with anything VanZanten has written here. But I would say this: Cosmopolitanism always has the potential of undermining a flesh and blood sense of community and neighborliness.  For most of us, our neighbor IS “someone who lives next door.”  While our neighbors are certainly not limited to the people who live on our street, neighborhood, or town, being a neighbor in these local contexts remains the most practical and effective way of carrying out Jesus’s command in the Sermon on the Mount.

I am a strong supporter of the kind of cosmopolitan imagination that reading and liberal learning in the humanities and arts can foster.  I have used this blog on many occasions to preach about the way that the study of the past can instill us with the virtue of empathy.  But I have also been a strong advocate for a cosmopolitanism, and even a Christian cosmopolitanism, that is grounded or “rooted” in a particular locale.

Herein lies the tension.  As Lavar Burton used to remind us on the PBS show Reading Rainbow, “I can go anywhere..take a look, it’s in a book….”  Liberal learning, as Barbara Nussbaum and others have noted, leads us outward.  It saves us from the darker elements of our provincialism.  But we also must remember that while we are off engaging in the global world, there are still people living in the midst of those provinces. 

Is it possible to engage the world–even if it is in an imagined sense–and still remain connected to the local attachments that for many of us give our lives meaning? On the one hand, we want to bring the best of our common humanity–in a truly global sense–to the places where we live, work, and have our being.  On the other hand, we do not want to be itinerant, placeless beings who live in an abstract academic or intellectual “community.”

As some of my readers know, I flesh these questions out in an eighteenth-century historical context in The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  You may also want to look at my forthcoming piece in The Cresset: “Does the Way of Improvement Lead Home? Rooted Cosmopolitanism and the Church-Related College.”

Thanks to Susan VanZanten for this thought-provoking piece.

A Final Word From the 2011 AP Reading in Louisville

Our AP correspondent Jonathan Den Hartog weighs in with one final update from the Advanced Placement United States History reading in Louisville.  For his previous dispatches click here and here.

One final update from the AP Correspondent:

It’s over! I thought it would be good to let everyone know that the AP US History reading completed this afternoon (Thursday). As a group,we read 410,000 exams in a week. I contributed by reading over 1000 separate essays.

Already the readers are scattering back to their homes across the country. My flight back to Minneapolis will go out early tomorrow morning.

Before closing this report, let me just observe that this reading allowed a lot of historians to demonstrate their talents and abilities.

Jonathan Chu of UMass Boston delivered a very nice lecture in which he began by laying out a basic historiography of the Revolution and then went farther by presenting on some of his research. He conceptualized the Revolution in terms of governance and economic structures, providing an institutional outlook on constitutional issues. I also found interesting his connecting the economic recovery of the Confederation years to American’s nascent China trade. Apparently Roger Morris was one of the main financiers as Americans sold Kentucky ginseng to China and returned with Chinese porcelains.

Readers also enjoyed lectures by Gary Nash and Lizabeth Cohen.

On a lighter note, I discovered that David Marley of Vanguard University not only knows a lot about Pat Robertson, but he also does stand-up comedy. If you find yourself in Orange County, California, he directs a comedy show of skippers from Disney’s jungle cruise.

For my part, I have definitely enjoyed the multiple conversations I have had about religion and the early republic with historians from the University of Tennessee and the University of Delaware. Look for some exciting developments out of both schools. I know some of that will be on display at SHEAR next month.

Finally, if after reading these installments I’ve piqued your interest, the link to apply to be an AP reader is here:

Maybe I’ll see some of you next year!

Another Dispatch from the AP US History Reading in Louisville

Jonathan Den Hartog, our correspondent at the Advanced Placement United States History reading, has sent us another dispatch from Louisville.  Read his first post here.

Greetings again from the AP Correspondent!

With the last post I promised some description of what went on during the day. Here it would be entertaining to describe sword play, explosions, or historians challenging each other with a “You can’t handle the truth!” and throwing down a forgotten primary source. No, we’re here to grade, and that is what we do.

Students writing the exam had to answer three questions. The first was a Documents-Based Question, or in the AP parlance, the DBQ. Students were given 9 short primary sources and asked to write a response based on those documents and on their own knowledge. This year, students had to reflect on the Nixon administration’s responses to foreign and domestic challenges.

Next, students had to answer two Free Response Questions, of which they had choices. They had to select one question from the first half of U.S. history and one from the second half. The first choice was between a question on the development of slavery between 1607 and 1776 and another on the role of party competition in shaping nationalism in the early republic. The second group asked two comparative questions, whether to compare opposition to immigrants between the 1840s-50s and 1910s-20s or to compare the strategies of African American leaders between the 1890s-1920s and the 1950s-60s.

The first order of business for the reading is training. The ETS does an excellent job of insuring consistency across readers through rigid adherence to a grading rubric.  Leaders encourage readers to “embrace the standard.” The end result is the entire group is striving for an eminently fair reading. After a half day of training, we started the reading. Each of the four Free Response questions has approximately a quarter of the readers on it, more or less depending on the percentages of students who selected each question. This year, strong majorities decided to write on slavery and Civil Rights leaders. I was assigned to score the question about slavery.

Once the training ends, tables begin reading exams. Table leaders at each table keep readers on track. The day is broken up by snack and meal breaks, but the rest of the time is just reading of exams. After reading each exam, each reader assigns a score to the exam and moves on. In a day, a reader will cover easily over 100 exams, and the very fast readers can do 250+. I should note I have not reached those blazing fast speeds, but I have seen them in operation. It’s tiring work, but some satisfaction comes with finishing a folder and with the regular reminders of how much the group is covering.

About halfway through the week, the sections complete their first question, and the entire assembly switches over to the DBQ. That switch happened today, so for the next two days all of us will be reading about Richard Nixon. With greater distance from Watergate, I think historians and historical writers (like Rick Perlstein) are recognizing the complexities of Nixon and the era. Most of that complexity is probably lost on the essay writers, but I have already seen some voices trying to offer an historically fair assessment of Nixon’s efforts, so maybe all is not lost.

I have to be back at my table first thing in the morning, so I should sign off, with a hearty greetings from Louisville!

The Way of Improvement Leads Home at the AP US History Reading in Louisville

We here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home are committed to covering all things American history.  This week we are pleased to have Jonathan Den Hartog writing for us from the floor of the largest gathering of American history teachers in the United States: The Advanced Placement United States History exam reading in Louisville, Kentucky.

As someone who spent six or seven years grading AP Exams when the event was held in San Antonio, I have a good sense of what Jonathan is going through.  But I will let him describe the experience in what I hope will the first in a series of posts from Louisville:

As excited as I am to be an “AP Correspondent,” that joy is
mitigated by the fact that in this case “AP” stands for “Advanced Placement,”not “Associated Press.”

I’m at the AP US History Reading in Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville saved some of its best weather for us—over 90 degrees every day,with humidity.

In early May, some 410,000 high school students took the AP US History exam, which consisted of a multiple choice section, coupled with 1 longer Documents Based Question and two Free Response (essay) Questions. That adds up to over 1.2 million essays that can’t be scored by a computer, so ETS gathers hundreds of historians to read all of the essays. This year, there are 1,250 readers. About 40% of them are university faculty, the rest are high school AP teachers. So, even if this isn’t a high-powered academic conference, there are still hundreds of historians here—hence it’s worth noting in the blogosphere.

Since the AP strives for strong academic leadership, the exam is led by qualified university faculty. Christine Heyrman has done it in the past, and this year the leadership is being eminently provided by Ernie Freeburg of the University of Tennessee and Fred Jordan of the Woodberry  Forest School in Virginia.

I think there are some very valid reasons for academics to participate in the reading. We find ourselves around people who are knowledgable and care about U.S. history. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a more engaged audience. They want to know what people are reading and writing. They want to have conversations about how to understand and teach US History better. They will laugh at history jokes and even appreciate it if you wear t-shirts that have the Mt. Rushmore presidents done up as the comic book characters The Fantastic Fore-fathers or one that reads “He puts the Cool in Coolidge” with a picture of the 30th president. If too often historians have to justify their work, that’s not the case here.

Further, It puts us in contact with real high school history teachers. I am more and more convinced that good academic history needs to filter down to the high schools, because very soon those high school students will be in college classrooms. This is a forum to encounter some outstanding high school teachers. These are people doing yeoman work and producing good results.

Finally, the reading does allow for some interesting professionalization. I always meet people doing interesting research that I may not have encountered otherwise. In the past day, I’ve had meals with people who work on Irish-American loyalty in World War I, Gender and Family Politics in the 1960s and 70s, and the formation of Dutch-American identity in the 20th century. The AP also goes out of its way to bring in some outstanding historians to lecture. This year on the docket is Gary Nash, Lizabeth Cohen, and Jonathan Chu.

I realize I haven’t said much about what gets done during the day. Maybe in the next post. One thing that does happen is you get to read an occasional howler, like this one: “Britain sent a man into America looking for gold, he went by the name Christopher Columbus. He didn’t have anything to return but brought back thousands of African-Americans.”