Supply, Demand and Textbooks: Curricula in the Market of Ideas

Earlier this month, students and teachers from the suburban Jefferson County, Colorado received national media coverage after skipping school  to protest potential changes to the AP U.S. History courses offered at their schools. The school board had proposed to change the course to create nationalistic overtones at the expense of accurate representations of history in response to the College Board’s recent modifications to the curriculum. While this case received significant attention due to the massive amounts of students and teachers missing school, similar measures to censor material endorsed by the College Board as part of the AP curriculum were raised in Austin, Texas. The school boards taking of such measures was largely backed and supported by conservative leaning organizations, while the College Board, among other more liberal organizations, strongly criticized these school boards. Unfortunately, while both the protesting and the school boards have been tempered, the College Board did find itself under enough political pressure to revise its controversial AP U.S. History framework. This sets a frightening precedent for the way our country determines its educational standards.

In October 2012, the College Board made changes to its AP U.S. History exam by encouraging teachers to teach fewer topics in more depth. Such changes aligned with the projects of the Common Core and went into effect for the current school year. Citing the worry that this approach to our country’s history is far too revisionist and unpatriotic, the Jefferson County School Board in Colorado proposed reviewing the course at the end of September this year. The ultimate goal of the proposed revamp was to include materials that “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights,” and to exclude all materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”  The true revisionist attitude in this story is encapsulated in the school board’s proposal, which seeks to not only censor the version of U.S. history taught to high schoolers, but also to imbue history with a great deal of national propaganda.

As a result, hundreds of students in six high schools in Jefferson County skipped school to preserve the value of their education. They were accompanied by, at one point, 50 out of 117 of Jefferson County’s teachers. This mass exodus of students and teachers to the streets in strike caused two of the county’s schools to close.

While this dramatic event captured the attention of national media sources, a similar story unfolded earlier in September in Austin, Texas. On September 19, the Texas State Board of Education passed a resolution demanding that the AP U.S. History curriculum be revised “in a transparent manner to accurately reflect U.S. history without a political bias,” and further moved to require its students to learn only state-approved curriculums, ignoring the national standards approved by the College Board.

Unfortunately, while both the protesting and school boards have been tempered, the College Board did find itself under enough political pressure to revise its controversial AP U.S. History framework.[/dropcap]

In both of these states, school boards have contradicted the national standards set by the College Board, and the College has Board responded with strong criticism of such actions while at the same time, defending the new approach defined by their new exam. In Colorado, specifically, the College Board issued a statement supporting the students’ protesting, adding in warning that, “if a school or district censors essential concepts from an Advanced Placement course, that course can no longer bear the ‘AP’ designation.” Furthermore, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Civil Liberties Union and eight other national groups sent letters to the school board condemning their proposal, explaining and underlining the centrality of civil disorder to our country’s history and current standing.

While there has indeed been an outpouring of support for push-backs against these school boards, there has also been a great deal of support for them in their rejection of national education standards set by the College Board. In Colorado, for example, the national, right-wing political group, Americans for Prosperity, which is funded by the Koch brothers, backed the Jefferson County School Board. In Texas, the Republican National Committee itself declared the new standards set by the AP U.S. History Exam to be revisionist.

It’s easy to forget just how dependent the content of our education is on political tendencies or ideology of any kind. This forgetfulness is due, in part, to the ideal and expectation that the content of education should be immune from external influences. Nevertheless, these two cases remind us of the degree to which ideology and politics can significantly impact what is taught in our education systems. In fact, the College Board felt itself under such pressure and attack, that, at the beginning of October, it relented to a degree. These revisions underscore the choice that individual districts and teachers have over the subject matter. Furthermore, the Jefferson County superintendent recently announced his intention to reprimand teachers who partook in the strike. These two outcomes of the controversy over AP U.S. History material mark an incredibly disturbing precedent for the future of education.