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US History’ Studies: Curriculum Critique Essay

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Updated: Sep 30th, 2020

The following paper is the review of the course and exam description of the US history studies. The document includes the comprehensive description of the requirements for passing the exams on the American history as well as the detailed description of the course, broken down into thematic chapters. The artifact also includes the comprehensive curriculum framework which outlines the focus of the students’ learning vectors, thematic objectives, and key concepts important not only for the successful testing procedure, but also for the understanding of the material in question and the approaches relevant to the current education theories.

The curriculum framework in question has been revised the previous year and is thus the most up-to-date document that reflects the current views and approaches. Certain points of the said document that have been updated in accordance with the teaching policies and cultural trends have drawn substantial criticism and remain questionable in terms of academic validity. Nevertheless, the framework, as well as the suggested instructional approaches and exam guidelines, represent the most recent developments of the pedagogical thought.

Theoretical Basis

The artifact is designed in accordance with the contemporary curriculum theory. First of all, it addresses the long-lasting concern regarding the widening gap between theory and practice. According to Thornton (1988), the dominant role of textbooks as an information source, the memorization as the main evaluation criteria, and the teacher-centered delivery method all hamper the progression and decrease the critical thinking skills.

Besides, the philosophy of progressivism, when applied to education, also emphasizes on acquiring the skills relevant to solving contemporary problems (McNay, 2009). While this view seemingly deals little with historical studies, as they ultimately look backward to study and assess the past events, the curriculum framework emphasizes on analysis and interpretation of the historical events (College Board, 2015), which indeed can be used for enhanced understanding of the current social developments.

This approach also falls within the social reconstruction theory (McNay, 2009), which stresses the importance of social, economic, and political aspects as a perspective for addressing and improvement of current social issues. In the case of the history curriculum framework in question, the suggested thematic learning objectives (College Board, 2015) isolate the economic, social, and political aspects of each topic quite effectively, providing additional clarity and thus aligning with the theories mentioned above.

However, the most obvious theoretical basis in which the reviewed framework is grounded is the constructivism theory. Several aspects of the theory intersect with the priorities suggested by the authors. Namely, the skill of synthesis presented as one of the most important in the “History instructional approaches” section stresses the ability to “make connections between a given historical issue and related developments in a different historical context, geographical area, period, or era, including the present” (College Board, 2015, p. 108).

The constructivist approach also discourages the rigid information delivery methods and encourages the dynamic and fluid nature of knowledge (Matthews, 2012). The synthetic method also requires the ability to use the knowledge from different fields and disciplines, which further strengthens the interconnection between bordering courses and benefits the social reconstruction theory. Furthermore, the constructivism dismisses the authoritative nature of the teacher in a classroom and supports interaction. According to Matthews (2012), the student should not be perceived as a recipient of knowledge, but rather as an active participant in the learning process.

In line with this suggestion, all the strategies for instruction are discussion-based and require at least partial involvement of the students. The technique of fishbowl (College Board, 2015, p. 110), for instance, gives some of the participants the authority to model discussion techniques, while the majority listens and evaluates them, which not only boosts their leadership skills but introduces the class to the responsibilities of the process.

Other techniques, like “questioning a text” (College Board, 2015, p. 111), is aimed at developing the critical skills. Of the eight primary techniques suggested, all include debate as a part of the process at some point, and at least four contain the elements which involve the students in the presentation of new information. At this point, it should be mentioned that all of the instructions are not fixed and can be utilized depending on teacher’s decision, but the program is constructed in a way that prioritizes constructivist approach.

The latter may be viewed as a liability, as, according to Giroux (2010), the efficacy of the teacher’s work suffers greatly when the curriculum is presented to them in a manner that requires the absolute adherence to guidelines and limits their involvement in fitting the process to individual needs. This concern is specifically addressed by the authors, as mentioned in the document: “Teachers create their own local curriculum by selecting, for each concept in the framework, content that enables students to explore the course learning objectives.” (College Board, 2015, p. 6)

Thus, while the evaluation is presented in a form of a standardized test, the questions are conducted in such a way that excludes the mechanized repetition of the material. Instead, the questions include tests, which still require the in-depth understanding of the topic, four short-answer questions, which evaluate the student’s comprehension, and one long essay question, which also assesses the student’s point of view, the ability to form and support a thesis statement and the argumentation skills.

Internal and External Influences

Except for the theoretical basis, the history studies, which are viewed as a cross-disciplinal entity, are influenced by the cultural and ethical trends pertaining to society. The previous versions of the curriculum framework, except for their somewhat inconsistent structure aspects, were flawed with what is now known as the American exceptionalism. While not unique to the historical studies, according to some critics, it was most prominently displayed by the structuring of events and presentation of historical figures.

The resulting picture created the impression of the United States possessed unique characteristics that range from its geopolitical status to the abundance of resources to social rights and freedoms granted to its citizens. At the same time, the chosen way of representation has downplayed the roles of other countries and ethnic groups which took part in the historical process. Examples include textbooks and other course materials that imply the justification of malicious activities performed by the early colonizers of American West, or the exceptional role America has played in World War II.

This fact has drawn criticism not only from within the historical community but also from the social activist groups. As a result, several latest revisions were driven to the large extent by the attempts to amend the issue by broadening the scope and including the history of the United States into a larger global picture which accounts for other major forces and puts less emphasis on the events important primarily to the American nation. The curriculum revisions were also taking into account the critique of the overly positive and “whitewashed” representation of the events instead of a more objective approach.

The more recent concerns were voiced in 2014 regarding the leaning towards the opposite side of the spectrum by including too much “negative” aspects of American history and thus discrediting the effort made by the pioneers and downplaying the importance of the image of the Founding Fathers. Finally, the broadening of the scope has inevitably triggered the political outcry, as the conservative party has been quick of accusing the College Board, the authors of the Curriculum Framework, in making the history leftist-driven, thus putting additional pressure on the academic process.

The resulting 2015 document has included the amendments to the majority of the criticized points, balancing the objective representation with engaging theme selection, removing the unnecessary emphasis on the negative aspects of events whenever such changes in tone did not compromise the objectivity of statements, and enhancing the analysis by adding the perspective characteristic for the time period in question to the already present contemporary “bird-eye” one.

One final external influence can not be ignored. Concerns were voiced by some scholars regarding the identity of the students outside the dominant culture. This may be viewed as a part of the social aspect mentioned above, but targets a specific problem. According to Tatum (2003), the curricula tend to account for the identity of the dominant cultural group. While the minority is not ignored completely, the emphasis is usually put at the deficits of the group, not its strengths.

As a result, the education system in the USA is compartmentalized, not contextualized, which distorts the knowledge both for the students of other cultures as well as for the representatives of a dominant one. While no specific move towards this goal can be observed in the reviewed document, the general tendency of shifting from America-centric towards more encompassing perspective can possibly become a solution to this issue.

Thus, it can be said that the primary external factors that influenced the formation of the recent curriculum are of political, cultural, ethical, and social origin while the internal ones were mostly the concerns of academic integrity.


The document is clearly structured. It can be divided into four major sections: the introductory part, the curriculum framework, the instructional approaches, and the exam details. The first part is comprised of three sections that give the overview of the Advanced Placement program (AP); the specifics of the history course; and the information for schools who wish to participate in the AP course audit.

The second part is an exhaustive description of the thinking skills that are critical to understanding history according to the framework; the thematic learning objectives, which summarize the knowledge domains required for a successful passing of the exam; and the concept outline, which basically represents the structure of the course as a chronological timeline. The “instructional approaches” part contains instructions and methodological insights regarding the implementation of the said concepts in the teaching process.

For a clearer understanding, this part is broken down into five segments, which deal with suggested order of presentation, principles of selecting the material, development of the thinking skills mentioned above, the additional possibilities for increasing and deepening the understanding of the course beyond the designated framework, and a set of valuable strategies and their respective purposes.

The last part contains the complete technical information regarding the examination procedure and the list of questions. The majority of the document is supplied with tables which make certain parts clearer and allow for a quick reference if necessary. The digital format further benefits usability by utilizing the hierarchical bookmarks and the hyperlinks which make navigation fast and convenient.

Additional Benefits

Additionally, it should be noted that while the primary aim of the artifact is the description of the exam process and, by extension, the history course itself, it actually can serve a much wider range of purposes. First, its instructions on course planning are extensive and can help not only in deciding on the delivery method but also suggest the appropriate textbooks and even provide the basic overview of strategies used in class.

Next, the breakdown of the historical concepts into thematic categories will benefit the teachers who prefer the less linear approach and adhere to the comparative analysis and synthetic method of information delivery (the guidelines for implementing the non-chronological view and its benefits are also included in the curriculum).

Finally, the exhaustive description of developing the critical thinking skills in the “historical thinking skills” section will not only benefit the historical studies directly but can be utilized on a broader scale – for usage in the marginal disciplines, like political and social studies. The techniques listed in the table (College Board, 2015, p. 8) can be implemented in the ethical and philosophical debate. Thus, the curriculum artifact in question can be of limited use not only outside the history class but will benefit any humanities student or teacher seeking additional insights.


Despite the obviously positive changes made to the curriculum since its previous versions, some of the issues are not conclusively resolved, while other arise. First, the new version is much more detailed compared to the old one. While most of the details are beneficial for the learning process and indeed offer a good outline of the techniques and strategies, they may contradict with the primary philosophy of a framework: to suggest the recommended course of events rather than to provide a definitive set of instructions.

As the introduction to the framework states that the teachers should create their own curriculum based on the document, it is impossible not to notice that the amount of freedom given to the teachers has actually decreased with the growing number of instructions that demand certain interpretation.

Second, the revised edition has brought to a minimum the references to events that are usually perceived as negative. However, another major issue was left unaddressed: the new curriculum still focuses on the actions performed by fractions and groups rather than highlights the individual effort and achievement. While this was doubtlessly made to provide the more objective picture and eradicate the possible cult of personality, the resulting picture may look like discouraging to individuals. Meanwhile, the progressivism, one of the theories which served as a theoretical basis for the framework, emphasizes individual qualities of students. Now that the balance is found in presenting the positive and the negative events, the same balance between the group achievements and the personal ones should be made a priority.

Some complications also arise from the introduction of the concept of American exceptionalism and the direction taken to move away from it. First, the concept itself is mentioned in the document once, never explained or supplied with the incentive regarding the ways it should be addressed. While this may be regarded as a good thing, given the concerns about freedom mentioned earlier, it also leaves the concept vague enough to be interpreted in many different ways, possibly leaving the new direction undeveloped and leaving the shift towards the transnational worldview compromised. A brief description, as well as at least some examples, should be included to compensate for this vagueness.

Besides, the suggested distancing from the exceptionalism may prove to be a legal difficulty, as it contradicts several accepted state curricula. For instance, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Social Studies specifies the notion and includes it in the requirements. Thus, as the AP U.S. history curriculum framework is intended as a standardized test for use throughout the U.S., these discrepancies should be taken into account and eliminated to ensure compatibility.


To conclude, the 2015 edition of the AP United States History is an excellent example of a thoughtful and comprehensive document. It is constructed in accordance with all the recent curriculum theories, makes use of the relevant approaches, and, most importantly, takes into account the social and cultural climate. Thus, the suggested curriculum framework is more trans-cultural and objective than the previous iterations.

It is oriented more towards the development of the critical skills and puts forward the interaction between the students and the teacher as a dominant information delivery method. The document also includes the extensive description of suggested methods and techniques that, when utilized, will allow for a successful preparation for the standardized exams. While certain minor aspects are left unaddressed, the general tendency is towards improvement, and even in the current state, the curriculum artifact is superior to its previous iterations.


College Board (2015). . Web.

Giroux, H. (2010). Kaleidoscope: Contemporary and classic readings in education. Wadsworth, UK: Cengage Learning.

Matthews, M. (2012). Constructivism in science education: a philosophical examination. New York: Springer Science.

McNay, M. (2009). Western guide to curriculum review. Web.

Tatum, B. (2003). Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?: and other conversations about race. New York, Basic Books.

Thornton, S. J. (1988). Curriculum consonance in united states history classrooms. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 3(4), 308-320.

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