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AP History class standards spark fight over patriotism and censorship

October 2, 2014 at 6:35 PM EDT
When the College Board established new national standards for Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, conservative members of the school board in Jefferson County, Colorado, called for changes to their local curriculum to promote patriotism and the free enterprise system and discourage civil disorder. Hari Sreenivasan reports on the ensuing protests against censorship by students.
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GWEN IFILL: There are protests again tonight in suburban Denver in Colorado’s second largest school district, where students have been battling over what should be taught in Advanced Placement history classes.

Nationally, some standards have already changed. But in recent weeks, Colorado has been the central focus, as the local school board responded with its own plan, and students and teachers are pushing back.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The conflict over curriculum that’s sparked nearly two weeks of protests has now come to a head. It’s the prime topic at tonight’s school board meeting in Jefferson County, Colorado, just outside Denver.

Board president Ken Witt:

KEN WITT, President, Jefferson County Board of Education: I hope we come to a — to good dialogue and get to a good plan for how to execute the board’s obligation to oversee curriculum and to make certain that we’re doing the right thing for our students to ensure that we’re offering balanced, thorough curriculum and that we’re fulfilling our responsibility as a board.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The battle began when the College Board set out new national standards for Advanced Placement U.S. history courses. They’re used by college-bound students to earn college credits. But a number of conservatives argued the standards depict the United States in a negative light and distort key events.

In Jefferson County, the school board’s conservative majority called for naming a committee to make changes. One member offered a plan that said classroom materials should — quote — “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.”

At the same time, it said the course shouldn’t “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

That language set off waves of students leaving class to march with signs and flags.

SCOTT ROMANO, Student: If we allow them to censor AP U.S., what’s going the stop them from censoring other classes? And that — and I feel that it’s our duty or our right as Americans to learn our full history, because it’s from that full history that we can grow into a better country. And we have to learn from those dark pasts in our history. And that’s what creates a better country. And that’s what we all need the learn from.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The board’s majority has reacted by dropping the most contentious language in its proposal.

Again, board president Witt:

KEN WITT: I think the issue needs to be that we’re having balanced, thorough curriculum, not any particular viewpoint on bias. We want to make sure that we’re eliminating bias. There’s never a desire on anyone’s part that I’m aware of for there to be censorship or bias in our curriculum.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But the revisions in the proposal have failed to douse the firestorm. Some students say they simply don’t trust the board members.

BETHANY KEUPP, Student: In the months that I have been following this board, they have never given the community the whole truth, and so I’m not going to believe that, because they changed the petition, they are listening to the community now and, all of a sudden, they are going to let us be involved. I still think their original intentions are still there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Teachers who’ve joined the protest have also used it to voice concerns over a merit-based compensation package. They consider it unfair.

Similar fights are playing out elsewhere, especially in Texas and South Carolina, as the College Board’s U.S. history guidelines generate national debate.

Back in Jefferson County, the protesters have picked up support from the College Board. The group warns any school that omits essential concepts in its courses will lose its Advanced Placement designation.

This story and PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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