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North Carolina: Conservatives, Educators Debate Content Of AP U.S. History Class

Melissa Hayden teaches her AP U.S. History class in Pittsboro, North Carolina at Northwood High School.
Reema Khrais

At a high school in Chatham County, Melissa Hayden reminds her students about tomorrow’s big history test. They’re learning about the populism movement and western expansion.

But before they delve into those lessons, Hayden begins class with something she read in the news.

“Let’s see, this is an article that I printed off in Newsweek last night,” says Hayden, an Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher at Northwood High School.  

She waves the article with her right hand. It’s about how some conservative activists are angry over what students are learning, or not learning, in their Advanced Placement (or AP) US history courses.

“From what I understand, there is a guy who taught AP and he says he’s upset that specific names aren’t included in the curriculum,” Hayden explains.

'Leaves Out Foundational Concepts'

Hayden is talking about a man named Larry Krieger, and to say he’s upset might be an understatement.

“First of all, I call on the state Board of Education to stand up for America,” Krieger said to the state Board of Education in a recent conference call.

Krieger argued that the course’s new framework implemented this year by the College Board leaves out foundational documents and concepts.

“How about due process?” he said. “Due Process, the precedent for it began with the Magna Carta. No mention of Magna Carta. No mention of the rights of Englishmen.”

By omitting those ideas, Krieger argues the framework fails to highlight America’s greatness.

“That we have been, are, and will be a force for good in the world, that we stand for democracy and freedom,” he said.

He told the State Board of Education that this idea of American Exceptionalism is scrubbed out of the framework.

These criticisms have also reached state lawmakers. While they have not indicated that they will step into the fight, some Republican representatives like Craig Horn say they’re worried the class could gloss over topics required by state law.

“How can I be assured as Mr. Everyman that these fundamental concepts of what makes America, America are in fact going to be communicated?” he asked.

'Teachers Should Incorporate Those Ideas Anyway' 

'It's so silly to say that these aren't going to be covered in an AP U.S. History class, these things did happen.'

Representatives of the College Board, like John Williamson, told those on the state board of education not to worry.

“The framework is just that, it’s not a curriculum, it was never meant to be a curriculum,” he said.  

Williamson says that some of these important documents and concepts activists are pointing out weren’t even mentioned in older guidelines. But that doesn’t mean teachers don’t include them.

“Of course I will,” said Hayden.

After class, AP U.S. History teacher Melissa Hayden looked over a list of terms that some conservative activists say are not specifically mentioned in the framework – terms like “carpetbaggers,” “the Ku Klux Klan,” and the “embargo of 1807.”

“I don’t see how you could not go over them,” she said. “It’s so silly to say that these aren’t going to be covered in an AP U.S. History class, these things did happen.”

And what about that idea of American Exceptionalism?

“They may have not heard of it in those terms, but when we talk about the victories of America as seen with World War I, World War II or the Spanish-American war, they can see how the capitalist democratic system really emerges in triumph,” Hayden explained.

Some of her students, like junior Hudson Moore, agreed. Moore said she doesn’t think the class promotes an overly negative view of America.

“The stuff that we’re talking about is stuff that actually happened in America and not everything that happened in America’s history is good, so you can’t expect us to put just a positive spin on everything,” Moore said.

As the debate continues, members of the State Board of Education are reassuring people that the classes students take before they get to AP U.S. History will expose them to America’s founding principles – to concepts like rule of law or to documents like the Magna Carta.

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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