The Common Core and Advanced Placement U.S. History: Changing how students learn for the better

January 23, 2015

By Pat Sprinkle

Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) teachers across the country are almost halfway through a new experiment: alignment of the History/Social Studies Common Core State Standards to the internationally renowned APUSH course.  While the adjustment brought out some critiques, focused mainly on content, the most important shift is in the level of thinking and critical reading that we are asking our students to do. These shifts should be welcomed, as they are pushing our students to think critically about the United States and their role as citizens in a democracy.

The chart below showcases the types of questions Advanced Placement students would receive before and after alignment to the Common Core on the topic of the Great Awakening. The juxtaposition of the types of questions students were assigned is quite revealing.

APUSH Before the Common Core

APUSH Aligned to the Common Core

Complete Questions 1-3

1.     One of the consequences of the Great Awakening was

(a)  a closer sense of unity between England and its colonies

(b) that the Church of England was adopted by the colonies as an officially established church

(c) the discussion of new ideas in religion

(d) a challenge to traditional beliefs

(e) a growing awareness of people in the colonies of their rights as Englishmen

2. A result of the Great Awakening was

(a) a decline in the importance of higher education

(b) an increased admiration for the growing business community

(c) an increase in intolerance

(d) a consolidation of churches

(e) the growth of a democratic spirit

3. The Great Awakening was associated with

(a) Thomas Jefferson

(b) Henry David Thoreau

(c) Jonathan Edwards

(d) Lyndon Johnson

(e) William Bradford

Questions 1 - 3 refer to the excerpt below

“In 1739 arrived among us from Ireland the Reverend Mr. [George] Whitefield, who had made himself remarkable there as an itinerant preacher. He was at first permitted to preach in some of our churches; but the clergy, taking a dislike to him, soon refused him their pulpits, and he was obliged to preach in the fields. The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous. . . . It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”

Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

1. Whitefield’s impact suggests that religious culture among British North American colonists in the 1700s was most directly shaped by

(A) Roman Catholic influences

(B) interest in commerce and business

(C) trans-Atlantic exchanges

(D) reliance on agriculture

2. Whitefield’s open-air preaching contributed most directly to which of the following trends?

(A) The growth of the ideology of republican motherhood

(B) Greater independence and diversity of


(C) Movement of settlers to the backcountry

(D) The pursuit of social reform

3. The preaching described in the excerpt is an example of which of the following developments in the 1700s?

(A) The development of an idea of republican self-government

(B) The emergence of calls for the abolition of slavery

(C) The increased influence of the Enlightenment

(D) The expansion of Protestant evangelism


Instead of memorizing an endless array of unconnected facts, students are now being asked to interpret primary sources and understand cause–effect relationships. In addition, students are now expected to contextualize and corroborate primary sources they read and adjust their preconceived notions of historical figures and events to generate meaning. Students derive meaning and understanding not from rote memorization, but by contextualization and deeply thinking about historical actors and events.  Instead of teaching pure content, which lends itself to cantankerous political debate outside of the classroom, I am now required to teach historical thinking – a set of skills that will lend themselves to living in a complex world. Teaching how to think, and providing the necessary skills has proven to be endlessly more fruitful than teaching the what to think.

In addition to multiple choice questions, a writing component is now included in the new exam. Through these writing assignments, students are challenged to evaluate how historical perspectives have changed, develop arguments based on evidence and reason, anticipate counterarguments, and continue to craft evidence-based claims in historical tasks, a hallmark of APUSH.  Prior to these changes a student could cram for the APUSH exam and earn a passing score. The collective changes require our students to take on the skills of historians and develop the grit and perseverance necessary for success in college and beyond. The newly-aligned Common Core curriculum will allow our students to dig deeper and bring intellectual joy to the uplifting academic process of historians.

In my own classroom, I bore witness to the dramatic changes that have taken place just this year. For example, during a unit on the age of President Andrew Jackson, students discovered how different historians have interpreted Old Hickory. Whether it is reading excerpts from “A Century of Dishonor” or a more traditional textbook, students are beginning to realize that history is not a singular narrative but a collection of stories and perspectives. This type of nuanced thinking will not only lead to college readiness, but most importantly, gives young people the skills they need to participate in our democratic society.

I offer a sign of hope from the front lines of America’s classrooms: our students are getting better each and every day thanks to an outstanding curriculum aligned to the Common Core. Whether it is developing their own historical inquires, thoughtfully collaborating with peers, or independently contextualizing, corroborating and sourcing texts, our students are finally getting an education that will help them achieve their highest aspirations.

Pat Sprinkle is a sixth-year Advanced Placement United States History and Advanced Placement United States Government and Politics at the New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies.

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