The College Board Strips Down Its A.P. Curriculum for African American Studies

After heavy criticism from Gov. Ron DeSantis, the College Board released on Wednesday an official curriculum for its new Advanced Placement course in African American Studies —stripped of much of the subject matter that had angered the governor and other conservatives.

The College Board purged the names of many Black writers and scholars associated with critical race theory, the queer experience and Black feminism. It ushered out some politically fraught topics, like Black Lives Matter, from the formal curriculum.

And it added something new: “Black conservatism” is now offered as an idea for a research project.

When it announced the A.P. course in August, the College Board clearly believed it was providing a class whose time had come, and it was celebrated by eminent scholars like Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard as an affirmation of the importanceof African American studies. But the course, which is meant to be for all students of diverse backgrounds, quickly ran into a political buzz saw after an early draft leaked to conservative publications like The Florida Standard and National Review.

In January, Governor DeSantis of Florida, who is expected to run for president, announced he would ban the curriculum, citing the draft version. State education officials said it was not historically accurate and violated state law that regulates how race-related issues are taught in public schools.

The attack on the A.P. course turned out to be the prelude to a much larger agenda. On Tuesday, Governor DeSantis unveiled a proposal to overhaul higher education that would eliminate what he called “ideological conformity” by among other things, mandating courses in Western civilization.

In another red flag, the College Board faced the possibility of other opposition: more than two dozen states have adopted some sort of measure against critical race theory, according to a tracking project by the University of California, Los Angeles, law school.

David Coleman, the head of the College Board, said in an interview that the changes were all made for pedagogical reasons, not to bow to political pressure. “At the College Board, we can’t look to statements of political leaders,” he said. The changes, he said, came from “the input of professors” and “longstanding A.P. principles.”

More on U.S. Schools and Education

  • Heavy Losses: A new global analysis suggests that children experienced learning deficits during the Covid-19 pandemic that amounted to about one-third of a school year’s worth of knowledge and skills.
  • Police in Schools: Footage of a student’s violent arrest by a school resource officer has raised questions about the role of armed officers on campuses.
  • Transgender Youth: Educators are facing new tensions over whether they should tell parents when students change their name, pronouns or gender expression at school.
  • In Florida: The state will not allow a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies to be offered in its high schools, citing examples of what it calls “woke indoctrination.”

He said that during the initial test of the course this school year, the board received feedback that the secondary, more theoretical sources were “quite dense” and that students connected more with primary sources, which he said have always been the foundation of A.P. courses.

“We experimented with a lot of things including assigning secondary sources, and we found a lot of issues arose as we did,” Mr. Coleman said. “I think what is most surprising and powerful for most people is looking directly at people’s experience.”

The dispute over the A.P. course is about more than just the content of a high school class. Education is the center of much vitriolic partisan debate, and the College Board’s decision to try to build a curriculum covering one of the most charged subjects in the country — the history of race in America — may have all but guaranteed controversy. If anything, the arguments over the curriculum underscore the fact that the United States is a country that cannot agree on its own story, especially the complicated history of Black Americans.

In light of the politics, the College Board seemed to opt out of the politics. In its revised 234-page curriculum framework, the content on Africa, slavery, reconstruction and the civil rights movement remains largely the same. But the study of contemporary topics — including Black Lives Matter, affirmative action, queer life and the debate over reparations — is downgraded. The subjects are no longer part of the exam, and are simply offered on a list of options for a required research project.

And even that list, in a nod to local laws, “can be refined by local states and districts.”

The expunged writers and scholars include Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, a law professor at Columbia, which touts her work as “foundational in critical race theory”; Roderick Ferguson, a Yale professor who has written about queer social movements;and Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author who has made the case for reparations for slavery. Gone, too, is bell hooks, the writer who shaped discussions about race, feminism and class.

A.P. exams are deeply embedded in the American education system. Students take the courses and exams to show their academic prowess when applying to college. Most four-year colleges and universities grant college credit for students who score high enough on an A.P. exam. And more than a million public high school students graduating in 2021 took at least one A.P. exam.

But the fracas over the exam raises questions about whether the African American Studies course, as modified, fulfills its mission of mimicking a college-level course, which usually expects students to analyze secondary sources and take on contentious topics.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, said the College Board had come up with a smart strategy by not eradicating the “touchy parts,” but rather making them optional.

“DeSantis likes to make noise and he’s running for president,” Mr. Finn said. “But they’ve been getting feedback from all over the place in the 60 schools they’ve been piloting this in. I think it’s a way of dealing with the United States at this point, not just DeSantis. Some of these things they might want to teach in New York, but not Dallas. Or San Francisco but not St. Petersburg.”

But Professor Crenshaw,the critical race theory scholar, suggested that those theoretical elements were essential to the course work.

The A.P. course “is a corrective, it is an intervention, it is an expansion,” she said. “And for it to be true to the mission of telling the true history, it cannot exclude intersectionality, it cannot exclude critical thinking about race.”

She spoke in an interview before the final curriculum was released, but had seen an early draft, which included a now-omitted reference to her widely cited journal article “Mapping the Margins.” In the late 1980s, Ms. Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality,” which refers to the way various forms of inequality often work together, and was a word to which Florida objected, saying it is foundational to critical race theory.

Ms. Crenshaw said she was stunned when she saw that the Florida Department of Education had targeted topics related to intersectionality, Black feminism and queer theory. “African American history is not just male. It’s not just straight. It’s not just middle class,” she said. “It has to tell the story of all of us.”

More than 200 faculty members in African American studies condemned Governor DeSantis’s interference in the A.P. course in a letter published in Medium on Tuesday. They accused him of censorship and of trying “to intimidate the College Board into appeasement.”

A.P. exams have incited conflict before. AU.S. History curriculum guide in 2014 had to be revised after it was attacked for calling Ronald Reagan “bellicose” toward the Soviet Union and giving more prominence to a Native American chief than to Ben Franklin.

Ilya Shapiro, director of Constitutional Studies at the Manhattan Institute, said he did not object to topics like the Black Panthers and the Black is Beautiful movement being included because “that’s certainly part of what was America.”

But if the curriculum was going to embrace theory, he said, the draft curriculum should have named conservative or independent Black thinkers like John McWhorter, Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell.

There are hints that the College Board is embedding some of the disputed material, without being explicit about it. “Intersectionality” is cited eight times in the draft curriculum, but only once in the new version, as an optional topic for a project.

But the concept seems to sneak into required course content, under the heading of essential knowledge, referencing the writers Gwendolyn Brooks and Mari Evans, who “explore the lived experience of Black women and men and show how their race, gender and social class can affect how they are perceived, their roles and their economic opportunities.”

Acceptance for the new curriculum is important to the College Board, a nonprofit, because A.P. courses are a major source of revenue. The Board took in more than $1 billion in program service revenue in 2019, of which more than $490 million came from “AP and Instruction,” according to its tax-exempt filing.

Teachers who are trying out the draft curriculum said it has been popular.

“I had an interest meeting during lunch and my room was full, standing room only,” said Nelva Wiliamson, a teacher at Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy, a public all-girls school in Houston which is majority Black and Hispanic.

Sharon Courtney, a high school teacher piloting the course in New York State, said the backlash frustrated her, as every teacher tweaks and refines a new curriculum.

“You’re critiquing something that isn’t finished,” she said. “Wait until I cook the meal.”

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

Back to top button