College Board changes AP African-American Studies curriculum

Olivia Warren, Associate News Editor

The College Board’s updated curriculum for the A.P. African-American Studies course comes amid heated political debates over race in education. (Rahima Olatinwo)

On Wednesday, the College Board released an updated official Advanced Placement curriculum for its African-American Studies course. The changes included removing content on contemporary subjects such as Black Lives Matter and critical race theory. 

The College Board piloted the course for the 2022-2023 school year. Topics such as reparations and incarceration were on the original exam. Now, they are not part of the official content but offered as optional research topics. 

The term “critical race theory,” a recent controversial topic in political debates regarding education, is no longer mentioned in the curriculum. 

Crawford Crews, an AP teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans and a philosophy professor at Tulane, said that if state laws or curriculum organizations ever limited his ability to teach what he believed to be important for his students, he would continue teaching it. 

“They can have my job, but they can’t have my obedience,” Crews said.

Tulane Law professor Robert Westley, a scholar in critical race theory and reparations, defined critical race theory as a scholarly innovation that is interested in ending racism in all forms. He said that critical race theory is a complicated study, not something taught in elementary schools, as some parents claim

The course’s changes come in the middle of a heated political debate surrounding education. On Jan. 31, the day before the updated curriculum was released, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida proposed major education reforms to eliminate “ideological conformity” by requiring Western civilization education and eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion programs. 

DeSantis also called common diversity, equity and inclusion practices, like requiring faculty to write statements about their commitments to diversity, “making people take a political oath.” On Aug. 18, DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE Act” was struck down by a federal judge as unconstitutional. The act targeted critical race theory and racial discourse.

On Jan. 12, the Florida Department of Education sent a letter to the College Board rejecting the AP African-American Studies course, stating it “significantly lacks educational value.”

“That’s telling particular kids that their history is bad, is not valuable,” Brooke Grant, a professor of pre-K-12 education, said. “And just the message of that, I think, is horrible and harmful.”

The College Board responded to the letter, stating they “believe every student should have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the facts and evidence of the African-American experience.”

Some criticisms of critical race theory and racial discourse in education stem from fears of making white students feel shame or discomfort. A Tennessee law banning critical race theory in public education prohibits lessons that make students “feel discomfort, guilt or anguish.” 

“If you talk about the scope of slavery and the scope of anti-Black violence among people who may be the descendants of people that took African-American dismembered body parts as souvenirs from lynchings, that’s going to be upsetting to some people,” Africana studies professor Laura Adderley said. “But that is the factual history of this country.”

The College Board called a New York Times article that drew connections between DeSantis’s education proposals and the course’s changes a “reckless mischaracterization of our processes” and said the changes were “shaped over years by the most eminent scholars in the field, not political influence.”

Adderley said she believes that feedback from teachers reflecting fear from school boards and local politics led to the changes, not political pressure. 

Grant was more skeptical. “Rather than a testing company or politicians, I trust the kids and the teachers,” she said.

“I haven’t come away with a very favorable impression of the College Board,” Crews said. He sees an “over-emphasis on extracting money from student participants … and under-emphasis on providing what I would take to be a really sound, comprehensive education.”

The course will be eligible for college credit, but Grant said the new curriculum is “taking all this college-level stuff and then watering it down.”

The new curriculum says “AP opposes indoctrination,” and that, “AP students are not required to feel certain ways about themselves or the course content.”

Adderley said she believes the College Board used this statement to defend themselves from conservative critics. 

“It suggests that there’s some big problem [of indoctrination] out there,” Adderley said. “I just don’t think it’s that big.”

Florida is not the only state facing debates over race in education. In the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election, Republican Glenn Youngkin made banning critical race theory in public schools a pillar of his campaign. His first action as governor was signing an executive order carrying out this campaign promise. 

“[Banning critical race theory] was the easiest campaign promise for him to keep, because it was never taught,” Westley said.

On May 17, the Louisiana Education Committee rejected two bills, authored by Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, that would make it illegal to teach that individuals are treated differently based on “their race, ethnicity, religion, color or national origin.”

David Schneider, a local high school history teacher, said, “These kinds of bills scare [teachers and make them] worried about their ability to continue in this profession.”

“The most recent attempts by Louisiana State level officials to exercise even more control over the content and structure of instruction is way off the mark,” Crews said. “I’m very impatient with any suggestion that bureaucrats or politicians are particularly well positioned to do a good job of telling teachers how to run their classrooms.”

“We all remember what happened when George Floyd was lynched on national television. And the response that came from that; probably the biggest uprising since the Civil Rights Movement occurred,” Westley said.

Grant said when students learn about upsetting parts of history, they want to create change. “So if you can just cut that off at the beginning and say, we’re not even going to learn this stuff, then … they don’t feel empowered to change things.” 

Westley said critical race theory and other modern topics in African-American studies are important to include in the AP course. “Unless we give students the critical tools to evaluate both the history and current events through the eyes of movements,” he said. “I don’t think as educators, we’re doing our job.”

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