The College Board released the “framework” for its new Advanced Placement course in African American studies on Tuesday—and unleashed a torrent of commentary.
The course has been controversial since Florida’s Department of Education, which reports to Republican governor Ron DeSantis, said last month that it would not be permitted in Florida public schools.
In the weeks between the Florida announcement and Tuesday, the College Board made a number of changes and kept some things the same:
- Most of the material on certain topics, such as Africa, slavery, Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, remains largely untouched.
- More current topics, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, racially disparate incarceration rates, civil rights protections for members of the LGBTQ community and the debate over reparations for the descendants of slaves, have been eliminated from the AP test. They can be covered on a list of options for a required research project.
- Certain thinkers about modern Black history and culture have been removed from the outline. They include Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, a law professor at Columbia University, whose work has been key to critical race theory; Ta-Nehisi Coates, an author who is in favor of reparations; and the late author bell hooks.
Whether such changes improve or hurt the course depends on one’s perspective.
“This course is an unflinching encounter with the facts and evidence of African American history and culture,” said David Coleman, CEO of the College Board. “No one is excluded from this course: the Black artists and inventors whose achievements have come to light; the Black women and men, including gay Americans, who played pivotal roles in the civil rights movement; and people of faith from all backgrounds who contributed to the antislavery and civil rights causes. Everyone is seen.”
Coleman said the course was developed with more than 300 professors of African American studies from more than 200 colleges nationwide, including dozens of historically Black colleges and universities, along with high school teachers. The course focuses on the topics where professors shared “a strong consensus on the essential events, experiences, and individuals crucial to a study of African American history and culture.”
Those professors included some of the most prominent ones in the field.
“This moment is historic and builds on the labors of so many scholars from a wide variety of racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds who have built this field for over a century,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. “Never before have high school students had the opportunity to engage with African American history and culture in such depth and coherence. The course begins with ancient African kingdoms and traces a path from slavery to freedom. It focuses on key periods such as the American Revolution, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the rise and fall of Jim Crow segregation, and the civil rights movement. The course provides students with a firm foundation of facts and evidence about this extraordinarily rich saga of American history.”
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University and past president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and an adviser on the course, said, “One of the breakthroughs of this course is that it is interdisciplinary. By drawing not only on history but also the arts and social sciences, the course explores how African American culture has shaped our country for centuries. It inspires students to see the complexity in history and to think analytically. High school students and their teachers as well as college faculty have long been looking forward to this course.”
Teresa Reed, dean of the School of Music at the University of Louisville, said she wasn’t bothered by the exclusion of many topics. “It is important to note that all AP curricula undergo periodic revision and updating as a normal component of the development and delivery [of] AP courses,” she said. “The bigger picture, in my opinion, is that AP African American Studies now exists where it did not before, and this is a huge win for all students.”
The Florida Department of Education and the office of Governor DeSantis did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite those statements in favor of the course, many educators said they didn’t believe that the changes were not related to the governor’s objections.
Hettie Williams, a professor of history at Monmouth University who is president of the African American Intellectual History Society, said she hadn’t yet studied the AP changes but “I would hope that no organization or individual who is serious about the teaching of African American history, or any historical subject, for that matter, is taking advice from Governor Ron DeSantis.”
Jeremy C. Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, issued a statement that said, “Coming in the current political climate, the proposed changes appear to be an effort to dilute the curriculum, a capitulation to education censors for political expediency. It is particularly concerning that the cuts to the required curriculum target viewpoints from Black women and LGBTQ+ scholars, an extension of efforts to restrict the teaching of race, gender and sexuality that have swept across the country in the past two years. This decision risks empowering such attempts to exert ideological control over the freedom to learn, running counter to the ideals of viewpoint diversity that are necessary to preserve a culture of free expression and open inquiry in our schools.”
Stephen Burd, a senior writer and editor with New America, a liberal think tank, said, “The College Board’s actions are a profile in cowardice. College professors, who the College Board uses to evaluate AP exams, should refuse to participate in the program in protest to David Coleman’s capitulation.”
Not all the critics think the College Board caved to DeSantis.
“I think the biggest success scored by DeSantis in the AP case was making it look as if he caused the College Board to change their content,” said Adam Laats, professor of education and history at Binghamton University of the State University of New York and author of The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education. “In reality, the College Board is infamous for watering down its frameworks based on general fears of fomenting controversy,” citing debates over U.S. history when that test was last revised. It was “subject to the same kind of conservative criticism and eventual changes. In the case of AP African American Studies, DeSantis simply managed to make the most noise about opposing the initial draft. The changes were pretty predictable with or without any headlines about DeSantis.”