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The College Board Tries Again

The College Board Tries Again

The nonprofit has released an updated curriculum for its AP African American Studies course, correcting many of its earlier missteps.

“Emmitt Glynn is seen from just outside his classroom at Baton Rouge Magnet High School teaching his second AP African American studies class on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023 in Baton Rouge, La. Baton Rouge Magnet High School in Louisiana is one of 60 schools around the country testing the new course, which has gained national attention since it was banned in Florida.”
Stephen Smith / AP

Earlier this year, the College Board—which administers Advanced Placement courses at high schools across the country—faced a fierce backlash. On January 23, during a press conference at Duval Charter School at Baymeadows, in Jacksonville, Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis attacked the organization’s pilot course in AP African American Studies as a radical revision of history.

“This course is not education; it’s indoctrination,” DeSantis told reporters. The state’s board of education had rejected the course, arguing that its content violated state law, and DeSantis railed against the curriculum’s inclusion of topics such as queer theory, intersectionality, and the Black Lives Matter movement. “When you try to use Black history to shoehorn in queer theory, you are clearly trying to use that for a political agenda,” he said.

A little more than a week later, the College Board released its updated curriculum, and a few changes were immediately obvious. The scholarship of Kimberlé Crenshaw, a pioneering scholar in critical race theory, had been scrubbed; bell hooks’s work was gone as well. Intersectionality—the idea of interlocking systems of oppression—received a single passing mention, and Black queer theory was not broached at all. Though scholars had poured time and resources into helping develop the curriculum, it fell far short of their expectations for a serious introduction to the field.

On Wednesday, the College Board released a new structure that attempts to rectify that misstep and significantly overhauls the version released in February. “We heard that the second version of this framework rendered too much of the core content from the field as optional,” Brandi Waters, who runs the African American Studies program for the College Board, told me.

In raw terms, this means that crucial ideas in the field such as intersectionality; topics such as Black resistance and athletics; and words such as systemic, as a descriptor for the ways that racism is embedded in institutions, have been returned to the curriculum, while other topics, such as Black Lives Matter and the reparations debate, remain optional. Still, the update is a necessary corrective, providing a solid foundation for students in nearly 700 schools across 40 states who will be offered the program.

When developing this version and considering what should be required versus optional, the College Board surveyed syllabi for entry-level college courses. “There are a couple of texts that emerge as common to an experience,” Waters told me, such as The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois, and the works of Frederick Douglass. But the College Board wanted to make sure that it balanced documents students were likely to read in other classes, such as Douglass’s Fourth of July speech, with those that are more exclusive to the field. They added foundational documents in Black feminism, such as the Combahee River Collective statement, which argued that the white feminist and civil-rights movements neglected to address the concerns of Black women, and Black lesbians in particular. They also now recommend that teachers spend two days, not one, covering white-supremacist violence such as the Tulsa Massacre.

The fact that so many of the original figures who provoked the ire of Republicans have been returned to the curriculum means that it will undoubtedly be criticized once again by right-wing politicians. On the left, critics will likely take issue with making such topics as mass incarceration and contemporary organizing optional.

Some things are bound to get short shrift in an AP course meant to introduce an entire rich academic field. Educators hope that students learn enough to become interested in continuing to explore the African diaspora. And there is some evidence that, even with its flaws, that was already happening under the previous curriculum. According to a College Board survey of students currently enrolled in the pilot, 80 percent said they were likely to continue pursuing the field after completing the course.

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