Did politics scrub ‘systemic’ from AP African American studies plan?
Writing and editing the Advanced Placement course framework was a tense exercise in a polarized America
A politically charged adjective popped up repeatedly in the evolving plans for a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies. It was “systemic.”
The February 2022 version declared that students should learn how African American communities combat effects of “systemic marginalization.” An April update paired “systemic” with discrimination, oppression, inequality, disempowerment and racism. A December version said it was essential to know links between Black Panther activism and “systemic inequality that disproportionately affected African Americans.”
Then the word vanished. “Systemic,” a crucial term for many scholars and civil rights advocates, appears nowhere in the official version released Feb. 1. This late deletion and others reflect the extraordinary political friction that often shadows efforts in the nation’s schools to teach about history, culture and race.
The College Board, which oversees the AP program, denies that it diluted the African American studies course in response to complaints from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) or his allies. But a senior College Board official now acknowledges the organization was mindful of how “systemic” and certain other words in the modern lexicon of race in America would receive intense scrutiny in some places.
“All of those terms were going to be challenging,” said Jason Manoharan, vice president for AP program development. He said the College Board worried some phrases and concepts had been “co-opted for a variety of purposes” and were being used as “political instruments.” So the organization took a cautious approach to the final edits even as it sought to preserve robust content on historical and cultural impacts of slavery and racial discrimination.
“We wanted this course to be adopted by 50 states, and we wanted as many students and teachers as possible to be able to experience it,” Manoharan said. His acknowledgment underscored the inherent politics behind promoting a course that deals so squarely with race in America.
The frequency of key words, phrases and names in the course plan for AP African American studies shifted significantly from April to February.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Movement for Black Lives
Black Lives Matter
Documents and interviews with several people involved in the course’s creation, including university professors in the field, show the process was both routine and fraught. While Florida, a major state, raised objections behind the scenes, there is scant evidence tying its complaints to specific changes in the course.
[More states scrutinizing AP Black studies after Florida complaints]
Course developers had long discussions on how many weeks should be devoted to origins of the African diaspora and a student research paper on an elective topic — a back-and-forth typical for academia. Those decisions squeezed time allotted to contemporary issues. But the tense political atmosphere guaranteed the winnowing of lessons on topics such as reparations and movements for Black lives would be second-guessed even if experts deemed it necessary for pacing of the course.
John K. Thornton, a professor of African American studies and history at Boston University, who contributed to the planning, said he was pleased the course opens with five weeks on early Africa. But he lamented that reparations and Black Lives Matter ended up only as optional research topics. “It did upset me a little bit,” he said. “Those things obviously feel very much a part of what a college course is about.”
The rollout of AP African American studies was a significant milestone for high schools and the College Board, giving the imprimatur of a national brand of college-level education to an academic field born during the civil rights movement. But the course became engulfed in controversy in January after Florida officials publicly rejected an initial version on the argument it “lacks educational value.”
DeSantis, a potential presidential candidate, has accused the course architects of promoting “a political agenda.” He also criticized an early course plan’s references to Black queer studies and “intersectionality,” a concept that helps explain overlapping forms of discrimination that affect Black women and others.
Shifting approach on Black women
These two segments, each covering multiple days, focus on Black women and modern issues at the end of the course. They illuminate a shift in approach from April 2022 to February 2023. Intersectionality, a concept that helps explain the impact of overlapping forms of discrimination, is explicitly mentioned in the first proposal but not in the latest (except as an optional topic for a student project). Kimberlé Crenshaw, an influential voice on intersectionality and critical race theory, is cited as a source in the first proposal but not the published version. However, a key work from Crenshaw will be available to students and teachers through the AP digital classroom.
A proposed lesson on Black queer studies, noted in February 2022, was cut from the course by April. Study of intersectionality, noted in depth in the April draft, was scaled back significantly before the final release. College Board officials insist that DeSantis had nothing to do with the changes and that, regardless, the deletion of certain words from the document does not mean the ideas behind them are gone from the course.
The course is being piloted in about 60 schools. Further changes are expected as developers learn what works and what doesn’t. The pilot will expand in the fall, with a nationwide launch scheduled in fall 2024 and a debut exam in spring 2025.
[Teens embrace AP class featuring Black history, a subject under attack]
The College Board offers 38 AP courses in subjects from calculus to world history. For each one, development committees of college faculty and high school teachers collaborate on content and design.
Teresa Reed, dean of music at the University of Louisville, said her work as one of 13 members of the AP African American studies committee resembled similar assignments she has undertaken for other AP courses. Reed supports the African American studies course plan and said it will continue to be revised as pilot teachers give feedback. She said she saw no evidence of political meddling in the course design. “That was absolutely not my experience,” she said.
Kerry L. Haynie, dean of social sciences at Duke University, and Robert J. Patterson, professor of African American studies at Georgetown University, both on the committee, said much the same.
Two luminaries in the field, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, both of Harvard University and both of whom advised the College Board, also issued statements vouching for the course.
However, cracks have emerged in the wall of support. Some insiders rue omissions from the course plan. Joshua M. Myers, an associate professor of Africana studies at Howard University, who contributed to the project as a content writer, wrote in an email that intensive examination of contemporary issues is essential for a course that is about much more than history.
“There is a deep and enduring relationship between Black studies work and what happens in the streets, in the community and everywhere else there is Black resistance,” Myers wrote. “It’s hard to imagine a course in Black studies that doesn’t recognize that.”
Study of reparations becomes optional
The decision to include a three-week research project at the end of the course squeezed lesson time for contemporary issues. Reparations for slavery and racial discrimination is now listed as one of 40 sample topics for a paper of up to 1,500 words.
On Thursday, hundreds of faculty members and higher education administrators demanded that the College Board restore “excised and censored” elements of the course plan. “Students and educators cannot engage these topics and ideas if the terms themselves are censored, as the terms themselves convey critical insights that are central to African American Studies,” the group wrote in an open letter published on the online forum Medium.
The first 81-page draft of the course plan, in February 2022, drew topics and sources from the syllabi of introductory classes at historically Black universities, Ivy League schools and other prominent institutions. The College Board said it was produced as a preview for 200 college professors at a March 2022 symposium. Faculty recommended cutting 20 percent to 25 percent of the proposed topics, the College Board said, and as much as half of suggested readings.
The April version, 299 pages, was the pilot course guide, a road map for teachers before classes began in the fall. It included much more detail on goals, essential knowledge and potential source material. It also made an important switch on contemporary issues: Certain lessons on reparations, incarceration and movements for Black lives became optional and would not be covered on the AP exam. At this stage, the guide included a week of instruction on Black feminism, womanism and intersectionality, and it used the word “systemic” nine times.
On July 1, Florida education officials flagged a concern. They asked the College Board in an email whether the course would comply with a new state law restricting certain topics related to race in public schools. The email, according to a Feb. 7 summary of the saga from the state’s education department, stated that “preview materials appear to include content that may not be permissible.”
That touched off a series of calls and emails between the state and the College Board. Manoharan, the AP program development leader, said the College Board repeatedly asked Florida to specify objections but received no substantive answers. According to the Florida summary, officials told the College Board on Sept. 23 that the course did not comply with state law.
[Florida details months of complaints about AP African American studies course]
A further meeting in November between the state and the College Board failed to resolve the standoff. Manoharan, who participated, called the meeting “bizarre” and said state officials asked questions that showed they were not content experts. “They asked me what intersectionality was,” he said.
The course development committee and editorial team did not participate in the meetings or correspondence with Florida, Manoharan said. He acknowledged that in his position he has editorial oversight of AP content. But he denied that any changes to the course plan during months of revisions were made as concessions to Florida. Questions about “collusion” with Florida, he said, are “easiest to dismiss.”
In a spreadsheet dated Dec. 22, which the College Board provided to The Washington Post, the multiday sequence of lessons on “Black feminism, womanism and intersectionality” envisioned in April had morphed to “Black feminism and womanism.” It still included at that stage a lesson on “Intersections of Race, Gender and Class.”
But in the official plan released this month, the sequence was renamed “Black women’s voices in society and leadership,” and the lesson became “Overlapping Dimensions of Black Life” — a clear sign, very late in the process, of the touchiness of publishing any variant of the word “intersection.”
One of the most consequential decisions made last year was to set aside significant time — ultimately, three weeks — near the end of the course for a research paper of up to 1,500 words on a topic students would choose. The project will count for 20 percent of the AP score for those who seek college credit.
Black Lives Matter is also optional
This case is similar to reparations. The decision to include a three-week research project at the end of the course squeezed lesson time for contemporary issues. Black Lives Matter is now listed as one of 40 sample topics for a paper of up to 1,500 words.
Among 40 sample topics in the official plan are Black Lives Matter; intersectionality; reparations debates; gay life and expression in Black communities; and Black conservatism.
The word “queer” appears nowhere in the 234-page document released Feb. 1. Nor does the name Kimberlé Crenshaw, an architect of critical race theory, which is a lens for analyzing systemic racism that many Republicans attack. Crenshaw had appeared in earlier versions.
College Board officials point to the development of an extensive digital library for the course — including a 1991 text on intersectionality from Crenshaw — as evidence that they are not censoring writers or voices. Crenshaw teachers, they say, use the course framework as a starting point to design their own syllabi of readings and assignments.
Florida officials have not decided whether to approve the course. A state education spokesman said Friday the College Board had not yet submitted materials for review.
But the department said on Feb. 7 that it was “grateful” to see removal of “discriminatory and historically fictional topics.” The College Board replied a few days later that it had not negotiated anything with Florida and accused state officials of slandering African American studies. “We have made mistakes in the rollout that are being exploited,” it said.
To critics on the left and the right, the College Board’s handling of the controversy has been clumsy at best.
Based in New York, the nonprofit organization also oversees the SAT. It has long drawn scrutiny for the power it wields over schools and college-bound students nationwide. The curriculum choices it makes, the many tests it designs and markets and the revenue it collects are major and much-debated elements of the education system.
With the launch of AP African American studies, though, the College Board has stepped into a political firefight of rare magnitude. One possible comparison is a pair of revisions to the AP U.S. history course framework in 2014 and 2015. The first enraged conservatives who said it ignored American “exceptionalism.” Then many liberals accused the College Board of bending too much to conservatives in the second version.
Frederick M. Hess, an education policy analyst with the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said that debate foreshadowed the uproar over AP African American studies. Hess said the battle over the writing, editing and revision of these course documents resonates well beyond the classroom.