On the opening day of Black History Month, the College Board is making history Wednesday by releasing details of its first Advanced Placement class on African American studies for high school students — a class that drew national attention after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis banned it in his state saying it pushes a political agenda.
The curriculum, a year in the making, was developed with input from hundreds of African American studies experts across the country, including California State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond; Tiffany Barber, an assistant professor of African American art at UCLA; and educators at San Francisco State University, the first university to introduce a department of Black studies in the late 1960s.
AP courses developed by the College Board, which also administers the SAT test, are rigorous university-level classes offered to high school students who typically can earn college credit after passing the exam. The board offers 39 AP classes on subjects including biology, chemistry, art history, English literature, music theory and computer science.
The African American studies course comes at a time when the teaching of American history, race and sexual identity in public schools has become mired in culture wars.
“This course is an unflinching encounter with the facts and evidence of African American history and culture,” College Board Chief Executive David Coleman said in a news release. “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 movements; and people of faith from all backgrounds who contributed to the antislavery and Civil Rights causes. Everyone is seen.”
The interdisciplinary class will be available to about 500 schools in the 2023-24 academic year and is designed similar to a college African American studies or related course, according to the framework. It will explores key historic events and social movements that shape Black experiences, the diversity of African societies and their global connections before slavery, and contributions to literature and art by the African diaspora, among other topics.
The course has four units: “Origins of the African Diaspora”; “Freedom, Enslavement and Resistance”; “The Practice of Freedom”; and “Movements and Debates.” The course also will analyze how Black migration shaped cities, including Los Angeles. Students will need to complete a research project, using secondary sources, on a topic related to the course.
It has been piloted at 60 high schools throughout the country and made headlines when DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education banned it from being offered in the state, saying that it is not historically accurate and would violate state law. On Tuesday, the governor announced plans to block state colleges from having programs on diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical race theory.
Last year, DeSantis signed legislation that restricted how racism can be taught in schools and workplaces. Florida bars instruction that defines people as necessarily oppressed or privileged based on their race.
Asked about Florida’s response to the course, Coleman said the completed framework had not been released before Wednesday morning, but he hopes educators across the state will review it with fresh eyes.
“We’re hopeful that with this fresh look, states, parents and teachers will find it an unflinching look at the facts of African American history and culture,” he said.
The California Department of Education faced contentious debates and intense scrutiny while developing its own ethnic studies framework. In 2021, California became the first state in the nation to make ethnic studies a requirement for high school students to graduate. But in other states, ethnic studies remains controversial. The course is designed to help students understand the past and present struggles and contributions of Black, Asian, Latino, Native/Indigenous Americans and other groups that have experienced racism and marginalization in America.
“I think it’s going to be a wonderful fit with the new ethnic studies requirement in California,” Coleman said of the new AP class.
Tyrone Howard, a professor at UCLA’s school of education, said Florida‘s reaction reflects the times.
“You can’t divorce this from a lot of what’s happening in education right now around the banning of books, proposed legislation that’s anti-CRT,” he said, referring to critical race theory. “There’s a real, real resistance, in certain states, to have content in our school curriculum that addresses some of the complexity and ugly episodes of racial discrimination in this country.”
The AP course will be available to all high schools during the 2024-25 school year.
“I applaud [the College Board] for developing this course because it says we will not engage in the erasure of peoples history, we will not avoid the complex history that is the legacy of slavery,” Howard said. It’s “a huge step in the right direction.”
But he anticipates pushback within California’s conservative enclaves — and that it could foreshadow a politicized topic in the 2024 election.
“There will be states that wholeheartedly endorse it and states that wholeheartedly reject it,” he said. “I think this is going to be massive because it’s part of the ongoing cultural wars. There are people who feel like our kids should not be taught these type of topics. It’s this back-and-forth, this tug of war, and I think it’s going to get ugly.”
As a UCLA professor, Howard welcomes that the new AP course means more freshmen may come into universities with a stronger knowledge of others’ cultures and history.
“What we know is that when students from any background have a robust knowledge and accurate history of experiences, accomplishments and obstacles different groups have gone through, you reduce stereotypes, you reduce prejudice and ultimately you reduce bias and hate,” he said.
Barber, the UCLA assistant professor, said the course highlights the origins and development of Africa and its diaspora, offering “a unique and necessary worldview.”
“Like every AP offering, this course teaches critical thinking and writing skills as well as essential knowledge and concepts that comprise Black studies,” said Brandi Waters, the lead author of the framework. “As an art historian, I’m excited that the course incorporates art objects as primary sources that reflect Black artists’ formal innovations as well as their engagements with the world around them because the histories of art of the Black world are also the histories of Black intellectual thought.”
Waters added that students responded to the course with excitement.
“What’s most impactful is students in this course can actually see themselves as moving along the continuum of history,” said Waters, who is also the senior director and program manager of African American studies for the College Board’s AP program. “They find themselves as part of a new course that’s bringing a well-established field forward at a challenging time, [and they] see themselves as a part of this historical trajectory.”