An Advanced Placement African American studies curriculum released earlier this week omitted some of the contemporary Black authors targeted by conservative politicians.
In Maryland, though, teachers said they were not worried that the new curriculum would limit their ability to teach the theorists and authors they wanted. “I am not concerned, maybe because I am here at this school,” said Baltimore Polytechnic Institute teacher Patrice Fraser. In a district that is majority Black and leans liberal, she does not feel the pressures facing teachers in states like Florida, where the education department rejected the course and called an earlier version of the curriculum “woke indoctrination.” “I am concerned for teachers in other districts, where education is under attack,” said Fraser.
Fraser said she has gotten support from students, parents and administrators in the city and does not believe the the new version of the curriculum will limit her teaching of contemporary issues. She is one of 60 teachers across the country teaching a pilot of the curriculum this year for the first time. Poly, a selective math, science and engineering high school, currently teaches 20 AP classes and was invited by the College Board to pilot the class this year, said Dennis Jutras, coordinator of gifted and advanced learning for the city schools.
The class also is being taught at Milford Mill Academy and Randallstown High School in Baltimore County and Frederick Douglass High School in Prince George’s County. The curriculum, Fraser said, has been changing as the year goes on based on feedback from the teachers.
John Billingslea, director of social studies at Baltimore County Public Schools, said both teachers and students love the piloted course. Two teachers are testing it but 21 high schools want to be part of the pilot next year. He called it a “factual accounting of history that is inclusive and enlists the voice of all people.”
The course will be expanded to hundreds more schools nationwide next year, but it will not be an official course until the 2024-2025 school year, when the test will be given for the first time. Students who pass will be eligible for college credit.
The College Board defended the new version of the curriculum, saying changes were made for pedagogical and not political reasons, according to The New York Times. The College Board had been collecting feedback from its teachers and college professors of African American studies.
The College Board showed The Washington Post a version of the curriculum that was written in December before the controversy in Florida erupted. Some topics, such as Black Lives Matter and Black feminism, had been left out of the that version. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who grew up in Baltimore, attended Poly and has written about reparations, was taken off the required curriculum.
The most problematic portion of the course curriculum for conservatives was the contemporary period of history, which Jutras said has usually been downplayed in other AP history courses because of issues with interpreting recent events. A former AP social studies teacher, Jutras said he was taught to steer clear of a discussion of 9/11 because it was not far enough in the rearview mirror.
The course will still include subjects not usually covered in African American history courses. The course starts with the history of early African culture, continues through topics that include the slave trade to America; music, art and culture among enslaved people; abolition; and “gender and resistance in slave narratives.”
The AP African American studies class requires students to do an independent project on a subject of their choosing. The topics that were taken out of the required reading in the curriculum, he said, are listed as options for the project. For instance, Black Lives Matter, reparations debates in America, and redlining are all possible project topics, as is Black conservatism, which was added to the new version.
Billingslea said it was disappointing those topics were eliminated because so many identify with them.
“The expectation here in Baltimore County is that we provide space for all voices that are critical to the examination of Black studies,” he said.
Lauren Bernstein, who’s teaching the course at Randallstown High, was disappointed the topic of intersectionality — how identities like race, gender and class overlap — was dropped. She said that move was “twisted and politicized.” The lesson’s only intention was to explore how the Black experience overlaps with that of other groups, she said.
She said the original list of course topics was too long to finish by the end of the year. Teachers were telling College Board to cut it down or combine topics.
But the changes have no impact on her class.
“One of the great things about this curriculum is that they give you overarching topics you can teach but so many different avenues you can take,” Bernstein said.
Jutras said AP teachers have always had the freedom to pick which materials they want to teach, and the fact that Coates is no longer on the list matters little to city students. It is read in AP English classes in the city, he said, adding that he had just ordered hundreds of copies of Coates’ books.
The news that Florida was excluding African American history, under the leadership of Gov. Ron DeSantis, was of great interest to her Poly students, Fraser said. “The day they heard about Florida banning the pilot they had questions and concerns,” Fraser said. They found it suspicious that DeSantis had no questions about the content of European history or other AP history courses.
“No problem with any of those?” her students asked her. “Only African American history?”
Fraser, who is Black, expressed concern that criticism of the African American course may also be aimed at those who teach it, many of them likely Black. Historically, she said, teaching was one of the few professions open to Black women. “I don’t understand why everyone wants to question the wisdom of teachers,” she said, adding that they have master’s degrees and ongoing training. She has taught for 24 years, including 14 years at Poly. She said she is committed to making sure that her students receive an array of viewpoints on a particular topic.
Maryland schools expanded AP courses exponentially over several decades, offering the courses to many more low-income students who had not previously had access to them. In the first semester this school year, about 136,000 Maryland students were enrolled in 38 different AP courses, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. 22% were enrolled in an AP social studies courses. Student pass rates in Maryland on each of these AP social studies exams continued to outperform the national average.