The Florida Department of Education’s recent decision to reject the AP African American studies course is deliberately divisive. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, knows how to stoke sentiment.
The current media attention is only energizing his base and bolstering his, yet to be announced, presidential bid. Throwing darts at DeSantis, and by association at the Florida DOE, only keeps him in the public eye, and therefore in view of his admirers.
To achieve real progress, it is the College Board who can, and should, do better. They are in a position of power, and that power holds tremendous weight. They control what gets tested, taught, and ultimately valued in Advanced Placement coursework.
Here are three things that Americans need to demand from the College Board today.
1. Speak up on the legitimacy of the African American Studies course
The College Board has been mute on Florida’s criticism of its AP African American Studies course and has failed to rebuke the idea that the course has no educational value. We must demand that the College Board uses its backbone, and stand by the academically enriching course designed in collaboration with multiple scholars.
Instead, the College Board has announced a plan to release an updated framework on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month. The timing couldn’t be worse for multiple reasons. Now, DeSantis gets to claim this as a win, and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker will reject the course if any of the Florida DOE objections influence the revised framework.
We must insist that the revisions are grounded in feedback from the students and teachers who piloted the course and not the politicians who haven’t read it. If not, the College Board is prioritizing the comfort of the privileged over recognizing the contributions of people who have been marginalized again and again. For any of the revisions being made to the framework, we must ask who are the changes serving?
Backtracking and editing the course under political pressure looks like an admission of error. Starting now (and not waiting for Black History Month), the College Board must have the courage of their convictions, and defend what they have created.
2. Audit and reform harmful portrayals of African Americans across all courses
Every course in the AP catalog should include authentic representations of people and cultures. Let’s examine how African Americans are portrayed in the AP American History course.
In a practice item for the AP American History exam, the reference text, “The American Pageant” (AP Edition), states that:
“[t]he northward migration of African-Americans accelerated after the war, thanks to the advent of the mechanical cotton picker, an invention whose impact rivaled that of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin… Overnight the Cotton South’s historic need for cheap labor disappeared. Their muscle no longer required in Dixie, some 5 million black tenant farmers and sharecroppers headed north…Within a single generation, a near majority of African-Americans gave up their historic homeland and their rural way of life…The speed and scale of these changes jolted the migrants and sometimes convulsed the communities that received them.”
This passage is a complete mischaracterization of history. It ignores the real driving force behind the Great Migration — African Americans fleeing mass racial violence, lynching, destruction of property, and oppression.
This AP American History text is at direct odds with the AP African American Studies course, which clearly poses racial violence as the driving factor of the Great Migration.
Beyond this initial insult, the characterization of “muscle no longer required” is dehumanizing. The suggestion that African Americans “gave up” their homes is a dismissive way of describing people fleeing for their life. The mentioning that the receiving communities “sometimes convulsed” minimizes tragedies like the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
This AP American History text sets students up to view the Great Migration through the lens of white dominant culture and erases the agency, aspirations, strength, and resilience of African Americans throughout American history. The College Board itself is creating a situation where students are taught two very different versions of history, based on the course they study.
Fundamentally, adding an African American Studies course does not undo the harmful stereotypes, sanitizing, and whitewashing of history that we find across other courses. We need to review all AP courses and insist on inclusive, authentic representation of African Americans.
3. Remove unnecessary barriers to accessing AP courses
Florida’s decision highlights how geography limits which AP courses students can access based on where they live. We now have all the technology we need to make this course material available to all students who wish to study it across the country.
In the post-Covid age of online learning, students in Florida should not be hindered from accessing the course (and earning college credit) because students across the country deserve the opportunity to engage with this rigorous portrayal of the African American experience. After all, the equal protection clause of the Constitution has been applied to educational issues.
Ultimately, DeSantis and the Florida DOE should have learned from the book banning fiasco. A sure-fire way to increase appeal and curiosity among teenagers is to ban something; books that were taken off library shelves all enjoyed a healthy boost to their scales. Indeed, college students formed “banned book study clubs.”
This media storm will do the same thing. DeSantis may have inadvertently created the greatest advertisement for African American Studies ever made.
Yet that doesn’t absolve the College Board of its responsibility to update its harmful American history course content, make its African American Studies course available nationally, and stand up for the authentic representation of African American contributions to this country that our students deserve and need.
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Nicole Tucker-Smith is founder and CEO of Lessoncast and leads the Curriculum Representation Design Certification program. She’s also a global expert in Universal Design for Learning and author of Supercharge Your Professional Learning. She’s a former teacher, supervisor of parent support services, principal and system-wide coordinator of PD, leading training for Baltimore County Public Schools, and an adjunct faculty member for Johns Hopkins University School of Education.