Advanced Placement debate feels high-stakes for teachers of African American history

A teacher leads a Black History lecture with her high school class. The students and teacher are wearing masks. There is a large flag with red, black, and green bars and a white outline of Africa behind her.
Keziah Ridgeway leads a mock Colored Convention, where the students formed delegations to help find solutions for problems affecting Black America, at Northeast High School in Philadelphia. (Alexandre da Veiga for Chalkbeat)

Keziah Ridgeway has taught African American history at Northeast High School in Philadelphia for four years, calling it a “labor of love.”

“I say it is a labor because it is very daunting teaching African American history,” she said. “It’s a lot of trauma — a lot of events that can make you uncomfortable.”

Still, Ridgeway added, “It’s something that needs to be done.”

More teachers across the country are likely to confront this challenge in the years to come as the College Board rolls out its first Advanced Placement course in African American studies.

Already, the course has been thrust into the political fray. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state’s schools wouldn’t teach the class, alleging that it violated a 2022 state law that restricts how race and racism are taught. He and other state officials pointed to the inclusion of subjects like Black queer studies, the debate over reparations for slavery, and the Black Lives Matter movement in criticizing the curriculum. 

Then, after the College Board released a final curriculum framework Wednesday that removed much of the criticized content, some protested that the course had been watered down — while educators who are piloting the class and others like it stressed the vital role it can play in schools.

“I compel anyone who has questions about this course to actually take the time to read the curriculum, spend time in classrooms, and talk to students,” said Melissa Tracy, a teacher at Odyssey Charter School in Delaware who is teaching a pilot version of the AP course this year. “What many students will tell you is, ‘This is the first time in my entire educational experience where I actually get to learn this content — because I was never taught it.’”

Tony Green, a teacher at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California who is participating in the pilot, said it’s a more comprehensive course than any high school class that has preceded it.

“This is the ideal situation for a teacher who’s teaching African American studies, because the resources have already been gathered,” said ​​Green, who has taught Black history for decades.

The College Board has denied that DeSantis or any states influenced the revision process, saying the changes were pedagogical and based on feedback from educators, the New York Times reported.

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National curriculum decisions are rare

Curriculum revisions, especially to a new course, aren’t unusual, noted Tambra Jackson, a professor and dean of the School of Education at Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis who focuses on social justice in education. The College Board’s process of convening scholars and teachers at the high school and college levels to construct the course wasn’t unusual either. 

“If this would have happened without the political fanfare, we might not be giving it that much attention,” she said. 

What is different now is the intensity of the Republicans’ focus on how race and gender are taught in schools, and the way figures like DeSantis have turned critiques more often hashed out in state standards committee hearings into a political spectacle. Eighteen states have legislated or imposed changes to how race and racism can be taught since January 2021, according to Education Week’s tracker. Many have also restricted discussion of sexism and LGBTQ content. Schools also have faced a new wave of challenges to the availability of school library books. 

“The political context where we’re in right now — there is this very direct, extreme focus on any kind of social awareness, on any kind of social action that focuses on how human beings in this country have been dehumanized, and there is an attempt to water down that history,” Jackson said.

“Because of all of that, on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month, the announcement that this curriculum has been revised, and the revision excludes really important, key people and thought leaders — it is disheartening,” she said.

The curriculum framework for an AP course is in many ways a particularly vulnerable target for political opposition, since it is a rare piece of public schooling in America that is nationally standardized. Generally state bodies adopt standards that guide teaching of various subjects, while local school districts and school leaders choose textbooks and curriculum, and individual teachers make daily choices about what materials to use and topics to emphasize. 

Textbooks in California and Texas, for example, vary in their treatment of topics like Reconstruction, the period immediately following the Civil War. And debates about topics like sex education, climate change, and evolution have flared in parts of the country for decades.

Debates about teaching Black history have a long history

In a number of cities, including Newark and Philadelphia, African American history is a curriculum staple. 

Philadelphia has required all students to take an African American history course since 2005 in order to graduate. There, officials don’t shy away from teaching upsetting history. The district’s soon-to-be-updated curriculum will include a unit on one of the most fraught racial incidents in the history of Philadelphia: the city’s standoffs with Black activists who were part of the MOVE organization. In 1978 a police officer was killed in a shootout; in 1985, the bombing of the MOVE house by the police resulted in the deaths of 11 people, including children.

“Our official position is that we encourage teachers to approach controversial issues in the classroom,” said Ismael Jimenez, the district’s director of social studies curriculum who taught history in the district, including that course, for 12 years. 

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Established courses in many districts emerged from decades of activism and come with their own history of debate about how they should be taught. Last year, Detroit’s public school district chose new curriculum materials for its elective African American history course that the superintendent noted emphasized “strength, joy, and achievement,” without the frequent overemphasis on slavery as the starting point of Black history.  

In Newark, New Jersey, where a 2002 state law required the teaching of African American history, the district didn’t offer a complete middle and high school curriculum on the subject until 2021 – nearly 20 years later.

Bashir Muhammad Ptah Akinyele teaches history and Africana studies at Weequahic High School in Newark and now uses the district’s Amistad curriculum. “I’m appreciative of the conversation. I think it’s needed,” he said of the debate about the AP course content. “But it’s not something new.” 

Whether to give space to figures some find radical is always a piece of that discussion, even in places with legal protections, he said. In other states, he knows those battles are even tougher.

“There’s still a struggle to factually document the history of Black people in this country,” he said. Often when schools introduce the subject, he said, “They want something safe, comfortable.”

Green said he wasn’t surprised to see the course spark national backlash, adding that historically, introducing an African American studies curriculum has “always been a struggle.”

He pointed to student movements in the late 1960s, where protestors clashed with university officials and police in an effort to establish ethnic studies programs. “It was definitely attacked,” he said of African American studies at the time, adding the efforts came under fire from local conservative leaders. “There was bloodshed behind the introduction of that curriculum.”

The College Board’s new curriculum suggests that many of the topics now gone from the course framework can still be the focus of student projects — with a sample list of topics including, for example, “Gay life and expression in Black communities,” and “Reparations debates in the U.S./ the Americas.” Tracy and Green, who are teaching the pilot AP course, both noted that a curriculum doesn’t dictate every move teachers make in a classroom. 

“There’s still a lot of built-in flexibility,” Tracy said. “Although there may not be a very specific lesson on Black Lives Matter, there still is an opportunity for students to research it. And at the end of the day, I don’t know how you can not talk about it. How do you talk about the Black freedom struggle without talking about Black Lives Matter?”

To Jackson, Ridgeway, and others, the revisions remain disappointing — and suggest the organization folded to political influence.

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“For a long time, before cities and school districts began to teach ethnic studies and African American history, our students were subjected to a history that was very much whitewashed,” Ridgeway said. “Removing these things is unacceptable. It waters down our history and it hides the truth from our students.”

What is still heartening, Jackson said, is that the years ahead could see more students than ever getting a deep exposure to the topic. 

“The fact that we now have an AP African American history course, I think it’s a wonderful thing,” she said. “I think students will take it, they will be engaged, they will be excited about the content, they will share it with their friends, and their friends will want to take it. 

“When people have access, it opens up new curiosities.”

Dale Mezzacappa contributed reporting. 

Julian Shen-Berro is a reporter covering national issues. Contact him at jshen-berro@chalkbeat.org.

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