Scientific theories to justify racism. Laws and Supreme Court decisions that denied Black people equal rights. The imperialist view that Anglo-Saxons were called upon by God to civilize the “savages” of the world.
These topics might all sound like material from a course on systemic racism or critical race theory, which includes the idea that racism is embedded in America’s legal systems and policies.
At a time when mostly Republican-led state legislatures have passed a rash of laws to restrict how public schoolteachers can educate students about America’s racist past, I worry that AP courses like U.S History and U.S. Government and Politics could be in jeopardy. The danger is posed by those who support the various new state laws against the teaching of “divisive” topics and critical race theory.
I raise this concern as a researcher who studies AP courses and the ways educators can better prepare students to participate in America’s democracy.
Recent developments show my concerns about the future of Advanced Placement are not unfounded. For instance, two school districts in Oklahoma had their accreditation downgraded for running afoul of the state’s law against critical race theory. While those cases didn’t involve AP coursework, they both show that people really are going after school districts on critical race theory-related issues.
The fear may be heightened for educators who teach AP courses, which – by their very design – require teachers to deal with sensitive and controversial subjects that deal with matters of race.
Preparing for a showdown
These controversial subjects would include Martin Luther King Jr.‘s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In that 1963 letter, King – who had been arrested for parading without a permit during anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Alabama – critiques what he refers to as an “unjust law.”
“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application,” King wrote. He added that such laws exist when those in power impose laws against a minority that they don’t abide by themselves. Historians and critical race scholars view King’s letter as an early example of critical race theory. The letter is featured in AP English Language and Composition.
I’m not the only one who is taking seriously how AP course requirements might contradict laws against critical race theory.
Consider an advisory that the College Board itself put out in March 2022. The advisory states that courses that do not cover topics in the required curriculum will lose their AP designation.
This could affect the college plans of large numbers of America’s students, who rely on AP courses to earn college credit while still in high school. This enables students to save money by skipping certain courses in college.
The Advanced Placement program has been widely adopted throughout the country. As of fall 2021, 32 states had statewide or systemwide AP credit policies that require colleges to award credit to students who score high enough on their AP exams.
The College Board reports that more than 1.17 million U.S. public high school graduates in the class of 2021 – 34.9% – took at least one AP exam. Despite the disruptions from the pandemic, that figure is up from the roughly 898,000 – or 28.6% – who did so in the class of 2011.
Despite the laws that seek to control how teachers can discuss race and the history of racism in the United States, the College Board plans to pilot a new AP course in African American studies in the fall of 2022 at about 60 schools.
Anticipating the potential for conflicts with the College Board, the Yorba Linda school board in Orange County, California, made Advanced Placement courses exempt from restrictions it enacted regarding classroom conversations on race.
A College Board official told me that as of yet, there have been no cases of schools removing content in AP history. How long that will be the case remains to be seen.
Historically, there have already been cases in which books have been removed from the reading list for AP classes. For instance, in 2007, Jefferson County Public Schools – a school district that covers Louisville, Kentucky – removed Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” from an AP English class at Eastern High School. “Beloved,” along with other books authored by Toni Morrison, is among the most frequently referenced texts on the AP Literature and Composition exam.
When states ban critical race theory, it potentially affects more than just AP history and AP English. AP U.S. Government and Politics, for example, requires educators to teach students about race-based gerrymandering and different perspectives on affirmative action. The AP Psychology course description includes conversations about how race affects criminal trials.
Vague and contradictory
Some of the new laws that ban critical race theory are confusing and contradictory. A new law in Georgia, for example, includes systemic racism as a “divisive topic” that “any curriculum … may not teach.” However, the bill explicitly allows teachers to address how “the enactment and enforcement of laws” can lead to “oppression, segregation, and discrimination.”
This contradiction has the potential to create uncertainty and uneasiness among AP teachers.
A bill passed in Texas states that “no teacher shall be compelled … to discuss current events or widely debated and currently controversial issues of public policy.” Controversy, however, is a centerpiece of AP English Language and Composition. The curriculum requires teachers to consider controversial issues and to help students “develop a critical and informed understanding of the controversy and the authority to enter the conversation themselves.”
If people complain that AP courses violate laws against critical race theory, the College Board may have to show that it is serious when it says it will strip AP designation from schools that remove required material from the AP curriculum.
Research is on the College Board’s side. Studies show that discussions on race and racism help prepare students to participate in America’s multiracial democracy. There are academic benefits as well. A Stanford University study found that a ninth grade ethnic studies course boosted Black and Hispanic students’ GPA by 1.4 points and their attendance by 21 percentage points. The authors of that study say the findings point to wider academic benefits of lessons that are culturally relevant to students, such as lower dropout rates.
Since many parents and members of the public see the value of taking AP courses, this could force opponents of critical race theory to make a crucial choice: Do they want to constrain classroom discussions about race? Or do they want to keep AP and all its benefits intact for the sake of America’s students? The College Board has made it clear they can’t have it both ways.