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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Curriculum Opinion

AP Takes a Stand Amid the Raging Curriculum Debates. It’s Worth Emulating

By Rick Hess — March 21, 2022 3 min read
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Hot-button educational debates over “anti-racism” and critical race theory can feel like they’re full of people talking past each other. Truth is, they often are. Most parents and teachers agree that schools need to do a better job teaching about race and its role in America. At the same time, most Americans reject the notion that their nation is a deplorable “slavocracy.” There’s an appetite for sensible middle ground, but it can be hard to see.

Thus, debates over curricula, curricular transparency, and assigned readings can be reflexive and suffused in ideological agendas. That makes it important to provide good-faith guardrails for educators and parents seeking to grapple with these issues in principled, constructive ways. While Pedro Noguera and I have talked about this a lot over the past year, I haven’t seen many promising approaches. This all made the recent statement of principles by the College Board’s Advanced Placement program both heartening and sorely needed.

As readers well know, AP has a massive reach. Each year, more than a million students take AP’s 34 courses in everything from calculus to Spanish to U.S. Government. Its visibility and status mean that AP’s actions can play an outsized role, as happened when an overhaul of its U.S. History framework ignited a searing debate back in 2015.

Recently, the College Board—and the AP program, in particular—has been urged to wade into the raging debates over CRT legislation in K-12. In response, the College Board opted to sidestep the partisan back-and-forth and instead enumerate the core principles underlying Advanced Placement. I found the focus on principles rather than political debate to be refreshingly constructive. And the statement is altogether admirable, offering a principled, practical place to land amid debates over CRT, “anti-racism,” curricular transparency, and curricular restrictions.

In all of this, there’s a need to stand forthrightly against those who would stymie free thought. The statement flatly declares, “AP opposes censorship.” Citing the program’s “deep respect for the intellectual freedom of teachers and students,” it notes that “if a school bans required topics from their AP courses, the AP Program removes the AP designation from that course.” Good.

Of course, much of the CRT pushback has been fueled by concerns that some schools are promoting ideological agendas and groupthink. The AP offers a sensible, principled response to such concerns, declaring that “AP opposes indoctrination” and that AP courses are designed to “foster an open-minded approach to the histories and cultures of different peoples.” The statement elaborates: “AP students are expected to analyze different perspectives from their own, and no points on an AP Exam are awarded for agreement with a viewpoint.” Students are “to develop as independent thinkers” who are able to “draw their own conclusions.”

State legislatures have recently been roiled by proposals for “curricular transparency,” in which instructional materials are made publicly available. While some have denounced such efforts as inappropriate, the College Board instead declares that the “AP stands for clarity and transparency” and notes that “the Advanced Placement Program makes public its course frameworks and sample assessments.” That’s a terrific response. Public educators ought not to have qualms about publicly sharing their work.

At the same time, the College Board makes clear that it won’t be cowed by ideologues on the left or right, insisting that AP instruction be “an unflinching encounter with evidence” and that “evidence and the scientific method are the starting place for conversations in AP courses.” This is terra firma, to say the least.

And the College Board insists, “Every AP student who engages with evidence is listened to and respected.” I love this last bit: “Students are encouraged to evaluate arguments but not one another. AP classrooms respect diversity in backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints. The perspectives and contributions of the full range of AP students are sought and considered. Respectful debate of ideas is cultivated and protected; personal attacks have no place in AP.” I think this is not only spot-on but pretty fairly captures where the bulk of the nation stands.

Anti-censorship. Anti-indoctrination. Pro-transparency. Pro-evidence. Pro-respectful debate. Anti-personal attack. Seems pretty much on point. If enough of the nation’s schools and systems adopted this as a code of principles, and abided by it, I suspect that much of the vitriol swamping today’s K-12 curricular clashes would recede with surprising haste.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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