Schools to Pilot AP African American Studies Course Amid Upheaval Over Teaching Race

By Ileana Najarro — February 25, 2022 | Corrected: March 01, 2022 5 min read
Rachel Collins teaches her students during the African American Studies course at White Station High School in Memphis, Tenn., on Feb. 22, 2022.
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Corrected: A photo caption previously misidentified the name of the course Rachel Collins teaches. It is an elective African American history course.

The College Board is developing a new Advanced Placement course in African American studies at a time when the nation is reckoning with how teachers should talk to students about race and America’s racist past.

The new course will be piloted this fall at about 60 schools, with more schools to be added in the pilot’s second year. The College Board is working in close partnership with academic and cultural institutions, and with the African American community on the national and local level, according to a spokesperson.

The course will include key connections to the African diaspora and will be the largest and most accessible high school course in the discipline.

About 38 percent of U.S. public high school graduates in the class of 2020 took at least one AP Exam, according to a College Board report. AP courses help students stand out in college admission applications and earn college credits while in high school.

At the same time, as of this week, 41 states are considering or have passed legislation that limits how topics of race are discussed in the classroom.

Asked how such legislation would impact the development and eventual rollout of this course, if at all, the College Board had no direct response. In a statement, the organization says only that: “We have a long-standing process for developing new AP courses that draws on the knowledge and expertise of professors and K-12 educators and results in courses that are widely offered and taken across the country.”

Digging deeper into past and present African American culture

White Station High School in Memphis, Tenn., already offers AP courses in U.S. history, world history, human geography, and European history. This fall, such courses will be rounded out thanks to the new pilot program.

The general study of African American history, when taught in K-12 schools is often embedded within other social studies courses, said Lawrence Paska, the executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies. But a standalone course at the high school level that is doing more than just providing a survey look at history and instead digging into, understanding, and celebrating culture as its own area of study is less common.

The course at White Station, part of the Memphis-Shelby County school district, will range from the medieval kingdoms of Africa to contemporary moments in America. Throughout the pilot, teachers and students will be asked for feedback, said James Smith, manager of the district’s AP programming. The College Board has already spent years working with college professors at many historically Black colleges and universities throughout the country and at other colleges to make sure that the course reflects in-depth scholarship, Smith added.

Black studies, Africana studies, and African American studies “cover all of the courses that you would get in the social sciences, and even some of the sciences,” said Abul Pitre, chair of the department of Africana Studies at San Francisco State University. “But it has this kind of perspective that kind of separates it out because you get it from an African-centered perspective, and not necessarily from a Euro-centered perspective.”

This includes courses that cover psychology, economics, health, gender studies and more, Pitre said. Such an academic discipline inspires all students to think critically about their understanding of the world by having them look at pre-existing knowledge through a different perspective.

One question around the development of the AP course Pitre has is who is going to decide what bodies of knowledge will be included. For instance, the 1963 March on Washington may be discussed when talking about the civil rights movement, but what about the Million Man March, the 1995 rally over racial injustice organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan?

He also wonders if the course will involve community engagement. One of the key components of Black Studies, when it originated, was to be impactful in the community, where students would take the knowledge they gained in the classroom and apply it to solving real world problems.

“It will need some fine-tuning as it will go,” Pitre said of the course, “But definitely a very significant contribution to the American landscape in terms of transforming what we’ve seen in education over the past several years.”

Meanwhile Paska, of the National Council for the Social Studies, said the new AP course should open up the conversation of what work districts can do in earlier grades to better prepare students for this kind of in-depth scholarship in high school.

“Elementary kids are increasingly in very diverse schools. They work with each other, they play with each other, they’re sitting together in small groups.” Paska said. “So for them to be able to see themselves reflected in their curriculum materials, in their stories, I think, at an earlier age, that prepares them for this advanced level of study later.”

A principal hopes the course will diversify Black AP participation

White Station High School in Memphis already offers a semester-long elective on African American history which will continue throughout the pilot.

Recognizing the national under-representation of students of color in AP courses, White Station Principal Carrye Holland said she hopes AP African American studies can speak to students who want to learn more about their history and culture and who may not have thought of taking an AP course before. For instance, while Black students made up about 14 percent of the nation’s class of 2020 high school graduates, they were only about 8 percent of AP exam takers that year, according to the College Board.

“I’m a big believer in bringing in courses that relate to our students,” Holland said. “I think that high school is hard, because kids can be so bored and find coursework that doesn’t relate to them.”

While logistics are still being squared away, students are already interested and asking questions about the course content and how it will work, Holland said.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2022 edition of Education Week as Schools to Pilot AP African American Studies Course Amid Upheaval Over Teaching Race


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