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College Board responds to backlash over AP African American studies curriculum

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's turn now to the backlash the College Board is facing over its new AP course in African American studies. The College Board oversees the SAT and the AP, the Advanced Placement program. And this week, it released a revised curriculum for the African American studies class. Critics have said a pilot of the program that launched last year included certain themes, certain authors. They note the updated framework has removed some of them. And the timing of the College Board's press release unveiling the updated framework happened to come after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis threatened to ban the course, saying it was, quote, "indoctrinating" students. Well, the College Board is defending the changes.

And with me now to discuss is College Board CEO David Coleman. Welcome to you.

DAVID COLEMAN: Thank you.

KELLY: And also senior director of the AP African American studies program, Brandi Waters. Brandi Waters, welcome to you.

BRANDI WATERS: Thank you very much.

KELLY: Brandi, I'm going to start with you. I know we've managed to catch you in a car, so we appreciate your taking the time. But people wondering about the noise behind you, that's what's going on. Before we get into all the controversy and the back and forth this week, would you back up and just lay out for us, what were the goals? What was the original thinking when you were trying to develop and roll out this new AP course on African American studies?

WATERS: Sure. This is such a vibrant and interesting field that we looked into creating a new course in African American studies many, many years ago. Since then, we've found a lot of interest from students and educators who consistently requested a new AP course in this field. And, of course, it's really aligned with our mission to create these opportunities for students to take on an in-depth study in an area of their interest. And this is a really great opportunity to also give them a chance to earn college credit and to feel much more prepared to be successful as they pursue this course of study in college as well. So there was a lot of interest around this field and also coming from students and teachers.

KELLY: OK. So to this week and the political tensions - and, David, I'm going to bring you in on this one. As I nodded to, Governor DeSantis threatened to ban the original course. He talked about the political agenda that he thought it was contributing to. The education commissioner for Florida spoke of, and I am quoting, "woke indoctrination masquerading as education." The criticism came, and then this week, y'all unveiled a changed curriculum. So your critics are suggesting that you have caved to political pressure. Did you?

COLEMAN: We began the changes that are being discussed in September of the previous year, led by the committee that is developing the course. There's a committee of faculty. And those changes were largely complete by December, and we have those time-stamped materials. Far before the governor spoke up, we'd announced that we were going to release the revised framework on the first day of Black History Month, as we did. So it's simply...

KELLY: So to - just - sorry, just to pause for a minute...

COLEMAN: Yep.

KELLY: ...Because this feels important - you are saying, look; we had a pilot program. We were, you know, looking for feedback. We made some changes...

COLEMAN: Exactly.

KELLY: ...And we have paperwork to show we were making those changes before this criticism came in from Florida.

COLEMAN: There are time stamps. There's clear evidence. So it is simply false that the changes were made after, so just so we don't get confused.

But I think your most important statement was the idea that authors had been banned, Black authors had been banned. This charge of censorship, this perception that authors have been cut out is the one I'd like to address most forcefully today and clear up if you'll give me a minute to do that. Would that be OK?

KELLY: Sure. And just to be clear, I didn't say they were banned. I said some...

COLEMAN: Or removed.

KELLY: ...Some that were in the original curriculum are no longer in it.

COLEMAN: Right.

KELLY: That's accurate.

COLEMAN: And I'm saying, no, it is not accurate. Let me clarify about the Black authors for a moment 'cause we've got really exciting news to clarify for your listeners what's going on. Because of this confusion that thoughtful authors like Kimberle Crenshaw, for example, on intersectionality, or bell hooks or other thinkers are somehow no longer represented in the framework, we took out all secondary sources, whether it was by Skip Gates or Evelyn Higginbotham, regardless of their political qualities.

But there's a free resource called AP Classroom, and every teacher and student in AP African American studies is going to have access to it. And we have already bought the permissions for texts like Kimberle Crenshaw's breakthrough piece on - "Mapping The Margins," on intersectionality. And they're going to be freely available to students and teachers throughout the course. Audre Lorde's poems - sources that people were worried are gone are actually going to be magnified and made more available than ever in the classroom and teaching resources, which is where secondary sources in AP always are.

KELLY: For the avoidance of doubt, have any authors, any Black writers, been stricken, banned from the course?

COLEMAN: No authors have been banned from the course. And in fact, we're going to lift them up and make them freely available.

WATERS: I'd love to also just paint a broader picture of what David is explaining. We've streamlined the framework, as David mentioned, to focus on primary sources. These primary sources based on everyday life is what really opens up students' understanding for bigger concepts and theories. And in order to make sure that they have a deeper opportunity to explore these projects, we've named them in a list of suggested projects, and we've actually provided those secondary sources on AP Classroom. I think our hope is that by providing them on AP Classroom, they'll be able to look to these sources first, where they'll be able to spend much more time on these topics.

KELLY: For people trying to follow all this, let me just put a basic question, a yes or no question, and you can each take it. Was the curriculum changed to appease Governor DeSantis or other critics who have accused the College Board of being woke, yes or no?

COLEMAN: No.

WATERS: Absolutely not.

KELLY: If I may just push you on this one more time, to those who look at the changes and how they track very closely to the changes that Ron DeSantis was arguing for, it's a coincidence?

COLEMAN: Let me try to explain. What was attacked were secondary sources and all the secondary sources. What was not discussed in all the political commentary was the core facts and evidence of the course. Everyone's in agreement. It seems that that was brilliantly handled.

There were some commentators that were attacked, but those were all part of secondary sources we never list. We took out all the secondary sources, including ones that never got comment 'cause we don't do it in any AP course. In AP history, AP U.S. history or AP English, we give a core set of primary sources like the books you read or art you look at, but we don't list exactly what academics you read and which articles 'cause that would be the College Board creating the one list or canon of scholarly work. We offered it to the pilot teachers as a support, but we never do it when we have an official framework.

KELLY: Brandi, I will give you the last word. And I wonder if you would speak directly to students who may be considering taking the course, who may, in the midst of all this controversy, be wondering what they are walking into and whether they are learning as much as they could. What would you want them to know?

WATERS: Sure. I would tell students this is the most coherent narrative of African American history, culture, politics and legal studies that I've seen for high school students; that this is an exciting opportunity for them to look at over 100 resources, whether it be artworks or datasets, that showcase the diversity of Black life and the contributions made not only in the United States, but also broadly; that these students have an opportunity to learn even more than what's been circulated as the very first version of the pilot. So if they have questions about how we are all connected, about how this field was formed and about where the field is going, this is an exciting course to take to have really great discussions about the larger trajectory of our society today.

KELLY: That is Brandi Waters, senior director of AP African American studies for the College Board, speaking with us from a car, and the CEO of the College Board, David Coleman, who was with us as well. Thanks to you both.

COLEMAN: Thank you.

WATERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.