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It’s time to rethink our relationship with the College Board

Cole Moran

While many headlines will hand-wring over the College Board’s decision to eviscerate its African American Studies curriculum, we as BPS teachers have seen the writing on the wall. Boston families on all sides of the political spectrum should be wary. It is easy to think of book bans and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ ban on AP African American Studies as problems that exist in a land far, far away. But, right here in Boston, our children, too, are subjected to the peccadilloes of a private, undemocratic institution. The College Board’s decisions aren’t something you’ll need to fly to Florida to protest.

By next year at my 7-12 Boston Public School, students will take a College Board-designed English Language Arts course in each of our six grades. There is a moratorium on “homegrown” curricula, meaning teachers have no choice over which texts we teach or how we frame the ones they give us. If your child were to take “Pre-AP 2,” a course often replacing sophomore English, they would not study a single novel. In fact, your child might graduate from the Boston Public Schools with no idea who Toni Morrison even is. Boston will never ban “The Bluest Eye,’ but the likelihood your child reads it diminishes each year. What’s the difference between a ban and omission?

The College Board survives on plausible deniability and salability because their products, like Pre-AP, are not “curricula” but rather “frameworks.” This has two effects. First, this allows the College Board to blame any bad effects on those executing the framework, not the framework’s authors. Second, the frameworks create the most “politically neutral” units of study so that the maximum number of schools will adopt them.

I think students and families should be made aware that these “frameworks” are currently being dictated as gospel, and deviation is punished. Because they are seen as apolitical, the “skills” of English Language Arts are foregrounded at the expense of any cogent body of literature and ideas that we might think our children ought to experience. Want your child to form their own view of mass incarceration and “The New Jim Crow” by reading the original and its critiques? Too political! Want your child to engage with the ideas of punishment, harm, and repair by analyzing “The Brothers Karamazov” in light of competing philosophies of justice? Definitely too political, probably too old, and certainly no time!

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, writing for the court in its landmark decision on student speech Tinker v. Des Moines, warned us of a country in which students are “regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate.” He may roll in his grave to see our options now: a closed-circuit between our children and Ron DeSantis or our children and the College Board. This dichotomy is, of course, false. It has been egged on by decades of fear-mongering that our children will be unable to compete in college admissions without ever more AP designations on their transcripts (something many high schools of power and privilege are already rejecting).

Public schools are our last laboratories for true democracy. What we’ve been led to believe is that the risk of failure facing our children is so great that we do not have time to make decisions, publicly and democratically, about which content, skills and values to teach. The logic continues that we should outsource this function to a private organization that vacuously tracks a classically liberal world view. You may not agree with the tenets of Critical Race Theory, but it should concern you that they’re asking you to trade democracy for its de-platforming. And if you are lamenting AP African American Studies as being gutted of a critical viewpoint, we have to recognize that we, too, have made a Faustian bargain. To borrow from Medgar Evers, the truth is that no one can kill an idea, not even Ron DeSantis. But, the College Board has the power to come close.

Cole Moran is a teacher in the Boston Public Schools.

AP African American Studies, BPS, College Board