Terry Falk
K-12 Education

Schools Challenge AP Classes Curriculum

Too liberal for Waukesha? Too conservative for Milwaukee?

By - Aug 23rd, 2023 06:31 pm
School classroom. Pixabay License. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

School classroom. (Pixabay License).

“It gives me great pause to want to approve this,” said board member Anthony Zenobia, as members of the Waukesha school board committee at its June 6 meeting struggled to approve American Government: Stories of a Nation textbook by Scott Abernathy and Karen Waples for Advanced Placement Government and Politics. Zenobia stated, “We need to have a presentation of both sides of the issue. This book does not do that in a lot of areas.”

The College Board’s Advanced Placement curriculum has been under fire nationally by conservatives, most notably its AP African American Studies for allegedly being “anti-American” and AP Psychology for discussing issues on sexuality and gender.

The conservative Waukesha board questioned how the Abernathy and Waples textbook portrays democracy and political parties. Only last year, the College Board pulled a question on Roe v. Wade and abortion from its AP Government test, but how this text and teachers handle privacy issues is still open for debate.

But urban teachers and districts also have criticisms. It was only a couple of years ago that Wisconsin urban AP teachers challenged the College Board stating that the English literature lacked diversity and was dominated by “dead white guys,” as Urban Milwaukee reported.

The College Board tried to shorten the time period for AP World History only to be criticized. “Urban districts didn’t like that because if you are only to cover history from 1500, then you are eliminating a lot of Black and brown history when those peoples were at their height,” said James Nelson who teaches AP Government and Politics at Milwaukee’s Golda Meir High School, in a statement to Urban Milwaukee. “The College Board’s response was that colleges are telling them that they don’t want all that older stuff.”

The College Board ultimately compromised by starting with the year 1200. “At the end of the day, it’s whatever the colleges want,” Nelson notes.

The College Board states that a school cannot modify its AP curriculum. If an AP Psychology class cuts out aspects of sexuality, colleges will not approve it for college credit. Nelson recently received an email form from the College Board asking people to report any school not following the AP requirements.

Last year, Meir was the first Wisconsin school to pilot the new AP African American Studies course. Modifications were made for the coming school year by the College Board after complaints that the curriculum lacked objectivity. But the Board said “no more” to other changes, and states like Florida and Arkansas banned the AP course, at least for college credit.

However, a district or teacher can add materials to balance what a district or teacher may think is too liberal or conservative in the curriculum. Last year, a short answer question in AP Government and Politics was about school choice, based upon a Supreme Court decision concerning Cleveland. Nelson included information on a Milwaukee case because he thought both cases were similar and his students could relate to the local issues. “My kids had a lot to write about,” says Nelson.

The promotion of AP classes at Meir has led to a number of students receiving full tuition at universities like UW-Madison with credit equal to a year or more of college standing.

The Waukesha board members considered that adding counterbalancing material to a textbook they considered liberal could be a possibility. But if they approved the textbook, they wanted to see the syllabus at upcoming board meetings.

Such micromanaging by the Waukesha board of the curriculum is a continual problem, said Laura Pinsoneault, spokesperson for the Alliance for Education in Waukesha, a grassroots activist group. “We have had this mass exodus of teachers, many of whom were AP teachers because of the content offered in AP classes, the feeling that the board is managing every aspect of curriculum,” she told Urban Milwaukee.

Pinsoneault’s daughter began school last year without an assigned regular teacher for AP English. She ultimately pulled her daughter out of the class and entered her in AP English through eAchieve, the online charter school of the district. But she questions whether an online course is anywhere equal to being in a classroom with a seasoned teacher.

Golda Meir is one of Milwaukee’s premier high schools offering an array of gifted and talented programs. Several MPS high schools with the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum only offer AP classes not covered by IB. The quality and extensive offerings at Meir are not matched by most other MPS schools.

However, Milwaukee’s Riverside University High School boasts of their extensive AP offerings. Margaret Holtgreive teaches AP Psychology at Riverside and has read essays from students from around the world for the College Board. She recently heard a presentation from Trevor Packer, head of the Board’s AP program, who noted that the College Board made some accommodations for Florida and other states in AP African American Studies. But the changes satisfied no one, and the Board is less likely to make changes in the future.

Despite Waukesha’s concerns about AP courses, Waukesha West and South high schools made Wisconsin’s Department of Education AP Pacesetter Award for 2022 for high participation taking the exams and test scores. No MPS school received the award.

As the Waukesha board committee deliberated whether to authorize the textbook, Board member Bette Koenig summarized what they all were thinking: “I wasn’t a big fan of this book,” she said, but “the bottom line is I want our kids to do well on the AP exam.”

Board member Karrie Kozlowski underscored Koenig’s comments: “I think that there’s still going to have to be some self-curating because there are topics that have to be balanced… we’re doing a class because we have extremely motivated students who are very bright, who really care about these AP scores.”

Thus, despite their concerns, the Waukesha committee approved the Abernathy and Waples textbook on a 4-0 vote, while requiring the administration to present a course syllabus in future meetings. Whatever their disagreement with the College Board over AP curriculum, school districts often give in, because they want those AP credits for their kids.

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