'History is messy': Some teachers worry 'critical race theory bills' threaten AP classes

Endia Fontanez
Arizona Republic

Kimberly Cockrell estimates her students have earned more than 1,100 college credits in her Advanced Placement history classes.

But she worries that if Arizona lawmakers pass bills targeting lessons on race and racism, students could lose this opportunity, something the teacher of more than 20 years calls "tragic."

As state legislatures debate banning so-called "critical race theory" from schools, the nonprofit that oversees Advanced Placement classes recently reminded teachers what the program stands for, including opposition to censorship of any kind. Educators say the message is clear: If learning material is censored, certain classes could lose their AP certification.

Critical race theory is an academic concept about the effects of racism on society that is not taught at the K-12 level, but the term has been popularized as a catch-all phrase for equity programs and teaching about racism.

Primary sources are key to Cockrell's history lesson plans. Using sources that come directly from the time periods that students are studying, she said, helps them understand the points of view that dominated the public and political conversations at those times. When presenting her students with such sources, she engages them to analyze and evaluate who the authors are and what their biases and perspectives are.

"They are tough conversations. Yes, history is messy, and it's complicated, and it should be," she said. "If I'm teaching a version of history that seems really neat and tidy, then I'm not doing the past justice." 

People pose with their signs for pictures during a protest against critical race theory by parents of Scottsdale Unified School District students at Coronado High School in Scottsdale on May 24, 2021.

Cockrell said students need to have those conversations and wrestle with difficult ideas.

"That's how they're going to acquire critical thinking skills," she said. "They should have to grapple, they should have to be confronted and come up with their own opinion."

The College Board writes on its website that "every AP student who engages with evidence is listened to and respected” and notes that AP classes are not a graduation requirement but are optional.

"I don't package an opinion for my kids. I want to have them grapple with information, and then come to their own conclusions — not a conclusion that I have walked them down," Cockrell said. "I don't want little clones. I want independent critical thinkers. That's where the real magic happens in their learning."

What Arizona's CRT bills would do

In Arizona, House Concurrent Resolution 2001 would amend the state Constitution to prohibit instruction that could make students feel guilt about their race or ethnic group based on the actions of their ancestors, think that one race or ethnicity is inherently racist toward others or believe that racism is structured into the U.S. at the institutional level.

“We have great teachers, but we also have people who want to change our children into social activists,” Scottsdale parent Barbara Jennings said during a panel hearing on the measure earlier this year. “I just want them to stick to teaching math, real history.”

If passed, HCR 2001 would put the constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

'Like it's Groundhog Day': The culture wars around Arizona education feel very familiar

Arizona lawmakers also are considering Senate Bill 1412, which uses the same language as other anti-CRT bills. The legislation would ban "instruction that promotes or advocates for any form of blame or judgment on the basis of race or ethnicity or sex."

Both bills say they do not prevent teachers from discussing topics related to race, specifically listing slavery, the removal of Native peoples, the Holocaust and the internment of Japanese Americans as examples.

However, the bills do not make clear how teachers are expected to effectively teach the true histories of these events, Cockrell said.

A reminder from the College Board

Each year, AP teachers submit their proposed course syllabus to the College Board for review. If the syllabus covers all specific topics and skills that colleges require, the course may be labeled as an AP class.

“If a school bans required topics from their AP courses, the AP Program removes the AP designation from that course and its inclusion in the AP Course Ledger provided to colleges and universities," the College Board's website states. "For example, the concepts of evolution are at the heart of college biology, and a course that neglects such concepts does not pass muster as AP Biology.”

The AP U.S. Government course requires that students read the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, select parts of the Federalist Papers and Martin Luther King Jr.’s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," among others. Therefore, if any of these readings were deemed inappropriate by potential legislation, then the course would lose its AP designation in schools where the readings were removed.

The College Board sent teachers an email March 2 detailing the core tenets of the AP program that have been in place for decades.

"The following principles are designed to ensure that teachers' expertise is respected, required course content is understood, and that students are academically challenged and free to make up their own minds," the email states.

According to the College Board website, AP “stands for clarity and transparency,” is “an unflinching encounter with evidence,” opposes censorship and indoctrination, and fosters “an open-minded approach to the histories and cultures of different peoples.”

As lawmakers in Arizona and across the country push to ban critical race theory in K-12 classrooms, some teachers say they worry about backlash to lessons on slavery, imperialism and other topics.

"I hear teachers not even wanting to teach, not even wanting to wade into any content, that would be considered controversial," Cockrell said. "Because of how the bills are worded, it's so ill-defined that I really feel like if this goes through, it's going to compromise even the bare basics of anything that is steeped in race or division."

Why AP classes are important

Following the reminder message from the College Board, Stand for Children Arizona sent a message to its supporters telling them to act to stop HCR 2001.

Stand for Children Arizona labels itself a "catalyst for education equity and racial justice." The organization works with families in Arizona's low-income communities and provides workshops on college and career readiness, scholarship opportunities, family literacy programs and more.

Executive director Rebecca Gau emphasized that decertifying AP classes is not just an inconvenience for students seeking college credit while in high school. For many low-income families, she said, the opportunity to take AP classes in high school can make or break a student's chance of finishing college.

"There are families for whom a semester's worth of college loans, or paying out of pocket, is a big deal," she said. 

AP classes can also provide extra flexibility.

Gau's son took several AP classes at his high school in Mesa and earned enough college credits to graduate a semester early. Instead, he used his final semester to complete a minor, something he would not have done if he didn't have his AP credits, his mother said.

AP classes also positively affect students' weighted GPA in many high schools, making it easier to get academic scholarships.

"You decertify any of those courses and automatically ... it is a really big deal for thousands of high school kids in Arizona," Gau said. "Why risk that for a political conversation based on semantics and, honestly, a misunderstanding of what the equity conversation actually is about in America?"

Many students in low-income families, despite being "smart, hard workers," Gau said, struggle to finish college because the cost is constantly increasing.

"That's what the equity conversation is about: why, systemically, is it so difficult for these kids, who aren't any less smart than my own son, but yet, it's so much harder for them to finish college?" she said.

Republic reporter Yana Kunichoff contributed to this article.

Reach the reporter at endia.fontanez@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EndiaRain.