An embarrassing week for Arkansas education leadership

Explanations for removal of AP African American Studies course mislead and befuddle

August 20, 2023 7:30 am
Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva (left) listens as Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders outlines her education initiative on Feb.8, 2023, at the state Capitol. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva (left) listens as Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders outlines her education initiative on Feb.8, 2023, at the state Capitol. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

The Arkansas Department of Education embarrassed itself and the state last week with its handling of what should be known as the African American Studies fiasco.

First, the ADE botched the delisting of the Advanced Placement class from courses qualifying for graduation credit. Botched because the department didn’t alert teachers to the course’s removal until the Friday before most schools were to start. (In fact, classes at one affected school had already been in session for a week.) Botched because the department called teachers directly instead of communicating with superintendents or principals, which resulted in confusion, anger and not a little consternation. 

Then, after a weekend of silence, the department bungled, flubbed and fumbled a series of often contradictory explanations about why officials took the action. They did so through written and verbal communication that could be readily refuted or debunked. 

In an emailed statement to media on Monday, ADE spokesperson Kim Mundell said this:


“The department encourages the teaching of all American history and supports rigorous courses not based on opinions or indoctrination.”


The statement provided some additional background, but let’s start with the insinuation that AP African American Studies is not “rigorous,” is “based on opinions” and somehow counts as “indoctrination.”

First, it’s a misuse of the concept of academic rigor to suggest that the AP course lacks rigor. “Rigor” is one of those words that gets abused by people who want the cloak of respectability and patina of scientific strenuousness to apply to, shall we say, less than rigorous work.

College planning tool offers this note about rigor and AP classes to high school students preparing themselves for college:


“AP classes are perhaps the most well-known source of rigor. AP takes the material and requirements up a few notches from the mandatory core classes. With students learning more, producing research-based projects, reading more in-depth, and taking harder tests, it is a shining example of academic rigor.”


Of course, the real point of the ADE statement was to insinuate that the AP African American Studies course is “based on opinions and indoctrination.”


This is nothing new. Back in January, the Education Department questioned the nonprofit organization that developed the AP course in an effort to determine whether the course violated Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ executive order prohibiting “indoctrination and critical race theory in schools.”

Teachers, students voice support for AP African American Studies course

Still, throughout the sustained public backlash over the decision to delist the AP course, not once did the department or Education Secretary Jacob Oliva point to specific areas of the course framework that are based on opinions or promoting indoctrination.

It’s not as if the African American Studies course framework isn’t available. You can find the entire framework here.

But Oliva and the ADE didn’t stop with the “opinions and indoctrination” mantra to justify their decision. In a call to Advocate Senior Reporter Antoinette Grajeda on Monday, Oliva also made a big deal about the course being a “pilot” and not a “course.” 

Yes, the course is being piloted by the College Board, which develops AP courses with contributions from many scholars and subject matter teachers over a span of years. It tested the African American Studies course in 60 schools last year, including two in Arkansas — after which everyone involved discussed what worked and what didn’t, then tweaked the framework to reflect those lessons.

That’s what happened when the College Board released a revised framework this spring that is being used this school year. It also expanded its availability to at least 700 more schools in 40 states, including six in Arkansas.

So, yes, the course is being piloted again this year before being offered to all schools nationwide in the 2024-25 school year, but it’s still a course with clearly defined objectives and standards, and there’s an end-of-course exam.

Will it undergo more revisions? Possibly, even likely. But so do many other courses, advanced placement or core curriculum, after they’re adopted. Things change because of experience or newly developed knowledge.

About that exam: students will be able to take an end-of-course exam they can use to seek college credit at universities that accept it. The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville is one of the more than 200 colleges committed to offering credit to students who score well on the exam.

Yet, the ADE’s Monday statement wrung its hands over whether the course would “articulate into college credit.” 

In his interview with the Advocate, Oliva also talked about a required audit teachers must undergo to teach an AP course, indicating his belief that teachers of African American Studies had not done so. Au contraire, several teachers told the Arkansas Times, and the College Board confirmed that the audits had been conducted. How else would teachers at six Arkansas schools be qualified to teach the course?

When the Advocate asked Wednesday if, maybe, Oliva might have been referring to a state audit, separate from the College Board’s audit, Grajeda got this response:


“Until it’s determined whether it violates state law and teaches or trains teachers in CRT and indoctrination, the state will not move forward. The department encourages the teaching of all American history and supports rigorous courses not based on opinions or indoctrination.”


Not only is that not responsive, it’s just a rehash of Monday’s allegations and insinuations.

The reference to possible violation of state law is an unsubtle threat to educators not to run afoul of Section 16 of the LEARNS Act, Sanders’ wide-ranging education overhaul legislation. The section codified the governor’s January executive order prohibiting “indoctrination” and “critical race theory.”

Again, show us where and how the African American Studies course violates this brazen attempt to curb free speech and freedom of thought.

On Friday, the Education Department provided examples of “indoctrination” and “CRT” that officials have taken steps to halt or uproot in a few schools. None of the examples involved the AP course that has stirred so much anxiety and anger. But they do show the thought police at work.

And if you really have teachers’ backs, why threaten them with criminal prosecution for doing their jobs?

Thank goodness the six Arkansas schools that were lined up to teach the AP course this school year are defiantly proceeding with it, offering students local credit and trying to come up with a way to pay the cost for them to take the exam.

Of course, what this is really about is the governor’s continued effort to keep her name at the top of the list of politicians who pander to the extreme wing of the Republican party.

In an appearance on Fox News on Thursday, Sanders responded to NAACP criticism of the state’s African American Studies maneuver by saying:


“…we cannot perpetuate a lie to our students and push this propaganda leftist agenda, teaching our kids to hate America and hate one another. It’s one of the reasons that we put into law banning things like indoctrination and CRT [critical race theory].”


This is truly tiresome. In January, the Little Rock Central High teacher who taught AP African American Studies last year said the course didn’t violate any of Sanders’ prohibitions “by any stretch of the imagination.”

Studying the history and diversity of the African diaspora, slavery in the United States or the Civil Rights Movement does not translate into a hatred of America or of one another. My African American History course in college illuminated voices and events that had been hidden from me, enriching my knowledge and appreciation of our shared heritage.

The goals of the AP African American Studies course envision such enrichment, as well as the development of “historical, literary, visual and data analysis skills.”

Could it be that the Sanders administration is just more interested in following Florida’s path regarding the AP course? Florida banned the course after Gov. Ron DeSantis jumped on the “indoctrination” bandwagon to whip up support from former President Donald Trump’s hysterical base.

If what Sanders and Oliva really want is to do the full-DeSantis, then they should own up and quit trying to use bureaucracy and double-speak as shields. 

Unfortunately, I don’t think they’ll quit embarrassing Arkansans.


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Sonny Albarado
Sonny Albarado

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. He retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2020 after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years and returned to professional journalism in 2022 to lead the Arkansas Advocate. He is a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and a current member of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.