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Wednesday, August 09, 2023

Florida schools drop AP Psychology after state says it violates the law

Florida Education Commissioner Manny Díaz Jr. told school leaders that lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity may not be taught in an Advanced Placement psychology course. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Ron DeSantis is incredibly bigoted and ignorant man.

Large school districts across Florida are dropping plans to offer Advanced Placement psychology, heeding a warning from state officials that the course’s discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity violates state law.

Eight of the 11 districts with the largest enrollments in the class are switching to alternate courses, and just one said it will stick with AP psychology. Two others are still deciding, officials said.

The state of Florida has encouraged schools to teach the course without objectionable material about sexual orientation and gender identity. But the College Board, which runs AP, says these topics are central to the study of psychology and cannot simply be excised. Last week, the College Board said the course was “effectively banned” and advised districts not to offer it.

Further complicating the matter, a day later, Florida’s education chief told districts that his agency believes the schools can offer the course “in its entirety” but also said it should be “in a manner that is age and developmentally appropriate.” The state has previously said teaching school-age students about sexual orientation and gender are inappropriate.

Faced with this standoff, many school districts are opting to change their course offerings, shifting plans just days before the start of classes.

In a statement, the Brevard County Schools said they were in a no-win situation, because the College Board made clear that any course that removed the objectionable material would not be certified as AP.

“In essence, if we don’t teach all of the content, our students will not receive AP credit. If we do teach all of the content, our instructors will violate the law. Therefore, we will not offer AP Psychology at any of our high schools this year,” the district said.

The popular class has been taught by Florida high schools for 30 years, with thousands of students in 562 schools set to take part this fall.

The conflict stems from Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed by opponents as the “don’t say gay” bill, which outlaws classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. In April, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Education Department expanded the prohibition to include all grades. Teachers who violate the ban could see their teaching licenses suspended or revoked.

The AP psychology course asks students to “describe how sex and gender influence socialization and other aspects of development.” The College Board said this element of the class had been present since the course launched in 1993. Florida schools have offered the class every year since then, an official said.

It’s just one in a string of curriculum and book battles raging across Florida as the state seeks to limit student exposure to certain lessons around race and gender.

This year, state officials rejected a pilot version of AP African American studies, declaring that it “lacks educational value.” DeSantis accused the course architects of promoting “a political agenda.” Last month, the governor — and GOP presidential contender — drew fire after Florida curriculum standardsdirected that students learn that enslaved people “developed skills” that “could be applied for their personal benefit.”

And this week, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Hillsborough County English teachers are being told to teach excerpts from some William Shakespeare plays instead of the full texts. A district spokeswoman said the decision was made to prepare students for state testing “while also taking new state laws into consideration.”

Last spring, nearly 28,000 Florida students took the AP psychology exam, an opportunity given to students who have taken the course to earn college credit. More than 60 percent of them came from 11 large school districts.

Washington Post queries to those 11 districts found that eight of them are removing AP Psychology from their high schools. Districts in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties said they would shift to a college-level psychology course offered by Cambridge International’s Advanced International Certificate of Education program. Seminole County will move students to an AP Seminar course, which will emphasize the study of psychology. Duval, Orange and Brevard counties said they would replace AP psychology with an alternative, such as the Cambridge course or the AP Seminar. And Palm Beach County said the AP class would be removed but did not specify whether another would take its place.

Officials at Cambridge International previously said their psychology course already allows schools and districts to choose topics within a larger framework.

Officials at two large school districts — Miami-Dade and Broward counties — said they had not yet made a decision.

Just one of the 11 districts — St. Johns County Public Schools — said it would stick with its plan to offer AP psychology. A spokeswoman said the district had received calls from parents expressing “concern and disappointment” with the prospect of canceling the class.

Superintendent Tim Forson wrote to school leaders on Friday encouraging them to offer the class and said the administration would work with teachers “to ensure all standards are taught within the law.”

“I am sorry for the late notice but believe we are in the right place, finally,” he said.

He said he was encouraged by a message on Friday from Florida Education Commissioner Manny Díaz Jr. But the same message from Díaz only confused others.

On Friday, after meeting with superintendents, Diaz wrote them to say he was not banning or even discouraging schools from offering the AP psychology course. He had told them the same thing a day earlier, while also cautioning against violating state law.

In his Friday letter, he wrote that “the Department believes that AP Psychology can be taught in its entirety in a manner that is age and developmentally appropriate.” He suggested it was the College Board that would be responsible if the course was unavailable.

The College Board seized on the “in its entirety” portion of the statement and declared that it represented “new guidance.” The organization said, “We hope now that Florida teachers will be able to teach the full course, including content on gender and sexual orientation, without fear of punishment in the upcoming school year.”

But others in Florida were not persuaded that the state had backtracked. The Florida Education Association, which represents teachers, wrote Díaz asking him to state “clearly and unambiguously” that nothing in the course violates state law or rules. The Florida PTA also asked the department to clarify its view.

A spokeswoman for the state Education Department did not reply to emails or calls beginning Friday seeking clarification.

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