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You can’t teach psychology without covering gender and sexuality, and you can’t teach history without covering racism

We cannot sit back and let politicians prevent our young people from learning the truth in their classrooms.

Students protesting after Florida education officials voted to ban classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in all public school grades.
Students protesting after Florida education officials voted to ban classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in all public school grades.
REUTERS/Octavio Jones

America has pulled back from the brink of denying science in education. About 30,000 students in Florida were set to lose out this fall because Advanced Placement psychology classes were “effectively banned” due to a state prohibition against discussing certain gender and sexuality topics in high schools; fortunately, the state education department reversed course at the last minute in a game of Public Relations Chicken.

The College Board, which administers the AP classes, had planned to remove the course, arguing that obeying the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law would weaken it.

We have to place facts, history and science at the heart of our education systems.

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The College Board was right to insist on maintaining its standards, and yet the cost to students could have been extremely high. AP Psychology is a popular course, and rigorous AP classes help prepare students for college and demonstrate their skills for college admissions.

As the leader of an organization for women’s political empowerment, I am keenly aware how this latest spat — on the heels of the Supreme Court’s recent affirmative action decision — could serve to shrink the pool of young women who get to college and thus deal another blow to the political talent pipeline.

The study of psychology is particularly important in this regard because it is a field led by women. I majored in psychology before forging a political career. Excluding tens of thousands of Florida students from this subject and opportunity could have stifled them.

The ins-and-outs of all this warrant explanation. Last year, Florida lawmakers outlawed instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity. The initial ban was on instruction through third grade; that’s the “Don’t Say Gay” law. This spring, they expanded the ban through 12th grade. (I took AP Psychology as a 16-year-old, in 10th grade, and it changed my life.)

The AP Psychology course has a unit that includes definitions of gender, sexuality, gender roles and stereotypes and discusses socialization factors. Dropping such instruction from the course would mean that AP Psychology wouldn’t be “AP,” the College Board said. It stood firm in defense of the unit.

Florida’s state board of education then accused the College Board of “playing games with Florida students.” But it’s the state board that was asking teachers to ignore a key part of basic psychology.

Eventually, Florida’s education commissioner backed down, writing a letter to school district superintendents saying that the state believed the AP Psychology course could be taught “in its entirety.”

It’s still unclear how that fits with the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. The College Board issued a statement responding to the state’s new guidance with a mixture of optimism and skepticism, noting: “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.”

My own AP Psychology class in Contra Costa County, California, paved the way for my career in which I encourage young women to run for office. I was one of the youngest students in the class, and we learned everything about human behavior.

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There should be nothing partisan about teaching young people the truth

I’m still connected with my AP Psychology teacher, Jacki Della Rosa Carron, and she remains one of my favorite humans. She shaped my entire understanding of how I wanted to live and work.

My high school, like so many public schools today, offered very few AP classes. Jackie’s class was special. She helped me understand how to channel anger and prompted me to ask questions like, “How do you impact the world at a larger scale?” Focusing on psychology and later pursuing my master’s in social work helped me kickstart my career, impact my community and teach young women how to do the same through political leadership.

Jackie also covered sexuality in the course. In conservative Contra Costa, I remember conversations about being gay. For many students this was their first opportunity to really think about gender and identity. This was controversial for some, but gay people are a part of American history and life, and California is where Harvey Milk did his activism.

You can’t teach psychology without covering gender and sexuality, and you can’t teach American history without covering racism.

The most infuriating thing about these latest attacks on education is that young women, especially young women of color, along with young queer and gay people, are the ones who are seeing themselves erased and further marginalized.

The timing couldn’t be worse; the mental health crisis among teen girls is very real.

The AP Psychology situation has created confusion and frustration for many students, teachers and parents. Some school districts decided to drop the course altogether. Others are still looking for alternative options or waiting for more guidance.

Meantime, we should commend the College Board for standing up for the integrity of the course. We should highlight the importance of psychology and AP classes. And we should continue to advocate for academic freedom and the teaching of facts.

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It is remarkable that to say so in America in 2023 is to risk sounding partisan. There should be nothing partisan about teaching young people the truth.

If a firestorm like this can erupt in Florida, it can catch light across the country. The stakes are too high for it to be ignored. We should learn valuable lessons from the risks exposed.

Sara Guillermo is chief executive of IGNITE, a young women’s political empowerment organization.


 This commentary originally appeared in The Hechinger Report.