Wednesday, December 5, 2012

AP Classes Are A Scam?

Recently The Atlantic published a short piece titled, AP Classes Are a Scam.  As an Advanced Placement teacher and test reader myself I had to bite at the provocative title.  As one might expect, there’s been some follow-up to the initial article, specifically an NPR piece and a response from the College Board defending the effectiveness of the programs with all sorts of data.

Let’s first acknowledge a few things.  The title is to get your attention.  Tierney, the author himself, admits this.  As readers we ought to be compelled to read further.  He uses some pretty strong language and makes some broad accusations that data likely cannot support.  His criticisms are not the sort that have data-driven support.  

So let’s just engage the ideas.  In his NPR interview Tierney calls AP classes a sacred cow.  I think he has a point.  That’s precisely why such an article and title get such attention.  How dare he criticize AP classes?  We need to get over that and take a look at his ideas.  We need to always be engaged in dialogue.  That is what will make us better – not throwing away someone’s ideas because we don’t like the hyperbole used to rope us in.  

First, are AP classes equivalent to introductory college courses?  There are all sorts of viewpoints on this.  The one thing I know, based on my experience, is that the quality of instruction tailored to students’ needs is far superior in the average AP course relative to the same level course in college.  How many introductory psychology, history surveys or politics classes are taught in collegiate lecture halls with 500 students?  At the high school, this won’t happen.  The students will be known by name and often taught according to their needs, even in an AP class.  There will be instruction on how to be successful.  Often in college it is simply sink or swim.  The academic expectations may be greater in college, but the high school course will also teach you how to be successful.  There will likely be more primary sources, readings, and more complex writing at the college level, but in high school you will be taught how to do all this.

The monetary argument for taking AP classes may not hold in a direct way.  Many competitive schools are not accepting AP credit any more.  But using AP courses as a “test-out” of basic-level courses saves time and money.  On the other hand, I appreciate Tierney’s point suggesting the advantage of taking your college department’s courses from the beginning.  They help build rapport with faculty and a chance to acclimate to the department’s expectations.  Don’t be so eager to skip out of college experiences.  

True, more students are taking the exams than ever.  However, I need to see evidence that failure rates are up.  Furthermore, it is contradictory to my educational philosophy to suggest that some kids don’t belong in an AP class.  If they want to be and are willing to do the work, then it is my job to teach them how to be successful.  The College Board endorses an open door policy for this reason.  We are TEACHERS.  It is our job to TEACH.  Don’t teach down…lift up!

Minority students are being left out.  There are opportunity costs to schools offering specialized and wide-ranging opportunities.  Agreed.  We all need to do a better job getting top notch resources into all our schools and that includes teachers and curricula. Then we need to make them available to all students.  Then we need to support all students in reaching the potential – and then some.   Again….lift up!

Stultification of the curriculum?  I cannot argue that we don’t have vast amounts of material to cover in limited time and some very specific essay-writing skills that can be specific to AP exam success.  Yes, there’s too much material to cover too quickly and too superficially.  The spectre of the test disallows the teachable moment and further, deeper exploration.  However, changes are afoot in the name of greater depth and critical thinking and away from rote memorization and coverage at the speed of light.

Finally, Tierney is right, we don’t know what the magic bullet is for admission to the top, most competitive schools (not necessarily the same thing, nor the same for all students).  We have too many students and families trying the shot gun approach.  We need to provide everyone better guidance and encourage greater depth, less competition, more authentic learning and thought.  But this is possible in the realm of the AP courses, particularly with the changes coming.    

The bottom line for me?  Let's have an open and continuous dialogue about how to improve and maximize education and opportunity for all students.    

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