Posted by: schooleducator | February 20, 2009

The AP Conundrum

It appears that public school districts and independent schools nationwide are poised to wrestle Advance Placement offerings to the ground. The recent opening of the floodgates in Port Washington, New York to allow and encourage more participation by the middling or average student in Advanced Placement courses counters the move by the Scarsdale school district to shelve AP courses in favor of Advanced Topics courses. The independent Fieldston School, ahead of the curve, dismantled its AP program a few years ago in favor of rigorous individual teacher designed courses. Other school districts labor whether to require all students who take the AP course to sit for the AP exam. With the dawn of a new day with the inauguration of President Obama, and the hopes of leaving behind no child left behind (which translated to no child pushed ahead), the country is ready to reconsider the conventional wisdom surrounding AP programs, entertain the wonderful concept of raising the bar for all students, and even meet the range of needs of high, low and middle level students.

Scarsdale congratulated itself for moving from Advanced Placement to Advanced Topics courses. Trevor Packer, a College Board Vice-President, in the New York Times, commented that the change looked “cosmetic.” The problem is not AP courses; instead, the challenge lies with teachers who are unwilling and untrained to veer from the suggested course outline provided by the College Board. The AP program challenges teachers to construct a comprehensive survey course, with depth of analysis and research into off the beaten track topics. There are plenty of opportunities to teach for depth and to avoid the poor pedagogy of a race to memorize information in time for the AP exam. Schools should instead ask what kind of teacher training they provide young teachers of AP courses, to help these young teachers avoid the pitfalls of teaching every piece of content suggested by the AP course outline. A large part of preparation for the AP exam is the emphasis on skill development – critical analysis of primary documents, sharp, cohesive and coherent analytical writing and carefully chosen language and understanding of context in a class discussion. Teaching a comprehensive course, with high content volume and deep skill development couple to provide a rich learning experience for students and teachers. The exam is icing on the cake and students feel pride in achieving high results on a national exam, matched only by the sense of success they feel in having taken a well-designed college-level course.

The question of gate-keeping the entry into AP courses conflicts with equal opportunity. All students are capable of taking AP courses. The real issue is that not all teachers are skilled at guiding students through the landscape of the year-long demands of learning the vast content covered in AP syllabi. The premise of no child left behind starts in the wrong place, the bottom. Teachers need to set the bar high and pull students up to the level AP courses demand. This is not easy to do, for sure, but school districts and schools are obligated to devote resources and training to ensure that teachers are properly equipped to frame the skills and content of an AP course for students of all levels. Modifying class schedules, to include extra instructional time, offering after school and weekend review sessions for students, and keeping class sizes reasonable so as to allow for effective feedback should form an integral part of every AP program. Also, having all students in a class working toward the same goal of preparing for a national exam increases motivation, sets a high standard for achievement and creates accountability for both students and teachers.

The AP program underscores what is important to preserve in education – academic rigor, sophisticated content, skill development, goal setting and the excitement of tackling a challenge. Upholding the value of AP programs also can help to unshackle the chains of no child left behind and free all schools to move ahead with empowered student learning and inspired classroom teaching.

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