Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What are we teaching… and why? 1st up, AP classes

I decided to take a break, have lunch and read a few articles while I ate. From the NY Times feed I read the article called 'After the Jobs Dry Up, What Then?'

So much for a 15 minute respite from deep thinking.

It cast me back to one nagging question...

Is what we're offering preparing students for the times ahead?

This is hopefully a hot topic in every school.

I've spoken and written often about how some program and schedule structure changes can open up innovation in schools, most recently for EduCon in Philly.

How about some of the other routines we hang onto in secondary ed?

We know that pre-requisites for college entrance drives much practice in secondary schools.

Let's unpack a few that I routinely question...

Advanced Placement (AP)

Like many others, I've often wondered what the relevance of AP classes are to a kids future. Relevance beyond many college and university entrance requirements of 'proving yourself worthy to the challenge of rigor of post secondary education,' I mean.

That 'proving yourself worthy of rigor' factor is pretty subjective. Here's one take from Denise Pope, Senior Lecturer and Researcher of the effectiveness of AP classes at Stanford University from an article called 'Are AP Courses Worth the Effort":

"To the claim that they help students in college, it is true that students who take AP courses are more likely to succeed in college. But when you look deeper into the research, it's really hard to establish causation. It could just be that kids who take APs are kids who come from better high schools or high schools that better prepare them for college work, or they have better teachers or they're naturally more motivated. Very few studies use methods where they take these factors into account."

Many, many, many progressive and schools have dropped 'AP.' More are following. Some more traditional schools are just starting to as well.


I've debated with many who say the value of AP classes is the intense memorization involved, the rigor, and pressure. More form Denise Pope:

"Frankly, many high-achieving high school students are really stressed out. They have a lot to do between extracurricular activities and homework and also trying to get the sleep they need. They need to be prepared for what an AP course involves. The extra tests, extra homework, on top of an already demanding schedule, can be brutal. And a very low grade on your transcript from an AP course may hurt you more in the long run than not taking an AP in that subject at all."

I keep seeing that there's far too much emphasis put on AP courses and for questionable reasons. I do see that these courses often add to stress, fatigue, and is in many cases restricts kids from being involved in other sports, community service… and that friendship / family thing.

One AP class may be worthwhile with the right conditions.. which I'll talk about below. Two AP classes… you're setting yourself up for some pain. Many students, who feel that need to take these courses to prove to colleges that they are worthy take more than two AP classes.

I interviewed one student who graduated about their intense AP experience, taking three AP classes their senior year to "look good for college admissions."

"I took three AP classes. I knew that was a lot. I was stressed all the time and buried in work. I lost a lot time with family and friends I wished I could have back. I wish now I never did it. After all that work I was burned out and not ready to head off to college. I decided to take a full year off."

I've studied this at length over the years and interviewed many... AP teachers, folks who don't teach AP, parents, students, and college folks from admissions on through faculty to researchers. The only consensus I can find from those folks I've spoken to are "AP classes can have the most value if…"

  • the student has the right teacher
  • if the material is relevant to an interest they'll pursue later on
  • they are with friend or friends they can form meaningful, collaborative study groups

"they can teach discipline and time management."

Ok, I can live with that. That could beneficial with those conditions. But here's why I still struggle with that 'why' question: 

'Rigor' in an AP class is centered around scripted and fast-paced curriculums centered around memorization / retention and focused toward performance on a high stakes test.


What if a student directed all those AP hours into an exploration of potential careers? Capstone programs? Perhaps gaining many more hours of expertise in an interest they already have?

So, why are AP classes running at your school?

Parent pressure?

College pressure?

Always have been so we'll just continue?


Is it time to assess 'why' those classes are being emphasized?

Ok, lunch is over. Time to head off to other appointments.

I'll post more thoughts on other system questions over the next few days.


Links to the full 'What Are We Teaching and Why? series:

8. Start overhauling tired learning spaces
7. #educolor and literary choices
6. Positive ripples of student choice
5. Common roadblocks
4. Student pursuing their interests
3. The Other Math
2. Rethinking Math Requirements
1. AP Classes

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