The AP Love Affair

Exam

You would be hard pressed to find a bigger cheerleader for Advanced Placement than Jay Mathews. Except possibly for the people at The College Board who run the extremely profitable program.1

For anyone who has not read the Post regularly over the past couple of decades, Mathews is well-known around here for writing full-throated, uncritical columns championing the AP program. Last month alone, three of his five columns centered on that topic.

The fall Education Edition of the Post Sunday Magazine published in October also featured an eight-page spread by Mathews that was ostensibly a profile of the director of the AP program. It was a sloppy wet kiss that a casual reader might have mistaken as nothing more than an “advertorial” paid for by the College Board, mixed in with the other ads for private schools, tutoring services, and military boarding academies.

And, of course, Mathews also is responsible for the farce known as the Challenge Index, an annual ranking that is embraced by schools and news media as a benchmark of high school quality. A measure that is based solely on the number of AP tests taken.2

In all of this promotional work (including at least three related books), Mathews rarely does much to address critics of the AP program. Mostly it consists of setting up very flimsy straw men and quickly knocking them down with a very dismissive attitude. Anyone who doesn’t agree that AP should be the foundation of a high school academic program is misguided at best.

Toward the end of the Sunday Magazine article, he mentions in one paragraph two rather prominent critics of the AP program, and then allows the subject of his piece to dismiss them with a couple of quotes containing no real rebuttal.

One of those critics is the 2009 documentary “Race to Nowhere”. In the film, produces look at how students are under increasing pressure to “succeed” in school, including by being pushed into taking more AP classes.

The other is a 2012 article from The Atlantic with the provocative title “AP Classes Are a Scam”.

Although I wouldn’t go so far to call the program a scam, the author, a former government professor at Boston College, makes some excellent points that deserve to be part of the debate. His last bullet point is one of my favorites.

To me, the most serious count against Advanced Placement courses is that the AP curriculum leads to rigid stultification — a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry. The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially. In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.

Which relates directly to some of my primary criticisms of the AP program, and especially the huge emphasis the classes receive in most high schools in this area.

For one, the whole AP program drives an assumption that the goal of every student should be attending a four-year college. Indeed, the entire curriculum is dictated by university officials who benefit from the stream of new customers. Too often, kids are given the impression that anything other than a brand name college represents failure.

Looking at the bigger picture, the AP structure reinforces the idea that a pure academic approach is the only way to understand any subject. That subjects can only be studied within their silo, a segmented approach to learning that was already an entrenched attitude in most of the high schools I’ve worked with over the years and now extending down into the lower grades.

That intellectual curiosity the professor spoke of is difficult, if not impossible, in a rigidly designed curriculum that leaves little room for exploration outside of the silo.

Anyway, after all that ranting, I wouldn’t advocate for high schools to drop AP classes entirely (as some schools are doing). I’ve both taken and taught AP courses, as well as spending a few summers scoring them and there is some value in the concept (if not the current execution).

Schools should be providing students with the option to participate. With the emphasis on option.

We need to help students understand and explore ALL their options during their time in K12 classrooms. Structuring high school entirely around a college-level program, which Jay Mathews appears to be pushing with his AP love affair, slams the door shut to those choices.


Image: Exam by Alberto G. Posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. They also own the equally profitable, and questionable, SAT and other related testing programs. You can find more data on the finances of the College Board and other “non-profit” testing groups at Americans for Educational Testing Reform.

2. If you want to torture yourself with it, I’ve written far too much about that crap in this space.

Finding the Tall Poppies

In a previous post I explained my process for keeping up with what’s going on the in world without turning on TV news. It’s pretty simple, very personal, and definitely not for everyone.

Recently I got a little reinforcement for my approach from a “futurist” whose approach for reading less news and being better informed was profiled in a Quartz article.

I disagree with some of his ideas – like getting off social media and “going dark” for periods of time. And I’ve never been comfortable in striking up conversations with random strangers.

But here are a few of his ideas I can completely endorse.

1. Practice selective ignorance

Trying to keep up with everything happening is a great recipe for frustration. So concentrate on finding better information on fewer but important topics.

3. Find the “tall poppies”
The futurist advises that each of us cultivate a network of curious and remarkable people who are hungry for interesting information and can guide our thinking. Such remarkable characters are called “tall poppies” in some companies, and Watson believes collecting these human blooms drives success.

Love that term “tall poppies”. For me, I also want poppies in my network who challenge my thinking in a constructive way.

5. Find sources you trust
Follow reliable, thoughtful, forward-looking publications and journalists online and let them do the heavy lifting, finding the most interesting info for you.

As I said in the earlier post, this is the core of my learning process. Creating reliable, thoughtful material takes hard work and time. You don’t get that from the talking heads channels.

Finally, he recommends travel, something more Americans need to do. Even if it’s visiting unfamiliar parts of your own country.


The image illustrates an article called Humans are Built to be Futurists on Futurist.com, a relatively new blog written by a futurist consultant.

Questioning Dubious Statistics

BBC More or Less Postcard

More or Less is a radio programme1 and podcast produced by the BBC World Service. The weekly show tries to make sense of the statistics presented in popular media (including the broadcasts of their own organisation1) in a way the average educated listener can understand.

As you might expect, a common thread in the podcast is whether the numbers reported in stories about studies, polls, and surveys are accurate and used appropriately. Spoiler alert: they often are not.

In a recent “bonus” podcast, the host offers a short debunking guide that would fit on a post card2 from his holiday at the shore. “How to question dubious statistics in just a few short steps.”

The whole thing is worth ten minutes of your time. If you teach math to high school students, you may even want to play it for them.

However, if you’re very short of time, the final step is, for me, the most important idea presented.

Number 6: Be Curious.

If a statistic is worth sharing, isn’t it worth understanding first?

Forget that nagging feeling that says you might just be spoiling a good story. Facts matter… but facts are also fascinating.

Treat them as puzzles. Treat surprising or counterintuitive claims, not with suspicion nor open arms but as mysteries to be solved. It’s fun.

And they close with this reminder.

Hopefully, with this postcard as your guide, you can step into a world of statistical adventure. Because it’s not just about winning arguments, it’s about being curious. The world, after all, is a fascinating place.

Whether you consider statistics “fun” or an “adventure”, the advice is solid. Be curious, some would say skeptical, about the numbers constantly being thrown at you in the news and your social media feed. Very often the story behind them is far more interesting, and different, from what has been presented in the headline.


If you listen to podcasts, More or Less is a good one to add to your playlist. I would have embedded a player here for the episode but the BBC doesn’t allow those of us outside the UK to do that kind of thing.

1. British show, British spelling. :)

2. For you kids out there, postcards were something your parents (maybe grandparents) sent from locations where they were on vacation in the days before Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the rest. It was a slower method of trying to impress their friends and relatives. Or maybe make them jealous.

A Modest Cure For The Overload of What Looks Like Information

I have a confession to make. I have not watched television news for more than a year. Not the so-called cable news stations, not regular network programs (morning or night), and not the local broadcasts.

Not only do I feel better, I think I’m also better informed than the people who binge on that stuff. Certainly better than anyone who watches Fox “news”.

It started just before the 2016 election when I took off for a week in Cuba that just happened to include election day. After learning of the results (the family we were staying with was very sympathetic), I decided I needed a new media diet, one that actually contained useful information, instead of hour after hour of “analysts” with little information and grids full of screaming heads.

My information stream may not work for you but it might give you some ideas on how to craft your own break from TV.

I start with suggested content from a few curated sources. Curation is that thing editors of television news, newspapers, and magazines used to do when they had 24 hours or more to consider events and decide which ones were worth including in their limited space. They didn’t always get it right, but trying to find instant value as you watch the stream is even worse.

My current favorite curators include Next Draft (by one person Dave Pell) and Quartz’ Daily Brief. Every weekday, both deliver a short collection of links to the stories they consider most important, along with some interesting stuff of less import. Plus very brief and sometimes humorous commentary.

I also receive a few weekly collections. From writer and edtech critic Audrey Watters (for a jolt of reality and much to consider), writer and artist Austin Kleon (for some inspiration), and UK-based educator Doug Belshaw (for education-related ideas).

None of these sources takes long to scan through, and I certainly don’t read the stories at the end of every single link. Very often the commentary is enough to get a general idea, especially when it comes to political news.

The articles and posts I do want to read usually get sent to Instapaper, an incredible service that aggregates anything I send to it and then delivers the information in a simplified format (re: no ads!) on any device I happen to be holding when time allows for some reading. It also offers some good highlighting and note taking features for when I want to rant about something in this space.

So, there it is. My simple, curated flow that takes less time and delivers more information than whatever passes for news on television. Chances are, if there is something worth viewing, one of these sources will link to the video anyway.

And what, you say, about “breaking news”?

I maintain that there’s no such thing. Most of what is given that label by the news channels is not of immediate importance and they often have very incomplete (often incorrect) details on what happened anyway. They offer even less on why it’s important. Besides, my Twitter feed will tell me if something big has happened in the world, and I can then choose to follow one of the tweeted links. More curation.

Anyway, that’s my system of keeping up with the news. As I said, it may not work for you. However, I would argue that most people would be far better informed with a buffer of time and thought between the actual event and the report of it. And a few good curators.


The graphic is by Jessica Hagy who has been posting these wonderfully insightful charts every weekday morning at her site This is Indexed for more than decade.

Day Old News

I have a confession to make.

I haven’t watched TV news since sometime back in September. Not the 24-hour talking heads channels, not the broadcast network’s evening summaries, not even 60 Minutes.

Pogo

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been keeping up with current events, in all their crappyness.

Instead of suffering through all the faux debates and BREAKING NEWS!!, I returned to only consuming day-old news.

Some of it comes from the old fashioned paper delivered to the door every morning. Some on websites that write about events from several days or even weeks ago. Maybe a video or two when appropriate.

Information sources like the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Guardian (UK) whose writers and editors go beyond just relating what happened but also why it matters.

Of course, that doesn’t mean those day-old sources are 100% accurate. Even with the extra time to develop some context for events, they sometimes make mistakes. Occasionally they create misleading, even stupid, headlines. Even so, day-old is a whole lot more accurate than up-to-the-minute.

I’m not sure I’m a better informed person for this change. And the extra effort required may not be for everyone.

But I feel better.1