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.

Challenging Clickbait

Last week the education RSS feed from the Washington Post was spammed with at least seven stories about Jay Mathews’ “challenge” index. Of course, they were all written by Mathews, who never misses an opportunity to tell you how he created this annual list of the “most challenging” high schools in the US.

So, these posts were not so much news as general clickbait.

In one of the articles, Mathews lets us know that this year is the 30 anniversary of the day this idea first popped into his head. Next year will be the 20th year since the Post and a then paper-based Newsweek magazine first published his list.

And I’ve been ranting about it in this space for almost three-quarters of that time. So I’m not sure what’s left to be said about this simplistic, headline-grabbing, mess. But I’ll say it anyway.

For those not familiar with the “challenge” index, here’s how it works: for each high school that will send him the stats,1 Mathews adds up the number of Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) tests taken and divides it by the number of seniors who graduate. Any school with a score of 1 or higher goes on the list.

What? You were expecting more? Maybe like incorporating the number of students who actually passed the exams? Or other factors that go into making a successful high school beyond pushing kids to take more tests?

Mathews seems to think that his index has improved American education by pushing more schools into adopting the AP curriculum (after complaints a few years back, he grudingly included the IB program). Which assumes that those very limited programs, largely dictated by colleges and framed around the idea that college is the only goal of learning in K12, are appropriate for every student. It also ties nicely into Mathews’ love of charter schools, especially KIPP, many of which tightly embrace AP.

Then there’s the general idea in the public mind that this is a ranked list of the “best” high schools. I know, both Mathews and the Post will say that’s not the intent. They simply want to spotlight the schools that are “working hardest to challenge students from all backgrounds”.

However, that’s not how it works in the real world. Since the start, schools, especially those in the upper levels of the list, local media, public school critics, and others have trumpeted this “challenge” index as THE list of top US high schools.

For the Post, that also helps sell newspapers and magazines, and in the internet age, generates clicks.

The Case Against STEM

Listen to an education reformer for more than five minutes and you’re likely to hear about STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math. Students, we are told, must study more of these topics, otherwise they will be unable to compete in the world and our economy is doomed. Or something like that.

However, a columnist for the Washington Post says that our obsession with STEM education is not only based on a “fundamental misreading of the facts”, it “puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future”.

Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want. America will not dominate the 21st century by making cheaper computer chips but instead by constantly reimagining how computers and other new technologies interact with human beings.

The current overemphasis on STEM is largely related to standardized tests, the core of most ed reform efforts. US students generally score behind many other countries on one particular international testing program, “trailing nations such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and Estonia”. STEM advocates declare that our students must be immersed in math and science in order to return the country to the top of the world heap, where we belong.

Except that the US has never been at the top of that particular world heap.

In truth, though, the United States has never done well on international tests, and they are not good predictors of our national success. Since 1964, when the first such exam was administered to 13-year-olds in 12 countries, America has lagged behind its peers, rarely rising above the middle of the pack and doing particularly poorly in science and math. And yet over these past five decades, that same laggard country has dominated the world of science, technology, research and innovation.

Then there’s the matter that even the companies and organizations considered most innovative want their employees to come with “skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM curriculum”.

Finally, the writer makes the case that a broad-based, liberal education – one that includes science and math in balance – would be better for both students and the country.

This doesn’t in any way detract from the need for training in technology, but it does suggest that as we work with computers, the most valuable skills will be the ones that are uniquely human, that computers cannot quite figure out – yet. And for those jobs, and that life, you could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition.

Collecting Dots

In a recent, very short post, Seth Godin observes that it’s very easy to collect dots but not so easy to make some meaning from them.  Of course, in his analogy dots are data, and learning to connect them in meaningful ways takes a lot of work.

Here in our overly-large school district (and elsewhere I’m sure), teachers are spending an increasing amount of class time collecting dots, but what happens after that?

Why then, do we spend so much time collecting dots instead? More facts, more tests, more need for data, even when we have no clue (and no practice) in doing anything with it.

And there’s one of the big problems with obsessing over data. It’s useless, and potentially harmful, unless someone has the ability to make meaning from it, skills that Godin says are “rare, prized and valuable”.

However, as with so many other parts of the American education system, we expect every teacher to either come to the table understanding how to connect dots, or learn it in their spare time.

Dots that represent some very complex and highly variable data, kids and their learning.

Slightly off topic: a good way to look at dots/data by the wonderful cartoonist (and visual philosopher) Hugh MacLeod.