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.

Wasted Space

Exam

There are many things I don’t understand about the writing of Jay Mathews, former chief education writer for the Washington Post and current weekly columnist. Mostly why the paper continues to waste valuable newsprint on his work.

His column from last Monday is a good example.

Mathews begins by condemning the decline in the number of states that require students to pass one or more standardized tests in order to graduate. He says this a “national movement led by educators, parents and legislators”, calling it a “breathtaking turnabout, but without much celebrating”. Because polls related to public perception of school quality have not changed in five years?

He continues by complaining about “creative programs to boost achievement” being used by some states. Mathews says, those efforts are “failing miserably”, according to a report by “45 experts (including many teachers) who peered deeply into the state plans required by the new law”.

After spending the first half of the piece trying to make the case that the lack of standardized testing is hurting schools and students (with his usual lack of evidence), Mathews actually writes a statement that makes sense.

The rash of standardized testing after the No Child Left Behind Act became law in the early 2000s did not raise achievement averages very much, but the Collaborative for Student Success study indicates that reducing exit tests is not likely to bring much improvement, either.

So, maybe the focus of Mathews column should have been on alternatives to standardized testing, which he admits don’t seem to make any difference.

Anyway, this mess ends with some additional odd and unsupported statements, including his usual plug for the Advance Placement program. Which, of course, is another standardized testing program, one run by colleges rather than states.

We love making schools more accountable. Then, we hate the idea. This new decline of exit tests will almost certainly be followed by another burst of outrage and a renewed campaign to raise achievement.

Fortunately, our schools are still attracting many energetic and creative teachers who want to make a difference. As always, that will be what saves us.

Does he understand that the excess of standardized testing has been driving “energetic and creative teachers” out of the classroom for a decade or more?

And why is this crap allowed to appear in a major national newspaper?


Image: Exam by Alberto G. on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Pay to Play

Speaking of the Post Magazine (as in the previous post), this week’s education edition also featured a profile of a local private school. A long, glowing story about an expensive institution for gifted students and their success with those kids.

On the previous page we find an expensive, nearly full page ad for the same school.

My wife, who works with arts organizations in the DC area, is always trying to get the Post to cover their activities. Often the groups also buy ads in the same section of the Post as the story. She calls it “pay to play”.

But I’m sure in this case, it’s just a coincidence.

Spray and Pray Technology

The cover story of today’s Washington Post magazine, one of their two or three times a year “education editions”, asks Do kids learn more when they trade in composition books for iPads?.

Of course, the writer doesn’t really address that question since this is more of a big picture story about the one-to-one programs of two local districts and about how a few teachers are using devices in their instruction.

But the article does manage to highlight several major problems that have come with adding technology to the “normal” classroom. First, is the fact that there is little research showing that computers improved student learning.

Research on technology’s impact on K-12 achievement is limited and mixed, partly because it’s difficult to isolate the role of technology from other things that occur in a classroom, says Elliot Soloway, a University of Michigan professor who studies technology use in schools.

Darryl Joyner, who helps lead Arlington’s technology initiative, says while there’s no “direct line” between test scores and digital devices or any other tool, research shows engagement is linked to performance.

So, like Mr. Joyner, many tech advocates look past the lack of evidence, that direct line, and go with the anecdotal observation that students are “excited to learn” to justify buying all the devices.

Or you have the “preparing students for the tech world” argument.

“These kids are going to leave school and enter a world where technology is ubiquitous,” says Cathy Stocker, a PTA leader in Bethesda. “Their ability to access that technology in school gets them ready for that world. I understand there needs to be balance. But to me the Chromebook is a powerful tool.”

Except most kids already live in that “world where technology is ubiquitous”. We just do very little to help teachers adjust their classroom practice to incorporate that world and to make good use of the power that comes from the devices and network connections.

“It’s a major movement,” says Ann Flynn, director of education technology for the National School Boards Association. What’s important, she and others say, is to adjust teaching methods to make learning deeper and more engaging. “If all you’re doing is automating the old practices … you didn’t change anything,” Flynn says.

Too many school systems buy big before thinking through how devices can be used to improve teaching and learning, says Leslie Wilson, chief executive of the One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps implement tech programs. Her organization urges schools to avoid “the spray and pray approach,” and to emphasize learning rather than devices, Wilson says.

The lesson activity examples described in this article reflect that automating old practices. They are little different from those that teachers were using twenty years ago and really don’t require technology. Substituting Google for the reference section of the library and doing poster projects on iPads instead of chart paper does not justify giving a computer to every student.

However, the biggest problem with this article is that it ignores the fact that districts in the DC area (including Fairfax County, the largest and my former employer) have been using the “spray and pray approach” for decades. Spending lots of money on new devices, software, and websites while changing little or nothing about what and how students learn.

Replacing standard desktop and laptop machines with Chromebooks and iPads is no different.

Dumb Headline

In their new education blog, Grade Point, the Washington Post reports on a study showing My smartphone is making me dumb. Actually, that headline is probably making their readers dumber.

Researchers gave college students their first smartphone and asked them “whether they thought the devices would help them learn”. Of course a large majority said yes.

But a year later, when they were asked the same questions in the past tense, the results were entirely different – the college students felt the phones had distracted them and hadn’t been helpful, after all.

So, of course, we blame the technology, instead of any number of other factors (start with this being their first smartphone) that don’t necessarily translate into provocative headlines.

Finally, tacked onto the end of the post, the writer did manage arrive at the far more accurate conclusion of research like this.

Just providing access to mobile technology wasn’t enough, they concluded; educators would need to offer more structure or guidance if they wanted phones to enhance students’ academic experience.

Teachers must learn how incorporate mobile devices into their practice before students can understand how to use them for their learning.

Not exactly link bait.