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What’s Wrong With AP for All? Part 2

In his latest post to Class Struggle Jay Mathews responds to the Fordham survey of 1024 AP teachers released last week. It’s no surprise that he views the results differently than I did.

Basically he uses the column to restate his belief that large numbers of high school students, if not most, should be encouraged to enroll in AP classes. The more the better.

Mathews also finds support in the survey for that position despite the fact that a majority of AP teachers said “Only students who can handle the material should take AP courses” and that “it would improve their AP programs if they did more screening to make sure students were ready”.balloons.jpg

In a comment to my take on the Fordham survey, he took exception to the idea that pushing students into classes for which they had little or no interest might be detrimental to both them and the students who did choose to be there.

It seems to me anything that gets them into an AP or IB course should be applauded. Once they are there, a great teacher can introduce them to the intellectual thrills, but to expect 16 year old Americans to be acting like Socrates’ students, burning with a desire for learning, is just naive. Indeed, having reached the ripe age of 64, I don’t recall me or my friends actively seeking intellectual sustenance at any stage of our lives.

He also had something to say about my view that the extreme emphasis on AP classes further locks our educational system into the idea that all students should go to college, offering them no choice in their path after graduation.

Oh, and on the why does everybody have to go to college issue, everybody doesn’t. But I don’t think either of us want to leave the decision as to what they are going to do after high school up to 15 year olds who are two or three years away from graduating, and don’t really know themselves, or the choices ahead of them very well.

Certainly Mathews is right that we shouldn’t leave decisions like attempting college-level work or whether to attend college entirely to 15 year olds.

However, leaving students completely out of the process of deciding how to use their talents and passions is both wrong and detrimental to their futures.

We should be offering high school students more educational options, not fewer, and not assume that the only way to enrich their learning is by way of the narrow, university-focused program created by the College Board.


  1. Kyle Stevens

    I agree with your skeptical view of the AP program and have issues with Mr. Mathews reporting of this program. In theory, the idea of college prep programs such as AP and those that offer reduced cost in earning college credit to students is great. Challenging students who want advanced courses is great. Offering students a chance to fullfill general college requirements at a much reduced cost, price of the exam versus cost of similar college course, is even better. However, with the national focus on high school rankings I feel that those two principles have been lost.

    I agree that it seems as many schools spend great resources focusing on improving AP programs. This in itself is good for the overall quality of education at these schools. In my courses I often use the skills and strategies tough in AP workshops for all my courses and find it benefits both AP and non-AP students. Unfortunately I feel schools focus on these rankings take away from the quality of the programs. That is because the recognized rankings focuses on the number of courses offered and the number of students taking the exam. This means the school are in an arm race for numbers, not quality of instruction. One of the best high schools in the country the past few years has been the Talented and Gifted Magnet here in Dallas. While I am familiar with some of faculty and administration at this school and agree that they do a great job, the formula used by Newsweek and created by Mr. Mathews is fundamentally flawed. It only counts the number of test divided by the number of students. This is something a school can easily manipulate with no improvement on instruction.

    I also have issue with the motivation of students and Mr. Mathews comment on “so what” as to why students are taking these courses. With the rise of competition in class rank it seems to me that many students take these courses because of bonus GPA points. While this is the practice of many schools today, I feel that this takes away from the intent of the learning. If a student wants to take the courses because of the challenge or the desire for college credit that should be the reward in itself. This is how is was for my AP experience. But I understand that school today use this incentive as part of the arms race in national rankings.

    Additionally, I have issues with Mr. Mathews’ reporting in general. I have read his column of and on for several years. I do not feel that he earns much credibility because his writing seems too much as if he is employed by the College Board. He fails to demonstrate neutrality as every article he writes appears to be a revision of a single pro-AP article written several year ago.

    Nice posting and I look forward to the conversation.



  2. NYC Educator

    Mr. Matthews may indeed be employed by the College Board, but it appears to be a part-time gig, as most of the time he seems to work for KIPP.

  3. Tim

    In Mathews’ defense, I am very sure he is employed full time by the Washington Post. While he is very supportive of the work done by the College Board and KIPP, I’ve never seen any evidence he has received payments from them.

    I may disagree with his views on the value of AP classes and KIPP schools (and do quite frequently :-) but I will also defend his right express those opinions. Frankly, I’m actually pleased that the Post commits so many resources (at least three writers including Mathews contribute regularly to the paper, Newsweek, and the national syndicate) to writing about education issues.

  4. Jay Mathews

    I love this blog, and this discussion. It gets right to the root of many issues, and of course I enjoy talking about myself. My support of certain programs such as AP and KIPP, and the negative reaction that it sometimes gets, suggesting I am in someone’s pocket, exposes what I think is a flaw in the way some Americans perceive journalism. In essence, if we journalists are attacking something, anything, then these folks say we are doing our jobs. But if we conclude after years of reporting and writing, as I have, that programs like AP and KIPP are good for the country, and should be supported, then we are shills and should be hooted out of the trade. Negative journalism is good. Positive journalism is bad. Does that make sense to you?
    When I decided a couple of decades ago I wanted to spend the rest of my life finding and celebrating the best teachers and schools in the country, and help readers through positive, rather than negative, examples, I realized I was going against a bias in some quarters. But I think the mail I have gotten from readers has mostly supported my decision, because most readers are not as knowledgeable of journalistic culture as posters Kyle Stevens and NYC Educator. I hope they will rethink their views, and be assured that I have been in this business for 40 years and so have been VERY careful not to take any money from programs I have praised. I paid for my KIPP book tour mostly myself, with a few contributions from the publisher, which meant some very seedy hotels, and other inconveniences, but I know I have to make clear that nobody is buying my opinions.
    And on a more educational issue, the astute blogger and posters have not addressed above what I have often cited as the most powerful argument for preparing all high schoolers for college, that being the studies showing that they need the same skills to get good jobs or trade school places if they decide, when they graduate, that they don’t want to go to college. Also, the notion that a high school could game the Challenge Index system and shove students into a lot of poorly taught AP classes in order to look good on the list ignores some truths of high school and local media dynamics. This can’t happen, at least not for very long, because powerful stakeholders would be up in arms. Students would object as would teachers and parents, and the press would pounce. We have had in the Jacksonville paper this month a good story on increases in AP participation in their schools, and whether the courses are preparing thosse students well. The only objection I had to the story is that it failed to point out that it could not have done such a story on the quality of courses if the schools were NOT using AP, because there would be no independent AP exams to expose poor teaching in the first place.

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