20 Ways AP is Bad — Not!
Bruce G. Hammond, a well-regarded educator and former Advanced Placement teacher, is at it again. His organization, Excellence Without AP, has changed its name to the Independent Curriculum Group (ICG). Hammond, based in Charlottesville, is the executive director. The group’s new Web site is www.independentcurriculum.org.
I have written before about what I consider his short-sighted opposition to AP, the nation’s largest program of college-level courses and tests for high school students. I thought the group’s name change was a good sign. I hoped that Hammond had revised a point of view that alienated many AP teachers. I thought he was going to emphasize henceforth his best and most positive point, that good teachers should be able to challenge their students in any way that works best for them, AP or not.
But the announcement of the name change did not go in that direction. Instead, Hammond unveiled a document titled “Twenty of the most fundamental reasons to rethink AP.”
I have shared the document with AP teachers I know. They had the same reaction I did: The list betrays an insufferably elitist view of American education. This is not entirely surprising since almost all of the 70-or-so institutions listed on the ICG Web site are small, private schools that cater to affluent families, such as Beaver Country Day in Massachusetts, Putney in Vermont, Fieldston in New York and Crossroads in California. The public schools that I write about most frequently, those that use AP and International Baccalaureate courses and tests to challenge average and below-average students, many of them from low-income minority families, appear to be unfamiliar to the Independent Curriculum Group.
It is not fair, of course, to skewer Hammond’s group without letting it have its say. Here are its 20 reasons to rethink AP, copied off its Web site. In italics, you will see comments from me or others who disagree.
1. AP Prevents Deep Learning
With so many topics to cover for the exam, there is little time to linger on in-depth activities. Over and over again, you’ll read about how ICG schools prefer more focused courses that cover fewer topics in greater depth. “With AP, you’re always having to throw away interesting stuff,” said Kwesi Koomson of Westtown School. “We have more thinking now and more discussion, instead of lecturing and having to get through the material.”
Eric Mulfinger, AP coordinator for the Marshall Fundamental Secondary School in Pasadena, Calif., called this comment “inane.” He said “in any course at any level, you have to throw away interesting stuff because you have to get through SOME material. No teacher can do everything he or she wants.”
2. AP Diminishes Student-Centered Learning
AP U.S. History covers the colonial period to the present. AP Biology includes the same 12 labs every year. In any coverage course, the teacher must stick to an agenda in order to keep the class on schedule. Student-centered activities can be shoehorned into the syllabus, but only in carefully limited doses. Interactivity is a hallmark of ICG classrooms, where student interaction often determines the direction of a course. “The best teachers are the ones who get students talking to students,” said Kirk Smothers of Calhoun School.
“The AP classroom that the ICG describes doesn’t resemble mine in the least,” said Frazier O’Leary, who teaches AP English at Cardozo High School in the District. “One day a week, they are working on the book which they will publish with help from Capitol Letters [a nonprofit group that promotes student writing] at the end of the school year. My students have already met and interacted with Amiri Baraka, Colby Buzzell, and Cynthia Ozick this year.”
3. AP Prevents Learning Outside the Classroom
Opportunities for learning abound outside the walls of school, but only the material in textbooks ever appears on a standardized test. To prepare for a test, students must turn away from what is happening around them in the community and the wider world. At ICG schools, many advanced courses are built to carry students beyond the walls of the school. One example is a class on the Civil Rights Movement at Carolina Friends School, which traveled to Selma and made an oral history video out of the memories of 12 senior citizens from the area.
This argument ignores the fact that what makes AP and IB different from other standardized tests is that students have to write long essays, or other kinds of free responses, showing their depth of understanding. Outside experiences can make those essays much better. O’Leary’s students, for instance, will be performing scenes from “Henry IV, Part I,” soon at the Folger Shakespeare Festival. Personally experiencing how Elizabethan drama is mounted on stage can do much for one’s answer to an AP English Literature question.
4. AP Limits Spontaneity
What if the world’s financial system came near to collapse? At Beaver Country Day School, a hands-on course in Biotech Investing quickly became a seminar on derivatives and mortgage-backed securities. At St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School, the World History course stopped in its tracks for a two-week examination of the global economic collapse. At ICG schools, flexibility is a watch word. “Our teachers have a lot more ability to be spontaneous now,” said David Olds of Crossroads School, which dropped AP in 2005. “More real stuff is happening, and the kids are loving it.”
This is just good teaching, which AP educators do all the time. Of course, some of them don’t, just as some of the teachers at the ICG schools don’t teach well. I have yet to find any school anywhere without some subpar teachers, just as every newspaper has some underperforming reporters.
5. AP Marginalizes Student Interests
AP classes can take occasional detours, but the bottom line is always to get back to the material to be covered on the exam. ICG schools build their advanced courses around engaging themes, as do colleges, and have the flexibility to respond to student interests. “We can get sidetracked and go off on cool biology tangents,” said a student at Westtown School about her advanced biology class, which replaced AP. “We also talk about things that are happening in the world now.” In many cases, students have input in designing the courses, as in the Senior Seminar at Carolina Friends School, where students finishing the course plan the major themes for study in the following year.
Here the snob appeal gets particularly thick. The AP teachers I know applaud schools that have students so well prepared, so strongly supported by college-educated parents and so sure of admission to good colleges that they don’t really need to show they can handle a college-level exam. At least 80 percent of high school students are not so blessed. Even without AP, former Marshall Fundamental AP teacher Roy Sunada said, public schools have to prepare their students for standardized tests, under the No Child Left Behind law. So why not have a much more challenging AP or IB exam that adds value to their classes? Among the most rewarding aspects of teaching AP, Sunada said, was “to witness high level academic skill building, development of self-confidence [especially with students whose parents had only elementary school education] to tackle academic rigor and determination to meet standards despite having multiple strikes against them.”
6. AP Prepares Students for Yesterday
What are the crucial issues facing today’s world? To get an idea, survey the titles of advanced courses at ICG schools, which include: “The Middle East Cauldron: Historical Perspectives” (Putney School), “Genetics” (The Urban School of San Francisco), “Environmental Politics” (Calhoun School), and “East Meets West: Viewing the Other in Art, Literature, and Politics” (Fieldston School). As one student said about “Hiroshima to 9/11” at Westtown School, “It’s a course about our world right now. We’re able to have a dialogue about the events we’re living in.” On AP exams, only yesterday’s major issues appear.
Again, the exam questions can only mention events that have occurred by the time the exam writers do their work. But the students’ answers on those exams can be rich with more current examples. The best AP teachers, like the best teachers anywhere, know that and keep their lessons up to date.
7. AP Measures Only One Kind of Intelligence
The CEO of the Educational Testing Service told Bloomberg News that he “did very poorly” on the SAT. The head of College Board told the same reporters that he “did terrible on these kinds of tests.” But these men clearly have many abilities. ICG schools seek to eliminate the disconnect between success in school and success in real life. Read about The White Mountain School’s innovative Learning Outcomes that give students a holistic sense of themselves as learners and people.
Last time I checked my multiple intelligences list, English literature and calculus tests, to take just two AP examples, measured different intelligences. Whoever wrote this also forgot there are AP exams in music theory, studio art and foreign language, which tap into different parts of the brain.
8. AP Diminishes Interdisciplinary Learning
By definition, AP courses cover material within one subject, such as English, history or language. There is virtually no latitude for teachers in different disciplines to work together, and no ability to teach truly interdisciplinary courses. A sample of interdisciplinary electives at ICG Schools includes “American History Through Film,” (Sandia Preparatory School), “Religion and Social Change” (Westtown School), and “Classical Greek Drama” (St. Andrews-Sewanee School).
This is written by somebody who doesn’t get around much. The examples of AP teachers eagerly crossing disciplines are numerous. AP history and English teachers are particularly fond of putting their courses together.
9. AP Marginalizes Project-Based Learning
AP courses end in an exam. Most advanced courses at ICG schools emphasize projects. While tests merely require a review of work already done, projects require students to apply knowledge in a new context toward a meaningful product. Check out how Beaver Country Day School uses projects to promote deeper learning, and read about Project Week at Putney School or Senior Projects at the Academy at Charlemont.
Again, project-rich AP courses are common. I have run into several AP U.S. history courses that stop everything for a few weeks to simulate the Constitutional Convention. Many AP science teachers find projects very helpful. Also, anyone who says “tests merely require a review of work already done” has never taken, or even read, an AP or IB test.
10. AP Crowds Out Interesting Courses
Most students take AP courses because they will “look good.” Often, that means bypassing other courses that may be more appealing but do not carry the AP label. Read about the student at Fieldston School who wrote an English paper about how students took less interesting courses because they carried the AP label. This student urged Fieldston to drop AP, and three years later, it did.
It’s simple. If the course, AP or otherwise, is imaginatively taught, students will be drawn to it.
11. AP Creates School Stress
In the real world, people work hard to excel in a profession of interest to them. In most schools, students rarely get to follow their interests. Everyone takes the same AP courses, and learning is merely an arena for competition between students to get good grades, and to get a high score on the exams. Bonus points come to the students who can take the largest number of these courses at the same time. Students in non-AP schools work just as hard, but their focus is much more on the stuff they are learning about.
This one had me laughing, having had a child graduate from a private school that, although not an ICG member, tried in many cases to de-emphasize AP to reduce stress and found that it didn’t work. The ICG includes some of the most Ivy-addled schools in the country. Wealthy parents won’t enroll their children unless they are sure they will be given whatever is necessary to get into the best-known colleges. Hammond and other ICG members have told me many times that private schools that drop AP have to convince parents the new policy won’t affect their kids’ chances of getting into Stanford or Brown. So is it AP that creates stress, or our college-oriented culture?
12. AP Causes Turf Wars Among Teachers
In AP schools, teachers and departments tend to fight over class time because of coverage pressure. The problem is particularly acute in the sciences, where teachers often lobby for extra class periods, or schedule cram sessions outside of normal school hours to cover material that cannot be wedged in during class time. No such problem exists at non-AP schools, where staff can build a school schedule that serves the needs of all students.
Check with your local anthropologist. I think he or she will tell you that turf wars come with being human.
13. AP Promotes Short Class Periods
Classes that cover a lot of material are best taught in daily periods that are relatively short, about 45 minutes. By that time, students tire of listening to even an engaging teacher. Student-centered learning is best conducted in long periods of at least an hour, which meet frequently but not every day. Student-centered learning takes time to initiate, but once students are engaged, time flies. Read about the in-depth learning possible in longer class periods at The Urban School of San Francisco.
I would like to see some data on this. All the anecdotal evidence I have contradicts this point. Schools in the Washington suburbs are near the top nationally in AP course and test taking, and yet they almost all have block schedules that mandate 90-minute periods.
14. AP Diverts Resources Toward Some Students at the Expense of Others
AP divides schools into haves and have-nots. Teachers in the AP track get prestige and resources. Non-AP teachers make do with the leftovers. And as one student who left an AP school put it, AP “puts some students on pedestals and makes other students feel really bad.” In ICG schools, classes are differentiated based on subject matter, and students make choices based on their intellectual interests.
Uh, well, ICG has something here. But its solution to the problem is perverse. I wrote about this issue in detail in my 1998 book “Class Struggle” and have been calling since then for the obliteration of this divide. The rule should be that all students motivated enough to want to work hard in an AP course be allowed to take it, and the test. Northern Virginia schools have adopted such rules, and seem happy with the results. ICG, on the other hand, wants to kill AP and substitute teacher-designed courses. If those courses are to be open to all students, many schools will instinctually dumb them down because they don’t believe that average students can handle challenging material. The data show them to be wrong about that. You can’t dilute an AP course without getting caught if all students are encouraged to take the exam, which is written and graded by outside experts. But the ICG doesn’t seem to care about the unintended consequences of its ideas for regular public schools.
15. AP Eliminates Purpose from Learning
When asked about their motivation for learning, most high school students answer that they “want to go to a good college” or “want to be the best.” Students in AP schools do not typically connect learning to their individual interests or passions. They do school work less for its own sake than to show that they can handle “the most rigorous” courses. ICG schools allow students to choose among thematic classes, and then to choose topics within classes which they want to pursue further. Learning about the world merges with learning about oneself.
Two pieces of advice: Spend more time in AP schools full of teachers whom students want to learn from, and ask your own students what motivates them to work hard in their courses. I suspect getting a good grade to impress colleges will be mentioned.
16. AP Hijacks School Mission
Most schools say that their mission is to “create lifelong learners” or to promote “learning for its own sake.” Few cite “to prepare students to get high scores on the AP exams.” But the latter gets the lion’s share of the effort in their high schools. Just as important, AP limits the engagement of faculty in designing the school’s curriculum. At ICG schools, faculty constantly debate the shape of the curriculum, whether it best fulfills the mission of the school, and how the program could be improved.
See Nos. 2, 3 and 15.
17. AP Makes Teachers Passive
AP teachers are custodians of a curriculum designed elsewhere rather than creators in their own right. Their own passions and interests are secondary, and their ability to join students in a process of discovery is limited. AP teachers get their “grades” in July, when scores from the tests administered in May are sent to schools. Once teachers devise a winning formula to prepare students for the exam, they have little incentive to change.
See numbers 2 and 3, or just call up a few of the AP teachers who have made a name for themselves, and their imaginative teaching. Philip Bigler, the 1998 National Teacher of the Year, taught AP history at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a well-known magnet public school in Fairfax County. In AP, he said, “innovation and creativity are not abandoned because such lessons can be, and are, content-rich. For instance, I always did a field trip to Gettysburg based upon the students’ reading of ‘The Killer Angels.’ Moreover, I team-taught the course with an English teacher, and the literature supported the AP curriculum.” (See No. 8.)
18. AP Limits Diversity in Curriculum
A selection of courses offered by ICG schools includes “Native American Literature” (Westtown School), “China in the 20th Century” (The Urban School of San Francisco), “Advanced Francophone Literature” (Putney School), “History of Western Philosophy” (St. Andrews-Sewanee School), and “We Real Cool: Songs of Global and Multicultural Identity” (Crossroads School). ICG schools are able to offer such diversity largely because students sign up for courses based on their interests rather than gravitating to AP.
The students’ interests or the teachers’? How wide is the selection? This also is heavy with the whiff of elitism we found in No. 5.
19. AP Ends the School Year in Early May
In some regions of the country, AP exams are administered more than a month before the end of school, leaving teachers to struggle with keeping students on task for the remainder of the year. (So much for lifelong learning.) Many ICG schools schedule creative projects for the month of May, such as Sandia Preparatory School, which sends its 12th-graders into the wider community for a four-week internship.
Many public schools with AP courses do the same. Why aren’t educators as caring and sensitive as the ICG leaders able to see that statements like this make it sound like they think teachers and administrators in AP schools are weak and unimaginative, and out of
20. AP and the Myth of Objectivity
AP creates the myth that there is a unique body of knowledge that underlies each discipline. In the words of Jim Cullen at Fieldston School, it is “the myth that there is this thing called U.S. History.” In history, and every other discipline, there are processes and concepts to be understood. But these can be learned through an infinite variety of real-life circumstances. ICG schools choose the most engaging contexts available -- the school community, the local community beyond school, and events happening in the world right now -- to allow students to immerse themselves in meaningful work. AP feeds the myth that the far away trumps the here and now. Students lose the sense that they are real scholars when they are forced to go through the paces that every other student goes through. They also lose the sense of their teachers as both fellow learners and sources of valuable knowledge outside of what may appear on the test.
I am afraid this one takes us completely over the edge. The notion of sending a child to school, any school, including those that are part of the ICG, is tied to this sense of a unique body of knowledge. It is an intriguing philosophical issue, which has entertained educators for centuries, but has absolutely nothing to do with whether AP might be good for a school. If I were the ICG, focusing anew on independent curriculum, I would invite AP teachers from local public schools to come talk with them, and listen carefully.
Washington Post editors
| March 6, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
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