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Shocker! Some Teachers Like AP for All

When I got to work Monday, I was certain I was about to be pummeled by e-mails telling me what an idiotic column I had written that day praising high schools that were trying to get everyone, even struggling students, to take Advanced Placement courses and tests.

The first e-mail had arrived at 7:56 a.m. I opened it gingerly, expecting harsh language. It was from a teacher -- not a good sign. Many of them find my AP obsession an outrage, particularly since I have never taught a class and would not be competent to do so.

So what did the e-mailer, Michael Willis, a physics teacher at Glen Burnie High School in Anne Arundel County, have to say? He said he liked the column. Hmmm. Maybe he was being sarcastic? Nope. He said he retired from a career in nuclear engineering to teach physics at all levels, including AP, and said “having such low performers in a class does them a world of good.” He even offered a rationale for low performers in AP I hadn’t thought of: “In these days of economic woe, schools with a historically large percentage of low performance may more easily rationalize the targeting of such classes for cutting due to low enrollments. This would have the effect of locking out the ‘smart’ kids from classes they need to be competitive with students from districts and schools that are more affluent.”

Maybe that was a fluke, a teacher not thinking straight because it was so early in the morning. But all the e-mails on Monday were like that, most of them from educators:

J. Merrell Hanson, a professor of teacher education at Brigham Young University, extolled Bell Multicultural High School in the District, the first school in the region to require all students to take AP. Some of his student teachers had worked at Bell, he said. They reported that the Bell students were energized by the challenge and that as novice teachers they “come away from their experience at Bell with a love of teaching and their students that they could acquire nowhere else.”

Stanley W. DeJarnett, superintendent of the Morgan County Schools in Madison, Ga., said “it is a far better preparation for life (or college) for a student to make a B or C in an AP or IB class and make a 2 [out of a possible 5] on the exam than to make an A in a lower level class and never take an AP or IB exam. It was a tough sell to students and parents at first, but now they are seeing the results: better preparation for college work, better study habits, more confidence, more college choices. We have increased the number of AP and IB exams significantly here at Morgan County High School in the past five years. At first our exam performance was poor, but it is improving steadily. And guess what? The quality of teaching and learning is improving all over the school, not just in those classes. “

Carolyn Martinez-Ross, who teaches English at an El Paso high school, said: “The vicious cycle of under performance and lowered expectations in high school hurts these kids as they try to make their way in college, and time and again I have seen some of my brightest former students flunk out of college simply because we as high school teachers did not prepare them for the rigorous coursework we knew they would face.”

Two of the teachers who responded to the column said they struggled to convince their bosses and colleagues that their students, even the low-performing ones, would benefit from a richer academic diet. An Oklahoma AP English teacher said, “My department chair has mentioned officially limiting the enrollment to students who score a certain grade in the prior year, but I continue to resist.” An Ohio AP European history teacher said, “I am constantly engaged in a sometimes heated debate with my colleagues about who should be enrolled in an AP class. I believe any student willing to pick up the challenge should be admitted.”

Maybe the AP skeptics have given up on me. Maybe there is a generational shift as more teachers who attended traditional large suburban high schools, where AP access is often restricted, find themselves in small, innovative urban schools that have discovered college-level courses and tests can work for all students. Two good examples of this new generation are Mike Feinberg and Chris Barbic, suburban high school grads who roomed together when they were in the Teach for America program and now lead growing charter school networks in Houston.

The high school Barbic created, YES Prep, last year had a higher AP test participation rate and a higher percentage of seniors with passing AP scores than the big suburban school he attended, Walton High in Marietta, Ga. The high school Feinberg created, KIPP Houston, likewise had a higher AP participation rate and a higher percentage of seniors with passing AP scores than his big suburban alma mater, Oak Park and River Forest High in Oak Park, Ill. This was doubly impressive because 77 percent of YES students are from low-income families, compared with 3 percent at Walton, and 88 percent of KIPP students are from such families, compared with 12 percent at Oak Park and River Forest.

As I said in the Monday column, it is exciting to watch teachers at schools that embrace college-level programs like AP and International Baccalaureate. The AP English students of Frazier O’Leary of Cardozo High in the District have just published a book of essays, short stories and poetry, "The Way We See It," available at Politics and Prose.
The AP American history students of Bob Hill at the MATCH Public Charter School in Boston are writing a short essay every day. Hill e-mailed me to suggest that AP teachers opening their classes to all should unite. “We could share strategies and common problems,” he said.

Everything I know about AP and IB I have learned from such people. They keep surprising me with new insights about their work. For instance, George Milne, a former AP World History teacher at the public San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas, Calif., said that he appreciated the column but that I had missed an important point.

“I think the big reason AP is so worth it is that kids like it,” Milne said. “They like it better than slogging through lists of names and places and ticking off significant terms. They like the discussions. They like the arguments. They like the ridiculous politics and the oddball characters they meet. They like looking at a problem in depth and realizing that there is no real true answer and in fact, that problem has come around again and there is STILL no real answer. That’s reality in their lives. They like finding out how stuff started, how war has been fought over the centuries, why some people are famous for doing dumb stuff. They like finding out about those famous people who got away with crap that would sink them today.

“And,” he said, “they like this teacher who takes time to wrestle with those problems, knowing there is not always a solution or even a legitimate reason for it, and tells the kids that. The kids know that the world is a screwed up mess and they are stuck in it, and they see a teacher who knows that, but organizes the data and selects the stories to show that the world is not a complete, hopeless mess. This approach leaves the kids with a feeling that their opinions count, that they can contribute, that they can find their place in the world.”

Since Monday my e-mails have returned to a healthier mix of praise and condemnation. Readers are my teachers, in many instances. Like AP courses, they can knock me sideways, but that is good for me. Shouldn’t we allow as many of our students as possible to get the same invigorating experience?

By Washington Post editors  | June 12, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  AP Advanced Placement International Baccalaureate IB  
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The first thing that struck me is the comment by Stanley DeJarnett, that it's better preparation for life to get a C and a 2 on an AP test than to coast to an A in an easy class. I wholeheartedly agree. Students should not be coddled. But "AP for All" doesn't imply just the A students in the easy classes. It implies the D students in the easy classes.

Also, I can get behind AP for All in the context of a course like history - for all it's importance, you can probably learn American history with little to no idea of what was going on in 15th century Europe. History builds on itself, but not in the way math does. Looking at the list of AP offerings, I'd put in a seperate category AP Calc and Statistics, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics (and probably Environmental Science), all the languages (with the exception of English), Macro and Microeconomics, and Music Theory.

That leaves English Language and English Lit, the history and government courses, Psychology, art courses, and something called Human Geography.

So, it turns out that the majority of the courses go in the seperate category. And if you go with "Some AP for All", you run the risk of creating "AP for Dummies".

Posted by: tomsing | June 12, 2009 6:29 PM | Report abuse

Amen. If you live long enough....

Posted by: 1voraciousreader | June 14, 2009 9:50 AM | Report abuse

I agree more students should be encouraged and allowed to take A.P. classes. However, I am very skeptical of the value of all students taking A.P. classes. Many teachers dilute the curriculum and supposed standards of what they teach as is in non-A.P. and this is probably also true in some A.P. classes.

I am curious as to how academically rigorous the A.P. tests are in subjects such as history and government, as well as student test scores in schools, with diverse student backgrounds, where many students take these classes.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | June 14, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Two comments:

First, I give Jay a lot of credit for putting the "Equity and Excellence" scores right next to his favorite ranking. If I had a choice between having my bright student take an AP course in which 90% of the students would take and fail the exam or one in which the majority of students would take and pass the AP exam, I'd favor the course that prepared her to pass the exam. Same thing in picking a high school for her (or him) to attend.

Two. I have no problem with AP for all provided that there are at least two sections -- one for students who are willing to do the work required to pass the exam and the other for students who want to "see what it's like" but can't or won't study hard enough to have a real chance of passing the AP test.

Posted by: mct210 | June 15, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

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