Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Focus on Advanced Placement in public high schools stirs debate, even resentment; should AP teachers "pay their dues"?

Today (May 21), The Washington Post ran two Letters to the Editor on advanced placement courses in high school, on p A18. The writers expressed some interesting views. One said that the emphasis on AP takes teachers away from giving attention to underprivileged and lower performing students (or from even wanting to teach them). That’s an interesting “pay your dues” kind of argument. Another suggested that taxpayer money should not be spent on better-off kids, when there so many other needs. AP could be offered at nearby community colleges, and arrangements could be made for qualified high school students to attend them. Another argument is that AP increases “competitiveness” among some students that becomes “oppressive” and ruins high school and being a teenager for some. That seems like an odd argument given all the recent attention to the issues with teenagers on the Internet (as shown on a PBS Frontline show last night – see my TV blog).

Indeed, advanced placement courses do offer an opportunity to earn considerable college credit in public school at “taxpayer expense.” For a middle income but well performing student, perhaps a minority member, wanting to go to medical school some day, such an advanced start in dealing with the enormous eventual expenses of education is certainly worth it. Of course, there are scholarships, and there are other opportunities, such as joining the military or earning a service academy appointment, for pursuing such dreams.

I can say from my own experience as a sub, there is enormous range in student ability in high schools. In AP classes, it was common for lesson plans to include practice SAT or AP tests, including free response questions that are similar (say in physics, chemistry, or calculus) to problems (with multiple parts) found on typical college mid term or final course exams. Typically, the student must apply and combine several concepts to answer a free response question. Learning these skills of “connecting dots” does not come easy at first, but students typically get past an inflection point in intellectual maturity and can do very well at this. In the past, much of this transition occurred in graduate school, where it took a semester to get used to the demands of professors. Now it can occur much earlier in life.

I personally have seen or known of all kinds of talents. I’ve seen commercially publishable creative writing. One AP student wanted to become a major league pitcher, although he could have done anything. (Nats scouts, take note!) NPR recently presented a 13 year old pianist from China or Taiwan who was already in college on the West Coast.

There has been criticism that many school systems have eliminated honors course in 11th and 12th grades and offer only Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate. Daniel De Vise started the latest debate with a story in the May 19 Washington Post, p B1, “Honors course give way to AP rigor,” link here.

Of course, imagine the arguments you can make about high school athletics.

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