Two nights ago on Facebook I published a mini-rant about something I overheard at an after-hours meeting at the AP Reading; specifically, it was a teacher complaining about his course’s pacing and perceived lack of time to cover the course’s content.

The gist of his complaint was that he teaches at a school up north, so they don’t start school until after Labor Day; consequently, he has fewer days to teach the course than teachers who get their classes in August, thus putting him at a disadvantage.  He was asking a College Board official if he could fill out a waiver to take an alternate version of the exam at a later date, about two weeks later.  He was told that he could.

My first thought: Holy crap, you can do that?!?!  My second thought: Dude, are you serious?!?!

I don’t know what school district this teacher was from, but I just pulled up a generic academic calendar online and counted.  If you start at the day after Labor Day and end at May 10 (the day before this year’s APUSH exam), factoring in all the standard vacations and workdays, he probably had somewhere between 150 and 155 days to teach his course, assuming he had his kids on a standard schedule.

He is not the first APUSH teacher I’ve heard make such a complaint, but I have never had an ounce of sympathy.  That may sound callous, but in five years of networking with other teachers at the AP Reading, I’ve never met a teacher with a crappier schedule/pacing situation than I had at Robinson.  Several years ago North Carolina passed a law mandating that public schools not start school before August 25.  For schools that operated on a block schedule like Robinson did, that meant that the second semester did not start until after Martin Luther King Day (it was usually around January 25).  So for scheduling APUSH, I had to pick my poison – teach it in the fall and have the kids for about 85 days, but not see them regularly for three months leading up to the exam; or teach it in the spring and have the material be fresher in the kids’ minds, but only have about 68 days to teach the course.

I chose the spring option.  Every fall I sent out a memo to all the students that became known around my department as the “Fear of God Letter.”  I very frankly told the students that we were going to have to essentially work through two college courses in about three and a half months, they could expect heavy reading assignments and tons of work on a daily basis, and if they thought they couldn’t handle it, pick a new course to take.  I reiterated that sentiment the first day of class, basically channeling Samuel Norton from The Shawshank Redemption: “Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me.”

And you know what?  It worked.  In five years, on the AP rating scale of 1 (not qualified for college credit) to 5 (highly qualified for college credit), 72% of my students scored a ‘3’ or higher on the AP Exam, and right at half of my students got a ‘4’ or higher.  The national pass rate for students receiving a ‘3’ or higher is about 50%.  And I can’t tell you how many students came back and told me, “Man, Drake, I really had to work my tail off in your class but it taught me how to do advanced coursework and I felt so prepared for college.”

I’m not saying any of this to brag, although I’m proud of what my kids were able to accomplish.  My point is that teaching APUSH in an extremely cramped time period can be done, and it can be done effectively.  Now, was it ideal?  Of course not.  I sometimes had to triage the content and leave some stuff out, I didn’t get to practice writing as much as I would’ve liked, and sometimes we covered five presidents in a 90 minute period (the last day before the final test was described on my syllabus as “Ford to W”).  You have to make do with the cards you’re dealt, especially in terms of pacing.  I wish that teacher I overheard the other night knew how good he had it.

With all of that said, I’m pretty excited to bid a not-so-fond adieu to block scheduling.  I’ve never seen a convincing study that proves that block scheduling is effective, nor have I seen any data that justifies moving North Carolina’s start date to August 25.  We’ll be on a traditional six-period schedule at Research Triangle High, so I’m going to have to adjust my thinking to pacing for all the courses I teach.  And in 2014-15 when we have juniors and I pick APUSH up again, I guess I’ll have 155 or so days to teach the course.

And you better believe I won’t complain.

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