At my school, I’m in the odd position of having being hired on spec.  My specialty is AP U.S. History, taught primarily to juniors; since we only have 9th graders at RTHS, though, we won’t be offering that class until 2014-2015.  So for now, World Civilizations it is.

Despite some of its shortcomings, I’m a huge believer in the Advanced Placement program as a mechanism to provide challenges and opportunities for the high school students who seek them out.  I don’t like it when schools are judged by the number of AP classes students take, because I don’t think schools should force ill-prepared students into such classes, but I think a school with a robust AP program can do wonders for the kids.

And that is why articles like this one by The Atlantic‘s John Tierney hack me off to no end.

AP Classes Are a Scam

In this article, Tierney lays out several criticisms of the Advanced Placement program, but most of them are such huge misrepresentations, generalizations, and distortions that I wanted to counter some of them.

AP courses are not, in fact, remotely equivalent to the college-level courses they are said to approximate. Before teaching in a high school, I taught for almost 25 years at the college level, and almost every one of those years my responsibilities included some equivalent of an introductory American government course. The high-school AP course didn’t begin to hold a candle to any of my college courses. My colleagues said the same was true in their subjects.

I love this “argument” – it was true at my school so it must be true everywhere.  There are good teachers and bad teachers, good AP courses and bad AP courses.  That’s true everywhere.  My experience as an AP reader have shown me that; I read plenty of essays that make it clear that, although the student is probably pretty bright, they simply weren’t taught anything during the year.  In other words, the essay is well-written technically but says nothing.  Alumni at my former school consistently returned to tell current students that if they could hack AP U.S. History or the AP English courses we offered, they could hack it in college because AP – especially the writing component of it – was considerably more challenging.

Several years ago, the College Board began imposing an audit on all AP teachers nationwide.  Teachers had to submit a syllabus and course outline to prove that the course was rigorous enough to match up with a freshman-level course.  This process was signed off on by college faculty members.  College professors at the AP Reading consistently say that the AP U.S. History course and exam are at the very least analogous to a freshman-level course.  And since they have more experience with the AP experience than Mr. Tierney, I’m going to go with them on this one.

The scourge of AP courses has spread into more and more high schools across the country, and the number of students taking these courses is growing by leaps and bounds. Studies show that increasing numbers of the students who take them are marginal at best, resulting in growing failure rates on the exams. The school where I taught essentially had an open-admissions policy for almost all its AP courses. I would say that two thirds of the students taking my class each year did not belong there. And they dragged down the course for the students who did.

This is partially true, but blaming the College Board for this issue misses the point entirely.  Mr. Tierney, no one told you to dumb down your course for the kids who didn’t need to be there.  At Robinson we had open enrollment in our AP courses too, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t advise the students.  Every fall, two months or so before AP U.S. History started in January, I sent a letter out to every student enrolled in the class – it became known school-wide as “the fear of God letter.”  It provided a brutally honest assessment of what students could expect – up to two hours of homework per night, frequent writing assignments, difficult assessments designed in the mold of the AP exam, and high-level in-class work that would challenge even the brightest among us.  It usually worked – several students who didn’t need to be in the course dropped.  And I never deviated from my plan for the course because a student was failing, because they had been warned.  I saw it as a valuable lesson in personal accountability.

And sometimes, just sometimes, a student who “did not belong there” rose to the challenge, worked his or her ass off, and did well enough on the exam to get college credit.  I always predicted my students’ exam score the night before the exam; I was almost always within one point, but I had several students over the years who had no business making anything above a ‘1’ take the exam and make a ‘3’ or ‘4’.  Good for them.

Despite the rapidly growing enrollments in AP courses, large percentages of minority students are essentially left out of the AP game. And so, in this as in so many other ways, they are at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to college admissions.

Another partial truth.  The College Board provides a fee reduction for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch (FRL).  In my former school system, students in the FRL program didn’t pay a dime, and I would like to see the College Board adopt this policy across the nation.  They make plenty of money to offset it.

…[T]he AP curriculum leads to rigid stultification — a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry. The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially. In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.

Absolutely!  It would be really nice if the College Board could redesign their courses to provide for the teaching of essential skills while also allowing teachers and students to explore issues more in depth!  Oh, wait, they have.  The AP Course Redesign requires the use of more primary source analysis, critical reading and writing, and other skills that colleges have requested their students to have.  And since rote knowledge is not as emphasized as it was before, teachers can spend more time and go into more detail on subjects of “mutual interest.”  Of course, the downside of this is that this will usually translate into paths of “the teacher’s interest.”  You all had that history professor – the one who flew through the first two hundred years of history, spent MONTHS on the Civil War, then blew threw the rest of the course.  Say what you want about the content-heavy nature of the current AP exam, but at least it kept teachers from pulling crap like that.

There are plenty of beefs one could have with the College Board; one statement Mr. Tierney makes with which I completely agree is that the College board is “a huge ‘non-profit’ organization that operates like a big business.”  But the legitimate critique of its business practices shouldn’t outweigh the benefits that motivated high school students can glean from taking AP courses.

My AP philosophy was reflected in this statement from my course syllabus, stolen shamelessly from my friend and mentor Laura Huffman: “My number-one goal for you in this course is to learn how to think like a historian and learn something about history, and have some fun while doing it.  And if you get college credit, that’s icing on the cake.”  The best compliment I ever received as an APUSH teacher was one I heard from numerous students: “Mr. Drake, your class prepared me for college-level work more than anything else I did in high school.”  I’m not saying this to brag on my own course or my teaching ability; I followed the AP course prescriptions, injected some of my own flavor and interests, told jokes during class to keep it light, and – most importantly – pushed my students every single day.  That’s what all good AP teachers should do, and the students are the ones who reap the rewards.

And I don’t see how all those great things can be perceived as a “scam.”