Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why AP grates...

Part 1--Part II has the good news!

AP Biology
January 2009
(…more like a death march, than a parade, but it’s Biology! Yay! ☺)

The above is taken from an assignment given at a selective private Catholic girls high school. I recognize the gallows humors, even use it, as I drag my lambs through a similar course. I have to. It's audited by the College Board, and students, parents, administrators, board of education members, and Superintendents will walk through fire to get the coveted AP® Course Audit stamp on a transcript.

I am part of this lunacy. First, the bad news....

I teach AP Biology, or at least try to, to seniors, many who are taking far too many AP courses. There are many good reasons to take AP courses, but no good reasons to take too many. Students feel the pressure of the admissions wars. If both Punch and Judy want a shot at Elite U, and Punch takes an AP science because "it looks good on his transcript," well, Judy thinks she needs to do the same. I get two uninterested seniors for the price of one.

Our school administration encourages children to take AP, as many do, in the escalating war of school rankings. If New Jersey Monthly, a regional rag clearly read by folks with a higher opinion of themselves than I have of myself (just ask them) judges schools by the "number of AP tests offered compared to the total number of juniors and seniors (a calculation designed to avoid penalizing smaller schools)," and your local school board worries as much about property values (as it should), then there will be subtle pressure to push kids into the AP classes.

If you are Gaspar Caperton, President and CEO of the College Board, earning making over $800,000 in compensation a year (about $95/hour for every hour he breathes), you are under a bit of pressure to push your product. And he does. The College Board sells test prep materials for its own tests, materials some of my students cannot afford. The College Board lobbies politicians.

If you are the President of Elite U, and want to keep up your US News and World Report rankings, you need to sell your school to children who have no shot at getting in. Part of your rating is based on the rejection rate of first time college applicants. The more you reject, the higher your score. You're kind of stuck with the numerator, the number of slots you have open, so you best boost the denominator, how many applied. You are under pressure to sell dreams to the impressionable.

Result? We have a generation of public school seniors compromising their health in a battle mutually assured destruction as they struggle to get into colleges that pretend they have a shot.

The CEO of the College Board, the President of Elite U, the editors at NJ Monthly and US News and World Report make good coin, high school administrators keep the board and parents at bay, and the students, literally, break down and cry.

I see the tears. The children are in an impossible place. They live at the pinnacle of human civilization, they have food on the table, roofs over their heads, and youth in their veins, and they are crying.

It's easy to say they're just spoiled, or weak, or lazy, and many of those shepherding them say just that. But when I hear that a student toils away in a mall selling shoes so that she can afford to pay for a series of tests to measure how much she "knows" in subjects she only took out of fear, well, I think of the $16,000 compensation Mr. Caperton pulls down each week.

The College Board logo and the US News and World Report photo are from their respective sites.
And now for the good news.....

Montclair High School will be screening Race to Nowhere on November 30th, at 7:30 PM.
You can register here.


John T. Spencer said...

I feel as though I am teaching students in another world entirely. My students cannot even name for me an elite university (it's okay with me, really) and they get excited about the prospects of going to ASU (though many of them still worry that they'll go to jail or dropout or not be able to afford it if they are undocumented immigrants).

Yesterday I asked them who knew anything about density. A few of the students were able to look at the root word dense and have a rough sense. For most, it became an hour of measuring height and weight, feeling objects and guessing, sputtering around metaphors and eventually writing their own definitions.

And they're definitions were hardly "scientific." I'm sure many scientists would cringe at a definition like "an object's stuffiness" or "how packed stuff is" but I know that it's the beginning of constructing knowledge.

I'm comfortable with teaching the basics. I had a class full of kids who seemed to really want to figure out what made things dense and to me that was pretty exciting.

It's not that I oppose AP classes. I always took AP English and History and twice took AP math. But I also refused to study for a test (if I didn't know it, why pretend?) and I was often baffled by the intense emotional reaction to getting into an elite university (especially when our community college had tons of professors who were recently retired professors from elite colleges themselves)

doyle said...

Dear John,

We have a remarkable mix of students here; we're also a Title I school, with a lot of good stuff happening here.

I got bumped from teaching the lower functioning students when our school changed the name of our low end courses to suit the NCAA athletic requirements. Same course, different name, different credentials required. Go figure.

"How packed stuff is" is as good a definition of density as anyone can give you. If you start thinking in terms of atoms (and their vast intra-atomic space), then that what it comes down to.

In my class I call matter "stuff"--it makes as much sense as the word "matter," and gets the kids thinking less like the junior scientists they think they must mimic to "know" science.

One of the wonderful secrets about science (at least the way it's often taught in school) is that science is metaphorical. When we strip out the metaphors, science makes little sense.

I wish I had you for science when I was in junior high...or someone like you.

Sue VanHattum said...

This post reminds me of what I've heard about Race to Nowhere, a documentary about this pressure. If you have time to watch adult movies (I don't), it sounds good.

They are trying to make a difference with it. It might be worth showing in your community.

doyle said...

Dear Sue,

Wow, you just reminded me of a screening of that very movie in Montclair High School November 30th. Here are the details:


Sue VanHattum said...

You're welcome. I'm guessing that Montclair HS is near you. If you go see it, I'll look forward to an interesting review.