The New York Times ran a fascinating article a few weeks ago called Newark Starts a Summer School Aimed at Advanced Placement. Advanced Placement, or "AP" classes, are accelerated high school classes originally designed to help students earn college credit early. Newark, NJ, a highly troubled urban district, is trying to offer more AP classes and -- more importantly -- make sure kids are prepared to handle their rigors. So an intensive summer program gives kids a taste of reading large volumes of text quickly, doing experiments and the like, before the curriculum begins in earnest in September.
Though Newark has a long way to go toward succeeding in this experiment -- only 16% of AP tests taken in the district in 2008 earned the 3, 4, and 5 scores necessary for college credit -- I think this is a great idea. It behooves all children to try something difficult, and experience the joy of throwing themselves into challenging work. Even in good schools, gifted young people often coast through classes easily, and in sub-par districts, this can be an even greater danger. Perhaps Newark's AP classes are not as well-taught as they should be, though the district has hired coaches to train AP teachers, and hopefully this will boost the pass rates.
But what's even more interesting is just how widespread AP classes have become in this country. According to the article, "Nationwide, 12,605 public schools offered Advanced Placement classes in 2008, up from 9,582 a decade before." There are about 37,000 public and private secondary schools in the US. There has been much talk lately about creating a set of common standards in US schools; to some degree, the AP curriculum is starting to become that. Texts, experiments and tests are at least somewhat standardized with AP courses, and a 5 on the AP Calculus AB exam means the exact same thing in Topeka as it does in Newark, whereas an "A+" on an individual teacher-designed test doesn't translate across districts at all.
Of course, the College Board is a private (albeit non-profit) group. One could argue that the US public missed an opportunity to create a rigorous national curriculum that wouldn't be controlled or administered by a private institution. However, as these things go, the AP curriculum isn't bad, and given that educational authorities have punted on this for so long, it's good that the non-governmental community has stepped up instead.