Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A National Curriculum -- Sort Of

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.


Kevin said...

The "AP curriculum" is pretty good for the top 10% of the students, but few schools offer many of the AP classes. I'd guess that of the 12,000 schools offering AP, half offer only one or two AP classes, and only a handful offer more than 10 different courses.

There is another "national curriculum"--the IB curriculum. It is more specifically a curriculum than the AP courses are, and it may be suitable for a slightly larger percentage of students, but neither AP nor IB is designed for the bottom half of the student body, which also needs to be educated.

Jo in OKC said...

For the top students, AP can still not be enough. It's supposed to be the equivalent of first year college courses (2nd or 3rd year for foreign languages). That means that the AP courses are often broad intros to the subject, without much depth. Many gifted students will need more before the end of high school.

Many schools teach the AP courses at "half-pace". They'll teach AP Psych over a full school year or AP Calculus BC only as a subsequent (full-year) course to a full year AP Calculus AB (each is roughly a 1 semester college course).

Because AP is a national curriculum and wants recognition at as many colleges as possible, some of the courses (like Bio) contain a HUGE amount of material.

In many places, an AP course has become shorthand for heavy homework load as teachers try to cover college material using high school methods.

Some schools also tightly control the number of AP courses students can take and when. We've been really lucky that the counselors & teachers at my daughter's school have let her have access to the courses she's ready for, even though she's not in the "right" grade for them.

Texas has had success with a program that has native Spanish speakers take AP Spanish language in 8th grade as a way to show the kids that they CAN do college work.

AP has a concept called "vertical teaming," which is about setting up all the classes in a subject area (like English) from 7th grade on to lead toward the AP class(es).

Note that you don't have to take an AP course in order to take an AP exam. Many top prep schools don't call their classes "AP", but their students can choose to test. Other students self-study for AP exams.

For some students, AP exams are about improving their chance for admission to a super-competitive admissions school. For others, it's about getting credit for work already done so they can graduate early, double-major, or have more time to explore a variety of courses.

IB is probably even more of a "national curriculum" kind of thing than AP because it specifies assessments and activities throughout the year, not just a test at the end of the year (if you call your class AP you have to pass the AP audit by submitting a syllabus, but no one ever checks that you do what's on your syllabus). However, there are far fewer IB schools than AP. Also, you can't self-study or homeschool IB.

The Princess Mom said...

With the SAT, PSAT, SAT II Subject tests, AP and CLEP tests, the College Board is trying very hard to be all things to all high schoolers. But I think we can thank Jay Mathews and his crazy formula for picking the Newsweek Best High Schools in America for the rise in AP classes everywhere. I'm sorry, but assigning points based on the number of kids enrolled in AP classes, not the number of kids who pass the class, much less the AP test, is no indication of quality education.

Kevin said...

@The Princess Mom.

Yes, it has been pointed out many times to Jay Mathews that the measure he really wants to use is the number of AP exams passed divided by the number of seniors, rather than the number of AP exams attempted divided by the number of seniors, but he has an agenda that has nothing to do with measuring quality of education at high schools.

The Princess Mom said...

@ Kevin

Agreed. Which makes me wonder why Newsweek keep letting him do their "Best" high schools list.