A while ago, Jay Mathews was talking about eliminating basic classes, and having only honors and AP as the two levels. I was expecting to go off on another of my rants about how this is a terrible idea, not everyone is ready for higher level work, etcetera. But I thought about it, and I realized that I actually agree with Jay here, although I think we approach it from different directions. His view is basically that kids are smarter than our education system thinks. My view is that they aren’t as stupid as our education system thinks. The distinction is key, because he sees this as a matter of high standards, while I see it as a matter of mediocre standards: what is now our honors level, in general, should be our basic level.
The problem with the AP, honors, basic system is not fatal: it is entirely possible to separate the three in an appropriate manner, so that all 3 cater well to their group of students’ needs. Unfortunately, what actually happens is that all 3 are at least a level below where they should be. Regular classes are at a level that should be remedial at best. I dare any parents with children in high school right now to embarrass their kids by demanding to sit in on the regular math, English, and science classes at the very least. You will probably be shocked by just how bad these classes are. As for honors classes, you’ll be surprised as well. As rusty as you may be, in the majority you’ll be able to keep up no problem. This is less true in some areas and at some schools, of course (being at a top high school, I had some good honors level math and science classes), but will generally hold true.
The real shock will come to parents who think their kids are getting a great education because of all of the AP classes they’re taking. Many of our AP classes are crap. Going to a top public high school as I did, I was lucky enough to have generally good AP classes, but even I had some that were just a joke. My AP English IV class was taught at a level that should be basic at best, and perhaps remedial. My AP French class actually decreased the quality of my French. I learned, quite literally, nothing in AP Government and Politics. This is at a top high school. At the average high school, most AP classes are worthless. And having taken college classes at a good university (not just a community college) last summer, I have a benchmark, and let me tell you, AP classes are not college level.
So yes, I agree with Jay, remove basic classes. They have fallen below the level they are supposed to serve, and those students are better served by honors classes now. AP classes can function quite well as the new honors level. And as for a true college level, I don’t know. It’s difficult to do in most high schools, I suspect. Perhaps the solution is to make it easier for students to enroll in classes at nearby universities. We obviously have it easy, because Princeton University is 10 minutes from my school and is willing to take students who have run out of classes. But in general, that opportunity isn’t there. Mostly all that is available is a community college class, and that is usually difficult to manage. I think that this should be a focus of high schools: cultivate relationships with nearby universities so that they will be willing to allow qualified high school students to take a class or two a year there for free or for a very reduced price. Get college level classes by taking college classes!
So yes, rare though it is, I agree with Jay. Basic level classes are almost universally crap, and beyond repair. Get rid of them, and get kids into classes worth their time.