APs are not adequate

17 06 2010

(Finals are starting and I only have 3, all of them easy, thanks to the number of APs (heh) I took this year, and I’m in a ranting mood, so once more unto the breach…)

For gifted kids, AP classes are hardly better than normal classes. This runs contrary to everything that most administrations would have you believe, but it’s true. My “top 100” high school has almost every AP class College Board offers, and by the time I graduate I’ll have taken most of them, so I speak from experience here: AP classes are easy. Straight A’s require a minimum of effort. I haven’t needed to study at all the entire year, just as I studied not at all last year, or the year before.

The problem is that there is a failure in public schools to distinguish “bright” from “gifted.” There are a great number of bright students in my school, and for them APs are wonderful. I would never advocate taking them away. The problem is that truly gifted kids are different. Gifted doesn’t just mean that you’re above average except perhaps under the bizarre definition the school system has invented. To quote SwitchedOnMom,

“I’m sorry, but I will go to my grave believing that some kids just come into this world wired differently, that they are objectively, qualitatively “gifted,” “cognitively advanced,” call it what you will.”

I’ve lived it, and I’ve seen it in other people, and god dammit, there is a difference. Truly gifted kids are something else entirely. A lot of APs are so far below many gifted kids’ ability levels that they’ll have the same problems in an AP class that they would in a normal class. After all, an AP class is modeled after an ordinary intro level college class: if a 10th grader is 3 years above grade level and smart enough to thrive at a top 20 college, the average intro level college class is a piece of cake for her.

There are students who shouldn’t have to bother taking AP classes in a subject: they should go straight into higher level college classes because they’re ready for them, and the AP class is just a waste of time. But most schools require that you finish the AP in a subject before they allow you to move on to higher level courses even if it’s clear that you have no need for the AP material.

This has nothing to do with arrogance or elitism, whatever many anti-GT people say. I think that providing enough of a challenge for the “only” bright kids is every bit as important as providing a challenge for those few are truly gifted. I don’t think that giftedness makes one more important or better or anything like that. Most of my favorite people in the world are “only” smart.

No, what this is about is everyone being challenged. When AP classes are a lot of work but easy, they are not providing “adequate rigor.” When AP classes are a joke, and students get A’s and 5s without ever opening their textbooks, they are not providing “adequate rigor.” That’s by design: they are not intended for the type of kids I’m talking about. They’re designed for the many smart kids for whom normal classes are too easy. They aren’t designed for the kids who could, if they were pushed, handle a real high level college course load as 10th graders.

If schools are really interested in giving all students adequately difficult classes, then they will end the useless linear progression that so hurts gifted students. Requiring a year stuck in an AP class before you can take a college class at your real level is just as inane a policy as requiring a year in a normal class when the student is ready for the AP class.


APs yet again!

27 08 2009

School’s starting around the country once again, and that means that all the AP pushing College Board minio…er, educators with an eye on college prep are back to pushing students into AP classes. The goal is, of course, to force students to Rise To Meet The Challenge and Unlock Their Hidden Potential. Excuse me for a moment while I go burn Micky Mouse in effigy.

All right, Micky Mouse is dead. Now, on to the question, why do so many educators suffer from Acute Disney Syndrome? Do teachers spend their summers strapped to a chair somewhere in a dark room watching Miracle?

The problem would be easily explained if we were talking only about elementary school teachers (the sort of teachers who want to teach elementary school kids are the same people as the ones who love the happy feel good underdog stories), but the one’s to whom I’m referring are neither in elementary schools nor teachers. They are a diverse group, ranging from education columnists to principals and department supervisors. They are in districts as different as the DC schools and upper middle class suburban districts.

Self interest (“My school is higher in Newsweek than theirs!”) really doesn’t adequately explain it, either. It appears to be a strange mix of self interest, delusion (they actually believe that the average kid just needs a challenge to turn into a wonderful scholar), and the truly bizarre educational culture in the United States (“I believe that evwywon is gifted!”) coming together in a sort of perfect storm of bad educational theory.


Here to illustrate the complexities of the situation, I give you the Perpetual Dissent Abridged Sock Puppet Company in their second performance.

Perpetual Dissent puppet: So what makes you think that pushing underachieving students into college level classes will make them perform better?

Administrator puppet #1: You’ve said it yourself! Putting gifted students in college classes helps them learn better!

PD: But most students aren’t gifted stude…

Puppet #1: EVERYONE is gifted! Everyone is unique and special and wonderful and amazing and important and significant!

PD: …do you even know what “gifted” means?

Puppet #1: It means that they deserve decent treatment!

PD: Yeah, um, no. Are you sure you got a degree in education?

Puppet #1: Yep,  that’s where I learned all this!

PD: Oh god why?

Administrator puppet #2: He’s dumb. But I’m smart, so here’s why everyone should do APs! See, if everyone does APs, then we get higher in Newsweek. And if we’re higher in Newsweek, then more people move here and pay taxes, and I get a pay raise. And if I get a pay raise, then I can go out to Vegas and…wait, what were we talking about?

PD: *blinks*

Administrator puppet #3: Admit it, Disney is true! Everyone just needs a push to unlock their hidden potential! Everyone’s just waiting to rise to meet The Challenge!

PD: Was the lobotomy painful?

*At this point the Puppet Theater was interrupted as Disney Commandos (Donald Duck knows how to use an M16, who would have guessed?) swung in through the windows and dragged puppet #3 from the room for violating their trademarks on “unlocking hidden potential” and “rise to meet the challenge.” We will mourn his loss. He was a good puppet.*

Wish me luck

8 05 2009

By the time this post goes up I’ll be taking my first AP (US history). Wish me luck 🙂

APs for all, reality be damned!

15 02 2009

The economy’s down the drain, our schools are far behind the rest of the world, but at least we’ve got lots of AP takers!

Many districts have adopted policies for increasing “rigor” (a magical buzzword that makes everything better in education) that amount to forcing kids into classes they cannot handle. Color me elitist, but I think that only kids who are, you know, ready for college level material should take college level AP courses. Most high school sophomores are ready for, you know, HIGH SCHOOL level material. Only kids who are intellectually gifted (you know, those top few percent who are, um, nowhere near the average) should be identified as gifted and placed in GT classes.

So what are schools doing? They are forcing every sophomore to take at least 1 AP class. They are reaching gifted identificaiton rates upwards of 40%, then using this to “prove” that the gifted “label” is meaningless, and eliminating it altogether.

Pardon the language, but what the F***?! Who does this serve, exactly? It dumbs down the classes for kids who often are already not getting challenged, it forces unfair workloads on kids who really can’t handle much higher level work, and it means that rather than learning and getting ahead, the top kids are sitting at the back of the room reading a book if they’re lucky, or more often sitting there bored to tears for 6 hours a day. Top level kids’ reading scores sometimes actually REGRESS throughout the school year, and only recover and improve over the summer, when they aren’t exposed to school.

“Rigor” should be for each student, not an imaginary, moving target kid who’s a bit above average and exactly the same ability level in everything. One student’s rigorous curriculum is another student’s spirit crushing workload is another student’s easy-to-the-point-of-ridiculousness. One size fits all fits no one in education. Two sizes fit all is barely better. Individualized education for each child is not possible, but schools can and should be far, far more flexible than they are.

Instead “gifted” is reduced to meaninglessness by districts that use GT classes to “increase rigor.” In English, that means that they put kids who have no business being there, and would be much better off in an ordinary classroom, into GT classes to be able to brag about the number of kids in GT classes, and so force down the level of the GT classes, making them worthless to the students for whom the programs are supposed to exist.

And so what do we see? We see countless kids who are barely getting by in school, and even then only with tutors. I know a lot of kids in my acc and AP classes are getting tutored and still struggling (yes, I know, anecdotes are not evidence. I’m using them as examples, not evidence.). These aren’t kids who aren’t willing to put in the work (they work much, much harder than I do in many cases), but they’re simply in over their heads. I would guesstimate that 30% of my school’s kids taking science are in an acc or AP class. Roughly the same is true of my grade in AP US history. 30% of my grade is ready for college classes? Really? I don’t care if we’re talking about here in well off, ivy league Princeton, or the inner city. That simply is not the case.

All that happens is you get many of the kids overwhelmed, and too many of the rest bored. Having kids in AP and acc classes who shouldn’t be there forces teachers to water down the curriculum. I’m very smart, but there are other kids who are much, much smarter than me. If these classes leave me bored, I can only imagine what it’s like for them.

When kids are barely managing to keep grades up to a C even when working as hard as they can, getting extra help from the teacher, and often even getting a tutor, they are not ready for that class. If that’s elitist, then I’m happy to be elitist, but I’m of the school of thought that calls it “common sense.”