How to get rid of AP…start by changing the conversation
Note: This post has been picked up by the Race To Nowhere Facebook feed. So, welcome to all the new visitors, and please come back for the future posts I will be writing on this subject. In the meantime, you can see some of the many thoughts I’ve had on the film Race to Nowhere, as well as Waiting for Superman. I’ve also got plenty of posts on how I think we can move away from standardized testing altogether, and work I’m doing to inspire my students to change the world by recapturing the joy in learning. Let’s keep the conversation going.
This week, I’ve had two conversations about AP that have left me wanting to make the case for how a school could abandon the AP program, with no change in college placement, and significant gains in student engagement, learning, and, ironically, preparation for college.
The first conversation was with a veteran teacher at my school, who essentially said “we could never get rid of AP, our constituents would never allow it.” The second was with a cousin-in-law of mine, who has just started teaching with Teach for America, and said “but don’t you need AP for college admission?” I’ll try to answer both of these questions in this series of posts, but first I need to write a bit about information and choice overload and the desire for shortcuts.
Information overload and the need for shortcuts
It’s a given that our world is filled with more and more information and choices. If you want to buy a TV, you can choose between thousands of models. Every facet of our lives is filled with overwhelming choice and too much information. We have hundreds of channels on TV, dozens of movies at the theater, and we can choose from hundreds of reviews of a single film on Rotten Tomatoes. The internet brings us a limitless source of information on any topic we can think of, but all this begs a question—how do we deal with it all?
Barry Swartz, in his incredible book, The Paradox of Choice, argues that all these choices can be paralyzing; more choice can actually lead to suffering as we worry that we might have found an even better fit if we had tried on that 10th pair of jeans, even though the one we bought was better than anything we could have imagined before. This choice/information overload actually leads us to seek out shortcuts. Think about the TV purchase. Many consumers will decide to cut down their choices by turning to Consumer Reports, experts who supposedly know and rate electronics, and simply take its top recommendation. When a consumer wants to watch a movie, he will turn to Rotten Tomatoes, and rather than read all the reviews, he will just check out the “fresh-aggregator” to see the aggregate of every review. And when searching on the web, rather than digging deeply through a google search, he will just click “I’m feeling lucky” and take the top hit, rather than bothering to check out the information that might be buried two links down. Headlines and quick reads become super important as we skim the news, and the more we can break things down to ratings, “The best 10 cities to live,” “The best 10 digital cameras of 2010,” the easier it is for us to survive the choice/information deluge.
But there’s a downside to these shortcuts. Consumer Reports makes mistakes (can’t recommend the iphone 4? seriously?), and it’s interests do not exactly match ours. Rotten Tomatoes misses the tiny, limited run films, like Race to Nowhere that really have the potential to change our culture.
Of course, these are minor decisions, with tiny consequences. Who cares if you miss out on the best pair of jeans for you? You still ended up with a great pair of jeans by following Consumer Reports. And though Rotten Tomatoes steered you toward the shallow and misguided Waiting for Superman, instead of far richer and more thoughtful Race tor Nowhere, you’ve only given up 2 hours of your life, and probably still found some entertainment. But there are consequences—the #2 ranked television, which is probably statistically identical to the top model might go unsold as people opt for the “better” one, and movies like Race to Nowhere might never make the cultural impact they could, as shortcuts drive us to see Waiting for Superman.
The real problem arises when we use shortcuts for big important decisions. Take the example of the “10 best places to live.” Do you think it’s really possible to take all the complex factors, factors that are surely different for every person, and come up with a list of 10 cities that are better than everywhere else in the US to live? Surely not. There’s no way to summarize something as complex as the quality of life in a city into a single measure that can be ranked.
And this is even truer when we move into information overload in education, where more harm has been done by shortcuts than anywhere else. Let’s start at the top, with US News and World Report’s rankings of colleges. The criticism has been made by just about everyone, so I won’t belabor the point, but the idea that you could rank institutions as complex as a university and divine meaning from tiny differences in alumni giving percentages or percentage of tenured faculty is preposterous. Most of the measures considered by USNWR have very little bearing on the actual experience a student feels on a campus. Not to mention how these statistics distort the landscape as colleges try to game the rankings by sending out dollar bills to alumni to send back to the school as “donations”, increasing the alumni giving percentage, and all sorts of other hair-brained schemes to inch up the rankings.
But USNWR is providing a service—imagine the pressured family, just having conquered the problem of what television to buy, now wondering where to send junior to college. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a list you could turn to, and see which colleges are “best,” and then you wouldn’t have to waste so much time visiting all those schools, and reading all those brochures? They all sound the same anyway, right? Just go with the “best.”
This same desire for shortcuts infects every level of the educational process. Most of all, you see it in our conversations, between parents, students, teachers, administrators and politicians. No one really wants to take the time to get to know what is happening in a school, figure out what education really means at a particular school or to a particular teacher. Witness our drive to boil teacher evaluations down to standardized test scores, and whole school evaluations down to AYP. Think of the many conversations at the dinner table that start with “how’s school going?” and end two seconds later with “good—I got an A on my physics exam,” satisfying everyone. Just recently, my school sent out a letter extolling its 39 National Merit Semifinalists, an oft quoted metric of the quality of our school, when in truth, this number says more about the zip codes our students come from, the incredibly high median parent income of our families, and the thousands of dollars they spend prepping their children for the PSAT, than it does about the education my school provides.
Many of us feel too busy to engage in deep conversations about education, and so we latch on to simple, shallow quantitative measures. So, as a teacher, I’m more inclined to list off test scores in a comment rather than talk about what those scores really mean, or the un-quantifiable growth I see in a child. Thinking no one really wants to hear my vision for my curriculum, I’m all too happy to say “I teach AP physics” and leave it at that (something most parents are also too comfortable to hear). Kids are all too willing to talk about grades and SAT scores, rather than the things they are learning, and administrators are often too willing to simply count the number of students who speak in my class as a measure of my teaching, rather than digging in to the quality of what my students are saying.
I even saw this in this past summer when visiting daycare options for my my newborn. Facilities all over my city were far more willing to talk about their elaborate security measures and placement rates in area private schools than the were willing to talk about the things they do to nurture children and help them grow. One school even showed me the smartboards they have installed in the room for 3 year olds, with nary a mention of play or exploration outdoors.
This is a vicious cycle. We think colleges would prefer to see AP scores over written descriptions of the incredible breakthroughs our students make in the classroom, and this is what colleges come to expect. We ask questions in info sessions about teacher to student ratios rather than how a school promotes character, and these are the measures that schools focus more on. We check those checkboxes on college recs ranking our students, and colleges begin to value those more than the recommendations themselves. A student thinks she needs to accumulate a certain number of APs or certain GPA in order to gain admission, and sacrifices sleep, happiness, and the truly meaningful poetry journal she had been keeping to meet these standards. Over time, the simple, quantifiable measures: “5,” “AP”, “2400”, and “12 to 1” and “ranked #3 among national universities” move from being shallow measures quality, to the goals we seek to accomplish, with disastrous consequences.
We see these consequences in the false promise of these measures. The student who arrives at a top 10 university, only to come away dissatisfied with the classes of the superstar professors caught up in their own race to achieve prestige through publishing research in the right journals to the point where they neglect their teaching. Colleges see it in the students with incredible scores they admit who arrive to campus burnt out and want to do nothing more than binge drink their way through the next four years. And most importantly, we see these consequences in the stress and anxiety that pervade almost every level of education, and the lack of joy so many students feel in learning.
The funny thing is that this reliance on faux-measures of achievement usually begins to fade as we enter the job market. Sure, some employers are still mildly obsessed with recruiting students from top tier universities, but at best, all these shallow measures of quality can only get you an interview. Long ago, software companies figured out that all those fancy MCSE, A+ certifications mean very little when hiring a network or software engineer, and the best way to screen your applicants is with challenging, thought provoking and real world questions. They also realize that watching how a candidate thinks and wrestles with the problem, rather than the answer s/he arrives at is the key factor, and so they ask these questions face to face, even though it would probably be much cheaper to develop an “SAT for Google hiring.” And of course this isn’t unique to technology companies. No one hires a resume—interviews, probing questions, and conversation are requirements for any evaluating any job candidate. Why isn’t this the case for evaluating education?
So, the first step toward improving education (and getting rid of the AP—I’ll explain my specific problems with the AP program in more detail in a future post) is deepening the conversation about education. Next time, as a teacher, when you are tempted to write a comment just about the grades a student is getting, push deeper and talk about what he is learning. As a parent, ask “What are you learning?”, and don’t settle for quick answers. As a student, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your AP and SAT scores are all the college cares about—tell them about who you are in the classroom, the struggles you face, and the challenges you’ve overcome. When you visit a school, don’t take “we offer every AP” as a sign of quality; instead, ask the question “why?” Prefer the complex, fuzzy answers and even more important questions that are signs of real quality over the short, shallow measures that are far too common.