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How to get rid of AP…start by changing the conversation

December 19, 2010

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.

36 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2010 11:45 am

    Unfortunately, the “we offer quality, not AP” usually turns out to be delusional, and so people settle for standardized mediocrity, in exchange for not getting customized crap. Parents don’t get nearly enough information about what really goes on in a high school to make informed decisions on quality, so they have to settle for proxies. And AP counts are a better proxy than unsubstantiated claims by principals and teachers who are trying to bolster average daily attendance.

    • December 19, 2010 11:55 am

      I fully agree with the need for parents to get more information,which I think they should ask for, and not be satisfied when they hear things like “90% of our students get passing scores on the AP.” I do think there are alternative ways to substantiate claims of quality beyond AP, which I fully intend to discuss in future posts. Stay tuned.

  2. December 20, 2010 10:56 am

    Thanks for the great post.

    APs have become the proxy for educational rigor and excellence even though they can have the effect of driving the high school curriculum into narrow, shallow irrelevance.

    Colleges take the shortcut of assessing school programs and candidates on the basis of APs. At the same time they often complain that students arrive at college burned out and incapable of fluid and creative thought and with the thirst for learning extinguished by the high school college-driven demands of achieve, produce, perform.

    Schools in the Independent Curriculum Group (formerly known as Excellence without AP) are working to change this.

    If we want students to remain intellectually curious, informed, active seekers, users and creators of knowledge, then there are better ways than piling on the AP’s.

    • December 20, 2010 11:14 am

      Josie,
      Thanks for these comments. I often think colleges take these shortcuts because that’s all we give them. They desperately hope the 5’s on AP chem and 800 on the chem SAT II mean the kid is truly interested in chemistry, when all it often means is they hired a good tutor.

      Thanks for the pointer to the Independent Curriculum Group, they’re fantastic. I’ve been following them since Bruce Hammond’s earliest emails about starting a group. I will definitely be blogging about them in a future post.

  3. December 20, 2010 11:38 am

    Many great points in this post. However I was continually distracted by typographical errors with regard to spelling and errors not caught when a sentence or two was obviously re-written. Given the educational nature of article it would behoove the writer to proof read.

    • December 20, 2010 12:11 pm

      Thanks. I’ve tried to go back and proofread more carefully. I wasn’t intending for this blog to be picked up by the RtN facebook feed; it’s more of a semi-private journal of my own teaching, without much though to editing. Now that my audience is growing, I’ll be more careful.

      • December 20, 2010 7:54 pm

        Tsk on the egregious typographical errors. The attention span of many is drawn to minutiae rather than meaning. Shame – but there it is.

        • December 20, 2010 9:08 pm

          Yes—I think that’s the whole problem I was writing about, no? AP scores = minutiae. Learning = meaning.

  4. Teri permalink
    December 20, 2010 11:45 am

    I agree about AP in general being used as a cudgel to pressure kids into classes they don’t want/need/belong in. But as a student who only took one AP class–English lit–and LOVED it, majored in English, became an English teacher, and now teaches AP English lit, I have to point out that it’s entirely possible to keep AP as it was originally intended: small intensive classes for students with a deep passion for a particular subject. No kid needs to rack up twelve of them, but it would be a disservice to eliminate them altogether. I would’ve had a much less enjoyable senior year without my AP Lit class, I know that.

    • December 20, 2010 12:09 pm

      Teri, thanks. AP-Literature is also a bit of a different beast. As I understand it, there isn’t a required curriculum per se. You can have students read and discuss almost anything from the ‘canon’ of great literature. This is not the case with a subject like biology, which expects coverage of 40+ chapters in one year, and even spells out the labs you must do to properly prepare students.

      • December 20, 2010 10:57 pm

        The AP Bio exam and curriculum is being revamped for 2012. The new curriculum is much more about the “bid ideas” and less about minutiae.

        • December 20, 2010 11:02 pm

          Yes, I know. I’ve read through the framework and attended a few presentations on the redesigns, and It sounds much better. I’m planning on writing about this in my next post. Still, I’ve heard quite a bit of complaining from high school teachers about how it’s really nothing more than watering down the curriculum.

  5. Peggy permalink
    December 20, 2010 12:18 pm

    I found your page from the “Race to Nowhere” page and will continue to follow you. I live in an area similar to the one you teach in, upper middle class with the majority of parents who have college degrees and at least one parent with an advanced degree. We, too, spent a lot of money on tutors to make sure that my kids scored well on the SAT and ACT and even hired a “consultant” to help focus the essay’s for college applications. Why? Because when you attend a school like our where there are high test scores and many AP classes, a 3.4 GPA and a 1750 on the SAT don’t help your kid, or so the Guidance Counselors tell us.

    My kids did all of their own work and projects and I feel they do actually learn at school but may not test well. There aren’t many colleges that actually do personal interviews or I wouldn’t be worried about my kids getting onto the school of their choice. My kids are funny, well adjusted and smart and I have given them many a mental health day when they just could handle the pressure. I refused to do hours of homework in elementary school and have questioned why they needed it. It doesn’t make me popular, but it let my kids know that I was on their side and that I expected them to know the information, not just regurgitate what the teacher said.

    Now, I do have one son who is barely challenged in the AP classes he is taking and is looking at top tier schools, but that’s his choice. My oldest son, who is a senior, is looking at smaller, private schools where he can be in a learning environment instead of another school that churns out those that can pass yet another test.

    I look forward to reading more of what you have to say on this. Great job so far!

    • December 20, 2010 1:02 pm

      Peggy,
      as a former college counselor, I have a lot of thoughts on the subject of the college process, and I’ll be sure to try to write a bit more directly about the process in the future. In the meantime, the best advice I have is for students not to underestimate the power of developing meaningful relationships with teachers. Harvard education professor Richard Light found that this was the single biggest factor in predicting whether or not an undergrad was satisfied with his/her freshman year (as well as subsequent years). Students who had established strong relationship with at least on professor, to the point of where the student felt like he/she was mentored, were deeply satisfied with their college experience. Having visited hundreds of colleges around the nation, I know that there are thousands of professors out there, at almost every college campus, who would love to connect with a student, if he or she can take the first step.

      Knowing that this is true, I think the college process should be about helping students develop the ability to seriously introspect into their own lives, and build meaningful connections with adults. If they can do those two things, they will find success wherever they go.

      Two books that I can also recommend about the college process are:

      • How to be a high school superstar, by Cal Newport. Be sure to also check out his incredible blog, Study Hacks. This blog should be required reading for every high school and college student.
      • Less Stress, More Success, by Marilee Jones. Marilee was a former dean of admissions at MIT who was on the cusp of really transforming the admissions process across the nation, when it was discovered she had falsified many of her credentials when she was hired by MIT 20 years ago. Despite this, her advice on the college process and parenting in general is some of the most profound I’ve read.
      • Peggy permalink
        December 20, 2010 2:23 pm

        Thanks! I’ll check those out. My kids do have good relationships with several teachers now and their conselor at school, who do appreciate that they are “learners.” I have found that most teachers do like students who want to learn, not just pass a test. But teachers aren’t rewarded for that, only for test scores.

        I meet with my kids teachers and let them know what works for my kid, as each child is different and learns differently. I have found that most teachers appreciate that and take into consideration how they might help them. Now, some don’t, but I firmly believe that we should be working in concert to make children enjoy learning. It shouldn’t be a Race to Nowhere, but a life long journey of learning and growth. Parenting and teaching are not jobs for the faint of heart!

  6. December 20, 2010 1:17 pm

    Thanks for the thought provoking article. Our son is in 8th grade and has been home for the majority of his education. Unfortunately, this drive to have high scores on college entrance exams and AP exams has infected the home school community as well. While we used to be known for our ability to provide a uniquely tailored education, many are now joining the herd as they head for the pasture of higher education. Universities now readily accept home educated students and many seek them out, but I fear that as a group we will be loosing our distinctive reputation of turning out students that are not only well educated, but also understand the process involved in learning and enjoy it. It is hard to see my home education colleagues become obsessed with testing to the point that many are shortening summer vacations, while my son has already been offered a summer job in a field in which he is interested in as a career. He was able to get this offer simply by learning and being good at what he does. He may eventually gain knowledge through study and experience that will add to his ability to pass the AP Physics exam without having to stress over it, simply because it is something he enjoys doing. If he doesn’t take the exam, the experience, ability and references he has gained during his high school years will serve to distinguish him from the AP pack.

    • December 20, 2010 1:30 pm

      Wow, I didn’t realize that AP was starting to drive the home school curriculum as well. This is sad, especially since having a newborn 8 weeks ago, I’ve thought a few times that I’d just home school her if I can’t find a school that seeks to encourage joy in learning and creativity.

      Still, despite all the increases in numbers, I think the future looks as bright for AP as it might seem. Many colleges are equally displeased with all the “AP Scholars” they admit who look nothing like the title they’ve earned. Just a few days ago, I wrote about Vi Hart, the author of those incredible “doodling in math class videos” taking the internet by storm. It is too idealistic to imagine that in 5 or 10 years, every child will have a “learning portfolio” online detailing his/her learning, and that these portfolios, more than scores, will be the basis for college admissions?

  7. rob mcentarffer permalink
    December 20, 2010 3:16 pm

    This post hits me pretty close to home: when I was in the classroom I was an AP Psychology teacher and participated in the AP reading. Those still feel like overall “good” experiences for me and for my psychology students. But your thoughtful post caused me to think, again, about my frustrations with the AP program and the oversimplification of the overall AP exam score. In many ways, its such a horribly missed opportunity: The AP Psychology curriculum is rich (in my opinion) and offers many opportunities for students to engage with valuable ideas. The exam is carefully constructed and mostly gets at important concepts in important ways (again, my opinion – most of the multiple choice items I’ve seen ask students to make important rather than trivial distinctions). The free response questions are mostly about important ideas, and I love the emphasis at the AP reading about focusing on student ideas rather than writing style, conventions, etc. But the overall 1-5 “grade” applied is such a disappointment and it LOSES so much information as it tries to collapse all this richness into a single score. Now, if College Board wanted to, they could switch over to a standards based reporting system instead of playing the “single score” game. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I hope there are ways to modify the ways we do AP rather than abandoning it, but your reasoning is compelling.

    • December 20, 2010 5:29 pm

      Rob,
      You are very right that the 1-5 scoring system of AP leaves out too much information. In Physics 60% is usually good enough for a ‘5,’ which makes it hard for me to really accept a ‘5’ as a mark of excellence in physics understanding. I know that the tests are normed against the performance of college students taking the same course, but think this says more about the limited ability of students to retain and comprehend vast sums of material taught in survey courses than it does about the strength of the AP.

  8. December 20, 2010 5:00 pm

    Fair enough, but I’m simply not that interested in such debates. After a few minutes I just shrug my shoulders and say, “Just tell me what to teach”. I am really only really interested in teaching content. I don’t consider myself to be a “life coach” or that my role is to deliver a whole bunch of “process skills”. If the kids get that out of my chemistry class then great, but I still want them to know what the formula for potassium phosphate is JUST BECAUSE I SAY SO! I suppose that’s a life skill in and of itself and it seems like a reasonable goal at the end of a chemistry course.

    I think my content driven classes are great and things in education are just getting a little too reflective and introspective! What about just learning some stuff? When did that go out of fashion? Kill off the AP and I’ll still teach the same content; make me drop content to become a social worker/life coach/”educational growth facilitator” and I’ll need to leave the teaching profession.

    Long live the AP!

    • December 20, 2010 5:46 pm

      ChemEducator,
      I’m not trying to argue that you should be a “life coach” or a “educational growth facilitator.” Although I believe strongly that we teach kids, and not subjects, I’ll save that argument for another post. What I’m asking is for you to deepen the conversation about what you teach and why you do so. Simply saying “I teach the stuff on the AP syllabus,” or “all my kids get 5’s” doesn’t lead to deep conversations about why you teach the stuff you do, or what kids can do now that they’ve taken your course. Why should they learn the formula for potassium phosphate, when they can google it, or why should they learn to balance an equation, when Wolfram Alpha will do it for them? I’m not advocating for content-free education. There are many important reasons for kids to learn to balance equations, or the names and formulas for chemical compounds, but I think we should push ourselves to articulate these reasons. Do they know what they’re doing when they’re moving all those subscripts around in equation balancing—do they understand what is and isn’t being conserved? I’m sure many of your students do know this, and by taking the time to explicitly make understanding part of the equation, I think it will lead to better outcomes on things like AP tests, but more importantly, better students who have a sense of “why they are doing things” beyond the “the teacher told me to do it.”

      • December 20, 2010 6:40 pm

        But in order to have an intelligent conversation in “normal” social interaction, there are some things that you need to KNOW without Googling them!

        I’m not at all sure that I WANT “deep conversations” about what I teach and why I teach it, and that’s sort of my point. This stuff doesn’t interest me much. Does that make me a bad teacher? Maybe it just makes me a really bad candidate for education administration.

    • December 20, 2010 11:09 pm

      There are two parts to student learning: knowledge and skills. I want students coming into my upper-division and graduate classes to have enough knowledge that I don’t have to start over at middle-school levels, but more importantly I want them to have certain skills (writing, library research, computer programming, problem solving, …) that they can apply to the new material I have to teach.

      Just factoids is useless, and amorphous skills without knowledge are useless (a superb writer who understood nothing of biology or computer programmers would not write good papers in my class, even with all the Google and Wikipedia sources available).

      Content is the combination of skills and facts, and it is worthwhile to try to articulate what knowledge and skills are essential for entry to a course and what should be present after passing the course. Why a particular set of facts and skills are chosen is not (in my opinion) as important as having a clear list of what you want the students to learn.

      The AP curricula do a pretty good job of listing facts students should know, but not as good a job of listing the skills they should have. (This varies, of course, with the subject, with AP bio being considered to be at the extreme factoid end of the spectrum—a failing that the College Board has recognized and is correcting.)

    • January 2, 2011 2:46 pm

      As a student who has attended both public and private schools in the Atlanta area, I can firmly attest to the fact that teaching to your students from the books gets you no where. You end up preparing your students for a test, and leave them empty after the course. True teaching involves developing the student as a whole. To be honest, a formula will do me very little good when I’m the CEO of a company. While you are more than welcome to teach from the book, rest assured that you will be one the educators whose name I forget by thirty.

  9. December 26, 2010 9:11 pm

    My class is not AP. But my kids are taking the AP test.
    Why? College credit=tuition savings. That aspect shouldn’t be
    ignored.

    • December 26, 2010 10:36 pm

      This is true, but more and more, colleges are raising the standards to award credit (only accepting 4 & 5, or sometimes only 5), offering elective credit instead of direct course credit, or in some extreme cases, offering no credit at all.

  10. February 27, 2011 2:39 pm

    Excellent article…. “Race to Nowhere” is a MUST see for anyone involved in the education of a child….

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