Why AP Classes Spell Doom by justuntilsund0wn
June 9, 2008, 12:45 pm
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There was a great debate in the Washington Post online today about who should be taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses in high school. It can be found here. WaPo education writer Jay Matthews takes the position that the advanced courses should be far more inclusive, and educational guru Chester E. Finn Jr. argues that the courses should only be used as college prep for the most capable students. What is really great about this discussion is the thinly veiled contempt the two men have for each other. There’s plenty of petty tit-for-tat to go around.

The inception of this intellectual sissy fight is Jay Matthews’ annual ranking of schools who have the most students enrolled in AP or IB classes, take the most tests, etc. Finn claims that Matthews is fueling a misguided push to enroll kids that are not prepared or motivated enough to do well in these classes. That seems dubious to me. Although Matthews is a major advocate for inclusion in these classes, his lists merely compiles and codifies a phenomenon that is already happening across the country. As public schools continue to fail its students, the top students, followed by the mid-ranging students are flocking to more rigorous courses. Finn thinks this is a bad thing.

The dialogue between the two highlights an interesting dichotomy between two liberal-minded thinkers. Matthews is a populist who has for some intents and purposes abandoned (I’ll explain this in a moment) the public education system as we know it. Finn is an elitist arguing for the protection of public education.

What scares Finn – and is not fully realized by Matthews – is that the growth of College Board’s AP and IB classes that represent a failure of public school curriculum. It is the educational equivalent of “voting with your feet”. As our schools continue to dumb themselves down to the lowest common denominator, those students and their parents who want more substantial classes (or perhaps just a reprieve from unruly kids who don’t care to learn) move to more advanced classes. When “regular” A-level classes ceased to prepare kids for college, “Honors” classes became the norm for good students. Then everyone wanted these better classes, and teachers were once again forced to teach to the lowest common denominator. Thus the advent of AP and IB classes.

Make no mistake about it: these classes are a privatization of public schools – and for good reason. We do not let public schools enforce any real standards: you cannot fail students, you cannot exclude them from taking a certain level class, tests are made easier, teachers water down curriculum. By purchasing curriculum from a private company who provides a test that is rigid and gives a concrete score, public schools allow students to opt into a real learning environment. Public schools can continue to pass failing students and coddle trouble-makers, but decent students can be challenged. If we allow more kids into these challenging classes, will they continue to be challenging?

The whole movement of education says “no”. Up to the 1950’s, a high school diploma was enough to get a good job. That piece of paper meant something because standards were enforced in schools. Failing students failed. That simple system, loathed by liberal educators, still works today. Japan’s school are so good because they are modeled after ours post-WWII. The next couple of decades saw public schools turning into a social service they refused to uphold standards and discipline. The result was that an undergraduate college education was necessary for good salaries. More kids entered college, including more unprepared ones, so the universities picked up the slack. Today you generally need a post-graduate degree to be in the same place you would have been with a BA 30 years ago and a high school diploma 60 years ago. So goeth the way of the buffalo.

The upshot here is that more people from more diverse social stratum are getting more schooling. The downside is that the quality of the education is plummeting. I don’t know about you, but I would rather go through 20 years of solid education than 30 drawn out years. That’s on a personal level. On a much grander scale, the education of our country ensures our survival, primacy, and quality of life. Long story short, we must be able to compete with other countries. For example, or upper-level math and sciences are far behind other industrialized countries. If Japan’s high school seniors are at the same level of math that our third year college students are, that is bad.

So we have two options, represented today by Mr. Matthews and Mr. Finn. Matthews sees a quick fix to help students immediately by enrolling more of them in AP classes. Mr. Finn thinks this is doesn’t tackle the hard issue of fixing the system which is failing students to the point of a massive bailout to privatized curriculum. I tend to agree with Matthews up to a point, at which I flop over to Finn. Here’s why:

AP is successful because it is a brand colleges trust. Just like a private school that is known to turn out good students, a student who scores well on AP tests is quality-assured. Forget failing schools and rural schools and the whole gamut. AP is standardized across the board, so a perfect 5 is a perfect 5, and this is a tremendous boon to kids that aren’t in elite private boarding schools in New England. Because the tests are guaranteed to stay the same (College Board needs to keep that brand strong) it doesn’t matter too much if less smart kids are in the classes. They simply will not do well on the tests. The value of AP does suffer a little, as merely taking AP classes will become the norm, and more weight will be placed on how well you do on the actual tests.

This is an acceptable devaluation because in the long run it is still standardizing the curriculum. What is not acceptable -and why I ultimately side with Finn- is that the system itself needs to be fixed. More kids can enroll in AP and IB, but teachers cannot let the grading be easier. They need to be able to fail students that do no deserve to pass. They need to give C’s to students that deserve C’s. If the last few decades of public schooling is any indication, I do not have high hopes. What we will have is the inability of a broken system to implement a fixed curriculum.

Which leads me to think about a lot of complicated things. Why doesn’t College Board ramp up its teacher cert program to monitor scores and revoke certifications for teachers that have high graded students who score poorly on the tests? Why not have College Board branded teachers. Then you could count on quality education. Why not have schools become more entwined with a trustworthy brand? Why not privatize everything? This is why Matthews is a little naive, and Finn is so scared. AP has the power to destroy everything.

Which is cool because I’m all for charter schools.