Preserving Privilege

According to the WaPo, several private schools in the D.C. area, including Sidwell Friends, are scrapping Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

The schools issued a statement explaining:

“Collectively, we believe a curriculum oriented toward collaborative, experiential and interdisciplinary learning will not only better prepare our students for college and their professional futures, but also result in more engaging programs for both students and faculty,” the schools said. “We expect this approach will appeal to students’ innate curiosity, increase their motivation and fuel their love of learning.”

There’s little educational value in the Advanced Placement program. It’s primary purpose is to give privileged kids a leg up on their peers.

The scrapping of AP classes is a smart move, but lets not kids ourselves, Sidwell Friends and company made this move not just to appeal to students’ innate curiosity, increase their motivation, and fuel their love of learning. No doubt they expect the new and improved curricula to do an even better job of preserving their students’ privilege. That’s the lifeblood of those schools.

Advanced Placement—Let’s Get Real

The single greatest challenge in teaching is helping disengaged lower performing students catch up while simultaneously challenging higher performing ones. That, pure and simple, is what distinguishes the very best teachers.

It’s so difficult a lot of times educators punt, organizing classes based upon, sorry for the jargon, “homogeneous ability grouping”. Instead of having four mixed ability classes, schools create remedial, standard, honors, and Advanced Placement (A.P.) ones.

Often within heavily tracked schools, one student ends up with nearly all remedial classes, and another, all A.P. The end result can be that the two students never interact in what is in essence “remedial” and “Advanced Placement” schools-within-schools.

The problems with Advanced Placement tracking.

1) Inaccurate perceptions crystallize and students get stuck in tracks  Also, research has shown teachers of remedial students have much lower than normal academic expectations. As a result, instead of catching up to their peers, the tend to fall farther behind.

2) Creeping arrogance. Too often, A.P. students develop a sense of superiority. They look down on their “remedial” and “standard” peers. Once when I was observing a student teacher in a “standard” or “remedial” English class, one of his A.P. students delivered a note from another teacher. After handing it over, the student asked, “What are you guys doing?” “Oh were just working our way through Chapter Two of Catcher in the Rye.” “Oh man,” he loudly announced on his way out of the room, “we finished that book last week.”

More widely discussed concerns with A.P. courses.

3) Students can earn passing scores on the end of the year exams through intensive memorization. This doesn’t prepare them well for college, the alleged purpose of the A.P. program.

4) Parents and students focus so exclusively on passing scores, that few develop any intrinsic appreciation or curiosity for the content. Just tell me what I need to memorize to pass the test. This doesn’t prepare them well for life-long learning (yikes, second use of jargon).

5) Usually, there’s a disproportionate number of Caucasian and Asian-American students in A.P. courses relative to each school’s demographics. Consequently, there’s a disproportionate number of Hispanic and African-American students in remedial courses.

A.P. programs exist because privileged parents want to extend their privilege to their children. A lot of these people are liberal progressives who talk earnestly about equal opportunity. “These people” are my wife and me and many of our friends. On this subject, we’re hypocrites. If we cared as much about other children’s futures as we do our own, we’d figure out a way to detrack our schools.