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Extending the AP Conversation

December 21, 2010

Quantum Progress has now posted two thoughtful and engaging blog posts on the relevance of an AP approach to teaching advanced curriculum in high schools. I think the postings contain clear and logical arguments for why the AP program is an insufficient vehicle to teach advanced science effectively, unless your measure of success is getting a 4 or 5 on the College Board AP exam. One of his many arguments, which are well constructed, is that AP exams are inadequate ways to measure a student’s understanding of the curricula. He also makes the case for why other AP courses do not meet students’ needs in the 21st Century. Some who have commented, have identified with his views, while others have not. ChemEducator LLC dismissed his arguments with comments like, “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.”

I certainly understand the thoughts and feelings of people who have devoted their career to teaching AP courses or to those who have benefited from taking many AP courses in preparation for college. As a former AP teacher, biology for five years and chemistry for eight years, my experiences were mostly positive. However, I must add that in both teaching experiences, the AP science class I taught was the student’s second year of the curriculum. The prerequisite to AP was taking an introductory biology or chemistry course. In fact, in AP Chemistry at my school in Los Angeles introductory chemistry and physics were prerequisites. As a result, I had much more flexibility to go outside the confines of the AP syllabus, both in content and laboratory work. At an excellent independent school in Atlanta, where I now work but do not teach, AP Biology and AP Chemistry are taken as a student’s first, one-year exposure to the curriculum. I think the structure in this school prompts CRASH and BURN teaching and learning. Promoting a course of study with AP as the first and only experience with a discipline, cannot produce anything other than students memorizing details to pass the College Board exam.

No dobut, the school justifies the course of study because a large percentage of the very capable students it admits get 4s and 5s on AP exams. However, I don’t think scores students receive should be used as a measure of successful teaching of the curriculum. Deeper understanding of concepts, application of those concepts to real life experiences, and the joy of learning in the discipline should be some of the measures of success. Not test scores. There is no correlation between high test scores and “interested and engaged students” moving beyond the AP program to more advanced study of the material in college. Now that may not be the goal. If not, then what is the purpose of having students memorize lots of content, pass unit tests that are multiple choice format and built like an AP test, and then cram to get a high score on the AP?

In their comprehensive and research-based book, AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program, Philip Sadler, address many of the arguments for why the AP program answers schools’ needs for an advanced program. They also carefully construct the history of the AP program from its inception in the early 1900s to today. In addition, they point out that the multi-billion dollar industry in the hands of the College Board is not likely to change readily or adapt to students’ needs in the 21st Century. Quantum Progress points out in his blog entries that the College Board’s attempts to revise their end-of-course tests have not moved out of the starting gate. As a big business, the College Board is mostly interested in maintaining the status quo.

I think the challenge for any AP teacher in areas of biology, chemistry, US History, European History, Art History, and others is to cover the extensive, sometimes unlimited, scope of the curriculum in roughly 30-32 weeks. What content is “relevant” and what content needs to be shelved? Should you have students know the formula for potassium phosphate and balance chemical equations or should you have them understand how equilibrium principles apply to the world they live in. What’s in and what’s out? What are the essential learnings or enduring understandings in an advanced chemistry, biology, physics or US History course? It is my view that teachers should be interested in talking about and answering this question.

In addition, with the science APs it is challenging to implement a really good lab program. The AP labs are “cookbook-oriented” labs. They do not lend themselves to a more inquiry approach to teaching science through experimentation. Lack of time, especially quality lab time, is the “enemy.” Also, I think it is extremely challenging to fulfill a teaching philosophy that embraces critical thinking, creative problem-solving, and analytical and synthetic thinking. In Bloom’s taxonomy, most AP teachers are teaching the acquisition of knowledge (content) and/or understanding the basic foundations of the subject. They are less able to explore his next four levels of high-order thinking: application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Teaching these four levels effectively requires making connections to other disciplines, analyzing data from experiments (science), making connections between different ideas, engaging in systems thinking, and evaluating the content being taught. There isn’t time in the typical year to teach using methods that promote higher-order thinking. Teach the content in one unit and move on to the next.

Now, some might argue that this is not the goal of a typical advanced course in high school. I would argue differently. I think we have a responsibility to help young people, who are preparing to enter high education, to think critically and work effectively in collabortive and independent settings. I think AP courses do not lend themselves to stretching beyond traditional models of teaching (lecturing, standard discussions, reviewing typical problems, etc.) It would take a leap of faith for an AP teacher to engage in problem-based learning, project-based learning, or use inquiry in their teaching practice. For those reasons and others, I think it is imperative to ask and research the question, is the AP program the right or best way to teach and prepare the inquisitive mind for the 21st Century.

Quantum Progress has asked this question and stated his views. I would support his premise and ask us to consider what are other approaches to constructing an excellent advanced program that gives teachers the flexibility to teach in depth, for deeper more lasting understanding, versus breath. I would also hope that the argument against this approach is not that those opposed to the AP program are not interested in content. I think that has been answered. We need a strong foundation of content in all of our courses. The question is merely what content and how much content?

In the independent school culture, there are schools that are starting to move away from the AP program. The Independent Curriclum Group is a consortium of about 26 excellent schools that have abandoned the AP program as their advanced curriculum. On their homepage they articulate their goal this way: “The schools of the Independent Curriculum Group put students at the center of the education process. We are part of a growing movement of leading college preparatory schools that emphasize site-based, teacher-generated curriculum for advanced courses.” The organizaiton runs its own professional development conferences and innovation roundtables for member schools. None of these schools are going out of business and most definitely none of these schools are finding it hard to get their graduates into good colleges.

I have come to a place where I believe that content-driven, test-driven, standardized curriculum, like AP programs, are not the best way to teach higher-order thinking in most disciplines and will not prepare students to be 21st Century problem solvers.

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