Sunday, November 16, 2008

AP in the News again

Jay Matthews feels that anyone can learn in an AP class and said so. "I was repeating for the 4,897th time my view that even low-income students who have not performed well in school can learn in a college-level high school course, like Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, if given extra time and encouragement." I'll save his caveat until the end of my post because he did the same. It's a qualification of his argument that gets him off the hook but is always ignored by demagogues and administrators, or missed by anyone who doesn't read the whole article.
A commenter replied, in part, that access to such advanced material must begin early and " ... this kind of feel-good, everyone-can-do-it idea is valuable, but not at the expense of students who are not trying to game the system but who have worked solidly to learn and succeed .... ACCESS BEGINS IN KINDERGARTEN, not at the moment a child who has effectively been asleep in school for 11 years suddenly decides to wake up!"
Matthews is wrong because he's confusing ability to learn and the quality and quantity of that learning. When you are talking AP, it's not a matter of equal rights through equal placement, measured by enrollment numbers. It's rather "What is most appropriate?" In APCalc, for example, one can teach trig and logarithms and advanced algebra along the way, but it's better if students already have learned it because calculus builds upon previous knowledge like no other subject. Those who cannot do the preliminary work CAN learn calculus but aren't really doing college work. They're dilettantes, in a way. There's nothing particularly hard about rates of change and accumulated areas and anyone can learn these concepts. Using them is another matter.

Matthews says "can learn" is the criteria to use, but he's repeating this too-often repeated educational canard. Anyone CAN learn SOMETHING in any class, but an appropriate placement means that the same "anyone" will be able to learn FAR MORE.

The first commenter, on the other hand, is wrong because he's starting way too early and because he's confusing "gaming the system" and behavior with ability. If you are talking about "not performed well" because the kid got bad grades but knows what he is doing - APCalc will be fine. If the "not performed well" is due to a lack of knowledge and skills, why not put him into a class that's appropriate?

There is no reason why a kid can't start with nothing and work up to AP level during the high school years. Escalante proved that - just remember that Escalante didn't do magic, didn't do it in 1 year, put a strong linearly-progressing curriculum into place, and demanded the world from his kids every day.

You CAN go from worst to first - but it takes a boatload of work, a competent teacher and a good teaching-and-practice curriculum, not the constructivist stuff. It takes work.

The first commenter is also correct when he says that students who do well and work hard should not be held back by those who don't work hard and who lack the necessary skills and knowledge.

A second commenter criticized the first - "Scary to think this person is a teacher. It appears he/she does not teach in a public high school ... The notion that access to AP classes should begin in early childhood education is absurdly myopic. Recently my colleague Mary Ann Bell and I gave a presentation to approximately 40 parents and 8th grade students who wanted to learn more about our AP Network here at Wakefield. ... We have AP Summer Bridge, AP Study Seminar, AP Lunch Lab, Academic Cohort for Minority Males, United Minority Girls, etc. ... the overwhelming majority of our AP students have never been identified as gifted. We also have AP students with individualized education programs that require hosts of accommodations."

Firstly, if AP access doesn't start early, why are you giving presentations to 8th graders? Saying "Early childhood" is silly, but preparation is hugely important.

If the AP is the right placement, then why do you need all the Bridges and Summers and Lunch Labs? Because it wasn't the right placement. They weren't ready for Calculus and you knew it. If the kid doesn't know what's in a typical Pre-Calculus course, why not schedule him for Pre-Calculus?

If the overwhelming majority were never identified as gifted, that's your fault as a school. It takes a superior student to be able to gain college credit in a high school setting as a younger age. Putting weak students in the course may satisfy your need to prove non-racism, but it doesn't help the students.

If the kids' IEPs provide accommodations that modify the environment, then I couldn't care less - that's not a concern, just something that is done and no one thinks twice about it. If the IEPs modify the material or the teaching methods or the requirements, then the student is mostly likely better placed in another course.

Having said all that, what was Jay Matthews's caveat?
"For some courses, particularly calculus and foreign languages, unprepared students should not be admitted." It's correct but it is buried in a paragraph from which a casual reader (and administrators and reformers and critics of pre-requisites) would take the opposite meaning.

The whole paragraph ...
The AP and IB teachers with the best results in the classes, for both fast and slow students, have told me they don't need to grind the whole thing to a halt to help kids at the bottom. For some courses, particularly calculus and foreign languages, unprepared students should not be admitted. But in most AP classes with students at different levels, some will grasp more of the classroom discussion than others, but for nearly everyone there is a net gain. The data show that opening AP to anyone who wants to take it does not reduce the number of students getting the top scores on the exams, one indication that the fastest students are not hurt.

To finish, I'll add an experience of my own - a girl who scored 480 on the math SAT and was placed in an AP Calc class. I argued that it was the wrong placement, that she was doomed to failure. I was overruled because "teacher can individualize the education" and low scores on a single test should not prevent you from taking a course." Bull. If you can't score at least 600 on the math SAT, you will probably not do well in AP calculus. It's not fair to place a student into a situation which will be forever frustrating. She wound up failing because she didn't have enough background. She was trying to learn the algebra when the rest of the class was trying to use the algebra to learn a calculus idea. Failure.

Why do keep making this mistake? Inflated grades are part of the problem, as is the group work is a cure-all fallacy. This girl did a lot of group work in her previous courses (read: she followed along while others learned). Mostly, it was an administration who wouldn't say "No" because they thought that anyone can learn in a calculus class.

1 comment:

  1. I teach AP calculus and believe me, not everyone can pass. The kids must have basic skills going into the course. The emphasis of this course is on thinking and applying, nt mechanics. It is ot enough to know how to take a derivative, but to know when and why to do it. The kids I teach have good skills but for the most part have never been taught to think. If I had to integrate the thinking with the mechanics we would never get anywheres.

    Economic level has nothing to do with ability. More than half my kids get fee waivers for the exam because of income.

    Escalante started early with his kids. What we don't see is the number that really dropped out. What we don't have are the resources he had and the desire to sacrifice our lives to get them to succeed.