Guest column: Advanced Placement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
December 17, 2015
The Glenwood Springs Post Independent recently reported on a Glenwood High School assembly that celebrated the increased number of students who are stepping up and taking Advanced Placement courses. Pulling kids out of class to celebrate an expensive program with an approximate 40 percent failure rate is a bad idea. A Glenwood High School student later wrote an editorial explaining that, in fact, students are not willingly signing up for Advanced Placement. The increased enrollment is attributed to the school requiring juniors to take Advanced Placement English class. Last year, a Roaring Fork High School student reported in the Sopris Sun that she was similarly coerced by her principal, who forced her into an Advanced Placement calculus class that she did not want to take and did not feel ready for. The principal even went so far as to call her parents so they could jointly pressure her into this class.
Advanced Placement is an easy way for administrators to give the illusion of "academic rigor" at their schools. However, it is widely derided as a high-stress curriculum that provides little preparation for real college. Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dartmouth have studied the limited utility of Advanced Placement and reached similar conclusions. Dartmouth decided that "the focus is on the test and not necessarily on the fundamental knowledge of the material." As a result, many colleges have re-evaluated Advanced Placement credit transferability. A National Research Council study found the material to be "a mile wide and an inch deep" and "inconsistent with research-based principles of learning." Our school district wastes a lot of taxpayer money on fees, teacher training, supplies and salaries for Advanced Placement. It would be so much better (and cheaper!) to free our teachers from canned curriculum and let them teach what they love and inspire students with their enthusiasm for various subjects. Most important (and almost never considered in public school decision-making) is that Advanced Placement does little to create happy, lifelong learners. It erroneously teaches students that "quality academics" means hours of joyless studying, and it robs them of free time to do valuable internships and pursue their own passion projects.
There is a better way to meet the needs of students, and it's already employed successfully at Bridges High School, Carbondale's "alternative" public high school. The sign in front of Bridges says it all: "We will engage students in their education and co-create pathways to their future." Principal Lyn Bair and her teaching staff don't coerce kids. Instead, they talk with students to find out their needs and then find ways to meet those needs. The school serves a marvelously diverse population, from teenage mothers and dropouts to kids who are ready for college prep. Students feel empowered, and they succeed. Because Bridges trusted my daughter and believed her interests were valid, she has been able to attend Colorado Mountain College each semester since her freshman year. She will earn her two-year college associate's degree in her senior year of high school. (Kudos to her awesome CMC adviser, Craig Farnum.) Instead of complaining about huge Advanced Placement homework loads like her friends at other schools do, she comes home every day telling us about the interesting things she learned at both Bridges and CMC. Her CMC homework is manageable because she chose her own schedule and she has acquired valuable work and life balancing skills. She has time to pursue her passions like paid internships at the Sopris Sun and KDNK radio and working on profitable entrepreneurial projects.
"Success" in life doesn't always mean being college-bound. Some kids will have profitable, honorable careers as welders, plumbers and electricians, and our schools should have more training options for future tradesmen. Others want to go to college. For these students, earning transferable college credit and experiencing a real college course load before they get to a university is invaluable.
If your child is stressed out, doesn't love learning, isn't planning their own academic path and doesn't have time for hobbies, you should know you have options. You just need to insist on something better at their school. Don't settle for the status quo. Our family read a remarkable book, "The Teenage Liberation Handbook." It presents many excellent alternatives, and it empowered us to explore new education pathways for both of our children. Read it, and start raising happy, lifelong learners in 2016!
Stacey Craft is a Basalt parent.
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