To the Editor:
Regarding Bruce G. Hammond’s recent Commentary on the small, but apparently growing number of high schools opting out of the Advanced Placement program (“On Dropping AP Courses,” Jan. 19, 2005):
First, let’s agree to leave aside clever critiques on the wisdom of any high school American history course that would use an Oliver Stone film as anything but a bad example. Still, the fact that Mr. Hammond describes such a course at his New Mexico preparatory school as its “most demanding (non-AP) history course” is, well, interesting.
More to the point: The strongest feature of any Advanced Placement curriculum is that it disciplines both teacher and student to remain doggedly on task. Sad to say, most AP coursework rarely allows for the luxury of many of Mr. Hammond’s described “voyage[s] of shared discovery.” That is, unless such voyages are also able to end up at the shared destination found in any given AP curriculum.
Viewed in a different light, this method is akin to granting teachers the freedom to teach their classes in their own way, yet also expecting them to remain faithful to an established curriculum. No surprise here. Teachers who repeatedly demonstrate tendencies to stray from an agreed-upon curriculum do their students few favors. Sometimes a solid curriculum, AP or otherwise, can protect well-intentioned teachers from their own wandering proclivities.
Worth also noting is Mr. Hammond’s greatest AP complaint, although he waited until the last three paragraphs of his piece to reveal it. What appears to trouble him the most about the AP program is the brutal objectivity embedded in the exam process. This is because, unlike almost any other nationally standardized assessment tool, the College Board’s AP exams expose individual teachers to unprecedented academic scrutiny.
This means that if students should fail to satisfactorily negotiate their particular AP springtime exams, there will usually be only one person whom a school administrator will look to for an explanation. Quite understandably, the prospect of an objective ad hoc teacher evaluation tends to frighten many teachers. To be an AP teacher is to acknowledge the presence of an unspoken annual competency exam, which is then published to the world.
Despite the fears on the part of many teachers, there remain several sound reasons for why parents and administrators continue to insist on a robust AP curriculum in their high schools. Chief among them is evidence suggesting that those students who succeed in these rigorous classes are also more likely to reap the rewards when they later enter and eventually graduate from college.
Patrick F. Gould
Center on Education and Work
School of Education
University of Wisconsin-Madison
A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as There Are Sound Reasons to Keep AP Coursework