Although I am an AP teacher, I never took an AP, IB, or honors class while I was in high school. This was for a host of reasons, but in general, there weren’t very many kids who looked like me in those classes—and the news tells us that not much has changed in the last twenty years. Around the nation students of color and low-income students are underrepresented in accelerated courses; this is a long-term driver and consequence of societal inequality.
A quick note: I’m using the language of high school—Dual Enrollment, AP*, IB, and Honors—because that’s my context, but the same basic principles of equity and access to gifted and accelerated programs apply at the younger grades.
In my role as 2016 State Teacher of the Year and in my advocacy since, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting many schools. These visits are almost always rewarding, but there’s a repeated sin: You enter the school and are greeted by hallways full of diverse, energetic, chatty students. The principal or counselor proudly walks you around, talking about their recent test score history, extracurriculars, or rising graduation rate. You round a corner and all of the sudden things shift. As you look in the doors of classrooms, something is different. Suddenly a school with the demographics of Oakland has math classes that look like Oslo. You’ve entered the Honors hallway or the Dual Enrollment Small School, or the IB wing, and it looks nothing at all like the school as a whole. I’ve seen it time, after time, after depressing time.
High school course selection is a major determinant of post-high school and life options. Students enrolled in advanced coursework go to college and succeed academically there at higher rates, especially in STEM majors. But too often the selection for these classes is at the whim of the gatekeepers, teachers, counselors, and principals, who don’t approach the work from an equity perspective. When we deny access, we close potential doors of opportunity for students.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In my district and school we strive to make sure our accelerated classes look like our hallways—it’s an official district policy called Academic Acceleration. We never turn kids away. Even the jocks (a few against their will) are enrolled—there are no applications, no gatekeeping. In fact, it’s the opposite. We fight with them (and their parents) when they try to drop the classes in September. We want every seat filled and we want the accelerated classes to look like our building as a whole.
All students deserve access. To the teachers, counselors, and principals who serve as the gatekeepers to accelerated programs, I offer you a challenge: Stop the gatekeeping. If your honors, AP, and IB classes don’t look like the rest of your school, you’re perpetuating systemic racism and classism. If you’re the gatekeeper, stop it. Remove the gates. Here are some concrete ways:
- Increase the number of seats in advanced classes by converting general education classes to accelerated classes. When I began teaching AP Government, we had two sections in our building; we now have seven. More sections means more access for students.
- Seek out ‘non-traditional AP students’ (male students-of-color, in particular) and push them to take more rigorous classes. I target the loudmouth know-it-alls. I have a soft spot for them because I was one and they’re often desperate for a challenge.
- Move from “opt-in” to “opt-out” AP enrollment. We have mountains of evidence from 401k enrollment in the private sector that folks who are automatically enrolled in the savings programs are more likely to remain in them. It’s the same for accelerated classes. The more of a hassle you make getting out, the more likely students stay in the course.
These steps require little additional funding but do require a shift in how we view the purpose of accelerated classes. When it comes to AP exams, we don’t talk about pass rates at my school. We talk about the total number of passers because our focus is on access and, in the end, more students taking the classes will lead to more students passing exams.
Now, don’t mishear me—there are no magic bullets. This is easier blogged than done. On the teacher end, I have to teach the class differently. I spend a ton of time building context for students, and I heavily scaffold vocabulary. Frankly, many students in my classes won’t pass the end-of-year exam, but they still deserve access to rigorous, engaging coursework. I remind them that the exam is a mere snapshot of one moment in their academic journeys and, considering I never took or passed an AP exam in high school, they’re already ahead of me.
*Note: many people have very valid criticisms of AP; that is an argument for a different day. My larger point is that whatever your accelerated course offerings, you need to consider equity in student assignment.
Nate Bowling is the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year, a Finalist for National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY.) He cofounded Teachers United and teaches social studies at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Wash. Nate publishes a regular blog, “A Teacher’s Evolving Mind” and is the host of the “Nerd Farmer Podcast.”
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