Monday, June 15, 2009

Rankings really can be destructive

Ryan Avent takes aim at Newsweek's obscenely bad ranking of American high schools, which evaluates schools solely on the rate at which students take AP tests:
Last week I attended the graduation ceremonies for Bell Multicultural High School, here in the District. My wife taught English there until recently, and had had many of the graduating students in her classes.

She was an AP teacher, as was every upper class English teacher, because Bell is involved in an experimental AP for all program. The idea, according to principal Maria Tukeva, is that the big failure of urban school systems is that they fail to adequately challenge the students. Set the bar appropriately high, and students will learn how capable they actually are.

Or some such bunk. One wonders why, if this is the case, teachers aren’t made to teach graduate level courses — surely the children will rise to the occasion. Hell, just pass out the latest academic journals, and watch the magic happen. If this is what one believes, then simple “AP for all” seems to reek of the soft bigotry of low expectations. Come on, woman, have some faith!

In practice, the policy is a disaster. Teachers find themselves standing in front of classrooms that contain special needs students, students who are unable to read, and recent immigrants with little to no command over English, alongside average students who wouldn’t normally take an Advancement Placement course, and a handful of kids who would. They’re given an AP curriculum and told not to fail. And they go to work...

At the end of the year, many of the students graduate and get to attend the ceremonies I recently observed... And of course, a lot of others aren’t there, because they aren’t graduating. It’s a shame, because they don’t get to hear principal Tukeva hail the students as graduates of one of the top high schools in America, according to a prominent set of rankings. They don’t get to hear the assembled guest speakers hail the principal as a true leader, an innovative thinker on the subject of education reform.
The damage done by Jay Matthews—an education writer who happens to have control of a prominent newsmagazine's ranking—is overwhelming. Certainly the idea of implementing higher standards has merit in some circumstances. But when you equate "higher standards" with the arbitrary label of "AP," the consequences should be obvious: a burst of superficial and often destructive reform, as ambitious principals decide that downloading curricula from the College Board is the solution to every educational ill.

In reality, the point of AP classes isn't only to impose some special curriculum. Like mere "honors" classes, they help schools target students' needs more effectively. Serious students with college-level skills do better when they're placed with similarly capable peers, in an environment where teachers can cater to their abilities. Immigrants who need remedial work in English, on the other hand, should have instructors that can deal with their difficulties, not ones who opine about Shakespeare to kids who can't even read the newspaper. Lumping everyone in the "AP" bucket makes this impossible, and misses one of the main advantages that advanced curricula provide in the first place.

1 comment:

Alex said...

I completely agree with the sentiment of this post. The best memories I have of high school AP classes were certainly not of the curricula, they were of the self-selecting bright group of driven students that allowed the classes to progress faster than comparable non-AP classes. The whole college board deal was just to give the teachers a nice leg to stand on and a cherry to place on the successful students' records when the year was over.