AP: Reinventing the Educational Wheel?

by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader

Recently I was asked for my thoughts concerning the revisions being incorporated into the AP program.  In the next few years several of these classes are going to undergo extensive changes.  According to Christopher Drew in the New York Times “…many of the (AP) courses, particularly in the sciences and history, have also been criticized for overwhelming students with facts to memorize and then rushing through important topics.”  Mr. Drew continues, “A.P. teachers have long complained that lingering for an extra 10 or 15 minutes on a topic can be a zero-sum game, squeezing out something else that needs to be covered for the exam. PowerPoint lectures are the rule. The homework wears down many students.”  The prime focus of the changes will be the tests administered at the conclusion of the classes.  The plan is to reduce the volume of material to be covered on the exams and to create a guide as to what parts of the curriculum will and will not be included. 

Currently the two subjects being given the most significant facelift are United States History and Biology.  Since I have taught neither I will leave the evaluation of these alterations to those with more expertise in the curricula.  But as someone who taught math in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program for more than a decade and oversaw a department that participated in both programs for 26 years, I would like to comment on a few points concerning this overhaul.

The highest form of flattery

In general the changes that are being made appear to be designed to require more creative thinking by the students and allow teachers increased flexibility.  While I applaud these adaptations as positive steps, I also note that many of these new strategies have been employed by the IB program for years. There is, however, an IB tenet that is not being emulated.  One of the greatest strengths of the IB program has been the commitment to providing adequate class time for certain college-level courses that contain extensive and dense subject matter.  At my former school, when the change was made to become IB, the classes in Biology, Physics, and Calculus were taught over a two-year period.  This extended time allowed the teachers to present a course that was reflective of a college curriculum.  The new AP plan addresses this issue by reducing the material to be covered but does not extend class time.   While that approach may improve test scores, it will do little to ensure adequate coverage of the curriculum.  If the goal is to offer a college-level course taught with the rigor and expectations of an actual university class, it must be understood that a typical gifted high school student may need additional time in the more academically challenging areas. 

A personal complaint

There was one other troubling aspect of this article.  One public high school AP Biology teacher expressed concern about the addition of math concepts to the course.  According to the article this educator was worried that the new math requirements will discourage students from enrolling in the class.  I find this attitude very disturbing.  If the goal of an advanced program is to create academically well-rounded students, should the inclusion of basic statistical math be a reason for such concerns?  Is it unreasonable to expect a "college-level" science student to be able to use and understand such principles?  It is troubling to say the least that educators at this level may be incorporating their students’ potential aversion to math as part of the enrollment strategy. 



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