I’ve been wishing for years that our district would not teach the kids to chase unreflectively after praise rather than think for themselves about right and wrong. Now I’m starting to think that the district itself does the same thing.
It seems like I can’t go to a City High event or open a City High email without being reminded of the many accolades that City High has been awarded. Many of these are in the form of being named “one of America’s top high schools.” Everyone likes to hear nice things about their kids’ school, but I think most people know to take these assertions with a grain of salt. For one thing, test scores usually play a big role in the criteria, and our district’s high test scores are probably largely a function of its demographics, not its school policies. Are the district’s policies making those scores higher or lower than demographics alone would predict? Don’t ask. (And of course not everyone agrees that test scores are the ultimate measure of the quality of a person’s education.)
A little high school boosterism is to be expected. But if the district pursues certain policies just to chase this kind of accolade, then it can actually do some harm. One of the factors that goes into many of these “nation’s best” assertions is the number of students enrolled in AP courses. The number of AP sections has also been an ongoing bone of contention among people who are concerned about equity issues between City High and West High. These forces have created an incentive for the high schools to enroll as many students in AP courses as they can, regardless of whether those courses are in the best interests of the students enrolled.
I know a number of students who were invited to take AP U.S. History in the first semester of their freshman year in high school. I also know kids who accepted that invitation only to discover that the class was too hard and too much work, and who then dropped it. I’m open to the idea that there might be the rare ninth-grader who is genuinely driven to take a college-level U.S. History course, but that’s not what appears to be happening at our high school. I know at least six kids over the past two years who were invited to take the AP course as a freshman, and I don’t know all that many high school kids.
I have a lot of doubts about the value of AP courses. I would much rather the district craft its own honors-style courses than offer courses that are so single-mindedly focused on passing a standardized test created by some outside entity. Moreover, I don’t believe for a minute that an AP course is a substitute for a college course in the same subject matter. I wonder whether students are actually doing themselves a disservice to take an AP course rather than wait and take the college course (which the AP credit enables them to skip). For a couple of critiques of AP courses, see here and here.
But say what you want about high school juniors and seniors taking AP courses. Freshmen? If the course really is college-level, do freshmen belong in it? If the course is suitable for freshmen, is it really a substitute for college course work? My fear is that neither is true: that the courses are inappropriate for freshmen and overvalued, too.
Does the district’s pursuit of AP enrollments reflect thoughtful inquiry into the value and appropriateness of AP courses? Or it is just the result of chasing whatever the conventional wisdom values?