Sometimes Hollywood is good at weaving myths that tap into our society’s common narrative of the American dream.
A 1988 movie called "Stand and Deliver" told the story of one year in the classroom of a teacher, Jaime Escalante, who was able to get nearly all his Latino students in East Los Angeles to pass an AP Calculus test. The message was that it doesn’t matter how far behind students are or how poor their skills might be because a great teacher will be able to overcome all of those obstacles.
The truth is that even spectacular teachers – and every parent knows a child will be lucky if they have two or three in their school career - cannot perform miracles with every child in their class in a single year.
And neither could Escalante. The truth is that he got his results after he had gone about changing the math curriculum in his school so that students walked into his Calculus class prepared.
But the myth persists because we want to believe it. And so politicians and education leaders, in search of ways to catapult the brightest students in underperforming schools into higher education, have clung to AP as a solution. Give these students a top curriculum and somehow they will be able to do college level work in high school.
Nearly a year ago, I began sitting in AP classrooms to see what eight months in one really looks like in different schools. I spent two or three days a month sitting in the same classrooms at Woodlawn and Dulaney High Schools in Baltimore County and Digital Harbor High in Baltimore City. I chose those schools because they are varied, but for very practical reasons as well. Their principals agreed to let me in.
Over the course of the year, I came away with a greater appreciation for the cultural differences in each of the schools. All the students were the best and the brightest: the students who show up consistently, follow directions and want to complete all the work. They told me they wanted to be in AP classes, for the most part, because unlike other lower level classes, everyone was there to get an education.
But Woodlawn students hadn't cultivated the same work ethic that the students at Dulaney had because it wasn't necessary. They told me they had been able to get straight As without much effort. So many of them never cultivated habits that required them to think deeply or push through to the end of a difficult math problem even if it took a long time to do it.
Digital Harbor High students were even farther behind and displayed less attentiveness to detail or drive to get the work done. Students wandered into classes late and didn't attack the laboratory work with the same serious purpose as students at Dulaney and Woodlawn.
Dulaney students, on the other hand, had studied hard their entire lives and staying up until 1 am to get the work done was what they did. Any student who came into that environment from a lower level class inevitably was under a lot of pressure to follow what the class leaders were doing. As one student told me, it was pretty clear early on in the year who wasn't doing the reading carefully enough in her biology class. After a month or two, the students caught on to what was expected of them and began working harder. Dulaney students saw their competition as the top students from around the nation. Woodlawn students saw their peers in the building and thought of themselves as doing well.
One of the great questions I was left with was how teachers might invent that same culture of high expectations in a Woodlawn or Digital classroom. Much of the pressure Dulaney students felt to do well came not from their teachers - although they longed to please them - but from outside forces like parents and college admissions officers. So how does a teacher at Woodlawn create that climate in his or her classroom? And how does a teacher with students who have major academic gaps teach a college level course?
During the year, I was surprised by the depth of knowledge of the AP teachers, no matter where they taught. It was hard to sit in on a John Wagner class at Dulaney and not get excited by U.S. history or to spend time in Zachary Jaffe's English class at Digital and not be reminded of why Shakespeare is so powerful. These are master teachers with years of experience. Brian Patterson and Adam Sutton at Woodlawn, Marty Stranathan at Dulaney and Nicole Veltre-Luton at Digital are each thinking deeply about how to teach their subject in a new way.
I found the AP teachers I saw well prepared and committed to their students. Small miracles were happening in their classrooms every day. They just weren't the Hollywood variety.