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Is it time to retire Advanced Placement classes?

Is it time to retire Advanced Placement classes?
A student takes notes in Marty Stranathan's Advanced Placement Biology class at Dulaney H.S. (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy Davis)

The national conversation surrounding Advanced Placement (AP) classes and their role in preparing high school students for the future took an interesting turn recently when eight prominent Washington, D.C., independent schools jointly announced that they will soon terminate their AP programs.

In a letter published in The Washington Post and reported in Inside Higher Ed, the heads of Georgetown Day, Holton-Arms, Landon, Maret, National Cathedral, Potomac, St. Albans and Sidwell Friends Schools cited, among other reasons:

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“… the diminished utility of AP courses and the desirability of developing our own advanced courses that more effectively address our students’ needs and interests. Collectively, we believe a curriculum oriented toward collaborative, experiential, and interdisciplinary learning will not only better prepare our students for college and their professional futures, but also result in more engaging programs for both students and faculty. We expect this approach will appeal to students’ innate curiosity, increase their motivation, and fuel their love of learning.”

The recognition by these schools — and the numerous others, such as Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts and Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, which have made similar decisions in recent years — of the limitations that AP courses impose on the pursuit of educational excellence is a welcome development, and one we hope more of our colleagues will choose to emulate.

One could argue that the AP curriculum served a justifiable purpose in a time when the simple possession of a certain body of factual knowledge assured sufficient academic preparation and an economically secure future. But the twin forces of globalization and mechanization, along with the astonishing advances in information technology — which have, quite literally, put the sum of all human knowledge in the palm of one’s hand — have permanently changed the landscape, and education must change along with it. The AP curriculum, with its focus on rote learning and decontextualized facts, simply cannot prepare our children for the world they will inherit, one where collaboration, creativity and critical thinking are at a premium, and where the ability to ask good questions is every bit as crucial as the ability to answer them.

I have the good fortune of serving in a school that has never in its 234-year history in Baltimore offered AP classes, and I can therefore attest to the inspiring curriculum that talented teachers can develop when given the time and space to collaborate and the freedom to exercise their professional judgment as to how students can best progress and demonstrate their mastery of complex topics and material. I have also seen countless examples of the powerful and enduring learning that happens when students have opportunities to design educational pathways that are informed by their interests and passions — opportunities, I would argue, that are simply not available to schools locked within the rigid AP structure.

The strictures of the AP curriculum also compromise the ability of teachers and students to apply the skills, knowledge and habits of mind that they have developed to “real-world” problems and situations and to work alongside expert practitioners in the fields they are studying. As educational research has proven, such hands-on experiences are invaluable in enhancing student engagement and motivation, providing a relevance and authenticity that powerfully fuel the learning process.

And, while we firmly believe that education is about far more than where one goes to college, the fact that our students are routinely accepted at the nation’s most selective universities demonstrates that having AP classes on a transcript is not the one true path to college admission that parents so often perceive it to be. In fact, many of our students take the AP subject tests and achieve scores that attest to their mastery of the subject matter and even qualify them for college credits, all without having had to sacrifice the kind of “collaborative, experiential, and interdisciplinary learning” that our colleagues in Washington stated as the rationale for discontinuing their AP programs.

As the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but rather the lighting of a fire.” AP courses have, for far too long, been allowed to douse these flames through their uninspiring “teach to the test” mandate. I propose that we allow the AP to move on into a well-deserved retirement.

Matt Micciche (mmicciche@friendsbalt.org) is the head of Friends School of Baltimore, an independent coeducational Quaker school for children in pre-K through 12th grade.

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