By Thomas Ultican / Tultican
What if the education reform ideology is wrong? What if the ideology of reform was based on an incorrect understanding of developmentally appropriate pedagogy?
In a 2006 hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, Assistant Secretary of Education Henry Johnson testified, “We believe that the Advanced Placement program offers a proven, scalable approach to raising expectations and increasing rigor in America’s high schools, particularly those with high concentrations of low-income students that typically do not offer such curricula.”
What if that belief is ill-founded?
I taught AP physics and what a treat that was for me. I always had the highest performing students in the high school. This year both the salutatorian and the valedictorian were in my class. It was way more interesting than teaching a concepts-oriented class in physics designed for the general student. Of course, I enjoyed teaching AP Physics to the school’s elite students; however, I perceived a dark side. The more I pondered it, the more I concluded that the AP and IB programs were developmentally inappropriate.
IB stands for international baccalaureate. People who worked in embassies or other out-of-country assignments put their children in international schools. When they move from one country to the next, the school curriculum tended to be significantly different. IB developed to standardize curriculum among multiple countries.
The IB program is unnecessary in America. Local communities who pay for schools deserve input into the curriculum and locally developed curriculum vetted by education leaders at local universities is more meaningful to the community.
AP stands for advanced placement. It is a product of the College Board, the testing giant producing SAT tests. The College Board is organized as a “non-profit,” but has hundreds of employees making six and seven figure incomes.
AP is being heavily promoted by technology companies, politicians, and other corporations. There is a push to make AP the leader in curricular development and teacher training. AP employs the teach-to-the-test strategy of pedagogy.
The National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) is now putting pressure toward the expansion of AP courses in high schools across the nation. A teacher in the Sweetwater Union High School District wrote me this week saying teachers are under heavy pressure to participate in NMSI/AP sponsored training and AP class promotion.
Both AP and IB allow students to earn college credits that are accepted by most universities. But is it developmentally appropriate? Are we harming students?
“Sicker Not Smarter”
Paraphrasing an observation about American public education students between World W,ar II and the publishing of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983:
“They were not serious about learning. They went to dances, participated in sports and performed in plays. They hung out with friends and listened to rock music. They seldom studied and were consistently average performers when compared with foreign students. They graduated from high school and three months later a miracle occurred; they became the top college students in the world.”
Throughout the history of American education, there has been a constant healthy debate about pedagogy. It would be difficult to find any professional educator that does not believe education in public schools can be improved. However, education reform that is not developmentally appropriate is many times worse than the derided status quo.
The 1983 polemic “A Nation at Risk” marks a transition from education guided by professional educators to education guided by powerful business leaders, politicians, and famous scientists. Convinced that education in America was failing, their solution was education standards, testing, and competition. The famous education writer from Harvard University, Alfie Kohn, characterized modern education reform in his 2001 book, “The Schools Our Children Deserve” by stating: “The dominant philosophy of fixing schools consists of saying, in effect, that ‘what we’re doing is OK, we just need to do it harder, longer, stronger, louder, meaner, and we’ll have a better country.’” (page 16)
Two years ago, Vicki Abeles published her book “Beyond Measure, Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation“. She opened the first chapter, “Sicker, Not Smarter,” by quoting Stuart Slavin, a Saint Louis University School of Medicine professor and pediatrician. He stated:
“My personal feeling is that we are conducting an enormous and unprecedented social experiment on an entire generation of American children, and the evidence of a negative impact on adolescent mental health is overwhelming. … It is even more profoundly disturbing when one considers that there is absolutely no evidence that this educational approach actually leads to better educational outcomes.” (page 15)
Abeles quoted Donna Jackson Nakazawa, “There’s a perception that constant high demands will make kids stronger, says Nakazawa, “but biologically that is not the case; it’s actually breaking down the brain rather than creating resilience.”’ (page 31) Abeles continued:
“We think of the years from zero to three as the critical period for brain development, but Temple University neuroscientist Laurence Steinberg underscores that adolescence is another one. ‘[T]he brain’s malleability makes adolescence a period of tremendous opportunity – and great risk,’ writes Steinberg. ‘If we expose our young people to positive, supportive environments, they flourish. But if the environments are toxic, they will suffer in powerful and enduring ways.’” (page 36)
Writing for the New York Times Magazine this month, Benoit Denizet-Lewis addressed the deteriorating mental health manifesting among America’s teens. She reported:
“… Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who has studied distress and resilience in both well-off and disadvantaged teenagers, has found that privileged youths are among the most emotionally distressed young people in America. ‘These kids are incredibly anxious and perfectionistic,’ she says, but there’s ‘contempt and scorn for the idea that kids who have it all might be hurting.’
“For many of these young people, the biggest single stressor is that they “never get to the point where they can say, ‘I’ve done enough, and now I can stop,’ Luthar says. ‘There’s always one more activity, one more A.P. class, one more thing to do in order to get into a top college. Kids have a sense that they’re not measuring up. The pressure is relentless and getting worse.”’
AP, Like Common Core, is not Age Appropriate
I taught my first AP physics class in 2004, my first year at Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, California. All my AP students were taking multiple AP classes and four of them were taking five. I was shocked! They were high school kids, not college kids, but were allowed—no, encouraged—to take a heavier academic load than most college students take.
Jay Mathews of the Washington Post creates an annual ranking of America’s high schools. He explained the ranking criteria with this year’s rankings:
“America’s Most Challenging High Schools ranks schools through an index formula that’s a simple ratio: the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at a school each year, divided by the number of seniors who graduated that year. A ratio of 1.000 means the school had as many tests as graduates.”
Today, we actually have AP classes for ninth graders and non-profit organizations pressuring public and charter schools to accelerate moving college education into high school. Like the inappropriate efforts to make kindergarten the new first grade, and move advanced mathematics into seventh grade, college classes in high school are not developmentally appropriate.
History Teaches that Breaking the AP Hold in America Will Not be Easy
By the 1980s, an education philosophy popular among the titans of industry started dominating. This ideology posits that standards, high expectation, increased rigor, and accountability are the keys to improving k-12 education. In 1994, the CEO of IBM, Louis Gerstner wrote in his book “Reinventing Education“:
“Schools must meet the test any high-performance organization must meet: results. And results are not achieved by bureaucratic regulation. They are achieved by meeting customer requirements by rewards for success and penalties for failure. Market discipline is the key, the ultimate form of accountability.”
Gerstner started and led a non-profit called Achieve Inc. Achieve wrote and holds the copyright for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). These standards have wide financial and political support; however, they are so poorly written, that California re-wrote their version of the NGSS.
In 2010, Bill Gates, who also became an advocate of standards and testing, instigated the writing of the Common Core State Standards. Twenty-one people working in secret wrote the standards. Nineteen of the 21 writers came from the testing industry including 15 from College Board and ACT.
I am not saying there is an evil conspiracy here. I believe that people like Peter O’Donnell the wealthy businessman and political activist from Dallas, Texas, who poured personal wealth into promoting AP are totally sincere in their desire to improve the plight of education in America. I have the same view of Bill Gates and Louis Gerstner. The problem is that though they have great financial and political power, unfortunately, they do not know what they don’t know about human development and good pedagogy.
Today, colleges throughout the nation are giving college credit to incoming students for successfully completing AP courses. In addition, they are giving extra weight towards admissions to applicants with multiple AP courses on their transcripts. This system is well established and ubiquitous. Chinese history teaches how difficult it is to mitigate this kind of culture.
Two years in a row, representatives from the Chinese ministry of education came to observe classes at Mar Vista High School. They even contracted with one of our math teachers, Mark James, to go to China and teach a model class. In China, there is general agreement that their high-pressure test-centric education needs reforming. It is harming the youth.
In Young Zhao’s book “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon,” there is a chapter titled “The Witch That Cannot Be Killed.” In it he wrote:
‘“Thus, more than a decade’s history of prohibition orders from educational departments has been a history of ineffective orders,’ notes a report in China Weekly after reviewing numerous attempts to curtail the power of testing in Chinese Education. How is it possible that in such a tightly controlled, authoritarian society, the omnipotent government has been unable to kill the witch of testing?” (page 151)
Professor Zhao’s answer to his own question is a warning for us. If we ever recognize the wrong educational path we have taken, changing course will be difficult. Zhao explained:
“In the effort to lessen academic burden and reduce testing, Chinese parents, students, teachers, and schools are all playing the prisoner’s dilemma game. Knowing or assuming that others will continue to do more homework, seek private tutoring, and prepare for tests, very few parents, children, and schools would choose to voluntarily reduce the work load for fear of losing the game. Most schools, knowing that others will continue to use exams to select better students and gain an advantage, will choose to continue to use exams to admit students because the school’s reputation is on the line and will be judged by how well its students score in the future. Essentially the dilemma dictates that everyone must continue to behave in the same way. No one can afford to cut back first, for fear that the others won’t follow suit. Consequently, although new policies might bring a better education for all, no player in the education game is willing to take the risky first step.” (page 155/6)
There are many factors that would improve education and they are well known; smaller class sizes, integrated schools, well maintained modern facilities and teachers certificated in the subjects they teach are four such positive reforms. Surprisingly, increasing rigor and driving expectations down to younger students are counter-productive.
Kindergartners should receive lessons such as don’t eat the clay and it’s not nice to pull hair. Academics are developmentally inappropriate and likely unhealthy for them. Teaching Newton’s laws of motion and principles of algebra in fourth grade will surely cause more harm than good. The 9-year-old brain is not ready for symbolic reasoning. And, teenagers are dealing with natural biological stress; they need a safe low-stress environment for healthy development. Rigor and high stakes testing is the wrong recipe.
It is time to rethink AP and roll it back.