Teachers, admin. discuss shifting outlook on AP courses

Based on the looks of students morosely roaming around the halls the past couple of weeks, one can deduce that it’s that dreaded time of the year again: AP testing season. With the promise of college credit and a grade point average boost, students sign up to take the college-level courses, hoping to bolster their application in the process.

The ubiquity of the classes in modern high schools has increased greatly. The College Board has been offering Advanced Placement classes since 1955; since then, enrollment in AP courses has skyrocketed, reaching almost 2 million registered students at almost 14,000 high schools, according to the College Board’s 10th Annual Report to the Nation.

However, the system is not without its critics; some select schools and teachers nationwide have spoken out against AP classes, with some institutions deciding to drop the program altogether.

Perhaps the most vocal critic of the AP curricula is New York Times journalist and former AP teacher John Tierney. In a 2012 Atlantic editorial, Tierney voiced concern about the financial side of the College Board-sponsored classes, as well as concerns with the material itself.

“Before teaching in a high school, I taught for almost 25 years at the college level, and almost every one of those years my responsibilities included some equivalent of an introductory American government course,” Tierney writes. “The high-school AP course didn’t begin to hold a candle to any of my college courses.”

Some schools, such as Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx, resonate with Tierney’s message; in fact, Fieldston prominently features Tierney’s editorial on their official school website.

Fieldston, an Ivy-prep school, ditched the courses in 2002, citing the “limiting syllabi” as one reason, the New York Times reports. Instead of offering AP courses, the private school opted to teach classes more in line with the rest of their curriculum.

Fieldston is not alone in its decision. Although the AP system was not removed altogether, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, founded as a Harvard feeder school, decided to reduce the courses offered, expanding their curriculum to include advanced topics with less mandated structure. For example, in lieu of AP French Language and Culture, there are advanced courses studying French theater and philosophy. Instead of the German Language and Culture exam, students can focus on German post-Holocaust writing, works written by women or literature pertaining to Berlin and Vienna.

For students seeking rigor at Carmel High School, AP courses offer the most prominent path. Carmel faculty is more open to the AP curricula than the aforementioned private schools, noting continual improvement as one reason for support.

“Several years ago the College Board began a process to review and update their curricula and exams, with a focus on making sure students were being asked to think on higher levels,” incoming CUSD Superintendent Dr. Barbara Dill-Varga notes. “AP Bio, for example, is nothing like what it used to be. A shift to inquiry thinking has transformed how it is taught in classrooms and the exam requires that skillset, too.”

The College Board has implemented new course offerings which allow more flexibility, combatting its reputation of rigidity.

“AP has added ‘AP Seminar’ and ‘AP Research,’ which are two courses that invite students to pursue in-depth research in areas they wish to pursue and produce capstone projects that show mastery in those chosen areas,” Dill-Varga explains.

However, these two courses are not currently offered at Carmel High. At this point, the question of rigidity is still a concern for some CHS teachers.

“It’s hard to get current events in [to AP US],” AP US History teacher Marc Stafford says. “One of the things I like most about teaching history is that students can see how the past impacts the present.”

Jason Maas-Baldwin is now at the end of his first year teaching AP Chemistry after teaching the Honors Chem class for a number of years. He notes the vast expanse in material as one reason for rigidity.

“There’s pluses and minuses,” Maas-Baldwin says regarding the “scripted” curriculum of the AP course. The AP Chemistry teacher cites standardization as a benefit because it puts students at an equal level going into college.

Despite this, the downside still remains.

“Honors Chemistry can be paced at a level where you can show your freedom at a pedagogical level,” the science teacher adds. “In AP Chemistry, a course that is a second-year chemistry course that you’re teaching in a first-year setting, [freedom in teaching] because extremely difficult.”

Fellow AP U.S. History teacher Joseph McCarty, a former college professor at Chadron State College in Nebraska, has a different concern: the difficulty.

“I actually think that AP courses are harder than college courses,” McCarty says. “Because we meet five times a week instead of three, there’s a lot more homework.”

While the course may cover the same amount of breadth as most introductory college courses, the workload adds an extra level of difficulty to high school students. Some may refer to this as part of a “rigorous” course. Dill-Varga has a different definition of that term.

“[A rigorous course] should be a course that asks a student to apply, synthesize, evaluate, imagine and create!” the superintendent says. “Ideally it is a course that engages a student to collaborate with others, to make new meanings, and to really ask and think through tough questions. It isn’t just about more homework. It’s about the quality of the engagement that should come from meaningful work.”

The workload concern is one of the reasons why Gunn High School in Palo Alto recommends that students take a maximum of two AP classes for semester, according to their 2017-2018 course catalog. Instead of taking additional AP classes on top of that, students are recommended to pursue advanced courses in their field of interest.

This option has garnered the support of some CHS teachers, most notably Stafford and Health teacher Leigh Cambra, both a part of the CUSD Committee for Student Wellness.

At the moment, CHS’ course catalog is not as expansive as that of Gunn’s; however, there is room for change.

“I know that excellent school districts, like Carmel Unified, regularly review their course offerings and make suggestions about what courses to develop and add and which ones need to be dropped, particularly as they look at what graduates need to be competitive as future employees and as leaders to meet the needs of this global society,” Dill-Varga says. “I am looking forward to working with our chief academic officer, and our high school faculty, as we look at our course offerings and make sure that we make the best decisions for our students and their future.”

-Alex Poletti