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AP Access and Democracy: A History Teacher’s Point of View

By Tom Swanson, AP US History teacher, Del Norte High School, San Diego, CA

The United States prides itself on being a nation of social mobility where no citizen is superior or inferior to another.  It is a nation where children grow up hearing that they can be anything they want to be, regardless of their background; where free will, not family, determine success. Even President Obama, in his recent State of the Union Address stated, “We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea, the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny.” The great irony is that our public school system, far from being the great equalizer for this nation’s children, is in many respects still reinforcing the social inequities considered so very un-American.

One area of the public school system in which this inequity is glaringly apparent is access to Advanced Placement (AP) classes.  Currently there is no national consensus as to what type of student qualifies for AP and many schools put up barriers in front of students not deemed “AP material.” Some schools insist that AP is not for many, and entry into this most privileged club is reserved for that small group of “smart” kids who make up the academic elite at any given school. Other schools allow any student into AP classes but don’t discourage teachers from weeding out students, through difficult pre-tests and extensive summer reading lists, in order to protect their pass rates, regardless of whether the student wants to be in the class or not. Though not systematic, these are informal ways in which schools deny equal access to average and low-performing students wishing to take AP.  What is this if not some form of class system? 

The topic of open access to Advanced Placement classes is a subject of much debate as is evidenced by a lively series of articles in the New York Times, entitled The Advanced Placement Juggernaut.  However, I am not here to argue statistics or reference studies.  I am no armchair educator.  My opinions are based on my observations in the field, during a 14-year career as an AP teacher and my daily interaction with students of all backgrounds and ability levels.  I believe in open access. I believe in it because I have seen firsthand what it can mean to a student who might never have gotten the chance to simply because they had a history of placement in regular or remedial classes, whether for language difficulties, learning disabilities or the whim of a counselor who made an assumption about what that particular student was capable of.  

This was the case for a student I taught years ago named Justin. My AP US History course was the first AP class Justin had ever attempted. Although he had always been placed into regular classes where he earned average grades, Justin decided on his own that he wanted to try AP US History because he found the subject matter interesting and wanted a challenge. Justin was an eager student who listened attentively to lectures and faithfully turned in his homework.  At the semester however, Justin had a “D” in the class. Understandably worried, his counselor called for a conference to discuss whether AP was the right fit for Justin, or rather, was Justin the right fit for AP.  His counselor and his parents, worried that a D on his transcript would hurt his chances at college, urged him to drop the course in favor of a regular history class.

When it was Justin’s turn to talk, he pleaded with them to allow him to stay in the class.  When they asked why he wanted to return to a class he so obviously was struggling in, Justin said it was where he belonged. He liked the challenge of AP and feared he would be bored in a regular class.  He said that he now saw himself as an AP student and was proud to associate with the best and brightest at the school.  He feared losing contact with the people he now considered to be his new academic peers and didn’t want to go back to a class where the students just “did enough to get by.”  It wasn’t where he belonged anymore.  He begged for a chance to prove he belonged in AP. Justin’s determination convinced his parents, his counselors and me, to let him remain in AP.  At first he continued to struggle with the heavy workload and the complex higher-level thinking, but he pushed himself and worked hard.  At the end of the year Justin earned a solid “C” and passed the AP US History exam with a 3.  For many students this would have been considered a failure, but for Justin it was proof that he could push himself beyond the limits other people thought he was capable of.  That was the real success.  After passing my class Justin gained even more confidence in his academic ability and took on the challenge of more AP classes.  He later went on to attend Santa Clara University and my once struggling student came back as an AP US History tutor. 

I am proud to say that I have had countless Justin’s over the years.  As his case shows, it’s not just the effect that AP has on a student’s academic skills that is the most important benefit, it’s the transformative effect it has on their self-perception.  I sometimes find that it’s these students, the ones who struggle, that are the ones who sometimes get the most out of the AP experience because they have to work hard for every success.  It is the trial by fire that strengthens their mettle in a way no regular class could. It doesn’t come easy to them, but they stretch themselves beyond even what they sometimes thought was possible, and this newfound confidence in their abilities to tackle the challenges of rigorous curriculum opens up whole new worlds of opportunity to them in high school, college and beyond.  This is where AVID can play such an important role as it pushes students to redefine their academic identity.  It allows students to focus on what they can achieve and gives the curricular and psychological support to overcome the challenge.  Justin was not an AVID student, but it certainly would have aided him.  However, every Justin should be given the chance to push toward new academic heights.

Does this mean I think AP is for everyone?  No.  Although I am a firm believer in open access, it’s not for everyone.  I always tell my students that they have to be willing to work hard to succeed in an AP class, as they do in life.  The lazy, skilled or unskilled, will not survive.  What is this if not a microcosm of the American Dream, where success is won through hard work and individual determination, not passed down through generations like property or expensive works of art.  Laziness, apathy, and individual choice should be the only barriers between our students and success.  Will open access lead to lower test scores?  Yes, open access will undoubtedly mean more failing AP scores, but by the same token, it will increase the numbers of students who pass the test, as Jay Mathews points out in his Washington Post blog, and more students pushing themselves to meet a higher academic standard. No score on a test can ever accurately measure the effect that participating in an AP class means to these students.  Even just taking up the challenge of an AP class proves to students that with dedication and a lot of hard work, they can break through barriers in all areas of life.  And isn’t that the idea that was America was founded upon? 

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Reader Comments (1)

I loved your post. I could not agree with you more!

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay Pompey

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