By Dr. Philip E. Bernhardt, Assistant Professor & Department Chair of Secondary Education, Educational Technology, and K–12 Education, Metropolitan State University of Denver, Former AVID Teacher and Co-School Coordinator
After recently writing a blog explaining why we need to pay critical attention to the process of recommending and assigning students to classes, I felt it was important to follow up with a description of strategies AVID educators can advocate for in order to create transparent, equitable, and well-defined course placement practices. These approaches hold the potential to facilitate meaningful change by eliminating the type of academic sorting that often results in unequal educational opportunities.
“De-Entitle” Academic Pathways
In many schools and districts, IB, AP, and other advanced-level classes can be characterized by two common dynamics: Participation is typically limited; “gatekeepers” control access. If we are serious about increasing opportunities for students to experience advanced-level classes, we need to focus on school-based barriers that commonly restrict opportunity. It is not enough for districts to establish “open course enrollment” policies. While this action is certainly necessary, a number of other factors, which are often ignored, need to be publicly addressed so that open enrollment policies can be authentically implemented.
- All middle and high school students must be provided meaningful opportunities to learn about their academic options, set post-high-school goals (as course-taking impacts trajectories after graduation), and engage in consistent conversations with school-based professionals to gain insights and feedback about academic plans. AVID teachers are already doing this work; hence, these professionals are perfectly situated to push school leaders to scale-up proven strategies that allow students to take ownership of their academic pursuits, make more informed curricular decisions, and enroll in advanced-level coursework.
- Three dynamics, common to many IB programs, need to be critically examined and fundamentally shifted. First, IB program participation typically requires enrollment in all 11th and 12th grade IB classes; simply stated, it is “all IB or no IB.” Second, entrance into IB typically requires completion of 9th and 10th grade advanced-level classes. While this coursework is designed to prepare students for the rigor of IB, it also serves as a rigid gatekeeper. Third, students unfamiliar with IB when entering high school are highly unlikely to be enrolled in the classes that allow for an easy transition into IB. Taken together, these dynamics have serious academic consequences. Over the past few decades the large body of research on academic tracking makes one thing abundantly clear: students enrolled in low-track classes early in high school tend to still be taking low-track classes at the end of high school. Schools committed to IB need to pay close attention to how the program’s structure limits participation. Explicit school policies, which aim to increase the numbers of students enrolling in high-track classes (IB, AP, etc.), need to be put into place.
- In many school districts across the nation, the success of AP programs is judged by end-of-course exam results. If student test scores are the only measure in which success is evaluated, principals and AP teachers are less likely to support open course enrollment, and those policies controlling entrance into AP classes will continue to be rigidly implemented. A single test is in no way representative of the extent and depth of student learning. Programs and policies limiting student access need to be identified, analyzed for impact, and altered so that course placement practices become transparent, equitable, and well-defined.
Acknowledge the Impact of Academic Tracking
Tracking students into classes according to academic capability is a common practice in American schools. While the consequences of tracking are well documented, its impact receives minimal attention at the school-level yet it influences so many dynamics of the schooling experience. School leaders, and I would argue AVID teachers, have a professional responsibility to engage colleagues in honest conversation about tracking, its impact, and how to alter the well-entrenched school norms associated with this practice. For example, AVID teachers can facilitate professional development that brings administrators and teachers together to discuss school-based tracking patterns and develop plans to de-construct the barriers limiting course access. A strategic first step is to analyze the demographics of students enrolled in advanced-level classes and assess the possible causes of identified trends. Academic tracking plays a critical role in determining students’ future academic pathways. This understanding is a critical step in creating transparent, equitable, and well-defined course placement practices.
Institutionalize, “Name,” and Publicize Course Placement Practices
All schools have a process for sorting students into classes; while this process may be hard to identify or make sense of, it exists. Nonetheless, one would be hard pressed to find a school in which academic placement procedures are as well publicized, discussed, or organized as those detailing grading, attendance, and suspension. School administrators, in conjunction with teachers and site-based AVID leaders, need to develop and normalize course placement practices so that they become institutionalized. Policies detailing academic placement need to be included, for instance, on the school’s website, in materials disseminated to students and parents as part of the registration process, and in documents detailing academic policies. This information must be disseminated both widely and purposefully. Additionally, because course enrollment in early grades directly impacts academic opportunities in later grades, placement policies across feeder elementary, middle, and high schools need to become more aligned. Collaborative vertical articulation is another important strategy for institutionalizing transparent, equitable, and well-defined course placement practices.
Over time, restrictive course placement practices have helped to expand what Linda Darling Hammond, Director of Stanford’s Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, often refers to as an “opportunity gap” within our schools. We all have a professional responsibility to alter the policies, procedures, and norms that routinely limit student access to advanced-level coursework.
Dr. Philip E. Bernhardt is currently an Assistant Professor of Secondary Education and Department Chair of Secondary Education, Educational Technology, and K–12 Education at MSU-Denver. Philip has spent more than a decade working in public schools, including eight years as a secondary social studies teacher. Additionally, Philip has presented at national education conferences on a variety of issues relating to the barriers to higher education; college readiness; curriculum development; and teacher preparation, induction, and mentoring. Philip earned his M.A.T. in Social Studies Education from Boston University and his B.A. in Communication Studies from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He received his Doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.