I came across an article about the Federal Way Public Schools (where I had my first job, and I must add, also had a very positive professional experience) which described the current practice of automatically enrolling into AP or IB courses all students who have met minimum state standards.
Thinking back to my childhood, I remember hearing Garrison Keiller's recounting of Lake Wobegon from Prairie Home Companion. At that young age, I didn't follow the satire. Now, that simple line about how all "the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are above average," keeps echoing in my mind as I look at what is happening in some districts as they recoil against cultural perceptions that schools are failing, and in their response, create a situation where they can claim all their students are above average. Federal Way Public Schools are not alone in this movement. I see the seeds of it in my own district as well.
The reasoning behind this movement often seems to be that (1) kids ought to be challenged, (2) AP and IB courses are challenging, ergo (3) all kids should take AP or IB courses. Unfortunately, whenever any opposition is offered, that logical fallacy is then too quickly followed by others: "Don't you think all kids deserve a good education? Don't you think all kids can learn?"
In talking to some of my friends and colleagues who teach AP courses in my home district and in other districts, there is tremendous reticence about the enrollment en masse policies which stack AP kids to the rafters regardless of readiness. Several teachers lamented how they were forced to move more slowly, cover less material, and deal with greater and greater numbers of students entering without the necessary skills preparation, dispositions, or work ethic demanded in an effective Advanced Placement course, all of which resulted in less effective preparation of the students who actually were advanced.
Somehow, it feels to me that the mantra of "all students can learn" is taken to obscene proportions with movements like the one described...with all this stemming perhaps from what is referred to as the "Lake Wobegon Affect" or "illusory superiority" where we tend to overestimate our own or our group's capacity or talent by comparison to others ("We're all above average! We're all advanced!"). I am familiar with a few high schools who require all students to enroll in at least one AP class--and I seriously doubt that is the best educational decision for each and every student. The article about compulsory AP or IB enrollment detailed how around a quarter of the students forced to enroll ended up dropping the courses--likely after damage to their GPAs (and thus their post-high school prospects) and perhaps their morale as a scholar. While there parents can choose to opt their child out of the compulsory program, some parents indicated that it had not even been communicated to them that their child would be enrolled in the advanced programming--let alone that there was a way to opt out.
In our fears of falling behind, and perhaps because we fear being ostracized for seeming to imply anything other than "all students can learn," it seems we're now deluding ourselves into believing that not only can everyone learn, but everyone can be the best learner (or at least that all students can be above average).
I'm all for high standards--but the missing modifier in this "everyone is an advanced student" approach is reasonable; I'm in favor of high reasonable standards. In Federal Way, all students who have met state standards are enrolled into advanced courses; when I look at my students who have met standard and passed the HSPE in reading and writing, I see the kids who have met the minimum standard, not necessarily kids ready to take on the rigorous challenge of Advanced Placement Language or Literature--courses wherein I see even my very best students struggling to earn high marks.
If the program in Federal Way works--that is fantastic. But in analyzing whether it works, it is important that people consider statistics beyond simply the number of AP enrollments and tests taken, which coincidentally (or not) is a primary component of certain prominent "best schools in the nation" lists.