High-school students want to take more and more Advanced Placement courses these days. And we’re encouraging them. At Weston we have altogether too many students who want to skip the second half of precalculus and take AP Statistics instead — all because it comes with that “Advanced Placement” imprimatur. They’re bolstered by Newsweek, which rates high schools by the number of students taking AP courses — not even by the number who do well on the AP exams, but just by those enrolled:
Students who take AP exams — even if they don’t do well — are better prepared than those who don’t.
Weston is #4 in Massachusetts by this strange criterion. Of course we know we’re #1 by any reasonable criterion, right?
In his recent State of the Union address, President Bush made it clear that he agrees with the AP mania:
Tonight I propose to train 70,000 high school teachers, to lead advanced-placement courses in math and science.
Now it’s certainly true that Americans need to learn more math and science. And it’s certainly true that a lot of American students would end up stretching their mathematical knowledge and skills if they prepared for and took AP courses. But at what price? On NPR’s All Things Considered yesterday, there were a couple of fascinating interviews within a single story. One was with Maria Klawe, outgoing Dean of Engineering at Princeton and incoming president of Harvey Mudd College, who “worries about the President’s emphasis on advanced placement classes”:
We need good teaching at all levels, not just in the final years of high school….
The most important thing is that we simply don’t pay our teachers enough to attract people with the kind of training we need in mathematics, science, or computer science… India not only produces a much higher number of computer science graduates than we do; they also teach computer science throughout K-12. So, for example, virtually every student in India will learn to program before they’re 15 years old.
If you look around the world, the places that have students performing well in math, science, or computer science are places that value their teachers. They give their teachers excellent training, they pay their teachers much better than we do… There has been a fair amount of research looking at how China teaches mathematics, and one thing that came out of that was that the teachers themselves are extremely creative. It’s not that they’re teaching exactly the same way year after year. They’re constantly experimenting with their students, looking for new approaches to teach abstract concepts. And I think one of the things in the US that we think is going to work is that we think we’re going to come up with the right textbook, or the right set of exercises, the right curriculum, and then give it to everybody and it will solve the problem. And of course it doesn’t, because teaching is not a rote activity.
The other interview was with Eric Walstein, advanced math teacher at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, MD, who said this:
One of the things that schools do, whether they realize it or not, is that they pull the intuition from the kids’ brains. As they come through elementary, middle, and high school, the students become less and less intuitive. But that’s exactly what we want to promote: their intuition.
Are AP courses the best vehicles for solving these problems?