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Above Privileged

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Pretending the Stars - Mindy Smith (mp3)

Ideologues can really be annoying, especially educational ideologues. Yesterday, The Huffington Post published a guest column by an educational ideologue named Steve Nelson who slammed the Advanced Placement program and damned the College Board.

AP’s are a fun and easy target for educational ideologues  because the College Board (much like the NCAA) manages to prove its incompetence and self-interested motives all too often, and the program and the organization deserve to be scrutinized and criticized.

After declaring “a pox” on the program, Mr. Nelson aims for the heart of his concern:
Even if the test is not biased per se, the process is biased by the burgeoning test-prep industry. It is inarguably true that wealthier students can "buy" test points through expensive test prep courses. If the College Board ever intended to create equity in college admission, its effect has been the opposite. It advantages the already advantaged. The disproportionate weight given to SAT scores in admission further magnifies the many advantages already enjoyed by privileged kids.
Mr. Nelson then tears into the AP program. He damns it for being more available to the wealthy and then claims its dying because too many kids are taking them. This seems fairly contradictory to me, but nevermind that. He adds:
Most AP courses are canned, formulaic and uninspired. Students take them at a high cost, financially and emotionally. They accumulate AP credits like little badges of honor, surrendering curiosity, imagination and critical thinking skills to the building of a glittery transcript.
For the record, I’m all but positive Steve Nelson has never stepped foot into the school where I work. More than 20 years ago, I graduated from high school and attended UNC-Chapel Hill. Thanks to my AP course work, I entered with 32 hours of college credit and was able not only to earn a double-major in four years, but also to take an amazing array of electives. Without those AP credits, I would have been stuck in “general college” classes covering the exact same material I’d covered the past three years, except in larger classes taught by teaching assistants.

One needs no PhD in education to say Steve Nelson is batshit nuts if he thinks my educational life would be more fruitful had I not taken AP courses.

My niece, who graduated valedictorian of Chattanooga’s second-largest public high school only took one AP course. She entered UNC roughly a decade ago along with four of the boys from my school, all of whom had taken at least four AP courses. The summer after her freshman year, we were talking about her experience, and she said, “It was crazy how much better prepared those guys were. It’s like they walked in the first day and were ready for that level. It took me a semester to know what hit me. Nothing at my school was anything like college.”

My school currently has a freshman who will take the Calculus BC exam in a month. He’ll spend the next three years exploring even higher college-level math courses. Nothing about this kid suggests he’s gaming the system, and anyone who thinks he’s not interested in learning more is a fool. The kid is a friggin’ sponge.

Our school isn't perfect. It's AP courses and teachers aren't some murderer's row of geniuses who turned down jobs at Harvard. But neither are the TA's who teach first- and second-level courses at most public universities. I'd take my teachers, their class sizes, and their time and energy over the college equivalent any day.

This is Calhoun School.
It is on the Upper West Side.
It's $25k/year for 3-year-olds.
But only if they go for a half-day.
Is the AP system flawed? In the world of college admissions and high school academics, what part of the system isn’t flawed? So is our justice system, our healthcare system, our financial system, and so on. And all of them deserve scrutiny and criticism. However, to damn AP courses in general as superficial, or insufficient, and to damn participating students as more focused on the gaming of the system than on learning speaks more to his own apparently myopic educational experiences than to reality.

Some disclosure on Steve Nelson seems relevant to the argument.

Steve Nelson is the headmaster of The Calhoun School in New York City. Tuition for this school begins at $25,000. For 3-year-olds... who attend only a “half-day.”

This guy, who is all about fairness and diversity, who is opposed to that which might be unfairly advantageous to the wealthy and privileged, is the head of a school where the parents practically scratch one another’s eyeballs out to get their kids into PRE-K. He’s in the middle of the most notoriously cutthroat private school system on planet Earth, at a school that likely filters in only the creamiest of the cream of the crop.

He slams the unfair benefits of privilege from the Upper West Side. It's like CitiGroup criticizing local banks and microfinancing groups for being dirty and corrupt.

Mr. Nelson, I’m sure your students somehow, by some miracle, manage to get into the Ivy Leagues without AP courses. Yay for you. Yay for them. You knock the AP system as being for the privileged, yet your school is so Above Privileged (“AP,” get it? Ha!) that it doesn’t even need the AP system. How convenient for you.

Because kids who attend Calhoun have enough pull
they can get into Ivy Leagues without AP courses,
Mr. Nelson believes all schools would be better off
without an AP program. Isn't it pretty to think so?
I invite you to put your money where your mouth is. Resign from your cushy job and head down South. Work in the public school system in a state like Tennessee, in one of the 300+ high schools which offer a couple of AP courses if they’re lucky. Come back in three years and proclaim these schools are better for having ditched the AP program (even if it was because of financial reasons rather than ideology).

Tell me their students learn more without that distraction of college-level fake rigor. Even as colleges are claiming that the biggest problem is the number of students entering their ranks completely unprepared for the academic rigor. "A national survey showed four out of five students in college remediation had high school GPAs above a 3.0," the article states. I'll go out on a limb and theorize that none of those are students who scored 4s and 5s on their AP in the course. Unless they joined a frat and stopped going to class.

I suspect Mr. Nelson just fine making all these claims from the Upper West Side. What safer ivory tower could there be from which to make such sweeping judgments about a flawed system his students don’t need thanks to their own privileges?

As for the rest of us in the real world, the problems facing our American educational system are far more dire and vast than can be solved by making AP courses the overly-simplified bogeyman. Here’s to hoping the ideologues take a backseat to those ready and willing to dig in to the real meat of the issues and get their hands dirty in the process.

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