Tag Archives: AP

Responding to the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews

5 May

By Thomas Ultican 5/5/2020

It came as a surprise when Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews reached out to me. After indicating that he was writing a book, Mathew’s said that he had just come upon my pieceA Texas Sized Destroy Public Education IDEA.He flatteringly wrote, “… your analysis is impressive and I want to include some of it in my book.” He also sent an article and a book chapter asking for comments.

In the article about IDEA, I had written,

In 2016, Jay Mathews of the Washington Post rated IDEA charter high school the most challenging in the nation. Mathews rates schools by what he calls “the Challenge Index,” which takes the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge tests given at a school each year and divides by the number of seniors who graduated in May or June. Charter schools that shed students without replacing them now own all of the top spots in this index; not deeply meaningful.”

Jay’s message to me was very respectful with a genuine feeling of interest in my opinion; however, we do have very different views. I will endeavor to address those differences honestly and respectfully.

The chapter he sent me is focused on his “Challenge Index” and its rationale. The article was a piece he did for his Washington Post column in November about a high school teacher who teaches AP English Language arts. He explained how that teacher came to appreciate the value of expanding AP access.

Some Personal Background

I grew up on a ranch in rural Idaho with a cowman for a father, a sheepherder for a grandfather and a school teacher for a mom. She studied teaching at Albion Normal School in the southern Idaho Mountains. Coincidentally, it is the same school attended by the force behind “A Nation at Risk,” Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell.

My mother often claimed that the key difference that made public education in America superior and more democratic than any other system in the world was that in America there was no high stakes testing.

In the 1960’s, before education standards and AP curricula there was an aphorism,

“American high school students are the laziest in the world. They seldom study and spend their time playing, socializing and competing in sports. Then they graduate from high school and over the summer a miracle occurs. They arrive at college to become the world’s leading scholars.”

After an engineering career in Silicon Valley as a researcher in the disc drive industry, I decided to become a teacher. During my fifteen years in the classroom, I taught advanced mathematics, conceptual physics, two flavors of AP physics and AP environmental science. In the end, I have concluded that my mother was right about high stakes testing and that the aphorism about American students captures an important reality.

Most surprisingly, I now believe that AP style college level classes in high school are bad pedagogy.

Mathews and Ultican

AP, IB or Cambridge Courses are Bad Pedagogy

This will probably be viewed as heresy by many of my fellow educators. It certainly would be by Will Robertson, the AP English teacher Jay wrote about in November. In 2005, Roberson’s Corbett High School near Portland, Oregon required that every student take at least seven AP classes. Robertson wrote a lengthy memo to the administration about why it was such a mistake. After three years, he realized that the students he feared would be defeated by the AP rigor were meeting the challenge and wrote another lengthy memo admitting his error.

I contend that the challenge Robertson’s students are meeting is not appropriate for their mental health and development.

A fundamental flaw in modern education reform is the push toward inappropriate curricular pacing. Kindergarten has become the new first grade where students who should be learning through play are sitting at desks doing math and language arts work sheets.

In their recent book, Let the Children Play, Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle write, “The global education race for ‘higher standards’ at lower financial costs have turned many schools to factories that try to produce standardized products efficiently on tight schedules.” Modern education reform is developmentally inappropriate. As Gloria Ladson-Billings, Distinguished Professor in Urban Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison states, “Anyone who fully understands child development knows that children’s ‘play’ is children’s ‘work.’”

This problem is infecting all levels of k-12 education. High school is not the appropriate level for college work. Young brains need to be protected from high stress during a period of rampant hormonal changes and emotional immaturity. Vicki Abeles, the director of the documentary film “Race to Nowhere”, describes in her book, Beyond Measure, the damage modern education reform is reeking on children and our culture.

When we start talking about challenging teenagers we need to make sure those challenges are appropriate for healthy development. Two quotes from Abeles’s book strongly imply that we have moved way past appropriate.

Adele opens chapter one, “Sicker, Not Smarter”, with a quote from Saint Louis University School of Medicine professor and pediatrician Stuart Slavin:

“My personal feeling is that we are conducting an enormous and unprecedented social experiment on an entire generation of American children, and the evidence of a negative impact on adolescent mental health is overwhelming. This is particularly disturbing given the fact that having mental health problems in the teen years predisposes to mental health problems in adulthood.” 

Abeles also shared a powerful anecdote from a student named Emily:

“Junior year is supposedly the most important in high school and my effort just wasn’t going to cut it, not if I wanted to go to a decent college, and without a degree from a top university I was not going to be successful…. I had failed. All those years of late nights studying for AP classes followed by 5 AM water polo or swim practices, what would they come to? Nothing, just like me. In a world where we must excel in not one but many areas, I had not done so in any. I would rather be dead than face the years to come, sure to be filled with constant reminders of my failure. In my mind, there was only one way out.”

Last year a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association documented the significantly rising suicide rates for ages 15-19 in America.

AP and other similar programs are a net negative for the holistic growth of students and undermines their positive social development in the crucial teenage years. Just like kindergarten is not developmentally appropriate as the new first grade, high school is not developmentally appropriate as the new college.

Unlike genuine college courses taught by gifted professionals operating in a sphere of respected autonomy, these high school level college courses employ the enfeebled teach to the test methodology. An AP syllabus must be approved by College Board and in practice that means using an approved syllabus provided by College Board as a template. Worse yet, the entire course is centered on preparing for the end of year AP exam which is supported by a large test preparation industry.

I have read your opinion that “teaching to the test” is not a problem but we just disagree. I think it leads to lifeless uninspired classrooms.

The “Challenge Index”

Since I view college level work in high school as a negative, I obviously disagree with a system that rates schools higher if more of their students participate in these programs. However, I will respond to some of the points you make in your “Challenge Index” book chapter.

You definitely deserve credit for trying to come up with a method for evaluating schools that eliminates the standardized testing advantages schools in wealthy communities have. When reading about what you learned studying Garfield High in East Los Angeles, I appreciated the egalitarian motivation for the approach you invented. You wrote,

“I decided one way to draw attention to the issue was to rank high schools in a unconventional way that illuminated the hidden strengths I had found at Garfield. Instead of measuring them by state, SAT or ACT test scores, I assessed them by their success in getting less than stellar students into the most challenging courses and tests.”

As I was entering the classroom, the disparity in AP course offerings between schools in wealthier neighborhoods and those in poor and minority communities was a hot topic of discussion. What we were not discussing is whether AP, IB and other courses of their ilk were appropriate. It was assumed they were. As a new teacher, I was an enthusiastic advocate for my AP classes at the 90%+ minority populated high school where I taught.

The following quotes from the “Challenge Index” chapter highlights a problem facing public education. You write that after introducing the “Challenge Index,”

“Newsweek asked me to do another national Challenge Index list in 2000 and again in 2003. In 2005 the magazine decided to make it an annual feature, calling it “America’s Best High Schools.” It assigned two researchers to help me collect information. In 2009 the list got more than 20 million page views.”

“Principals and superintendents at a few public schools, mostly in affluent parts of New England, told me they did not want to participate. They said their schools were not accurately represented by such a simple ratio, just one number. I explained to them why this was a useful tool for parents choosing schools and policy makers analyzing achievement. I said it might not appeal to everyone, but newspaper readers liked it, as they did other newsworthy ratios like Wall Street’s Dow Jones Average or baseball’s Earned Run Average.”

The arithmetic behind the “Challenge Index” is a simple ratio of the number of college level tests taken at a school divided by the number of graduating seniors. It is an easily understood metric but like standardized testing it does not meaningfully evaluate schools. Education is an extremely complex system and a simple explanation may be popular but damagingly misleading.

The over-representation of charter schools in the “Challenge Index” is an arithmetic issue. Charter schools typically do not replace students who leave. By their senior year, the graduating class is often only a third the size it was in freshman year. Public schools do not see that big decline in class size so the smaller denominator for charter schools misleadingly engenders large “Challenge Index” ratios.

The No Child Left Behind rules, the Race to the Top rules and your “Challenge Index” all try to evaluate schools with a simple metric, but education is so complex that these simple metrics are counter-productive.

For many decades, states have had agencies send teams to schools for more than a week to evaluate every aspect of the school and write detailed reports. Here in California that work is done by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). I have been involved in four WASC reviews. They were conducted by teams of administrators from around the state. WASC not only did a detailed evaluation of every aspect of the school but also worked collaboratively with the school to improve its roadmap for continuous improvement.

My bottom line is that simplified indexes run in popular news magazines may sell advertising but they are misleading and do damage. Many wonderful schools were erroneously deemed failures by No Child Left Behind testing. If education leaders had looked at the accrediting agency reports instead of just the simple standardized testing results, they would have never destroyed those schools operating mostly in poor minority neighborhoods. Likewise, your “Challenge Index” with its easy to understand ratio runs the risk of promoting unhealthy education practices.

Rethink and Rollback the Expansion of AP and IB

19 Oct

By T. Ultican 10/19/2017

What if the education reform ideology is wrong? What if the ideology of reform was based on an incorrect understanding of developmentally appropriate pedagogy? In a 2006 hearing before the senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, Assistant Secretary of Education, Henry Johnson testified, “We believe that the Advanced Placement program offers a proven, scalable approach to raising expectations and increasing rigor in America’s high schools, particularly those with high concentrations of low-income students that typically do not offer such curricula.” What if that belief is ill-founded?

I taught AP physics and what a treat that was for me. I always had the highest performing students in the high school. This year both the salutatorian and the valedictorian were in my class. It was way more interesting than teaching a concepts oriented class in physics designed for the general student. Of course, I enjoyed teaching AP Physics to the school’s elite students, however, I perceived a dark side. The more I pondered it, the more I concluded that the AP and IB programs were developmentally inappropriate.

Physics Lab 2

Mar Vista High School – Picture by Thomas Ultican

IB stands for international baccalaureate. People who worked in embassies or other out of country assignments put their children in international schools. When they move from one country to the next, the school curriculum tended to be significantly different. IB developed to standardize curriculum from one country to the next. The IB program is unnecessary in America. Local communities who pay for schools deserve input into the curriculum and locally developed curriculum vetted by education leaders at local universities is more meaningful to the community.

AP stands for advance placement. It is a product of College Board, the testing giant that produces the SAT tests. College Board is organized as a “non-profit” but it has hundreds of employees making six and seven figure incomes. AP is being heavily promoted by technology companies, politicians and other corporations. There is a push to make AP the leader in curricular development and teacher training. AP employs the teach to the test strategy of pedagogy.

The National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) is now putting pressure towards the expansion of AP courses in high schools across the nation. A teacher in the Sweetwater Union High School District wrote me this week saying teachers are under heavy pressure to participate in NMSI/AP sponsored training and AP class promotion.

Both AP and IB, allow students to earn college credits that are accepted by most universities. But is it developmentally appropriate? Are we harming students?

“Sicker Not Smarter”

Paraphrasing an observation about American public education students between world war II and the publishing of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983:

“They were not serious about learning. They went to dances, participated in sports and performed in plays. They hung out with friends and listened to rock music. They seldom studied and were consistently average performers when compared with foreign students. They graduated from high school and three months latter a miracle occurred; they became the top college students in the world.”

Throughout the history of American education there has been a constant healthy debate about pedagogy. It would be difficult to find any professional educator that does not believe education in public schools can be improved. However, education reform that is not developmentally appropriate is many times worse than the derided status quo.

The 1983 polemic “A Nation at Risk” marks a transition from education guided by professional educators to education guided by powerful business leaders, politicians and famous scientists. Convinced that education in America was failing, their solution was education standards, testing and competition. The famous education writer from Harvard University, Alfie Kohn characterized modern education reform in his 2001 book, The Schools Our Children Deserve: “The dominant philosophy of fixing schools consists of saying, in effect, that ‘what we’re doing is OK, we just need to do it harder, longer, stronger, louder, meaner, and we’ll have a better country.’” (page 16)

Two years ago, Vicki Abeles published her book Beyond Measure, Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation. She opened chapter 1, “Sicker, Not Smarter” by quoting Stuart Slavin, a Saint Louis University School of Medicine professor and pediatrician. He shared,

“My personal feeling is that we are conducting an enormous and unprecedented social experiment on an entire generation of American children, and the evidence of a negative impact on adolescent mental health is overwhelming. … It is even more profoundly disturbing when one considers that there is absolutely no evidence that this educational approach actually leads to better educational outcomes.” (page 15)

Abeles quoted Donna Jackson Nakazawa, “There’s a perception that constant high demands will make kids stronger says Nakazawa, ‘“but biologically that is not the case; it’s actually breaking down the brain rather than creating resilience.”’ (page 31) Abeles continued:

“We think of the years from zero to three as the critical period for brain development, but Temple University neuroscientist Laurence Steinberg underscores that adolescence is another one. ‘[T]he brain’s malleability makes adolescence a period of tremendous opportunity – and great risk,’ writes Steinberg. ‘If we expose our young people to positive, supportive environments, they flourish. But if the environments are toxic, they will suffer in powerful and enduring ways.’” (page 36)

Writing for the New York Times Magazine this month Benoit Denizet-Lewis addressed the deteriorating mental health manifesting among America’s teens. She reported,

“… Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who has studied distress and resilience in both well-off and disadvantaged teenagers, has found that privileged youths are among the most emotionally distressed young people in America. ‘These kids are incredibly anxious and perfectionistic,’ she says, but there’s ‘contempt and scorn for the idea that kids who have it all might be hurting.’

“For many of these young people, the biggest single stressor is that they “never get to the point where they can say, ‘I’ve done enough, and now I can stop,’ Luthar says. ‘There’s always one more activity, one more A.P. class, one more thing to do in order to get into a top college. Kids have a sense that they’re not measuring up. The pressure is relentless and getting worse.”’

AP Like Common Core is not Age Appropriate

 I taught my first AP physics class in 2004, my first year at Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, California. All my AP students were taking multiple AP classes and four of them were taking five. I was shocked! They were high school kids not college kids but were allowed – no encouraged – to take a heavier academic load than most college students take.

Jay Mathews of the Washington Post creates an annual ranking of America’s high schools. He explained the ranking criteria with this year’s rankings:

“America’s Most Challenging High Schools ranks schools through an index formula that’s a simple ratio: the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at a school each year, divided by the number of seniors who graduated that year. A ratio of 1.000 means the school had as many tests as graduates.”

Today, we actually have AP classes for ninth graders and non-profit organizations pressuring public and charter schools to accelerate moving college education into high school. Like the inappropriate efforts to make kindergarten the new first grade, and move advanced mathematics into 7th grade, college classes in high school are not developmentally appropriate.

History Teaches that Breaking the AP Hold in America Will Not be Easy

 By the 1980’s, an education philosophy popular among the titans of industry started dominating. This ideology posits that standards, high expectation, increased rigor and accountability are the keys to improving k-12 education. In 1994, the CEO of IBM, Louis Gerstner wrote in his book Reinventing Education:

“Schools must meet the test any high-performance organization must meet: results. And results are not achieved by bureaucratic regulation. They are achieved by meeting customer requirements by rewards for success and penalties for failure. Market discipline is the key, the ultimate form of accountability.”

Gerstner started and led a non-profit called Achieve Inc. Achieve wrote and holds the copyright for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). These standards have wide financial and political support; however, they are so poorly written, that California re-wrote their version of the NGSS.

In 2010, Bill Gates, who also became an advocate of standards and testing, instigated the writing of the Common Core State Standards. Twenty-one people working in secret wrote the standards. Nineteen of the twenty-one writers came from the testing industry including fifteen from College Board and ACT.

I am not saying there is an evil conspiracy here. I believe that people like Peter O’Donnell the wealthy businessman and political activist from Dallas, Texas, who poured personal wealth into promoting AP are totally sincere in their desire to improve the plight of education in America. I have the same view of Bill Gates and Louis Gerstner. The problem is they have great financial and political power, unfortunately, they do not know what they don’t know about human development and good pedagogy.

Today, colleges throughout the nation are giving college credit to incoming students for successfully completing AP courses. In addition, they are giving extra weight towards admissions to applicants with multiple AP courses on their transcripts. This system is well established and ubiquitous. Chinese history teaches how difficult it is to mitigate this kind of culture.

Two years in a row, representatives from the Chinese ministry of education came to observe classes at Mar Vista High School. They even contracted with one of our math teachers, Mark James, to go to China and teach a model class. In China, there is general agreement that their high-pressure test centric education needs reforming. It is harming the youth.

In Young Zhao’s book Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon there is a chapter titled “The Witch That Cannot Be Killed.” In it he wrote:

‘“Thus, more than a decade’s history of prohibition orders from educational departments has been a history of ineffective orders,’ notes a report in China Weekly after reviewing numerous attempts to curtail the power of testing in Chinese Education. How is it possible that in such a tightly controlled, authoritarian society, the omnipotent government has been unable to kill the witch of testing?” (page 151)

Professor Zhao’s answer to his own question is a warning for us. If we ever recognize the wrong educational path we have taken, changing course will be difficult. Zhao explained:

“In the effort to lessen academic burden and reduce testing, Chinese parents, students, teachers, and schools are all playing the prisoner’s dilemma game. Knowing or assuming that others will continue to do more homework, seek private tutoring, and prepare for tests, very few parents, children, and schools would choose to voluntarily reduce the work load for fear of losing the game. Most schools, knowing that others will continue to use exams to select better students and gain an advantage, will choose to continue to use exams to admit students because the school’s reputation is on the line and will be judged by how well its students score in the future. Essentially the dilemma dictates that everyone must continue to behave in the same way. No one can afford to cut back first, for fear that the others won’t follow suit. Consequently, although new policies might bring a better education for all, no player in the education game is willing to take the risky first step.” (page 155/6)

There are many factors that would improve education and they are well know; smaller class sizes, integrated schools, well maintained modern facilities and teachers certificated in the subjects they teach are four such positive reforms. Surprisingly, increasing rigor and driving expectations down to younger students are counter-productive.

Kindergarteners should receive lessons such as don’t eat the clay and it’s not nice to pull hair. Academics are developmentally inappropriate and likely unhealthy for them. Teaching Newton’s laws of motion and principles of algebra in fourth grade will surely cause more harm than good. The nine-year-old brain is not ready for symbolic reasoning. And, teenagers are dealing with natural biological stress; they need a safe low stress environment for healthy development. Rigor and high stakes testing is the wrong recipe.

It is time to rethink AP and roll it back.