Yes, "average" students can do AP
In his column today, Jay Mathews discusses Patrick Welsh's assertion in his September 19th column that "average" students are being pushed into advanced classes (AP and IB) that are too difficult for them, and that they need to be in easier classes where they can succeed.
I agree with Mathews, and disagree with Welsh. What I see Welsh upset about is what I've spent four years trying to do with my AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) students, and in fact, is what the AVID program is geared toward. AVID's purpose is to challenge students academically by placing them in higher-level classes than they would have otherwise been in, and then--the important part--PROVIDING THEM WITH SUPPORT ONCE THEY'RE THERE.
Mathews, while he does an excellent job refuting Welsh's arguments, misses one key necessity--co-curricular support outside of the class itself. The process of moving "average" kids to higher-level classes won't work just by dumping them in AP classes and hoping they hang on. Virtually every student in higher-level classes is there at least in part because of a supportive parent, and this often-overlooked factor is often the determining factor between an "average" student and a "higher-level" one.
The purpose of the AVID program is to be the academic support (and de facto academic parent, when needs be) either for students whose parents are unable to help them at home, or in addition to the parents' support. As long as a student has the individual determination to succeed and a support structure on which to rely, the average student is just as capable of success as a higher-level one.
On a personal note, I'm proud to say that every single one of my AVID seniors this year has been moved up at least one level in English since their freshman year (from remedial to college-prep, college-prep to AP.) Two of them have even moved up two levels. Every single one of them has more than the UC-minimum of two years of lab science. Every single one of them has received credit for at least one AP or junior-college concurrent enrollment class (we have a very meager AP selection, so many students take JC classes to supplement their regular course load.) All but two of my AVID seniors have a UC GPA of a 3.0 or higher, and the two that don't are within spitting distance of it.
These are kids that started out below grade level. Many of them still tested at the basic level in English on the state test at the end of their junior year. They've worked extremely hard to be where they are, and I'm proud of all of them.
I've carried over my AVID philosophies into the pre-AP English classes I teach. Last year I took nine students that scored below grade-level ("basic") on the state tests. All of those kids also scored below grade level on an independently-administered reading exam we give them to determine class placement, so I know the exam results were more or less accurate. At the end of the year, six of those nine were recommended on for sophomore pre-AP. All six of those students scored on grade level this past year on the state tests, and one of them scored advanced (above grade level.)
Bringing so-called "average" students into AP classes is more important than just for looking good with regards to how many minorities are enrolled in higher-level classes. As Mathews stated, it takes an incredible amount of extra work on the part of the teacher and the parents. But this is what we, as professionals, are supposed to be doing anyway.
If we want these students to truly succeed in college, they need to be doing college-level work *now*. Students don't just magically show up to college and suddenly have the skills necessary to succeed--this is a process that must be learned through prior preparation. With programs like AVID, so-called "average" students can be prepared and supported to succeed in rigorous courses in both high school and college, as long as they have the individual determination to do the work.
Mathews, Welsh, and any other interested party can ask any of my honors students if I ever once slowed down my English class just to support students who were struggling. I already know what their answer will be. All of my support methods were either built into the class or conducted outside of school time, and virtually all of the students thrived--it came down essentially to the matter of whether or not they were willing to put in the extra work necessary to succeed.
I have enjoyed Welsh's writing before, but I really think he missed the mark on this one. His is a mindset I see all too often in my school, and it's one thing to beat my head against the same walls locally, but it truly frustrates me to see those same opinions espoused in a more national venue by a person who should really know better.