26 September 2006

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.


At 8:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so glad that someone at the highschool level is thinking along these lines. Every year 70% of the student qualified for the CSU show up needing remediation. Makes one wonder what the heck was going on in high school.

At 9:03 AM, Blogger T.C. said...

Remember the old saw, "'A' students teach, and 'B' students work for 'C' students"? There is no mention of 'D' or 'F' students. Do you think that the saying is true today? I don't.

I don't think that it holds true because many, if not most, of today's 'C' students are yesterday's 'D' and 'F' students.

There is a lot of public outcry about how our students are not matching up well against foreign competition. Is it possible that we are "falling behind" because we focus 80% of our time and treasure on the LOWEST 10% of our students while our competition focuses 80% of its time and treasure on the HIGHEST 10%?

I know everybody wants to blame 'No Child Left Behind' for that but really NCLB is just the latest in a long list of 'feel good' projects gone bad. Other groups who are guilty of this behavior are the American Academy of Child and Asolescent Psychiatry, the National Association for Retarded Citizens, the National Education Ass., and others.

At 10:08 AM, Blogger La Maestra said...

Actually, I've never heard that old saw. Maybe I'm too young.

There's public outcry about how we aren't matching up to foreign competition, but from what I've read, the foreign schools are testing their university-track students, whereas we test ALL of our students regardless of track. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but this is what I've been told.

I don't really see us treasuring the lowest 10%, or at least at my school. At my school, a API/Decile 1 school, we're focused on getting the kids remediated that are in the basic range, because they have the best chance of being pushed up to proficient. In my view, it's the very lowest students who are getting left behind. Two years ago, I had a freshman in remedial English who read and wrote on about a 2nd grade level, but the special education department wouldn't take him despite obvious learning issues (he wrote some letters backward, for example) because he was "too low", and they couldn't help him. The kid was sweet and polite and worked incredibly hard, but even though the class was already a remedial class, I couldn't give him the help he needed.

I see a lot of middle-range students struggle for simple lack of support. No one ever pushes them, encourages them, and tells them that school is important, so they never learn to value it. Yes, the world needs ditch-diggers too, but there are many many kids out there just waiting for someone to care about their academic success.

All that said, I do believe in tracking, as long as there is a clear method of mobility between tracks, and available in-school support for students that want to be on higher tracks but don't have the resources at home. I also have some qualms with the dropout age being 16. Part of me thinks that it should be lowered to 14, and that students not in school at 14 should be allowed to work full-time. However, part of me believes it's a bad idea, because I see parents on a regular basis who want their children to go on independent study so that they can work to support themselves/the family, rather than staying in school full-time and being on a college-prep track. If the dropout age was lowered to 14, I can see more parents pulling their children out of school to work, and in the long run, this is a bad thing.

Check out the AVID program (link in my post) if you haven't already. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.

At 4:12 AM, Blogger NYC Educator said...

I think a better alternative to 14-year-old dropouts would be a re-introduction of vocational tracks. I don't know about LA but they've virtually disappeared in NYC.

I very much like your attitude and enthusiasm, and I have no doubt that those kids are very lucky to have you as a teacher. They're particularly lucky since you have a mayor who seeks to replicate a system in NYC that's managed to accomplish absolutely nothing of substance for public schools.

At 1:41 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

I've got loads of average students in my AP classes- we have completely open enrollment. They're not pushed into anything.

Kids are capable of WAY more than almost anyone thinks.

At 6:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This widespread notion that American scores are low compared to other countries just because other countries allegedly test more selectively must be challenged. Northern European countries test their students across the board, and the relatively smaller gap between the lowest and highest performing students - as well as the better average scores - has more to do with lower poverty rates and, for less than clear reasons, a remarkably weak connection between parental income and student performance. I guess throwing this out here without supplying references to studies is a little too easy, but I should be planning lessons now instead of reading blogs. In any case it is also irresponsible to explain away low American scores by reference to selective testing when no studies or data whatsoever are cited in support of this notion.

At 1:45 PM, Blogger Mr. W said...

I think a better alternative to 14-year-old dropouts would be a re-introduction of vocational tracks. I don't know about LA but they've virtually disappeared in NYC.

gone at my school. They are trying to add some, but the classic woodshop and auto are done for.

I would like to see some sort of electrical, plumbing, computer, and some auto brought back. Tons of jobs that require those skills.

When did we decided that everyone must be an AP student and go to a four year college?


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