AP and Equity

Here’s some welcome good news in Pittsburgh. The Heinz Endowments just gave the school district a three year, $930,367 grant so that more of our high school students can take advanced placement (AP) courses, which help students get a leg up on college. In a partnership with the National Math and Science Initiative – a non-profit based in Dallas – Brashear high school and Sci-Tech 6-12 will each receive funding to expand AP offerings in science, math, and English. [Post-Gazette, 6-5-13]

These kind of advanced opportunities are sorely needed in the district, and far too inequitably distributed at the moment. Last week we learned about Omari Payne, a remarkable high school senior, who was permitted to transfer from Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12 (U. Prep) to Pittsburgh Allderdice so he would have access to AP Chemistry. Omari had already taught himself AP Psychology (and this year taught himself AP computer science), but U Prep offers only 5 AP classes and he was forced to take chemistry on-line. Allderdice has 22 AP courses and after he switched schools this year he was also able to take AP calculus, physics, European history, and English. [Post-Gazette, 5-28-13]

Clearly Omari is an unusual student and Pittsburgh is going to be proud to have him as an alumnus. But his case raises a couple of sticky issues about equity. First is the issue of on-line courses. U Prep offers AP Chemistry on-line, but that means students like Omari are forced to learn alone, essentially teaching themselves on a computer. Technology holds a lot of promise for education, but purely on-line courses are clearly not the answer as a complete substitution for classroom learning. And when they are the only option at schools disproportionately serving our poorest students and students of color, then we also have to look at this as a problem of equity.

Sally Martin, a chemistry teacher at Allderdice, explained, “It is lonely learning alone, and you pick up so much hearing other students question and asking your own questions.” What’s more, she feels “the learning from online courses is superficial.” [Post-Gazette, 5-28-13] My own experience in Carnegie Mellon University’s teaching center working with faculty developing on-line courses for higher education revealed just how difficult it is to build an effective digital class. While there have been some real advances in the technology, the instructional methods and teaching strategies used in on-line courses also appear to lend themselves far more to certain disciplines than others. For instance, math or statistics appear to be better candidates for on-line classes than history or literature.

In short, I am wary of any plan to offer on-line courses simply as a potential cost-savings measure. We need to make very sure that the outcomes are good for students. And far too often it seems to me that corporations are the ones benefitting from these proffered digital “solutions.” (See also, “Big $.”) That’s what seems to have happened in Idaho two years ago when legislators decided they would dictate how teachers should use technology and passed a law there requiring all high school students to take some on-line courses to graduate. To pay for the program, the state shifted money away from paying actual teachers. Teachers and parents revolted together, marching in the streets and collecting 75,000 verified signatures on a petition.

Sabrina Laine of the American Institutes for Research, explains, “Teachers don’t object to the use of technology. … They object to being given a resource with strings attached, and without the needed support to use it effectively to improve student learning.” In the Idaho case, it also came to light that technology companies such as Intel and Apple were heavily lobbying state legislators for the bill. And they donated $44,000 to the campaign of a key superintendent who backed the plan. [New York Times, 1-3-12]

Fortunately, Pittsburgh appears headed in the right direction. I was delighted to learn that the district’s new AP initiative focuses on teachers – rather than computers – to work with our students. In fact, the grant will provide intensive training to about 65 teachers, both during the school year and over the summer, to help expand the number of AP offerings and successfully guide students through them. Dale Fleury from the National Math and Science Initiative explains their “teacher focused” program saying, “if a teacher is properly equipped, properly trained, the sky’s the limit for these young people.” The new program will also provide Saturday workshops with outside experts to help students get ready for the AP exams. And both schools will get $35,000 for equipment. [Post-Gazette, 6-5-13]

I was surprised to learn that the grant will include financial incentives for both students and teachers. Students can earn $100 for each successful AP exam (a 3 out of 5 is generally considered a qualifying score by colleges who then provide advanced placement in their programs). And teachers can get $1,000 for meeting enrollment and performance goals. This strikes me as bordering on the “merit pay,” concept, which has been soundly debunked by economists and social scientists – and failed in every school district where it has been tried. [VOX economic research analysis, 9-16-11; DianeRavitch.net 6-1-13] I am curious what local teachers think about this part of the program.

Pittsburgh hopes to expand the effort if it can find additional grant money. Allderdice, CAPA 6-12, and Westinghouse have all applied to the initiative. Meanwhile, the district has been making some headway in expanding offerings over the past few years. More students are now taking AP classes (currently 1,181, up about 15% from last year) including more African-American students (whose enrollment has doubled over the past three years). This is all good news, though progress is slow – and not just because the district doesn’t want to offer these courses. It has the real challenge of getting enough students in some buildings ready for AP classes so that it can offer them.

While the district allowed Omari Payne to transfer this year, it was initially reluctant. Allison McCarthy, the director of academic initiatives, explained, “Our first goal for any kid that wants to take an AP course is to provide it to them at their school.” She correctly stated, “You don’t want to bleed schools of their top students” by simply transferring AP students to different buildings. [Post-Gazette, 5-28-13] She took some heat on-line for those comments, but I think she’s right. Some Post-Gazette readers were upset that this doesn’t do what is best for individual students, and puts “schools” before individual student needs.

But we want lots of AP classes in all our high schools – and to afford to do that, we need to work on getting a large enough cohort in each building to support it. And all students benefit by having a mix of peers. It does not serve the equity work our district has been engaged in to simply send all the kids who need advanced classes to one school. That results in intellectual impoverishment. And though I’m not popular when I say it, this is actually similar to what I fear happens when we siphon our top artistic and scientific talent off to “special” schools within the district. How much better it would be if we could meet the art and science educational needs of those students in their home-schools, where all our children would benefit from a full rich curriculum – and from interaction with their talented peers.

In any case, I am thrilled to think this grant will help expand access to AP courses for all our students in their home schools. There is a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here too, as we offer these classes and they become visible and viable options to students who can then aim for them within their own buildings. We send a strong message to our kids when these resources are available in their schools – that they are not just Promise Ready, but Promise Worthy. Three cheers for AP equity.