Saturday, August 8, 2009

What is "access" anyway?

Fall semester a year ago I hand out Anthony Lane's New Yorker essay about the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony and ask the same question that I am certain all AP English Language teachers are asking their students, albeit about different texts: "What is the tone of this piece?" Of course, Lane, typically astute and ready to debunk, warns us of being so enamored of the aesthetics of fascism, which seemed to govern the elaborate show, down to the young singer replaced because she was not pretty enough; but many of the students, programmed to believe the TV hype and who are uncomfortable reading for anything other than decoding, did not get it.

The class was full of students who had taken a class over the past summer specifically designed to ready them for AP, or as it is hyped, a college-level English course. Instead of reading the EB White essays I had assigned as AP summer reading, which might have readied them for Lane's piece, their summer-school teacher read them Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby word by word and gave them many AP timed essays as practice, among other assignments, I am assuming. I am not sure how these students did in this summer class, but when I handed them the Lane essay and asked the dreaded TONE question, they blanched.

Then when I asked the students whether they knew what a thesis was or how to write an essay using effective grammar and sentence structure and an acceptable college manuscript format--all important, if basic, aspects of college preparation, which should have been taught either in previous classes or at least in the summer class--they blanched again, but, this time they ran to their counselors to switch out of the class.

What I considered basic questions were daunting, and that exodus left me with nine students in the class. I am proud to report they all passed the test, and three of them received the highest scores: of the 11 5's our school-wide 149 test takers received, 5 of them were my students. But even though the class was a joy for all the students who remained and for me as a teacher, given that I am no longer teaching AP Language and everyone seems fine with that, the experience pissed off the bureaucrats who demand that such small classes never happen again.

Back to the exodus. . . I am aware that there are lots of reasons students are not prepared for college-level work. But I will let you fill in those blanks since I spend most of my time in my classroom and know not first-hand what happens in other rooms, except on the rare occasions I get to observe others. The issue at the heart of this situation is this question of "access."

In every public school in which I have had the pleasure and horror of teaching, the philosophy is the same, and I am sad to say runs counter to mine. When I point out that my students do well on the AP tests because I have high expectations and because we all work really hard at reading and writing analytically, administrators tell me that they would rather see high numbers of students enrolled in AP classes than high test scores. They believe everyone should have access to AP classes no matter what and that the test scores essentially do not matter nearly as much as how many kids enroll and take the test.

Now in theory, this sounds lovely, doesn't it? It's the stuff they make all those feel good school movies about: thugs without any interest in school, who would rather taunt the teacher and one another than learn anything, suddenly learn the same dance steps, break out into rousing song and get the best scores in history on their culminating exams. Who wouldn't be heartened by seeing such accomplishment driven by a no-nonsense, petite blonde or elderly hispanic or handsome black, strong Asian (I could go on. . .) compassionate teacher? Who wouldn't be motivated to join Teach for America so that they too could be part of the feel good, change the world mentality--for a year or two, that is.

I did not have thugs in the class I described. I had motivated students, but their reading-levels were low and their critical thinking and writing skills very weak. Essentially, they had been, to my way of thinking, untried. Of course, I can teach these kids, but should they be in an AP class? Giving access to ill-prepared students is like giving access to the deep end of a swimming pool to non-swimmers. Would I take AP Calculus if I tremble at simple math? Why, then, would students take AP English if they don't read regularly and intelligently?

Usually students line up for AP because they have done well in their previous classes, and they behaved well enough to prove their motivation. That behavior should certainly be rewarded, but not at the expense of changing the high-level courses to courses designed to accommodate low skills. Why, then, is there a test at the end of the course if it doesn't matter? And why, then, do these ill-prepared students, who find their way into other AP classes, do so poorly on this test? And, most important and goes without saying, why doesn't their failure on the AP test matter?

Of the ill-prepared students who stuck with me last year, they told me they had read maybe one or two books in their honors 10th grade classes the year before and wrote mostly journals and book reports, while my honors 10th graders, sharing this AP class, had read about five books each semester and had written extensive, analytical reader responses and essays about each text. Had that class been dominated by ill-prepared students, I would have had to turn the class into something that was not AP at all And let me just say that calling a class AP does not make it AP! Could that be the goal of the administration, to water down AP, just so they can say they have a high number of students in AP classes, taking AP tests? Uh, yup. Standards-driven education, you say?

As a department chair, I do believe everyone should have access to AP and all high-level classes, but that access begins WAY before one gets to the upper grades, where these classes are usually taught. Access begins in elementary and middle school, and at the very least in 9th grade. If students are asked to do AP-level work well before they actually enroll into an AP course--if they are taught to swim BEFORE they get into the pool--then the dream of high enrollment can be achieved, and dare I say it, high enrollment and high test scores wouldn't be an either/or choice anymore either!

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