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Democratizing excellence: Wider access to AP courses works, ProPublica project finds

Alert MinnPost reader and longtime educator Ray Schoch spent at least a little bit of his time on the 4th of July engaged in the ultimate patriotic activity of thinking about the fate of the nation’s schoolchildren. Specifically, he sent me a link to a Slate story on a fascinating investigation recently concluded by the investigative reporting organization ProPublica.

Hat tip for the link goes to Ray; I have no idea whether he shares my thoughts on the topic at hand, so complaints about the spin I’m about to put on the piece it goes to should be aimed squarely at me.

The story looks at Florida’s success in expanding the number of poor kids and racial minorities taking Advanced Placement classes in schools both flush and impoverished, and probes the implications. Advanced Placement, of course, being one of those super-challenging curricular tracks (along with International Baccalaureate programming) that are rare in poor schools for reasons ranging from the fact that as proprietary programs they are costly to our oft-denied but undeniable tendency to expect less from disadvantaged kids.

As part of a series of controversial school reforms, in 2000 former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush entered into a partnership with the agency that manages AP classes and exams with the aim of increasing the number of impoverished kids who had access and, ultimately, a better shot at being college-bound.

Increased presence in poor and rural districts
One tactic was to focus on increasing AP’s presence in poor and rural districts. Another was to provide bonuses to teachers for preparing individual kids to take the classes and pass the very challenging, far more than proficient, tests.

According to ProPublica’s analysis, it worked: “While measuring outcomes in education is notoriously difficult,” Slate reported, “data show that numbers of high-school seniors from poor families who pass at least one AP exam have surged. In 2006, students from low-income families made up 10 percent of all seniors who passed an exam. By 2010, that percentage had doubled.”

During his appearances here during the last legislative session, Bush did mention the teacher incentives as something that was helping to reduce Florida’s achievement gap. But he spent more time talking about a series of less proven, more ideological “reforms” that he thought Minnesota would do well to emulate, such as vouchers, an end to social promotion for third-graders not reading well, and so on.

He also sought to bolster his case with the selective use of statistics, but a kajillion pixels were spilled on that topic in this space back then, so we’ll concern ourselves only with ProPublica’s findings, pausing only to lament that this reform didn’t get more air time.

I think it’s reform with a lot to recommend, although I’ll offer a caveat: In the era of choice, many schools and districts have come to see the offering of AP or IB courses not just as an academic tool but as a marketing tool, too. The very existence of the programs telegraphs rigor to a family worried about giving their little darling every competitive advantage, whether a sizable number of the school’s pupils do more than dabble in the challenging curriculum or not.

Expansion in Minneapolis
Minneapolis’ Southwest has long topped “best schools” lists in part because it was the only high school in the district to offer the programming. As part of a strategic redesign begun four years ago, Minneapolis Public Schools are in the process of offering advanced coursework in all but one of its high schools and several elementary and middle schools.

The idea of expanding the programming was twofold: To democratize the availability of rigorous academics  and to create downward pressure on schools in the lower grades. In order to be positioned to take AP and IB classes in later years, elementary pupils must be not just reading proficiently and performing basic math, but reading and thinking deeply and critically.

So maybe the magic is aiming for the fences. Certainly, demanding not just proficiency but excellence is typically a feature in the so-called beat-the-odds schools that graduate virtually all of their students and send them on to higher ed.

In general, paying teachers bonuses based solely on test scores has not proven to be a reliable way to improve student performance. So why would offering small rewards for specific gains made by individual kids make a difference?

Commitment codified in law
Perhaps the goal of getting one or more kids, whose individual strengths and struggles are the teacher’s daily bread and butter, into a specific program is a much more manageable goal than getting an entire classroom to a particular standard not of excellence but of proficiency. And perhaps the state’s commitment — codified in its laws — to expanding AP’s availability gave those teachers the specific tools to prepare kids for entry. (No small thing, this last item.)

ProPublica and Slate stopped short of answering these questions, but did contrast Florida’s numbers with those of three other states while also examining issues of equity and access. Without those last two items, the investigation concluded categorically, we might as well just all go home. 

It’ll be interesting to see whether the Minnesota districts that have invested in broader AP and IB availability reap the same gains as Florida. If so, there are likely to be multiple takeaways.

In the meantime, if you have any leftover sparklers and feel like lighting one in Ray Schoch’s name, I salute you.

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