Earlier this year, eight independent schools in DC made headlines when they collectively announced their decision to move away from offering Advanced Placement (AP) courses to their high school students.
While this move represented a major and potentially controversial step for these school leaders, the team here at Blyth-Templeton Academy (BTA) was not surprised by it.
The question of AP courses was one that we considered long and hard as we developed our school model three years ago, and at the time, we deliberately chose a forward thinking vision of education that didn’t include APs. In this blog post, I’ll walk through the two big reasons we have chosen not to offer AP courses at Blyth-Templeton.
According to these school leaders, their decision was motivated by a recognition that APs have lost their usefulness:
“While each of us offers a unique academic program grounded in our historical missions and educational philosophies, we have jointly come to recognize the diminished utility of Advanced Placement courses. Consequently, collectively we agree that we will better equip our students for further study and for life beyond the classroom by eliminating AP courses from our curriculums entirely by 2022.”
Are we asking the right questions?
Should students take AP courses?
As the recent announcement from these schools makes clear, the answer to this has not been a simple yes or no in decades past. As a former AP teacher, a department chair, a parent of students taking AP courses, a principal and head of school, I’ve been a part of this discussion for the last 30 years. As a high school student in the 60’s at a large public school, I took AP courses myself.
But I’ve come to believe that the real question we need to be asking as educators is not what kind of test is best for students, but what kind of learning environment is best for students.
Again, the answer to this question is not simple and is different for every student. How can we provide the best education for millions of students who are each individuals?
This is the question we are attempting to answer at Blyth-Templeton through our unique and personalized approach to education. However, we have been clear from the beginning that AP courses were not a part of that approach.Here’s why.
AP Courses Force Schools to Emphasize Content and Curriculum Over Teaching Habits of Mind
It’s important to note that not all AP’s are created alike. Some are more skill-based courses (like English) and some are more content-based (like Biology). It’s also important to note that success on the AP test itself is geared towards students who bring strong writing and analytical skills to the table already.
When I was teaching AP Environmental Science, I came to realize that I could predict the scores my students would receive on the AP after the first 2 weeks of the course. Strong writers, readers, thinkers, and hard workers got high scores while those students who did not fit this profile got low scores. However, those students who were “bad at school” were often the most engaged, the most curious, and the most successful in the messy business of science in the field and research.
When I was teaching science at Trinity School in Manhattan, the science department took a field trip to Princeton University and met with the chairs of the various science departments there.
Over and over, the recommendation we were given as to how best to prepare students to succeed in that caliber of academic setting was the same: teach students how to communicate both in writing and verbally and to be good problem-solvers. Content is easy to acquire while these skills are not.
College admissions officers are clearly saying that things like AP course work and standardized test scores are not the best measures of the students that make an impact on the world long-term.
AP Courses Constrain the Natural Curiosity and Love of Learning of Both Teachers and Students
One important piece of the testing puzzle is professional development for teachers, teacher accountability, and class size. In a setting that provides small classes, motivated students with strong backgrounds, and both time and money to support teacher training in best practices, requiring teachers to adhere to the AP curriculum is only a hindrance.
Our peers at these other independent DC schools who recently moved away from APs expressed this well:
“The truth is that college courses, which demand critical thinking and rigorous analysis, look nothing like AP courses, which stress breadth over depth. Moving away from AP courses will allow us to offer courses that are foundational, allow for authentic engagement with the world and demonstrate respect for students’ intellectual curiosity and interests."
BTA has embraced the idea of depth over breadth for our students since day one. One of the biggest reasons we embrace an atypical school day schedule is to ensure that students get plenty of time to dive deep into the topics presented each class.
We Need Educational Environments that Prepare Our Children for the Future
No matter what the curriculum, in today’s world, emphasizing content over habits of mind will not prepare students for the infinite number of problems they will see in the future.
A few AP courses will not prepare students for the future no matter what the school or setting. Consistent, long-term emphasis on aspects of education that are difficult to quantify in a test – the so-called “soft” skills like curiosity, resilience, and communication – will. Helping students learn how to learn these most important skills is what will give them the freedom to choose their paths and careers down the road. That’s our true priority.
Abandoning AP courses frees up our students and teachers to explore the vast landscape of ideas and subjects more freely, with passion, depth, and diligence.
Want to learn more about how BTA is doing things differently for our high school students? Check out our full digital resource for parents and students: The 2030 High School Graduate.