The seminar.

To recap:

Turns out that someone at the district office was looking at our AP United States History pass rates and thought it might be a good idea if we could talk to some of the newer teachers in the district about teaching the course. They want to set up a one-day seminar some time in September where we’d all get together and my coworker and I would spread the wisdom accrued over all our years teaching the course.

–Me, “Opportunity,” August 25, 2010. Damn right I cite myself.

They picked last Monday, the 13th, to have all the AP social studies seminars at the Schultz Center. The district sent an e-mail to the principals and teachers saying that it would be a nice, strictly voluntary opportunity for the newer teachers to learn more about their respective AP courses. By the Thursday before the seminar, only a handful of teachers had signed up. The district then sent a somewhat more menacing e-mail to all the principals saying that anybody with three or fewer years’ experience teaching an AP course or with a pass rate under 35% had to attend. Registration shot up.

I would like to think that the change in the district’s tone was because of concern that these extra teachers needed training, regardless of whether their time would be better spent, you know, actually teaching their students. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that it was to make sure that, in light of the complaints that the Schultz Center is a massive waste of money, the Schultz Center was being put to “good use.” Who knows.

The 13th arrived. The day began with a pep talk in one of the big rooms, which included a really weak football analogy, and then we split up by course. There were twenty-something people in our APUSH session: ten or so were brand-new to the course, five had been teaching the course far longer than my coworker or I had, and the rest had taught it roughly as long as we’d taught it. I think the newbies got a lot out of the session, since they needed as many resources and as much advice as possible. I think the long-timers didn’t get anything out of it, but they took the opportunity to advise the newbies as much as possible. The ones who’d had as much experience as me seemed to fall into two camps: (A) a blend of newbie and old-timer, taking and offering advice, and (B) people who really didn’t want to be told by anybody from Paxon how to do their jobs, and so tuned out and surfed the net all day. I had no problem with the B-campers; I understood exactly how they felt, and they weren’t disruptive at all.

The newbies ate up everything that was said, asked for all the resources we had, and wrote down the names of the websites we talked about. That was the productive part of the day. But if the seminar had been restricted to newbies, which was the original plan, it would have been a lot more useful for everybody. We could have focused more on helping the newbies, and everybody else could have been back at their schools teaching. Or at least attempting to teach.

As much as I complain about the school I work at–the air quality so poor it’s nationally ranked, the humidity in my room that has caused everything on the January page of the calendar to bleed through to December, the rats that found the gum in my desk and chewed through the wrappers, the sinkhole that my room is slowly sliding into, the light bulbs that haven’t been replaced, the ceiling tiles that keep falling on students’ heads, the lizard in my classroom that’s too slow and small to eat all the bugs, the lack of effort by some kids, the lack of effort by some adults, and so on–I will admit to anyone that I am lucky to teach the kids at my school. True, I want more effort and better results out of them than I get, but they are smarter and work harder than the vast majority of students elsewhere in the district.

I bring that up because at one point, we had to hand out each school’s “Instructional Planning Reports,” which show student performance on the previous year’s AP exams. Now, Paxon’s scores are not as high as we’d like–but after seeing the scores at these other schools, where only a handful of students, if any, passed the exams, I can’t complain too much about my situation.

I did take the time to complain about the district policy of shoving as much AP as possible down everybody’s throat, regardless of preparedness or interest. That’s the only time everyone in the room paid attention. I said the policy put teachers who had classrooms full of weaker students in an unenviable position: do they (A) teach and grade the AP course the way it’s supposed to be taught, which at most schools in this district would mean an overwhelming number of Ds and Fs, or do they (B) inflate the grades, get a prettier distribution of grades so their admins don’t lambaste them, and end up with horrible pass rates that don’t match their grade distributions? Now that AP pass rates are going to affect school grades (which help determine funding and can get people fired), what are the people who teach AP courses to those students who can’t read at anything close to grade-level going to do?

I acknowledged that I was very fortunate to teach where I do, and that I couldn’t possibly imagine what it was like to try to teach a college-level American history course to a classroom full of Level 1s and 2s (those are non-proficient readers according to statewide standardized tests). I told them that I remembered the College Board seminar which purported to show us how to teach AP courses to “non-traditional (i.e., weaker) students,” yet showed us absolutely nothing of the kind, and that I understood their frustration.

Someone asked, “So what do we do with a class full of 1s and 2s?”

I said I didn’t know, but I could tell them what I’d do even though I didn’t know if it would work, and it would be considered “poor pedagogy.” I said, look at Bloom’s Taxonomy. If you’ve got kids who can’t handle the higher-level thought processes like evaluation or synthesis, and are struggling with reading a college-level textbook–especially one as florid and metaphor-laden as The American Pageant–maybe you just need to stick with good old-fashioned rote memorization. Maybe you pick and choose which pages they should read from the book, instead of assigning an entire chapter. Simple outlines. Simple vocab terms. Drills. Recitation. And you keep your fingers crossed that they’ll remember at least some of the stories you tell them, and that when the test comes in May they’ll recognize some buzzwords.

I said there was something else they could do: lean on their admins and the district personnel to stop cramming AP down everyone’s throat. Put kids–especially the lower-level readers–in classes that they see as challenging, not impossible. I referred back to the football analogy, and said that perhaps we should take the district personnel and put them on a real-life college football field, either for a live practice or a game, and see how well they performed. If we wouldn’t do that to our high school athletes in the name of college preparation, why would we do that to so many of our high school students? Some kids–most kids–need to prepare for a college-level course before they actually take a college-level course. Put them in a situation where they can reasonably be expected to learn.

Someone asked how much money the district we spent on AP exams our students didn’t pass, and whether the money could be better spent. I turned to the district personnel in the room and asked if I could answer that question. They nodded yes. I told them that two years ago, it was over eight hundred thousand dollars. Last year I think it topped one million dollars. There was no disagreement from the district personnel. Someone again wondered aloud what else we could’ve done with that money.

Someone asked why the College Board was pushing the AP program so hard. The answer was simple: they’re a business, and their job is to make profit. They’re pushing extra hard because of pressure from competitors like AICE (a college-prep program from Cambridge), IB, and dual-enrollment programs at community colleges. Fine. What the school district and the state department of education need to understand is that their job, whatever it is, is not to ensure the profitability of the College Board, or to get as many Florida or Duval County schools as possible as high as possible in the Newsweek rankings.

We stopped ranting, and the interest levels died back down. Lunch came and went, the afternoon session came and went, and at the end of the day, the attendees filled out the requisite evaluation forms with minimal useful feedback and left. I still had a job on Tuesday, and hope I managed to get myself out of presenting any of those seminars ever again.

10 comments

  1. Why did you chose teaching high school over a career in economics? I’m thankful for teachers like you but at the same time I cannot for the life of me understand why you bother with it.

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  2. If Duval does stop cramming AP down everyone’s throats, then what kind of AP policy would you suggest for DCPS?
    Would you have a structure where AP is crammed down all the high-level readers throats only and put the low-level readers into remedial classes?
    Or a complete free-for-all system with some restrictions where anyone can take whatever AP class they want (but freshmen are not allowed to take APUSH, etc.).

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  3. There are several possibilities. Ignore the prep magnets for a second. At each neighborhood school, a college-level program (AP, AICE, dual-enrollment) must be available, but not mandatory. I think it would have to start off as a free-for-all, because I don’t know anything about the legality of using prerequisites for enrollment in those courses.

    At the prep magnets, students are expected to take a more rigorous curriculum. It’s more reasonable to require kids to take more AP courses, though I’d like to see a lot more flexibility and choice built in. Perhaps we should say that every student at the prep magnets has to take a certain number of AP courses, but we could give them the choice of which APs to take. Right now, students at my school face five mandatory AP courses in social studies, which puts students who want to specialize in other disciplines at a disadvantage.

    Also, taking the exams should be entirely voluntary. As recently as 2005, teachers at Paxon had to fill out forms recommending that a student take (or not take) an AP exam, but the decision was ultimately up to the students and parents.

    These aren’t perfect solutions, but I think they’re improvements.

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  4. I know that at least Fletcher has some pre-reqs (FCAT Scores, GPA, grade in previous course) for their AP classes, don’t know about any other school.

    Choosing to whether or not you got to take the exam was a great and efficient option, why did they get rid of it?

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  5. This is probably not the official reason, but it’s the reason that best fits the evidence:

    The Newsweek Challenge Index rates schools based on the ratio of AP/IB exams taken–not passed– to the number of graduating seniors. About five or six years ago, a bunch of Florida schools (including Paxon and Stanton) got leapfrogged by a bunch of Texas schools simply because the TX schools had increased the number of exams being taken. Our school district retaliated in kind by requiring AP students to take AP exams, and by increasing the number of AP students, regardless of preparation.

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  6. Ah, I see. Is that the same reason why Paxon keeps increasing the number of APs students are required to take with each incoming freshmen class?
    They probably should’ve just failed more kids to lower the number of graduating seniors instead.
    One of my elder teachers at Paxon used to tell us stories from the good old days when Dr. Williams reigned and how students who failed math or English they wouldn’t be allowed back the next year unlike now.

    Texan schools are crazy anyways, my history professor used to edit textbooks in TX (including one of the earlier versions of The American Pageant) and he was saying the other day about how they dumb down high school textbooks so much it’s basically middle school level.

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