Sunday, January 13, 2013

There's an AP for That

Here is how we got here. Well, my version at least.

In the beginning, there was college. You went there to take advanced courses in literature, philosophy, science, the arts, and theoretical mathematics. Having done so meant that you could function as a contributing member of society and engage in scintillating conversation at dinner parties.  Despite the array of disciplines you might specialize in, you were primarily there to learn to read, write, and think (yes, Kristen, I stole this from you and didn't even provide a footnote--I'm sorry).

In your spare time, you may also have joined a squash league, learned chess, and started to smoke a pipe. If you were fortunate, you made lots of friends who were forged in the same fires that you were. If you were particularly fortunate, as I was, you married one of these friends (note: it was a girl, but I get what you're thinking).

Eventually, people wanted some sort of proof that they'd been through the experience, and so there came to be diplomas. As these diplomas became increasingly valuable, the number and complexity of hoops students were made to jump through increased. Students could be expected to sit for nastily exhausting examinations, write lengthy and/or well-researched papers, and take a specific slate of courses--all of this because the teachers and administrators who determined the requirements also did these things (for more on this, see also: graduation projects and cults). In fact, as you may recall, The Wizard of Oz believed that a diploma was sufficient in and of itself, and conferred a degree in thinkology in lieu of actual learning.

Eventually, some students felt that they were already plenty knowledgeable about stuff, and asked for the final exam on the first day of class. Before long, the College Board® came up with a scheme to make the tests standardized (see also: Standardized Testing). This way, students across the country could take the same test on the same day and have this test count for college credit in any college that would accept the tests. The next logical step is to teach courses geared toward helping students to prepare to take these tests. These courses were by their nature very difficult--college-level content, taught at a college-level pace, geared toward taking a college-level test.

Meanwhile, students with excellent grades in co-ed cooking and guitar class were becoming valedictorian, because their colleagues in AP Chemistry were pulling all-night'rs to squeak out a C- on their lab reports. Funny thing about kids who take AP Chemistry, they know how to get something like this fixed, since they're also many of the officers in student government. Fixing this meant "weighting" grades, so that an A in a more difficult class is worth more than an A in an easier class.

In the nearly 20 yeas that I have been teaching, AP courses, weighted grades have gone from an obscure tie-breaker for #1 in the class to a central driving force in education. This has led to some unintended results:
  1. Gaming the system - Lately, there has been an uptick in students dropping out of  unweighted programs (like band) to improve their class rank, which means that they miss out on the thousands dollars in scholarships that band directors give out at the end of the year. It also creates the possibility that #1 in the class is the one most savvy to how the game is played, whether or not he/she also is the smartest kid in the class. 
  2. Grade grubbing - Advanced students are already prone to caring more about their grades than actually learning anything. Weighted grades, class rank, and AP courses do not improve this situation. If you ever give an A- to one of those folks, you will get a visit, phone call, email, meeting with the principal or some combination of all of it.
  3. Subjective aspects - The humanities have gotten into the AP game in a big way, but this isn't entirely a good thing.While the improved equality among students in the sciences and humanities is appreciated, AP tests can't include debates, research, oral presentations, class discussion, and any number of things that must be part of advanced social studies and English courses, but that don't work in a two-hour standardized test. Chorus, for example, is by its nature a collaborative learning experience, and therefore there will never be an AP test for chorus. We do have one for music theory, and another for art history, but these topics are slightly on the periphery of what we actually do most of the time. AP Studio Art is closer to the core of what art students do in class every day, but it is scored by submitting a portfolio, not by taking an exam. Perhaps this should be the model for more subjects that don't always have a clear right or wrong answer.
  4. Rigor - Allegedly, Honors and AP courses involve college-level work. They do. Most of the time. However, just as there is a fair amount of  variety from one college course to another, there is a corresponding variety in high school from one teacher to another. In my wife's high school they called it Chemistry with Iskowitz (difficult) and Chemistry with the Other Guy (less difficult). Neither was weighted, but everyone knew which one to take to be prepared for Advanced Chemistry the following year. It has been said that some teachers offer pretty much the same course at College Prep, Honors, and AP levels, even though the weight for each is different.
  5. Corporate profits- The real winner in the ever-increasing surge of AP courses is the College Board® (not to be confused with Educational Testing Service® or Learning Focused Strategies®) which collects $89 per student, per test. Technically, they are a non-profit, but that means they only earn $50 million on revenues of $580 million. It is tempting to rely on the test itself to ensure rigor, accountability, and quality in the courses. However, that is to cede control of these aspects to the corporation that manages the test. Turning over the educational equivalent of our testicles to these people can be rather...uncomfortable. 
  6. The long wait - Despite the profits in this industry, tests results aren't available until mid-summer (keep in mind that a beginning teacher, who makes something like $30,000 a year, is expected to turn all of their final exams around in less than 48 hours--lest we feel too sorry for the College Board®). That means that the two full class periods worth of testing won't count as the final exam, or be included in the course grade at all. We could tie weighted course status to this, but not for seniors, who will have already graduated, attended senior week, and spent the majority of their graduation party gifts on lava lamps for their dorm rooms by the time the test results are available.   
  7. Trickle down - It is possible for all of this to get started in 10th, or even 9th grade. There is an AP test for US History, which is a course generally taught in the sophomore year at my school. If 14-year-olds take an AP course, is it then by definition college-level work? Do you know many 14-year-olds? Should other honors level courses also be weighted in 9th and 10th grades, since their equivalents are weighted in 11th and 12th? What's next, and where does it end?
As with so many things, there's nothing inherently wrong with the concept of AP testing. There are lots of 11th and 12th graders who are more mature and intellectually capable of college-level work than are some college freshmen--keeping these folks engaged throughout high school is an important goal. Likewise, weighted courses are, perhaps, a clumsy solution, but are a legitimate attempt to correct a real problem. Any system we devise will certainly be met by students who are more interested in playing the system than they are at actually learning the stuff that we're trying to put out there. However, if you have been inclined to see AP courses as the one clear improvement we've made to education in the past 20 years, I'm sorry to take this one away as well.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Cliff Diving

This is the true story... of 535 strangers... picked to live in a House (and Senate) together and have their lives taped... to find out what happens... when people stop being polite... and start getting real...The United States Congress.

First a little rant on group projects.

If you're not a Slacker, you might assume that we love group projects. You'd be wrong. Some teachers love group projects because there are fewer total assignments to grade and any number of class days spent overseeing kids' group work while tracking her (the teacher's) Etsy account. Meanwhile, he gets to claim that he's teaching collaborative skills and group dynamics.

Slackers hate group projects. We hate them because we usually end up doing more work than we would have done otherwise. The Slacker Way means that we calculate precisely what must be done to get by, and do only that. We're not trying to harm anyone with this, but we're willing to accept more uncertainty for ourselves than may be acceptable to the group as a whole. Unfortunately, this means that we put forth more effort for the good of the group than we would ever do for our own grades.

Group work tends to mean:
  1. More total work  - Even poorly conceived group projects tend to involve more effort from the group than would be expected from an individual. This is a problem because of:
  2. Unequal contribution - Group work almost always comes down to one sorry soul putting forth the majority of the effort. Usually this person is the one with the highest standards or the greatest concern about failing. This is especially difficult because of:
  3. Poor individual accountability - Teachers sometimes try to deal with this through individual grades for individual work, but that's not really a group project as much as it is a series of individual projects being completed in tandem. When individual credit for contributions is not carefully scrutinized (remember: Etsy), it tends to go to:
  4. That one guy - Every group has one person who isn't very good at contributing, but extremely good at taking the credit. He will schmooze, grandstand, and give halfhearted thanks to all of the team members--usually in an effort to cement his collaborative skills rather than to actually distribute credit. For more on the type, see also: here. By the way, it is possible for that one guy to be a woman.
The thing about the one person who does all of the work and the one person who takes all the credit is that they sometimes intentionally exclude everyone else in the group. That means that all of the rest are just sitting around with their thumbs up their...noses, hoping that things are going well. This is what happened with the Fiscal Cliff negotiations. Twice.

Negotiations suck because in order to get something you want, you need to give up something you also want. I don't know what was on the President's or the Speaker's lists of must-haves, but I'm sure that my own list would have been different from either. This is because they are both fundamentally moderate, while I am a wing-nut. I think we can more easily discern what was on the Minority Leader's and the Vice President's list, since that's the deal that was eventually made, but only they know what each went into the room needing, wanting, and willing to give up. The art of compromise seems to often yield a product that no one is especially happy with.

My biggest gripe is that Vice President Biden traded away the Payroll Tax Holiday. Since Republicans are supposed to be the ones on the side of cutting  taxes, I'm not sure why this one ended up on our list rather than theirs, but I think it was a huge mistake to sign the deal without it.

See, the first paychecks of the New Year are going out this week and next, and there will be less money in them. My guess is that lots of Americans are just learning about the whole Fiscal Cliff thing by opening their checks and finding that Obama raised their taxes. Actually, he cut your taxes two years ago and then let them rise on their own. Actually, that's exactly what was supposed to happen with all of the rest of the taxes. Unfortunately, many people do not perceive the world with this degree of nuance--I know, I've graded their answers to essay questions. 

What we're left with here is a bunch of tax breaks for wealthy people, corporations, some help for the truly financially screwed, and the kinds of little goodies that legislators throw in to grease the skids a bit. It's a normal part of the process, but it deserves some discussion nonetheless.

Where the President failed here, however, is the art of group work. Had he allowed January 1 to come and go, all of the taxes would have gone up. Then, he could have proposed a brand new tax cut plan that actually made sense. Two examples: ensure that money that your money makes is taxed at the same rate as money you earn; and end the Payroll Tax Holiday that rich people enjoy on income over $110,100 that makes this tax so regressive.

Instead, he managed to put himself in a position where someone else gets the credit for the stuff people like (they will forever be called the Bush Tax Cuts), he gets the blame for stuff people hate (the "increase "in FICA), and rich people have more money (thanks to tax cuts on capital gains, dividends, the estate tax, and the Alternative Minimum Tax--to name a few) available to fund Republican candidates who will oppose his second-term agenda. Worst of all, Republicans have declared defeat, and vowed not to give any more ground going forward with the debt ceiling, sequester, and spending bills..

Maybe this is all part of a brilliant scheme to teach Americans how taxes really work, and which taxes really affect them. Red states are full of people who vote squarely against their own financial self interest. Maybe this is part of a long-range plan to educate a demographic who still includes lottery tickets in their financial planning portfolio. I kinda doubt it. My guess is that, like Obamacare, this tax thing is an ugly compromise, full of Republican ideas, that they will now use as a blunt object to knock us about the head. What's actually most disturbing is that POTUS could probably benefit from reading this blog.