The Way Things Were
I went to a small Catholic high school in the mid-1980’s. I was in the first class of eleventh-graders in that school’s history to take an A.P. class, Advanced Placement United States History. The bright, college-bound kids in the bigger public high schools nearby had had this option available to them pretty much only since I had been a freshman; my school was a couple years behind them, because money.
Way back in those primitive times, when people listed to music on cassette tapes and California still voted for Republicans, the conventional wisdom was that a high school student could not even theoretically get more than a 4.0 grade point average; a 4.0 represented straight “A” grades all through high school. Us Lisa Simpsons of that place and time all thought that a 4.0 was the summit.
Along came Advanced Placement, and you got an extra point for the class! An “A” grade would count for five, count-em, five points, so you could have a 4.1 or a 4.2 GPA on graduation and damn, that was going to look really slick on the college application! We were all so proud of ourselves for having been selected to get this honor, and the material really didn’t seem all that difficult, either — a good boost for our confidence on top of the boost to the GPA and the college credit. Seemingly, an unambiguously good thing.
Advanced Placement Contributes To Grade Inflation
Now, Advanced Placement classes have been a part of the United States’ high school curriculum, conceptually, since the 1950’s and spread from schools in and around New York to the rest of the country in a big way in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The basic idea is now what it always has been: for the brighter students bound for college, make classes available that count for both high school and college credit, to let the students ready to advance prepare for college and thus move through college quickly, as well as to distinguish themselves from their colleagues. As I experienced, that seems like an unambiguous good thing.
The grade bonus was intended to signify, as part of the numerical grade point average that purports to give an at-a-glance quantification of the student’s academic achievements, that the student had engaged in coursework mimicking the rigor and discipline of a college class. But what it seems to have signified now, in comparison to a regular high school class of the same subject, is more, rather than deeper, knowledge, as described by a veteran of the trenches:
The AP system forces much content to be “taught” quickly, which leads to low retention and even less analysis. Students are generally on their own to read, process, understand and remember an outrageous amount of information.
I’ve seen gifted AP teachers who were compelled to reduce the complexity of World War II to two 55-minute classroom lectures, and to cover the New Deal and the civil rights movement in one class. To explain the compression, teachers cite the press of time, the wealth of material and the impending weight and doom of the final AP test, given a full month before the school year ends.
High school kids, and thus the high schools that educate them, are locked in a massive arms race for credentials. A four-point-zero grade point average, once the summit of academic achievement, is now the baseline, perhaps even the bare minimum threshold. There are now Honors classes, A.P. classes, Honors A.P. classes, and who knows what other upper strata of labels attached to purportedly college-level or other better-than-high-school level work is out there. Classes offering a 5.0 chit into the student’s GPA are passe; the aspiration now seems to be a six-point-zero GPA on that application. This is hardly surprising; there are enough curricula approved by the College Board, the entity that originated and oversees Advanced Placement, that it seems nearly an entire high school program, complete with a senior-year capstone course, can be done with A.P. (Could the all-A.P. student skip college altogether and go straight to grad school? I’m only about three-quarters facetious.)
The Crushing Burden of Memorization
The high school students I meet mostly sign up for the mock trial club I coach so that they can check off another box on their college applications for “extracurricular activities.” They show up as part of an agenda intended to build a resume that shows that they are outstanding and excellent, just like everyone else. And they don’t see the irony in the last four words of that sentence, because a) they’ve been taught a definition of the term “irony” but not its application, b) they’re too immersed in the academic credentials arms race to see it for what it is, c) they can’t bear the notion that all their hard work and stress is in pursuit of the absurd, or d) all of the above.
After all, these kids certainly do more homework than I think is a particularly good idea. The kids I coach on the Mock Trial team report doing four to six hours of homework nightly. I asked the students one time, “Why do you have so much homework?” and the answer was “So that we can learn all the things the teachers need to teach us for the tests.” My next question was, “So what are you doing in class all day long?” Both the teacher I work work and the students thought that was a pretty good question to which there was no ready answer, because apparently what happens in class isn’t within that category of things we’d call “learning,” at least not at a particularly high level.
Sometimes I ask them about stuff I know a thing or two about; history, government, civics, or literature if they’ve read something I did. “Oh, you read 1984? Fantastic! That’s the first book I ever read that made me cry. Do you think that Newspeak is real? Don’t you think Winston’s job would have been really easy with modern technology?” and their eyes glaze over in fear. The response I get is “I took the test already, Mr. Likko, so I don’t really remember the book.” Inquiry into other subject matter areas has reveals a similar evanescence concerning their knowledge of concepts like “manifest destiny,” “natural rights,” and “due process.”
Which is exactly what I’d expect if all they’re doing is memorizing words and phrases that are essentially nonsense to them. Which isn’t “learning,” even at the high school level. And that’s what you get: cram-memorization followed by purge-regurgitation. Or as one bright but thoroughly fatigued 13-year-old put it to her father, “Memorization, not rationalization.”
An Industry Arises
To help push your smart high school student through this gauntlet of reducing the fundamental concepts of western civilization to little more than answers to Trivial Pursuit questions, you can retain any of a number of private companies that have sprung up to take advantage of the fact that high school kids are a bit overwhelmed by data and perhaps not all of them have been trained to connect the damn dots to turn the data into comprehension.
Of course, if it gets to the point that you need to hire tutors to get your kid to pass a test in school, the first question you should be asking is “Why the hell isn’t the school teaching this to my kid?” and the second question you should be asking is “If my kid needs a tutor to pass this test, does my kid really belong in this class in the first place?” That’s before you step back and wonder about the kid whose family can’t afford a private tutor.
I also note that the college credits that come along with a high enough score on an A.P. test don’t seem to help the kids that much in college anyway — average length of time from enrollment to graduation is increasing, so something else must be happening along the way, in the colleges, that makes it take longer to get that bacchalaurelate degree notwithstanding the promulgation of A.P. credit to incoming students; nearly half of all full-time college students now need five years to get a four-year degree. That this means more money flowing through colleges’ coffers is, let’s say, “fortuitous,” at least from an administrative point of view. It’s far from clear to me, though, that a student with a bachelor’s degree earned in five years is any smarter or more capable than a student with a bachelor’s degree earned in the traditional four, but it is clear to me that such a student is more likely to have spent more money or be deeper in debt to get that same degree.
And then I see students’ writing. These are the smart kids. They spell correctly, and generally use punctuation at about an average level. For what I do, I don’t need to worry so much about their writing skills, except insofar as their writing reflects their ability to construct chains of logical thought and to manipulate complex concepts. Which are things they need to do when they “play lawyer” in their competitions. Some are better at those sorts of things than others, and I can’t discern any relationship between that and their reported placement in honors or A.P. classes.*
The best I can say is that somewhere along the way, a relatively small number of them start to ‘get it’ and they can put concepts together intellectually. They’ve awoken. They’ll remember not only that grummishes are associated with Sedonia, but also that Sedonia was a Catholic country, so it seems like that most natters were also Protestants and sure enough it turns out that most of the famous natters were created by Protestants from places like Margravia. Most never make that connection, at least not that I see.
But making those kinds of connections is precisely the sort of thing that college-level classes are supposed to be for. And that’s why I think that Brian Gibbs, a former LAUSD teacher up for a Ph.D. in education at UW Madison, is on to something when he calls A.P. classes an overrated “racket.” They don’t perform as advertised. They inflate grades and look pretty on a high school student’s college application, but all they’re really doing is forcing more rapid memorization-and-purging than the students in the regular classes.
I am left seriously wondering if the game of gather-and-collect-resume-buffs has crossed the point that the score of the game has ceased to meaningfully reflect the educational achievements that they are supposed to represent. Yes, it’s still a way of a high school kid being able to distinguish herself as “one of the smart ones.” But beyond that, grades, honors, A.P. credit, and all of those other things appear to be so watered-down as to not really reflect much of anything in terms of intellectual achievement, subject matter mastery, or cognitive ability.
No Way Out?
And there’s no way for any one school, any one student or set of students, to stand down and refocus back on substantive education while all the others continue to accumulate ever-escalating honorifics. If the problem of teaching kids something, of kids learning things, is to be tackled, then maybe a radical proposal is in order:
Abolish all of this escalated academic credit. ALL OF IT. Do away with all of the honors classes, all the advanced placement. Impose grading on a hard curve. Not everyone gets to be above average, and only a very small number get to be extraordinary.
Now, the truth is, I’m not actually a fan of getting rid of honors-tracking for the bright kids and regular-tracking for the not-bright but not-dim kids. I realize that high schools need to put students on “tracks” that will serve them best for their later lives, arming them with education appropriate for the sorts of things that their existing talent indicates they’re going to be good for. I like the spirit of honors classes, advanced placement classes, and the flexibility that a high school can offer to keep bright students intellectually challenged and build momentum for their college careers.
Floating a radical proposal is, however, one way to focus thought on what can be done to make things better, a way to reform. If the status quo is not acceptable — and I think that it’s at least questionable, given that it imposes crushing burdens on bright kids who don’t seem to actually get anything out of their labor in return but who must dive further into this system because everyone else does too — and the only proposed alternative seems too extreme, then aren’t we naturally gravitated towards finding some middle course?
So consider what the world would look like if, starting with the academic year just starting right ow in most school districts, there was no sort of advanced or honors tracks. If society, as a whole, hit some sort of “reset” button on honors education, maybe the resulting honored students would really be the extraordinary ones, not just the ones who were kind of bright and showed up every day.
Would a world in which a “C” grade represented satisfactory performance and only a few kids ever got “A” grades really be so bad? Wouldn’t the bright students still distinguish themselves?
When national economies suffer out-of-control inflation, one of the things that they generally do is recall all the old currency and re-issue new, more stable money. Grades and honors have inflated out of control, students are being mentally crushed by the pressure to compete for educational honors to the point that learning itself has been degraded, and the costs of keeping up with that pressure have created a private industry that stratifies the benefits of good education along lines of affluence. It’s unclear to me that students who would not already have excelled anyway are attaining excellence because of this state of affairs, and unclear that even if they are, the costs are outweighed by the benefits.
* I also see graduate students’ writing in the MBA classes I teach as an adjunct, and most of that isn’t appreciably better than what the high school kids turn out. If clear, effective writing is an indicator of clear, effective thought, the points at which I come into contact with the educational system (its midpoint in secondary school and its endgame in graduate school) suggest that education at higher levels is also doing a terrible job of teaching people how to think.
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.