Open Access is one of those ideas with which I wholeheartedly agree with the philosophy behind it but have problems with the way in which it is often implemented.
Equality of educational opportunity is a cornerstone of our society. We all want students to achieve at the highest level possible. However, that is still a goal that is at best achieved unevenly. Our failure provide effectively for all students is one of the major reasons College Board started pushing the idea of open access. In its simplest form, open access means that any student, regardless of previous academic record or exam performance, may enroll in Advanced Placement classes. Subsequently, proponents of open access also extended the idea to honors classes and similar programs.
Superficially, that sounds like a way to make opportunities for more rigorous coursework available to more students. In practice, however, an approach like that, if not carefully crafted and amply funded, may create more problems than it solves. (As you might imagine, the funding part is especially challenging.)
Potential Problems with Open Access
Being in a class which is too difficult for a student can have a significant negative impact
This should almost go without saying–yet many discussions in recent years have convinced me that it needs to be said.
Financing is not always available for appropriate support.
To be fair, the College Board advocates a number of preparation and support programs designed to prepare struggling students for more challenging academic experiences. But such programs, if implemented correctly, would cost a considerable amount of money. For that reason, reformers at the school district level often don’t regard such extra student support as a prerequisite for implementing open access.
Nor is there much effort to give the AP teacher sufficient resources to address the needs of struggling students who end up in the class. College Board came up with the fine-sound slogan, “Teach to the top; support from the bottom,” but long ago dropped its advocacy of limiting AP classes to a maximum of twenty students per class. Other possible solutions, like providing additional support classes for students who struggle in AP classes, are even more expensive and even less likely to be implemented.
Why is class size so important? Because open access relies on practices like differentiated instruction to address the needs of struggling students, and the larger the class, the harder it is to differentiate effectively. While I was teaching, I often checked the data on schools that were held up as examples of how successful differentiation was. In most cases, their class sizes were smaller than the norm, sometimes far smaller. The National Council of Teachers of English points out that, “teachers in smaller classes can diagnose and track student learning and differentiate instruction in response to student needs.” The same position statement notes that, “for minority and at-risk students as well as those who struggle with English literacy, smaller classes enhance academic performance.” Struggling students in AP would benefit for much the same reasons as other kinds of potentially struggling students do. (For a fuller discussion of the benefits of small class size, see the complete text of the position statement.)
In a completely open system, students may not always self-select well, setting themselves up for failure.
Some years ago, the district in which I was working had open access imposed on its high school by the WASC (accreditation agency) visiting committee. When asked about students enrolling in the classes that were far too difficult for them, the chairperson of the committee said something like, “The ones who really can’t handle the class won’t enroll in the first place.”
With difficulty, I restrained myself from laughing out loud. To be fair, his school district, with open access, had about a sixth of the AP enrollment ours had without it, so perhaps that was true in his district, but in my former district and similar ones, the result has often been inappropriate self-selection.
Why would students put themselves into classes in which they were likely to be unsuccessful? Over the years, I’ve identified several reasons.
First, parental expectations can push students beyond their limits. Don’t get me wrong. Parents should have positive feelings about their children’s academic potential. But those positive feelings should also be tempered by realism. Sometimes, parents have only seen their son or daughter’s work and have no idea how it compares with what the norm would be in a AP or honors class.
On other occasions, parents confuse different kinds of skills. In the days before open access, parents often made the argument that their sons or daughter should be in honors or AP English because they were good fiction writers or good poets. But these kinds of courses in my former school typically focused on analytical writing, not creative writing. Some people are strong in both analytical writing and creative writing, but not everyone is. I’ve known students who had a hard time producing a coherent paragraph but could write genuinely moving poetry. But explaining that to parents wasn’t always easy.
It’s sad to say, but sometimes, parental egos also interfere with rational expectations for students. This is especially true of parents who see their children as extensions of themselves and try to live vicariously through them. Sometimes, this connection is so strong that parents will slip into the habit of referring to their sons or daughters in the first person.
But parents don’t need to identify with students to that extent to cause problems. Some parents have a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality through which they believe that parenting success is measured by factors like GPA and advanced class placement and that they have to one-up their friends and acquaintances in those areas. I’m happy to say that such cases are far fewer than those of parents whose motivations are more positive–but it would be a mistake to think that such situations never arise.
Second, the college admissions process often drives students to make poor choices. (College admissions is also sometimes a contributing factor in parental expectations as well.) Elsewhere, I’ve written about the negative impacts that college admission practices can have on students. The net result of these policies is that students seek rigorous classes because they want a pretty transcript, not because they have any interest in (and often, talent for) a particular advanced course. That strategy can work sometimes, but when it fails, it fails spectacularly. Colleges are looking, not just for rigorous course work, but for success in rigorous course work.
For example, I knew a student who took every single honors or AP course for which he qualified. He generally got in on his merits rather than being admitted through open access, though sometimes, he was borderline. In any case, he earned mostly Bs in his classes, with one or two Cs. He didn’t get into a single one of the colleges he wanted to go to. This is one of the reasons that counselors in my school, when asked which was better, a high grade in a regular class, or being in an honors class, always answered, “A high grade in an honors class is better.”
Do students enrolled in mostly advanced classes and not doing a spectacular job in them invariably have trouble with college admissions? Not necessarily, but it certainly does happen, and that’s the first adverse effect that open access can have on students, particularly in its underfunded implementation. Instead of encouraging students to develop realistic college admissions goals and work toward those, it enables them to pursue an unreachable gold ring. When they predictably fail to reach it, they may end up worse off than if they had gone for the more reachable silver ring in the first place.
I know some of you are thinking that I’m being too pessimistic. Ironically, I’m actually an optimist. I have seen students work hard and rise above the level one might have predicted based on their earlier academic history. But they didn’t typically do it by wandering into a class for which they weren’t prepared. They worked hard to develop the prerequisite skills and then moved into more challenging classes. As I used to say, “By all means, shoot for the stars–but build the spaceship first.”
Since the school where I used to work had open access the last few years I was there, I’m sometimes asked whether there were any success stories. Since I was AP and Honors English Coordinator during that time, and keeping track of both placement and student performance were two of my many jobs, I can say yes, there were indeed a few. However, at least in English, they all had two things in common: they were all close to qualifying in the first place, and they all worked very hard. That’s more of an argument for having a little flexibility in a placement system than having totally open access.
(To digress for just a moment, our placement system had changed considerably over the years. Despite what you might think from my comments on open access here, I was one of the people pushing hardest for a more liberal system.
We started out with a system based on passing or failing a placement exam, which only students with an A or B were eligible to take. What we ended up with before open access was a system based on multiple criteria and including an appeals process to give students a chance to argue for their admission based on additional data.
After open access, we maintained the initial part of the system and substituted open access for the old appeals process. Our principal at the time wanted us to keep the original system in place as a way of making good recommendations to students. I agreed, and I also thought that gave us a good way to compare before and after data.
What I learned from compared that data was that the placement system was flexible enough to identify students likely to be successful in honors and AP classes. In contrast, self-selection wasn’t very accurate.
Indeed, the degree of student success correlated well with how the students did during the placement process. Students with a high enough composite score derived from GPA, English teacher recommendation, and state test results qualified automatically. To no one’s surprise, that was the most successful group. Students who didn’t qualify automatically could take a placement test, and those who passed became eligible for the program. They were also successful, but somewhat less so than the automatic qualifiers. However, students who qualified neither way and invoked open access were seldom successful, except for the borderline cases I mentioned.
Having multiple ways to qualify was a good idea. Adding open access generally didn’t include student outcomes.)
Academic failure can lead to serious psychological problems
I was fascinated by the fact that internet search turn up a mountain of articles on how psychological problems contribute to academic failure, but very few on how academic failure contributes to psychological problems, even though I’d seen it happen often enough. Fortunately, I finally found this Psychology Today article that places the issue in perspective.
From the article linked above: “The experience of failure can be a formative one when it convinces children that how poorly they performed is the best they can do, is evidence of their innate lack of capacity, and justifies giving up on themselves. This is particularly true for adolescents who daily struggle with multiple questions concerning personal inadequacy and tend to take any kind of failure to heart.”
Of course, every student is not going to take a grade less than B in an honors or AP class as a failure. In any case, since we all fail from time to time, high school students need to develop ways to deal with failure. That said, when we put students into classes for which they weren’t prepared beforehand, we greatly increase the chances of making them feel like failures.
A student once said to me, “I’d rather be the smartest student in a regular class than the dumbest student in an honors class.” He wasn’t anyone’s idea of dumb. He wasn’t even performing poorly, though at that point, I don’t think he had an A. It’s hard to predict exactly how adolescents will react. But I have heard similar remarks from a wide variety of students over the years.
I wish I could say that such remarks were the extent of the evidence I have for the damaging effects of getting students in over their heard, but that’s not the case. I’ve seen students burn out on academics or come close. I’ve seen students have breakdowns or come close. It’s hard to quantify how large those problems are because schools aren’t required to keep statistics on them, and there may also be concerns about student privacy in keeping such information. It is reasonable to say there are enough such cases to be a serious concern.
“Dumbing Down” the Curriculum in Advanced Classes Is Not the Solution Because It Leads to Worse Educational Outcomes
Our society’s education policy is often caught in a conflict between challenging students adequately and making sure all students succeed. This subject probably merits a blog post of its own, but for now, let’s just say that abandoning rigor in the name of avoiding failure, while it may avert some of the psychological problems I mentioned above, just creates a different problem by reducing the development of academic skills necessary for college and career success.
If honors and AP classes are geared for students who don’t have the necessary skills to handle the course as originally designed, what happens to the students who could have handled the original course? In many cases, they will be deprived of that experience.
The answer usually given by proponents of open access is that differentiated instruction can solve that problem. But without enough resources available for proper support, there is a real danger that true differentiation won’t happen. The “best case” scenario in such a situation would be “dumbferentiated” instruction–selective dumbing-down. Keep in mind that differentiated instruction is intended to provide students different pathways to the same result. But what often happens instead is that struggling students are given very simple tasks and never reach the same point as the students who start ahead.
I still remember with some horror an inservice training led by an assistant superintendent of education services from another district. In describing lessons based on differentiated instruction, she discussed how some students were analyzing deep philosophical concepts in a piece of literature while other students were looking up unfamiliar vocabulary in the same piece. Both activities have their uses, but they aren’t anywhere near the same intellectual level, and the less rigorous activity doesn’t develop the ability to do the more rigorous activity. (The presenter had been invited to do a series of trainings, but the other trainings were canceled after her first appearance. Nonetheless, the practice she represents is far more common than advocates of differentiated instruction would like to admit.)
One would have to ask, if students are going to be doing the regular curriculum–or perhaps even a weaker one–in a more advanced class, then why not just put them in the regular class? The reason for the push in that direction is partly rooted in the desire for a pretty transcript but also partly generated by the myth that honors and AP classes are better for everyone. You should always be suspicious of one-size-fits-all educational approaches, and this is one of those times. Klopfenstein and Thomas, in their 2006 study, “The Link Between Advanced Placement Experience and Early College Success,” point out the fallacy in assuming that AP is always better. “While we are strongly in favor of open access to AP and do not wish our results to be interpreted as justification for excluding traditionally underrepresented students from AP classes, it is equally unfair to misplace underprepared students in AP classes when they would be better served in other rigorous courses. For example, Sadler and Tai (2005) find that ‘students who earn low grades in honors and AP courses perform worse in college science courses than their counterparts in regular high school courses with high grades.'” (emphasis added)
This seems counterintuitive if you’re used to the AP-is-always-better ideology, but it does conform well with what I’ve actually observed. That’s because a student in a class way over his or her head may very well be learning little or nothing. In a case like that, differentiation would essentially mean creating an entirely different course for such students. The problem with that idea is that teacher time is a finite resource. The more time a teacher has to use supporting students who are far behind the starting point for the class, the less time a teacher has for the students who can actually handle the class. Until society is willing to provide levels of funding that would allow this kind of juggling act to work, such a system is bound to shortchange one group or the other–and perhaps both.
But what about all those College Board studies that show AP students perform better in college? Well, they do. The problem with that kind of study, however, is that CB didn’t properly disaggregate the data. AP students taken as a group perform better because, even in an open access environment, they are on balance stronger students to begin with. When data is disaggregated using factors like previous academic record, the effect of AP diminishes. The more factors related to a student’s academic history are considered, the smaller the effect gets. In other words, students who had already been successful and took AP classes were successful in college. Students who hadn’t been successful prior to their AP experiences? Not so much.
That’s not to say that the Advanced Placement program is worthless. What it does suggest is that students have to have mastered certain basic skills in order to be successful. In the essay collection, AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program, (Sadler, Sonnert, Tai, and Klopfenstein, 2010), some of the contributors make the point that students benefit if they are strong enough by the end of the course to pass the AP exam.
For example, Philip Sadler, writing to teachers in the final essay of the collection, states that, “Students who pass the exam are more likely to perform better in college courses in the same subject area. Those who fail the exam have little to show for their year of study; there is little evidence that they are any better prepared for college success than when they first entered your class.” To administrators, he adds, “Advanced Placement classes are best reserved for students who have done well in the prerequisite course. Students who are underprepared or who do not commit to putting in extra time and effort will fare poorly in AP classes.”
I would agree with Sadler, with one caveat–occasionally, a student who is well-prepared for the exam will have a bad day. Such a student has still benefitted from the AP class. But his statements are true in general.
With All of These Problems, Why Does the Idea of Open Access Persist?
There is a growing pile of evidence that open access as currently implemented does not achieve its goals and may even be harmful. (The research I’ve quoted in the previous section is only a small part of the total.) Since educational institutions these days pride themselves on using data-driven decision-making, why is so much data so often ignored?
I’ve already mentioned one of the factors: college admissions. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, in many highly selective colleges, the average admitted student has a GPA above 4.0–and there aren’t many way to get that without AP courses (or IB courses, where those exist). What students and parents need to realize is that there are a finite number of spaces in those schools. More important, those schools aren’t the only way to get a high quality college education. It’s also important to realize that such schools aren’t usually impressed by poor or even mediocre performance in advanced courses. Students who aren’t ready for such courses aren’t doing themselves any favors by enrolling in them.
Another significant factor is the perpetuation of the myth that enrollment in AP classes increases the chances of success in college. As I’ve pointed out earlier, that only holds true for students who are sufficiently prepared to take those classes. This myth is reinforced by some of the student and parent attitudes discussed above.
Since that myth has become so rooted in educational policymaking, schools have been treating increasing enrollment in AP and honors classes as a panacea–which it isn’t. It looks nice on paper, but it just doesn’t achieve the advertised results.
Ever wonder why College Board started making it difficult for people to see data on AP test results by school? The stated reason had to do with student privacy, which might be a legitimate concern in very small schools and/or schools with very small AP programs. But in a typical school, both the student population and the AP population would be large enough to avoid any real privacy issue.
A good argument could be made that the real reason College Board clamped down on that information to the point of forbidding schools to publicly share their own data, was that such data makes it possible to see just how far open access is from achieving what it claims to achieve. It also enables school districts to tout how large their AP enrollment is without having to answer embarrassing questions about why performance is so low. (Ever seen a school district eager to admit that particular programs weren’t working? No, neither have I. It’s just easier to claim success and change the subject.)
What Can We Do To Enable All Students To Achieve at the Highest Level They Can?
It is possible to design a system that does better than poorly implemented open access, but it will involve making education more of a priority in our society.
Fund education in a more equitable and adequate way.
It’s hard to argue that we really have equality of opportunity in our society when educational funding is distributed in such a haphazard and often inadequate way. For example, The American University School of Education points out that, “By relying largely on property taxes to fund schools, which can vary widely between wealthy and poor areas, districts create funding gaps from the word go. Affluent areas end up with well-funded schools and low-income areas end up with poorly funded schools. District sizes also distort funding levels. Predominantly white districts are typically smaller, yet still receive 23 billion more than districts that are predominantly students of color, according to a recent EdBuild study. This results from the tendency to draw district lines around small affluent islands of well-funded schools within larger poorer areas that serve mostly students of color.”
People might want to quibble about whether this pattern is the result of systemic racism or not, but it’s hard to imagine any reasonable person looking at such disparities and thinking that they were a good idea. The source in the previous paragraph quotes former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as saying, “The notion that spending more money is going to bring about different results is ill-placed and ill-advised.” But that’s a politician’s answer, and a very common one. Politicians like to step around things that might require changes like tax increases or even complete overhauls of the tax system (like shifting the responsibility for funding away from communities and toward taxes that more accurately reflect ability to pay).
Unfortunately for that point of view, there is ample evidence that demonstrates that education funding makes a difference. If you want to see more details, check out the article linked above. Studies do show that increasing funding increases graduation rates and future income, and that it also decreases dropout rates. Increasing funding specifically for disadvantaged students results in a reduction or elimination of the current achievement gap.
As I noted earlier, better funding makes open access more viable by facilitating differentiated instruction.
Some of these results might be achieved by redistributing current resources, but it’s better to increased the total amount of money available, at least to some extent. The Robin Hood style of financial reform (robbing from the rich to give to the poor) usually results in a tug-of-war between affluent and disadvantaged communities. Since the affluent communities typically have more political clout, the best case in that kind of situation is a hybrid mess that doesn’t really achieve equity. Such battles can also precipitate undesirable long-term consequences, such as the withdrawal of the affluent from public education and perhaps even hostility toward public schools among affluent families.
But even if equity could be achieved in such a way, universally mediocre funding probably isn’t the answer, either. That’s because underfunding, even if it’s equitably distributed funding, contributes to problems like an ongoing teacher shortage in many areas. For this, an article in the Washington Post points out that, “state- and district-level reports have emerged across the country detailing staffing gaps that stretch from the hundreds to the thousands — and remain wide open as summer winds rapidly to a close.” In the same article, Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, says of the current situation, “I have never seen it this bad.” Equitable funding spreads the shortage around more evenly but doesn’t solve it.
For years, the answer to teacher shortages has been to lower the qualifications necessary to teach–and then complain about poorly qualified teachers who–big surprise–often perform poorly in the classroom.
Districts that try to set a high bar for teachers often run up against a dearth of applicants. Even affluent ones have this problem. I taught at Beverly Hills High School and was frequently on interview committees for prospective English teachers. When I first started, there were dozens of qualified applicants. By the time I left, we were lucky if we could find one for each vacancy. Some vacancies in other departments were even harder to fill. For example, the math department once recommended not hiring anybody and increasing class sizes instead. Multiply this problem across districts all over the country, and you can imagine the possible consequences. Low standards might get a body in each classroom. But they probably won’t get a body who can actually teach well in most cases.
It’s also worth noting that making differentiated instruction work well requires smaller classes in many cases–meaning that, in the short term at least, the teacher shortage would get even worse.
The solution? Teacher salaries that are more competitive and reflective of both the responsibility and workload of teachers. Even that won’t solve the problem immediately because it takes time for prospective teachers to get trained, but it’s still a step we need to take sooner or later.
Recognize That There are More Options for Rigor Besides AP Classes.
It may sound obvious, but yes, a one-size fits all model is not a good model in education. Even with support, some students may have trouble being successful in an AP class. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be prepared for college.
Keep in mind that AP classes are designed to be equivalent to a college course. In other words, they aren’t college prep per se; they are college. Saying that AP classes are the only way to prepare for college, as College Board sometimes implies, is basically saying the only way to prepare for college is to be in college. Does that make sense to you? And if every high school student were able to handle college-level work already, why do we even have high school? Clearly something is missing here.
In my former school, virtually every class was designed to be college preparatory, and almost all of them were University of California certified (accepted by the UC system as high school courses suitable to prepare for a UC experience). In a school whose courses are all set up to prepare for college, even if they aren’t all aimed at exactly the same audience, the frantic feeling that everyone has to take AP should diminish somewhat.
It’s hard to provide evidence from research studies on this point, in part because many studies don’t distinguish between AP courses and courses labeled college preparatory that are not AP. One I found that did distinguish the two didn’t disaggregate by previous educational achievement–and we know what that tends to do to results. But I can offer the anecdotal evidence of a number of former students who performed well in non-AP college preparatory courses and went on to be successful in college. If courses labeled as college preparatory really are, they can be a good avenue to prepare students for college.
Encourage Students and Parents To Do More Research about College Options.
I’ve mentioned this before, but if students and parents focused less on getting into one of the handful of highly selective colleges and more on finding colleges that have strong programs that aligned well with particular student career paths, the AP-for-everyone push would diminish.
Highly selective schools are highly selective because they already have far more applicants than they have spaces. Pushing more students to try to qualify doesn’t magically make more spaces appear–it just increases the number of rejections. And with courts moving increasingly in the direction of making programs like affirmative action more difficult, there’s no guaranteeing that members of traditionally underserved groups would get an increased number of those spaces.
The good news is that such schools aren’t the best choice for everyone, anyway. Less well-known colleges still have excellent programs in some areas. Everyone doesn’t need to go to an Ivy League school or the equivalent in order to be well prepared for later careers.
Can we help every student to achieve at his or her highest potential? Absolutely!
Will it be cheap or easy to do so? Absolutely not!
Part of our problem, both in education and in other areas, is that we keep settling for band aid solutions when much more is required. Solving the problems described in this article will take will power and hard work. But it can be done.
(The featured image was copyrighted by Monkey Business Images and licensed from www.shutterstock.com.)