Sunday, January 30, 2011

AP Courses, Workload and Expectations

More from teachers and students

I have been very encouraged and grateful to the Hunterdon Central teachers who have given me an opportunity to gather feedback from their students about the film Race to Nowhere. Especially for the AP teachers who felt the film important enough to take time away from their extraordinarily crammed schedules (something talked about a lot in the documentary) so that they could engage their students in this important conversation.

I am sharing responses from a class of AP students who were asked before viewing the film to consider the speakers and perspectives presented in the film and determine if there were things they could relate to. They were also asked to consider whether they agreed or disagreed with the comments made in the film. The students were given some time the following day to share their thoughts; some of which I am sharing with you now. First however, I would like to share some feedback from some of our finest AP teachers:

“I had a chance to see the film today. As a parent of a Junior at another high performing high school, I though I had my act together. Since as far back as I can remember I have told my daughter that there was no such thing as a good school (college). There were only good fits between schools and students. I left picking her schedule up to her with the advice to take AP classes only if she was really interested. I told her not to worry about grades as long as she was working as hard as she could.

However, I still asked about homework, I still asked about tests and I stilled checked her grades online every couple of weeks. My behavior is in need of further modification.

I need to spend some more time mulling over what it means to me as a teacher. I don't think that simply not assigning homework is the answer. We (as a community) need to figure out how to prevent students from just "doing school." Thanks for making the film available.”


“Initially had to decide whether it was worthwhile to take my classes/miss instructional time (it was!) I think there are numerous and varied issues raised in the video; I agree with some and disagree with others (much like my students. The single biggest point raised, and this was by AP students and their teacher, was time management. In addition to teaching our AP courses, we continually work on time management skills at the AP level (Even I could identify with the AP Bio teacher that said "This course is a runaway train - no one can possibly teach it all in the time allowed!") My students found strength in this and expressed the real value of these skills as they get ready for college. Sleep was an issue for so many of them, as was "pressure from parents and counselors to take as many Honors and AP courses" as they could. Their favorite quotes from the movie were "the world is run by C students" and "maybe you don't need to take 5 or 6 AP courses." We also discussed (and continue to discuss) issues involving motivation and goals - these vary greatly for the different students as enrollment has increased in recent years in our Honors/AP courses at Central. The trick, of course, is to keep our standards high, courses rigorous, and still keep kids "coming to school full of life and creativity without taking it out of them" (you can tell some of the quotes resonated with me).”

AP student feedback

“Something that really resonated with me from the movie was when the one boy was talking about balancing his sport with school. He said in wrestling his coach would say his whole life is wrestling and you have to devote everything to wrestling. Then is school, your teachers say your school work is everything. I have to deal with this everyday with my sport and my coaches ……it is a struggle to do all my school work after a hard practice. Sometimes I am extremely tempted to just not do my homework. After a hard practice all I want to do is sleep but then I have about 4-5 hours of homework ahead of me sometimes not starting to 7 -7:30 p.m. Often I get less than 4 hours of sleep from doing my homework. This just leads to getting yelled at by my coach for not sleeping. It is a long never ending cycle.”


“I felt that the movie accurately showed how students are stressed but in an exaggerated way. I felt the examples shown were extreme cases that aren’t realistic with normal students. Also, I don’t agree that students are on a Race to Nowhere because if the students are motivated and want to amount to some higher standing, then it is worth it for them. I believe in the saying “short term pain for long term gain.”


“I could really relate to the section about AP and Honors courses. A lot of times my parents ask me why I take so many AP and Honors courses that I won’t necessarily need. For example, I took AP English which I don’t think I will be majoring in. I’ve tried to explain to them how EVERYONE ELSE is taking several AP courses and how all the counselors say to take as many Honors and AP courses as I can handle and how taking several AP courses is practically necessary to stay competitive in the college selection process. My parents don’t really seem to understand. A lot of times I wonder, what is the point of all this work? Why do today’s students have to participate in so many clubs, advanced courses, community service and after school activities? Why has it become BAD to get a B or a C once in awhile? I often wonder if I am wasting my energy in a literal race to nowhere.”


“I liked the discussion on the overtired/no sleep issue because I can relate to that completely. The most important thing to consider is time management. Procrastination is a big issue with many people I know and time management is something people should really understand and think about.”


“….another relatable situation presented in the film was parents putting pressure on their kids and the kids wanting to make their parents proud. There are many times where I overstress and get tired not only because I want to do well, but also to make my parents proud. When I do not do well on a test, I feel like I have let my parents down. Having an older sister, my parents want me to meet the same expectations or at least come close.”


“My parents pushed me so hard to take all the AP classes that I could. I ended up taking 8 in total because (just like the movie said), I wanted to be in the top 5% to get into a good college. I was accepted Early Decision at my top choice and I think that was due to my strenuous workload. Therefore, when the movie talked about limiting AP courses, I strongly disagree. Although I may have lost sleep, I found time to socialize, date and play sports. I have fun. AP classes are not that much of a hindrance and should not be considered one. They stimulate thinking and surround me with the other people who have a thirst for learning.”

As a superintendent and educator, I am moved to take action by the film, the issues raised by our students and teachers (these are just a small fraction of the responses) and I will be sharing the parent feedback in a few days. One of the overarching issues that our students have not seemed to highlight but which resonated with me is whether or not our students are prepared to be successful in this new society that continues to emerge and evolve. There are critical issues related to the way that instruction is being delivered in classrooms across the country. Students who are able to ‘game the system” and “do school” are at a distinct advantage in traditional classrooms but are they really prepared as critical thinkers, self directed learners with a love of learning?

This is a topic in which I am keenly interested and in which I have great concern is not being addressed in many schools. Inquiry based learning, authentic learning experiences and project based learning are more than emerging new ed-speak. The leveraging of social networking sites and personal learning networks has, like a magic wand, made the walls of the traditional classroom simply disappear.

There are incredible, exciting changes ahead for EVERY student, in EVERY school. The discourse around what is happening in our classrooms must escalate rapidly. We simply cannot allow our educational systems to continue to move at their traditional rate of change.

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