Advanced classes, or not.

I couldn’t help chuckle at the the headline, “High School Classes May Be Advanced in Name Only.” Loads of students are taking advanced, honors and AP classes but standardized scores have not risen in the same proportion. In fact they have declined or stayed the same according to the article. It’s amusing because with two kids who survived high school, it doesn’t surprise me, and during ten years of teaching I found the “advanced” label pleased parents and students more than it described the course curriculum.

student learning advanced applications of geometry

The picture above is of a student in 1939 learning how to use a sextant to determine latitude and longitude as part of the war effort to train students in navigation. This is an advanced lesson in applied geometry that probably never makes it into the AP curriculum or into an SAT test. photo: Library of Congress

I always asked my daughter, who took several AP classes, what the benefit was to taking a class in high school that would be better in college when the college professor made it his or her career to be an expert in the topic. High school teachers aren’t provided the time to do research or delve deeply enough into a topic to teach college level courses, which AP classes are supposed to be. High school teachers are prepping and grading and sponsoring school clubs. They teach more classes than college professors. They teach high school students who are 14-18 years old not 18-22 years old.

Against my suggestion, my daughter took AP World History in high school. I read some of the textbook for the class. It was densely written and highly detailed. Though she was an excellent student she wasn’t prepared to understand the text as it required a great deal of background knowledge in world history a kid in high school just wouldn’t have. My daughter told me most of the kids in the World History AP class didn’t do well on the in-class tests based on the textbook, but the teacher offered a lot of extra credit so kids could improve their grades. Few kids scored well enough on the AP test to get college credit. She took the class when she was a junior and some the students were freshman, who, a few months before, had been my 8th grade students. I knew they were not prepared for that class unless something magical had happened to them over the summer.

In my experience, few students are equipped to handle advanced classes. Advanced means learning and applying more complex concepts than the average student for that age. Most kids aren’t ready for it because on average kids develop inline with their peers, hence the term “average.” But parents love when their kids are in advanced classes or when they are in “gifted” programs. I taught an “advanced” 8th-grade humanities class my last year of teaching. Out of the 30 or so kids in the class, three were truly gifted, a handful were advanced in their ability to comprehend and interpret the material and the rest were good at getting good grades but average thinkers. What I did notice about the “advanced” class is most of the kids thought of themselves as advanced and smarter than the other kids.

No matter what the curriculum of the class is, the students can only learn as much as they are prepared for. They need prior knowledge to make sense of the new material. I suspect many teachers of advanced classes have to reteach concepts the students were supposed to already know or bring the material to the level of the students. This is what teachers are supposed to do, teach the student based on where they are in their level of understanding, rendering many advanced classes as standard level classes. If you have a classroom full of motivated students that helps enormously, but that doesn’t change their developmental levels. Their brains are still 14 years old even though they want to take classes better suited for 18-19 year old brains. High expectations can motivate students to apply themselves at their highest levels but it doesn’t change their brains.

I remember math teachers griping that their “advanced” students didn’t know some of the basic mathematical concepts  essential for learning subsequent concepts. When one advanced math teacher decided to go back and reteach some of the basics in preparation for more advanced algebra, parents complained to the principal and district who then forced the teacher to continue on with the advanced curriculum. Ironically, the teacher had been revered for her math teaching prowess. Not surprisingly, she retired at the end of the year.

For many students, being in advanced classes is an advantage because there are more motivated students in them, with fewer discipline problems and more students who share their interest in academics. Maybe the classes should be labeled as classes for highly motivated students. This I think would make a huge difference for many kids. I had C-students who were highly motivated to learn and who brought a lot to the classroom. They asked questions and were interested in how to better understand the material. The worked hard and were never discouraged by a C. Frankly, I’d rather have a room full of motivated C-students than a room full of A students who thought they were too smart to work hard.

Plus, it doesn’t seem developmentally appropriate to push kids to accelerate their education in high school to impress college admissions officials, or so parents can brag about their kids, rather than waiting until college when they are more mature and capable of learning and understanding the material on a more meaningful level.

—Dan Friedman

One response to “Advanced classes, or not.

  1. As someone who grew up in this same school system, I would have to agree completely. At the same time, it is also important to note that the level of these classes depends entirely on the teacher. There were definitely classes that I took that were not solely advanced in concepts, but expectations as well. That stated, did any of these classes prepare me for college? Absolutely not. The biggest benefit for me was what you stated at the end–being grouped together with like minded students. For me, however, this was enough to where I would without a doubt follow the same academic path would I have to do it over again.

    Finally, I do have to admit, admiration and recognition from teachers from an early age may have fostered a bit of smugness in the long run, but it sure was nice at the time. :)

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