As a young teacher, I taught in a high school that separated students into five different tracks at each grade level. Students in each of those tracks were supposed to receive a certain sort of education. As you might imagine, the lower track expectation was for lower level curricula of the sort described in the example in Kylene Beers’ The Genteel Unteaching of America's Poor. I, though, was naïve and new as a teacher, and it never occurred to me to dumb down learning in my classroom or to shield certain of my students from particular kinds of learning opportunities. Thank goodness for newness and naivety!
I thought back to my high school teaching days yesterday when Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews and Newsweek released “The Top of the Class” (Newsweek, June 8, 2009). The report names the most successful high schools in the nation measured by adding the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests taken by all students at the school in May and dividing the result by the number of seniors graduating in May or June. 1500 American public high schools have made the grade of 1.000 or higher.
In his column "Is AP for All A Formula For Failure?" (The Washington Post, June 8, 2009), Matthews argues that all students should take AP classes and he points to one or two schools that have had success with this. The Newsweek list points to more successful schools. It seems, according to #5 on the FAQ for the Newsweek list, that the higher ranked schools do offer more students challenging curriculum along with those tests.
Today, as I thought about the high school rankings, Education Week released its annual Diploma Counts report. Today, in America, only 7 of 10 students graduate from high school in four years (a statistic which some consider to underestimate the numbers of dropouts). In fact, in 2006 (the latest available data from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center) only 69.2% o American students graduated from high school. That was an increase of 2.8% over the 1996 graduation rate—not so good in my estimation. I can’t help but think that some of those who don’t graduate drop out because they are not drawn into a challenging curriculum. And we can change that.
What if we take Matthews’ argument and translate AP and IB into “challenging 21st century curriculum” as NCTE defines it in the NCTE Framework for 21st Century Curriculum and Assessment? Can we increase the numbers of high school graduates and the numbers of schools that rank at the top because their students are successful with challenging curriculum? I think so.