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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 03/20/2013

AP good for high school, bad for college?

I complained recently that college professors too often wrongly dismiss high school teachers as being unsuited to teach college-level classes such as the Advanced Placement courses so popular in the Washington region. Two scholars from distinguished universities gently chided me for being too hard on their academic colleagues. They might be right.

After an e-mail exchange with John T. Fourkas, Millard Alexander Professor of Chemistry at the University of Maryland, and Bryan McCann, associate professor of history at Georgetown University, I concede that professors’ concerns about AP often show no disrespect for high schools but instead stem from discomfort with the ill effects of colleges competing for AP students.

Fourkas and McCann like AP and similar college-level programs such as International Baccalaureate. They recognize that those classes have made high school more challenging and gotten students ready for long college reading lists and long exams.

“College professors love well-prepared students and are big fans of high school AP courses,” Fourkas said.

“I happily acknowledge that the best high school teachers are, as a general rule, better teachers than the typical college professor,” McCann said.

Critics of AP often say the program is losing clout in higher education as more colleges withhold more credits. The opposite is true. For every elite institution such as Dartmouth, which recently dropped credit for AP and IB, there are hundreds of state community colleges and universities eager to lure good students by giving even more credit for college-level high school courses.

Prestigious universities such as Georgetown and Maryland also compete for the best students and are unlikely to do much to restrict credit. “As long as colleges see a competitive disadvantage in being careful about doling out Advanced Placement credits, few will go the route of Dartmouth,” Fourkas said.

AP and IB courses improve high schools, the professors say, but too much college credit for AP and IB gets in the way of giving new college students the deepest possible academic experiences, they say. McCann has visited AP classes. He notes that the focus is on delivering information, perhaps even more than is found in an introductory course at Georgetown. At Georgetown, the focus is “on teaching students to think critically about sources, to understand historiographical debates and to research historical topics,” he said. With an AP credit, a student can skip that course.

“We do not like to see our students getting shortchanged or graduating from our institutions without the best education that they can possibly get,” Fourkas said.

One flaw in their argument is their idealized view of introductory college courses. On many college campuses, introductory courses are not as sophisticated as those at Georgetown and Maryland. And during that first year of college, many undergraduates are enjoying the freedom of being away from their parents and aren’t as motivated to study as when they were high-schoolers hoping for good grades to impress colleges.

But Fourkas and McCann show colleges are hurt by one of the greatest weaknesses of public high school education: the lack of required research projects, even for the best students. IB students and private school students must do long papers. But the vast majority of high school students don’t have that requirement and arrive at college unable to appreciate the research skills that the best introductory college courses teach.

Fourkas said that “professors and high-school teachers are all on the same team, and the goal of that team is to give the best education we can to our students.” I agree.

Here is a possible joint venture: Why don’t the professors help the teachers persuade public high schools to teach research with required projects? That might raise the quality of the first year of college in a way that would please AP teachers who see the students off and the college instructors who greet them.

By  |  12:00 PM ET, 03/20/2013

 
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