Online Course Puts One Student to the Test

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Maria Allen, a parent in Reston whose children attend Fairfax County schools, told me a story that I think is important and applicable to schools throughout the area. It is about a surprising use for online courses.

I hope other readers will tell me their experiences using such courses to substitute for or supplement what our schools provide.

Allen was worried about her middle school son's prospects in high school and beyond. Matthew had always been regarded by his teachers as an underachiever, or worse. He received B's with absolutely no effort because he did well on what were, she believed, very easy tests.

Every new school year, she donned her "Super-Nag" persona, got on his case and tried to turn around his bad habits and attitude. It never worked. By the second quarter, whenever she got busy or relaxed, he stopped working and his teachers started complaining.

So Allen was more than a little surprised when her son asked to take an Advanced Placement biology course online at the beginning of eighth grade, when he was 14. She knew from where he got the idea. His big brother, a high school junior, had signed up for online AP biology so he would have time for other courses during the school day. She laughed. Good joke, Matthew. But he brought it up again. He was serious. Even when she showed him the exhausting syllabus on, he did not back down.

Well, she thought, why not? She paid the $600 fee and waited, without much hope, to see what would happen.

"Matthew continued to put negligible effort into his middle school work," Allen told me, "but in biology, he started to work hard; very hard, in fact. And, even more remarkably, he continued to work hard throughout the year."

She said that Matthew took a full complement of eighth-grade honors courses but that they did not demand enough of him.

"Unencumbered by any significant homework, Matt had plenty of time available to log on to AP bio for a few hours each evening, and so he often did better on AP quizzes and assignments than my high school junior, who was always swamped with homework and competing deadlines from several other challenging courses," Allen said.

Matthew got a B from the Apex Learning online teacher. He was thrilled that the AP testing room at Herndon High School buzzed with the news that a middle school kid was taking the exam and even happier when he got his score, a 4, the equivalent of a B in most colleges.

"Before the course was even over, he announced that he was taking AP psychology online over the summer and didn't forget or change his mind as summer grew near," Allen said.

Matthew got a B in that course, too, but unlike with his middle school classes, he had to work for it.

There are some problems in our schools that we talk about a great deal, such as uninspired teaching and too much testing. But there are also problems we almost never talk about, such as inauthentic courses and grades.

Allen's son thought that AP biology, unlike his middle school courses, was authentic. I first observed that attitude 25 years ago in a public high school in East Los Angeles, where students whose parents were sixth-grade dropouts flocked to AP courses because they could earn college credit and take the same courses as the rich kids across town at Beverly Hills High School.

There are many ways to add authenticity in our schools. Hopefully, they won't cost parents an extra $600. And for the record, in response to Allen's comment about middle school courses, Peter J. Noonan, assistant superintendent for instructional services, said Fairfax County public schools "provide high levels of rigor for all students."

I have had my doubts about online courses, but Allen convinced me that they can have a good influence on students such as her son, a middle-schooler who would not be able to take an AP course any other way. She said the school district would have paid the online fee, as it did for her other son, had Matthew been in high school. He's now a freshman at South Lakes High School.

"His attitude toward school and study is very different now," Allen said. "Matthew now talks confidently about his plans to earn the International Baccalaureate diploma [part of a program similar to AP], and after college his plans to attend medical school, something I doubt he ever even considered before. He is proud of what he has done, and he sees himself differently than he did a year ago."

Allen said she is not suggesting that middle school students should take AP courses, although "given what it did for Matt, I am not entirely sure why." Some college professors reject the notion of even high school juniors taking AP courses, but most of them have never taught an AP course and usually forget that they substitute for introductory college courses, not graduate seminars in thermodynamics. The material is challenging but not impossible for kids interested in the subject matter and willing to do the work.

"Matt could have continued sliding downward right on through high school," Allen said, "And I shudder to imagine the outcome. High school will have its tough moments, but now I know Matt will do fine. Frankly, I feel very lucky."

Now, tell me what you think.

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