Thursday, June 09, 2005

On endgames and rethinking curricula in high school

On a drive up to a meeting in Chicago recently the bunch in the car were comparing their high schools in terms of the size of the graduating class. One person was from a Chicago burb and had something like 400 students. Another was from a remote town in Nebraska and had 38. I had almost 1200 at Cardozo H.S. in Bayside Queens, NY. There were so many students the school was on split session.

In 10th grade I was on the late session which started at 11:40 AM and went till 5:40 PM. I got to sleep in every morning and watch the Tonight Show every night (and on the East Coast that started at 11:30 PM). Probably my most intense year academically was 11th grade where I took both AP Chemistry and the required Physics and two math classes; Algebra and Analytic Geometry was the required course while Math Team Workshop was kind of an odd course that supposedly helped us learn math problem solving.

There was a lot of tracking in the school (and some curricular that I believe subsequently were deemed racist and hence dropped). All my courses were either Honors or even Extra Honors, in Math. The only courses I can recall that were not tracked were Gym, Music, and Economics (go figure that last one). All things considered, that worked out quite well. In the main the "honors" meant enrichment and for bright kids enrichment is a good thing. Even my AP Chem course fit that bill.

This was the third class I took from Mr. Kramer (first Earth Science, then regular Chem) another of those really good teachers. He got me to do an experiment to measure dust pollution, that was one of the few real lab (in this case on the roof of my house) exercises I ever did, with real measurements and longitudinal record keeping. I also recall him taking us downtown (to Hunter College or City College, I'm not sure which) to see that apparatus and learn how real chemists do it. One afternoon in lab he gassed us when a reaction with hydrochloric acid somehow leaked out of the hood. At the time I think I knew a lot of Chemistry. The book was by Sienko and Plane (a classic) and as an 11th grader in with mostly 12th graders I was feeling my oats.

The next year was a let down, mostly. I remember the kids not taking classes very seriously and the teachers letting them get away with it. I wish I could say I was above that, but I wasn't (though I was one of the few kids in the Calculus class who actually sat for the AP exam.) Now it is true that kids get all wrapped up in the college admissions process so that senioritis in some form is probably inevitable. But why be so intense about learning in 11th grade and then so blase about it in 12th grade. Does that make sense?

The current solution to the problem is the AP course. There are seemingly zillions of these. When I taught the Campus Honors course a year ago, one of the kids told me had more than 50 hours of credit in AP courses. He had Junior standing though he was but a second semester first year student. In some cases these AP courses appeal to a certain logic: (a) the "equivalent" course taught in college is typically very high enrollment and often has graduate student instructors, so getting out of it makes sense and allows the student to take more advanced courses with fewer students in the class and taught by a regular faculty member. This is all true as far as it goes, but it is strategic gobbledygook and not fundamentally about the student's learning. Many of the students in the CHP class were less than impressed by the AP courses they had taken.

If the effect of our college requirements are to get the best and the brightest to get out of them by taking them in high school....... You don't need to be a genius to complete that syllogism. And if younger but very bright kids are better off getting enrichment in their education rather than racing through what are otherwise mediocre if more advanced courses, why not offer them just that?

The race might go to the swiftest, but learning is for a lifetime. When we're in the prime learning years, let's stop and smell the roses, or gas out a lab aimed at teaching kids real science.

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