Spotlight

Supplanting AP Classes With Our Own

by MICHAEL V. MCGILL

After two years of discussion, Scarsdale High School’s faculty voted in 2005 to replace Advanced Placement classes with courses we called Advanced Topics. Students still could take AP tests if they wanted, but the new courses wouldn’t be geared to them. If the board of education agreed, Scarsdale would be the first public high school in the United States to drop the AP program.

Our district had offered Advanced Placement courses since the 1950s, but teachers were concerned. Classes such as biology and social studies covered vast amounts of material instead of investigating topics in depth. Too many assignments just mimicked AP questions. In history, for example, little room existed for extended papers like those students would be assigned in college. Teachers taught students to answer questions strategically to get a 3 or higher on their finals.

Michael McGillMichael McGill


In short, the imperative of test preparation determined both what and often how teachers taught. Although AP courses undeniably met a high standard, teachers wanted their pupils’ experience to be even better and not a cynical process of strategizing to amass the right number of points.

Admissions Impact
During our internal considerations, more than 100 colleges and universities, including some of the nation’s most selective schools our students often attended, advised that the change wouldn’t hurt future admissions. Princeton and Harvard actually encouraged the move. Still, there was no guarantee the unproven scheme would achieve what some parents saw as the school’s primary mission — putting their children on track for the future.

Exchanges over the topic at times were contentious:

“AP sets a standard everyone understands. Why fix what’s not broken?”

“No matter what colleges say, they’re less likely to accept kids who don’t have AP.”

“If my daughter can’t earn AP credit, she won’t be able to opt out of courses at university.”

“The College Board says the AP program lets teachers teach what they want, so what’s the problem?”

Normally, getting kids into college doesn’t seem at odds with giving them a deep, rich education. But now, some parents worried the plan to adopt our own high-level courses threatened their children’s college chances. Teachers, meanwhile, believed the school’s primary goal should be to teach students to think well about important ideas. Strong college preparation would be a desirable secondary result. Whatever the school district’s mission might be on paper, its real mission was in dispute. Residents let school board members know their views at meetings, through e-mail, face to face at social events, and over the supermarket counter. In autumn 2005, the board said it supported the faculty’s concept but would continue to listen and review the proposal.

At special meetings, the board sometimes brought together teachers and parents. While these encounters were mostly civil, they could grow heated. At one meeting, a frustrated teacher told parents flatly they should stop trying to micromanage the schools. Some parents were equally abrupt.

Course Launch
By mid-spring 2006, everything that could possibly be said had been — many times. Some compromises were possible. The plan could be phased in. It could include quality controls, including program reviews by university scholars and teacher-parent committees. The school could prepare students for AP course exams outside of class. Ultimately, though, people in Scarsdale just had different ideas about the schools’ priorities.

The board president introduced the last of the public forums. A parent responded that this radical new idea was still moving too quickly. It should be slowed down and considered for some future implementation. “What’s the hurry?” he asked.

At that point, the entire discussion could have disintegrated into a future of ongoing tension and confrontation. Or, it could have subsided wearily into benign neglect. The faculty, originally enthusiastic about a new and better program, would be demoralized and cynical.

The board president listened, then acknowledged the gentleman’s point. Smiling, she reasserted that the trustees already had agreed tentatively to proceed with Advanced Topics. In the charged atmosphere of the packed room, she clarified that the board — acting on behalf of all the people — determined the schools’ mission.

The board would decide whether a particular academic program was consistent with the mission and may go forward. The faculty’s plan promised to advance the critical thinking and deep understanding that are central to Scarsdale’s written mission. Community concern and comments were welcome and would be considered carefully, but the mission wouldn’t be decided by politics.

In June 2007, the board approved a phase one for Advanced Topics, giving the go-ahead for new social studies and arts courses the following fall. Every critic hadn’t been convinced. Still, in a community where most individuals respect open process and exercise civility, the judgment of the governing board was honored.

Stimulated Thinking
As of June 2011, after five years of experience, Advanced Topic classes range from a museum-based art history course to advanced biology to Western political thought. The courses feature experiences that teachers would have been reluctant to include previously — for instance, original research in the Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt presidential libraries. Students have more opportunities to examine issues and events from alternative perspectives. They make more connections between academic study and the real world. We’re seeing more simulations, debates, research, primary source analyses and outside readings. Teaching is more responsive to emerging topics and student interests.

Eighty-five percent of students rate their Advanced Topics classes as “very good” to “outstanding” at expanding their thinking. They consider these advanced courses more positively than AP for stimulating curiosity and love of learning. College admissions are at least as strong as before, and there’s been no identifiable change in AP test takers’ scores.

Two-thirds of teachers say Advanced Topics promotes more independent thinking. Half say classes are more student-centered and the quality of discussion deeper or much deeper. Students pursue problems in more authentic ways. Only one faculty member describes the Advanced Topics experience as inferior to Advanced Placement.

Finally, visiting professors have validated the initiative. A history professor found it “remarkable how probing and thoughtful the Scarsdale faculty is in asking students to engage in higher-level work. ... (The students) demonstrate many of the skills of my best at Oberlin.” After two Cornell University teachers reported changes in their biology classes, Scarsdale’s department chair described his colleagues’ gratitude for the way “they encouraged us to recognize that not everything in the text is important. They said universities are giving us permission to change along with them.”

Spring Letdown
Advanced Topics classes haven’t solved all the problems of senior year. More than 70 percent of Scarsdale seniors know where they’re going to college by December, and after years of focusing intensely on admission, they still let down during the spring term.

However, for many students, Advanced Topics courses are an opportunity to engage with teachers in serious intellectual inquiry for its own sake. And the lessons learned from this experience are infusing courses throughout the school with new energy. That is no small achievement for a highly successful institution that easily could have rested on its laurels.

Michael McGill is superintendent in Scarsdale, N.Y. E-mail: mmcgill@scarsdaleschools.org