December 28, 2007

Commentary:

Challenging Our Students Will Help Them Succeed

By Susannah Bell
New America Media

Editor’s Note: A recent University of Texas study shows that students who take Advanced Placement classes and exams get better GPAs and have a higher chance of graduating high school. A teacher found this to be true when she challenged her students to step up to take the AP English exam.

Since 1998, I have been honored to teach in a small school setting inside of Berkeley High School called Community Partnerships Academy (CPA), which has historically served students of color from low-income households. The majority of our graduates have been the first in their families to attend college.

Early in my tenure, I noticed a significant disparity between the opportunities given under prepared students versus those who had been nurtured academically since early childhood. In some remedial English classes, the teachers did not take pains to creatively present lessons that would enrich their students’ skill development. Rather, the students were essentially given plot summaries and quiz answers. Not surprisingly, the majority of these students continued to fail. Conversely, I witnessed the teachers of the academically nurtured students – largely from white, high-income areas around Berkeley – agonize over ways to present an engaging, challenging curriculum to their AP classes.

In 2000, I became involved with the Berkeley High School Diversity Project, which strove to reverse the inequities at Berkeley High by making recommendations based on action research and student shadowing, among other methods. On more than one occasion, I shadowed the same student – a 17-year-old African American female – through her day of classes and interviewed her about my observations. I noticed that she excelled in the classes that were the most challenging, and predictably became disengaged and even disruptive in classes where the teacher used rote or pre-packaged methods for instruction. In other classes, she was virtually ignored by the teacher.

After this experience, I realized that my desire to challenge my students to achieve their highest potential was not just a goal – it was an obligation. At about the same time, my “school-within-a-school” program was transitioning to official “small school” status, which meant that our team of teacher-leaders had more autonomy over curriculum and scheduling. We transitioned from the traditional high school model to one in which core history and English teachers would “loop” with their students – that is, we would follow the same group of students over all four years of their education. After my participation in the Diversity Project, I had begun lobbying to offer Advanced Placement curriculum to our students. Most of our students said that they didn’t want to take AP outside of our small school because they didn’t want to be the only student of color in the class.

The next summer, I participated in my first AP training and discovered that the curriculum was indeed rigorous, but also engaging. I presented a radical idea to my students in the Class of 2007, when they were juniors. I proposed to them that to “level the playing field” with those students who had been given such rich opportunities throughout school, I would teach an AP curriculum their senior year to the entire class, and – in addition – offer an augmentation period to those who wanted to prepare for the test. This would mean that everyone would have the same level of rigorous instruction, but that those who wanted to take the test would essentially have to take a separate, additional English class. To my happy surprise, they enthusiastically agreed. Twenty of my 60 students signed on for the augmentation class, which included a summer reading assignment, an additional two days per week of a face-to-face class (which began at 7:30 a.m.), and a two-hour per week online component.

The following year, I began implementing the AP curriculum in all my Senior Composition classes, and the students who were taking the class for AP credit began attending the extra class. In the first semester, the students wrote much more than they ever had, using significantly more sophisticated vocabulary and demonstrating a higher level of critical thinking than ever before. I saw results sooner than I had expected. At the first semester, students in my regular Composition class who had earned Ds or Fs in my ninth, tenth and eleventh grade classes were now pushing themselves to earn Bs or As. And they were doing it despite the significantly larger paper load and more challenging course content. I asked one of them to write down her explanation for the change and she wrote, “This class is so much harder. I don’t know – it just makes me want to do better.”

The AP curriculum has allowed me to “teach to the top” for all my students. Largely because of “looping,” the students are a tightly-knit, caring community. The students who had been given more opportunities earlier in their education are as committed to educational equity as those who had not been academically nurtured. I saw the disparity between these groups begin to close when they formed diverse “study teams,” using their multiple intelligences to help each other.

When the test scores came back in the summer, I was at first disappointed. My students’ passing rate was not as high as I expected. Some did pass, including a Latina who started in the ninth grade as a “Limited English Proficient” student. But what was encouraging is that, while many did not “pass” in order to get a waiver for college English, an overwhelming number scored “2,” a level that the implies a probable qualification for college English. Upon conducting informal interviews with those students, who have recently completed their first semester of college English, 100 percent have reported that they earned an A or B in that class. This news encourages me to believe that possibly because of their exposure to the more rigorous curriculum, they were not only able to get in to a school of their choice but that now they will be able to stay there.

This belief is not only based on anecdotal evidence from my class but underscored by recent research. AP is now being offered to more underserved students than ever before, and passing rates among African Americans and Latinos have doubled in the last four years. In addition, a recent University of Texas study found “strong evidence of benefits to students who participate in both AP courses and exams in terms of higher GPAs, credit hours earned and four year graduation rates.” Moreover, the study also found that “even a score of 2 out of a possible 5 points on an AP exam correlates with better college performance than that achieved by students who did not take AP or who skipped the AP exam.”

This year, my school has expanded its AP offerings to include both the junior and senior level of AP English, as well as a fourth year math (AP Calculus) open to all our students. I am proud to be a part of a small school that has historically served a typically underprepared population while maintaining a commitment to offering the highest level of rigor in its coursework. Our students and their parents want high expectations – and as I’ve experienced first-hand, when teachers have high expectations, students will strive to meet them.

Susannah Bell is an English teacher at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California.

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