29 July 2005

Equal vs. Fair

I subscribe to a few listservs. I find the one sponsored by the College Board for AP Biology to be particularly good. Help on almost any topic (no matter how obscure the question) is just a click away. I have several folders full of suggestions on making the required labs run more smoothly, ways to demonstrate or model information for kids, and so on. There are always all sorts of discussion threads running at once, although a few seem to repeat from year to year.

One of these threads has to do with pre-requisites for taking AP Biology. There are a variety of schools of thought here. The College Board recommends that students have taken chemistry prior to AP Bio, and many schools follow this suggestion (my school was one of them). Some schools have no pre-requisite requirements. Others have several. The push in my district is to remove any "gates" for upper division courses. If a kid wants to try a class, let him/her do so. In some ways, I have no problem with this. Perhaps a certain lack in their academic background is a handicap, but I can think of plenty of kids I've had who have had the proper course "pedigree" but didn't want to make an effort to apply it. I'm happy to have the kid who wants to try to make a go of the class, regardless of their previous preparation.

Today, one of the members of the listserv posted these thoughts about doing away with pre-requisites:

Why do we need to be more inclusive for those kids who want in to AP classes? This mindset really bothers me. Our policy is too lenient as it is at having a 90% in Bio 1 and passing Chem 1 to get into AP Bio. It should be tougher than that. These kids need a taste of reality. Should we let anyone into med school who wants? What about law school? NO. They have to learn that you have to earn spots in certain cases. It should be an honor to get into the class and the kids who get in should feel a sense of pride about it, not look across the room at some kid who shouldn’t be in there. I am sorry if I offended anyone, but this mindset that this country is moving towards of making everything equal just fires me up. There is a huge difference between equal and fair. I agree with being fair, but everything will not always be equal.


Stepping back to take a look at the larger picture, I can't quite agree with this particular view of "equal vs. fair." It is absolutely true that there are limited numbers of spots for different post-graduate programs, but why should a high school class be as competitive as med school? Is it "fair" that many students nationwide have been "tracked" away from more rigorous curriculum because of their skin colour and/or socio-economic status---and now they can't get out because they weren't allowed to take the pre-requisite courses? (Are these the kids who "shouldn't be there" that the other students will have to look at?) Is it "fair" to tell a kid that because they slacked off their studies when they were 14 and didn't get a certain grade in a class that they should be prohibited from showing they can and want to apply themselves to their studies? It's true, not everything will be equal. But I would like to think that we could at least level the playing field a bit and make it fair for students of all backgrounds.

My Boss Lady in Curriculum is an exceptional woman and I am learning a lot from her. One of the things that I have liked is watching her listen to someone on a rant about which classes are appropriate for which students (in their opinions). She actively listens. She shows concern. And then she simply states that we have to teach the kids who show up. We can't control how much money their families have...or how much time they spend on homework...or what they eat. What we can control is what happens in our classrooms during the moments those kids are in there. What will you do to make the most of that time for them? And how can I support you?

Like it or not, she's right. Every kid deserves the opportunity for a rigorous education. This does not mean that every kid needs to take AP Biology, only that we need to be in the business of helping kids find their potential---not keep them from doing so. All things being equal, that seems pretty fair to me.

1 comment:

James said...

You ask:

"...why should a high school class be as competitive as med school?"

The original commenter was not saying that AP biology should be as competitive as med school, rather that gated programs like med and law school are out there and that at some point kids in high school need to understand that. Far too much of high school is being watered down in some misguided effort to encourage "inclusion" or student participation for reasons of "self-esteem", but that's not how the real world works and at some point students are going to need to understand that.

So at what point is a gated system appropriate? Well that's a good question, but your concern that a kid who didn't do quite well in some high school classes should be allowed the opportunity, vice having earned the opportunity, to sit in some classes is an artificiality that won't last past their senior year. There won't be a school administer, job provider, etc., standing there saying "Let's let them in even if they didn't cut that B in whatever", when the list of kids that got that B is longer than the eye can follow, and at some point kids need to understand that. Do kids with C's get into these programs? Yes, indeed in small numbers they do, but only after they've made extraordinary efforts to in some way ameliorate or qualify their prior poor performance, and this is lacking in what you seem to have going on in your school.

Kids that automatically didn't cut the muster earlier should not out of hand be excluded, but I don't agree with boss lady's perspective when she states you simply have to teach who shows up. That's fine for the basic stuff, but if you don't want to program a kid to fail an AP course or embarrass them later when they take the final qualifying test, there needs to be some rigor to the process of selecting who's allowed in. The kid passed with a "C" in bio I and chemisty, but his/her teachers know the kid is capable if they try and could likely pass an AP bio course, then have the kid go through an entrance process where he/she gets to make the case in writing (this should be signed by the parent who should be afforded a place to make comments if they want) and verbally to the instructor and department chair for why they should be allowed to take the course and have a few of her/his teacher sign off on it (they can co-sign the original student-parent statement.) Then finally have the kid and their parents sign a contract that by a certain point in the course they'll be expected to have the following grade to sustain course participation. This makes the process fair as it allows for correcting past lackluster performance from kids who could do better were they to make the effort, AND it places the onus on the kid and their parents to make her/his case for getting into an advanced course that every reasonable objective indicator would seem to make the case the kid is going to fail or not do well in. More importantly, this mimics far more realistically what a kid can expect to find when they're no longer protected by the walls of a high school that makes things a bit easier to get into than the world at large would ever consider doing.