“Vacation” thus far.

Last week I attended a four-day Advanced Placement Achievement Institute (also known as a “seminar”) that was facilitated (“done”) by the College Board (“the SAT and AP guys”). Attendance was not mandatory, but I figured that a little more professional development (“training”) couldn’t hurt–especially when accompanied by a stipend (“pittance”). Besides, my administrative team (“bosses”) were attending, so I thought it might be productive (“useful”) to interact with (”suck up to”) them more directly than usual.

Aside from the stipend–that some attendees might not get–it was a near-total waste of time.

An e-mail from the district said that the purpose was to help us teach AP courses to “non-traditional” AP students. Now, I’m sure you’re thinking, “What’s a non-traditional AP student? One who doesn’t celebrate holidays? One who wears white after Labor Day? One who doesn’t doff his hat to a lady? Pray tell!” Okay: a non-traditional AP student is one who, up until maybe ten years ago, you wouldn’t expect to find in an AP class.

It used to be that in most cases, students would somehow have to qualify to take an AP course, whether through standardized testing, GPA, grades in prerequisite courses, or teacher recommendation. However, over the last several years there’s been less emphasis on qualifying to take AP courses, partly because the College Board began pursuing a policy of “open access.” The College Board’s 2002 Equity Policy Statement reads:

The College Board and the Advanced Placement Program encourage teachers, AP Coordinators, and school administrators to make equitable access a guiding principle for their AP programs. The College Board is committed to the principle that all students deserve an opportunity to participate in rigorous and academically challenging courses and programs. All students who are willing to accept the challenge of a rigorous academic curriculum should be considered for admission to AP courses. The Board encourages the elimination of barriers that restrict access for AP courses to students from ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in the AP Program. Schools should make every effort to ensure that their AP classes reflect the diversity of their student population.

This is a noble but imprecise goal–noble for obvious reasons, imprecise because it excludes any concern about the preparedness of students who take AP courses. How do you teach college-level content and skills to students who may not even read at a 9th grade level?

In the interest of open access, our district has dramatically increased enrollment in AP classes. However, it has done so without considering student interest or preparation–and when you take kids who are totally unprepared for an AP course (the equivalent of a college freshman course) and shove them into one, the result isn’t pretty. It’s less of a problem at my school than at other schools in my district, because my school is a college-prep magnet. But at the worst performing school in the district in 2008, just one out of 395 AP exams was passed–a rate of 0.25%. The four worst-performing schools in the district had a pass rate of 6%. The district as a whole had a pass rate of 23%. These numbers come from the front page article the local paper published right before this year’s exams, which raised much hue and cry.

Needless to say, the teachers around here are very interested in learning how to teach non-traditional AP students, students who aren’t prepared for AP courses, and classrooms where some students are prepared while others aren’t. After all, if we’re going to get blasted on the front page of the paper for our low pass rates, it’d be nice to know how to fix the problem, and who better to help us than the experts themselves from the College Board?

In four days, those experts said nothing about teaching AP courses to non-traditional students, to unprepared students, or to classrooms with a wide range of learning abilities. Actually, that’s not totally true: they mentioned in passing that they had non-traditional students. But there was nothing about how to change your teaching methods to help these kids… just an attempt to show some sympathy with us.

So what did they talk about? Some writing exercises, some physical exercises to get the blood pumping in the middle of a long class, some exercises with essay rubrics–nothing that I hadn’t already seen at several AP seminars over the last six years. Judging from the looks on the other teachers’ faces throughout the seminar, I’d say they also learned nothing new.

After Wednesday’s session, a co-worker and I confronted one of the College Board presenters. We told them about our district’s situation (i.e., kids are enrolled in AP courses without adequate preparation or interest) and directly asked him how to teach non-traditional students and unprepared student. His response was, “You can only control what you can control.” That’s a great answer if you’re simply trying to calm yourself down, but an utterly useless answer in terms of trying to help your students.

We were asked to fill out comment cards at the end of each day. At the end of each day, I wrote that “what they were teaching” didn’t match “what we were told they were going to teach.” (That’s an English translation of what I actually wrote, which was in Education-ese.) At the beginning of each subsequent day, they acknowledged that they hadn’t yet gotten around to the matter of non-traditional students, but that they would soon.

Well, they didn’t. I have rarely seen so much resigned despondence in a room. I know that’s oxymoronic, but I know what I saw: a collective look on the teachers’ faces that said, “You haven’t helped us; you haven’t helped our students; you have done nothing but waste our time.”