“So you’re just going to let anyone into your AP English class?” she quipped with sarcasm and snark.
“Uhm … yeah,” I responded with cool decisiveness.
The scene of this conversation? A conference table full of AP teachers engaged in a debate about academic equity, particularly about which students should have access to AP classes in high school.
Her elitist approach to education was nothing new, and it’s something that often keeps me up at night. The colleague who questioned my admissions requirements—or lack thereof—believed that AP classes were not for everyone, and that academic equity really shouldn’t apply to AP courses due to their rigor. Naturally, listening to her propagate these ideas almost made me sick.
Our debate stemmed from some comments I made about removing punitive class requirements for my AP English class. The most controversial omission involved a grade point average requirement.
One Bad Grade Shouldn't Be An Educational Death Sentence
I subscribe to the idea that it’s possible for a student to make mistakes during their freshman year, but also completely possible for the same student to get their act together by senior year. And if they do so and feel motivated to take my AP English class, why shouldn’t they be allowed?
Nevertheless, it appeared that my colleague didn’t share my opinion. Instead, she seemed to suggest that earning an F in freshman English should be an educational death sentence. This belief is what prompted her sarcastic line of questioning.
To be clear, I’m not in the business of setting kids up for failure. And the reality is that if 20 students show up to my “AP English Meeting”—the one where I divulge the challenging work the course curriculum entails—approximately half of those students will actually decide to take the course the following school year. It’s a lot of work and many students decide for themselves that they just aren’t up for the challenge. And that’s okay.
I’m not implying that we take on an “everyone gets a trophy” approach to AP class placement. Not even close. And I’m not suggesting that high academic achievement go unnoticed or unrewarded. However, rewarding some students for high academic achievement should not also demand that we deny others access to educational opportunities.
I am concerned about the systemic and structural barriers that are inadvertently (and sometimes advertently) in place which prevent all students—particularly Black and Brown students—from access to AP courses.
Furthermore, when I think back on my teaching career, some of my most talented, critical thinkers weren’t necessarily the straight-A students, riddled with anxiety at the thought of potentially earning a B in a class. Often times, my most critical thinkers were the C or D students—the risk-takers who did just enough to get by; the ones who didn’t drink the proverbial Kool-Aid that straight-A’s dictated success.
When given opportunities to shine in argumentation or debate, they often had the ability to form better rebuttals than many of my A students. Some would argue that they weren’t self-motivated enough for AP courses because they didn’t subscribe to the belief that grades were the end-all-be-all, but that didn’t mean they weren’t ambitious—and it didn’t mean they weren’t capable of success.
We're Doing It Wrong If Kids Feel Like They Don't Belong
One particularly bright student scored 1560 on the SAT, yet averaged C’s and D’s in school. I hoped that he would choose to sign up for AP English, but ultimately I didn’t see him on my AP roster at the start of the school year. I didn’t want him to feel pressured, so I waited a few weeks before casually bringing it up to him.
Nonchalantly, I inquired, “Hey, Brian. Why didn’t you take AP English this year?”
He looked at me as if I had three heads. “Yea, right ... Wait. Are you serious?”
I explained that he was the kind of critical thinker I needed in my AP class. He was so shocked by the conversation, and I remember thinking to myself: We’re doing something wrong if this kid doesn’t think he’s capable of success in an AP class.
The worst part? It had never even occurred to him to sign up for an AP class because he didn’t think he was “AP material.” I learned later that he tried to change his schedule after our conversation, but unfortunately, it was too late in the semester. Consequently, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had failed him by not saying something sooner.
Trust Students To Make The Decision
As long as we’re blatantly honest with students about what it is they’re signing up for, and this admittedly requires painful honesty about workload and motivation, then why can’t we entrust the decision about whether or not to take AP classes to students and their families?
Each year I warn my AP students: “I’m going to make you better writers, readers and communicators than you ever thought you could be—and at times you’re going to hate me for it.”
Yet if they want to be challenged, and if they want to take challenging classes in high school—classes that have the potential to lead to college credit—then who the hell am I to prevent them from doing so? And what does it say about education if we complicity stand by while kids are made to feel as if they don’t deserve access to the same opportunities as their peers?
In the spirit of full disclosure, in my career, I have told one student that I didn’t think my AP class would be a good fit for them—and the conversation has haunted me for over 10 years. Due to a poor command of grammar and less-than-stellar writing history in my composition class, when the student inquired about taking my AP class, I made a rash decision and explained that I didn’t think it was a good idea. Furthermore, they didn’t meet the requirements for the class at the time, and I feared that they wouldn’t be successful. This is one of many mistakes I made very early on in my teaching career, and I still think about it to this day.
Because here’s the thing. What if they would have been successful? Granted, it would have required a lot of work on both their part and mine to ensure their success, but what if taking an AP class was what they needed? And who was I to deprive this student of that opportunity?
I still harbor guilt over the fact that I didn’t have the confidence early on in my career to challenge the status quo—as well as the policies in place—which prevented that student from having access to my class. Shame on me.
But those days are over. Nevertheless, when I decided to eliminate course requirements for my AP class two years ago, I learned that a lot of AP teachers harbor deep-rooted stereotypes about what a “quality” AP candidate looks like, and this makes me really sad.
Ultimately, as AP teachers we have to resist the notion that we are the gatekeepers of information, and that only a select few are worthy of the opportunities we can provide. We have to make students feel welcome in our classes, and sometimes we have to see their potential even if they don’t see it for themselves. We have to stop treating AP classes like elite, exclusive clubs.
Lindsey L. Jensen is the 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year and the 2020 National Education Association Foundation for Teaching Excellence Illinois Awardee. She is Vice-President of the Illinois State Teachers of the Year Chapter, and she serves on the Illinois State Board of Education State Preparation and Licensure Board as an Illinois Education Association Representative. Lindsey is a Teach ...