Wednesday, May 7, 2014

ap calculus

This morning my students will go into a room and give their best on an exam that lasts for 3 hours and 15 minutes and will literally suck their brain out through a pencil.  OK, not literally, but it will feel like it.

I am an AP Calculus teacher and have been for 20 years. I work at a school that gives no yearly standardized test to students in order to measure achievement and progress.  Although most of our students come to us in 6th or 7th grade, the first standardized measure of our success comes from the SAT or ACT.  The second measure comes from AP scores.  Both of these tests are voluntary, although our students are college bound and all end up taking the SAT.  There is no expected standard and salaries are not tied to performance.  There is no one teacher responsible for SAT scores.  And although I teach the AP course, my students' success is not simply of my own making.  My colleagues have all painstakingly taught my students the foundation they need to succeed on this one test.  And they do.

We are very successful as a school, so much so that people pay to attend.  We are selective in that we do not have unlimited space and so can only take as many as we have seats in our classrooms.  We have many children on financial aid, and 1.3 million dollars is devoted to this each year.  Our ability to choose students allows us to follow our mission, to focus on academic and extracurricular excellence, leadership and service, and spiritual growth.  We turn kids away every year because we do not believe that they will succeed in our community.  In many ways it is as perfect as teaching gets, and when I have a hard day, I need only look around for a moment to be reminded that I am truly blessed.

It is standardized test season nationwide, and public and charter schools are administering the various yearly assessments, waiting anxiously for the results, knowing their schools and jobs are on the line.  I will go and help to grade the 350,000+ AP Calculus exams in June, and I too will wait anxiously for the results, not because my livelihood depends on it, but because I am deeply invested in the success of my students.  Many will have graduated before I get the results, but I remain hopeful that their hard work will pay off with a good result and college credit. 

I know that I do not face the challenges of a public school teacher.  I do not teach children of widely differing intellectual abilities or interests.  I do not fear violence in my school.  There are no gangs, few if any drugs, and little disrespect.  The most common student referrals are for tardies, gum, and dress code violations.  The parents are deeply invested, and my colleagues are passionate, hard-working, and positive.  I cannot imagine teaching in a school without these advantages, all the while being forced to spend my days preparing for a standardized test as well.  It feels overwhelming.  I sometimes wonder why anyone would do it.

People might ask how we know if we're doing things right.  First we put our trust in experts.  We use educators to make decisions about curriculum rather than politicians.  We collaborate and discuss.  We watch each other teach and offer feedback.  We are on a steady diet of professional development and curriculum revision.  We have strong leaders who make decisions based on a clearly defined mission.  We remediate when needed, offer support when required, and sometimes, when necessary, remove teachers who do not act in keeping with our own standards. 

And finally, after years of efforts, our kids take a standardized tests, not because we demand it, but because colleges do. We do not need such measures to know we are doing things well.  Most of our students go to college, graduate, get jobs and become good citizens.  That's what has happened thousands of times since our founding in 1967.  This is how we measure success.  It is the only thing that matters.

I know that every school is different and our model will not serve all, but that's the point.  Every school is different, and every child.  This long-winded rant is just one more effort to highlight the struggles and challenges in education.  And one more attempt to point out, it doesn't have to be this way in so many of our public schools.  There is another way. There are a lot of other ways. 

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