Motivating the Elephant to Improve Your AP Program

In this series of blog posts, I am reporting on what I learned from reading the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. The authors describe how successful change follows a specific pattern with three important aspects to be considered. The change that I advocated for in my first blog is for schools to build stronger (better scores) and more inclusive (better participation) and more diverse AP programs. In the second post, I gave tips for “directing the rider,” appealing to our more rational need for change. In this post, I hope to give tips for “motivating the elephant,” the more emotional aspect of our personalities that often manages to derail change efforts.

•FIND THE FEELING. The authors point out “knowing something isn’t enough to cause change.” Millions of folks KNOW smoking is bad for them, but continue to light up. Smoking cessation campaigns show disgusting photos of smokers’ lungs or get parents to think about their children having to grow up without them in order to motivate change. Teachers and school administrators often KNOW that a strong AP program will benefit their students; they have seen the data and read the studies. I believe that students’ personal stories are much more likely to bring about change. I know of one school that had some of their top notch graduates return to address the faculty after they had struggled academically in their first year of college. They were on academic probation and had lost their scholarships because they were not able to compete with students who had taken more rigorous classes (AP classes had not been offered at their school). Listening to their stories was certainly painful and I admire the courage of the principals who were willing to admit that the school was not doing everything it could to prepare students. If possible, a more positive approach might work as well. One of my former students showed up in class a few days ago to tell this year’s seniors that he had earned 28 hours of college credit through his AP exams, thus saving his family about $14,000 in tuition and fees. Putting a student’s face on the need for change or giving it a monetary value might motivate some people when data and statistics are not enough. Go to and search for Berkner HS cardboard confessional 2009 to see how one school motivated teachers to accept more struggling students into their college preparatory classes.

•SHRINK THE CHANGE. If your school doesn’t have a particular AP class or even an AP program right now, jumping in with both feet and expecting kids to earn great scores in the very first year might be too daunting of a challenge. Maybe it’s best to spend one year preparing to offer the AP class—identifying the teacher, obtaining necessary resources and training, recruiting students, beefing up the feeder courses, etc. Administrators need to be willing to schedule a class even with a small number of students in order to give it a chance to grow and should expect that the AP scores for the first three years might not be as stellar as the new teacher develops their content knowledge and instructional strategies. Their needs to be emphasis on growth in both participation and performance (though some established programs might need to focus on just one of these aspects. You might already have plenty of kids in the AP class and now need to work on improving scores. Or, your scores might be stellar (in terms of percentage earning recommended scores), but you have very few students participating.

•GROW YOUR PEOPLE. Again, I want to emphasize the importance of vertical teaming and starting to prepare students for success in AP courses as early as possible. Pushing students into AP classes for which they are unprepared does a disservice to both students and teachers. We begin working with students as early as middle school and make sure they are aware of the AP possibilities that will be available to them. We also make sure that “late bloomers” still have access to AP classes by allowing them to double up on math classes as sophomores or take PreCalculus in summer school. Steady growth over a long period of time is great, but we also have to account for sudden spurts. Just as it is important to grow AP students, it’s also important to grow your AP faculty as well. As soon as student enrollment justifies a third section of an AP class, it might be time to start training an additional AP teacher.

For previous posts that might help to motivate your elephant, check out Building the Next Generation of AP Teachers from January 18, 2010, AP Scholar Reception from January 11, 2010 and AP Ambassadors from September 11, 2009.

Thank you, as always, for reading. Please share strategies that you are using to grow your AP program. We can all learn a lot from each other.


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