Shaping the Path to Improve AP Programs

This is the fourth in a series of posts I am writing based on a book I read this summer called Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Building a high performing and inclusive AP program is a change that many schools and districts are seeking to make, but it is tough. You have to get teachers, parents and kids all on the same path and keep them going even when the work is difficult. They may know (through their rider) and feel (through their elephant) that the AP program is a good investment of time and energy. The final piece is to make the path to your goal as clear as possible. The authors present three strategies aimed at making the environment “friendlier” to the change you are seeking to make.

TWEAK THE ENVIRONMENT: Just like the dieter who throws out fattening foods and stocks the fridge so that the only choices are fruits and vegetables, some schools have decided to make the AP class the default class in which every student is automatically enrolled. Students can switch to a regular course only with a parent’s permission. I personally think this is extreme, but it does work for some schools. In my school, AP classes are open enrollment which means that any student who has completed the prerequisite classes can enroll in AP. There are no grade criteria or test score or teacher recommendation. We also changed the policy regarding dropping an AP class (discussed more fully in an earlier post) so that students cannot drop for the first three weeks. We have a one week drop window and after that, students are expected to remain in the course and take the AP exam in May. Teachers will say “when you take the AP exam,” not “if.” Are their policies or practices in your school that you might want to re-visit?

BUILD HABITS: The authors suggest using “action triggers” to encourage good behaviors. What if counselors automatically presented AP as an option to any student who met a certain grade threshold or if AP Potential letters were automatically sent out to students who show a strong likelihood of success in AP classes? Checklists are another tool that can be useful along with calendars that will remind teachers what needs to happen when. Teachers are busy and might forget that they need to plan recruitment efforts to coincide with class registration. Our AP leadership team meets at certain times throughout the year with a somewhat set agenda of what needs to be discussed at each meeting. Because it’s on the calendar from the beginning of the year, we don’t let things slip by when school gets busy.

RALLY THE HERD: There are two aspects to this. AP teachers who are trying to build a successful and inclusive AP program need time to meet with others who share their philosophy and are trying to make similar changes. These might be teachers from different subject areas within your school or it could be teachers from various schools who might “meet” via the internet. Students also need to feel like they are part of a group with similar goals and aspirations. This might sound silly, but many AP students enjoy making t-shirts for their AP classes. They might also form a group identity by having a yearbook photo made of their class. There was a school in the Dallas area that put out a yearly brochure featuring their AP Calculus program, one of the largest and most successful in the nation. People are naturally social creatures and we gain strength and determination from knowing that others are alongside us in our endeavors.

That’s one of the reasons for this blog—to provide a forum for like-minded folks who are looking for ways to improve their AP programs. I have over 100 subscribers. If each of you sent in just one question or one idea about improving participation and performance in AP, think of how much we could all benefit. Thanks for reading and please take the time to send me something! I will compile and include your comments in a future posting.

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