Friday, October 5, 2007

Open Enrollment?

As PreAP and AP philosophy, methods, and practice have come under question the past couple of weeks, one tenet, the culture of "open enrollment" has been a sensitive issue since I have been teaching these college-level courses.

Open enrollment essentially is an open door policy, allowing ANY student to enroll in a PreAP or AP class, as long as it is in the proper seque
nce. For instance, a student who barely passes academic-level Algebra II with a 69.5, can opt to take PreAP Precalculus the next year. I wish that student all the luck.

In theory, and as a pedagogical p
ractice, open enrollment sounds like a no brainer, but then there is the pragmatic reality of it. What I've noticed is that many students (and parents) equate "anyone can try" with "anyone can pass, and pass with an A, and pass using the same study habits and efforts that used to obtain their lower grade in a less rigorous course." As you can imagine, this creates a lot of tension for teaches and disillusionment for students.

But who can blame students for wanting to take PreAP and AP classes?

To stay competitive in their class rank, they "need" the extra points to weight their averages. The "Top 10%" rule is driving many unwilling or incapable students into too many AP classes. It is estimated th
at up to 90% of freshman enrollment at major public universities is automatically determined by those high school graduates in the top 10% of their class who, by law, are guaranteed acceptance regardless of SAT scores.

Another perk for taking AP? Well, according to UIL regulations, PreAP and AP classes are exempt from the "No Pass, No Play" law. This means that a star on the football team can skate through a PreAP precalculus class with a 30 average!!! Our SCHOOL is even so kind to bump it up to a free 50! But even then, the student (if you don't mind the exaggeration) is eligible to play every sport all year lon
g! (I had a dog once whose entire body wagged when her little tail got to going, but it's cute in a dog, not in public education.)

With only two academic levels: academic and preAP/AP, most students flock to AP, not only for reasons mentioned above, but also to be with their friends--OMG! What has happened is that there is a possibility of eroding cur
riculum and rigor in these classes, as an increasingly large number of "I want to give it a try-ers" who are there for the wrong reasons are undermining the course.

A recent study by Stanford University concluded that 80% of students who take calculus (an AP course) in high school complete a college bachel
or's degree. For PreAP precaculus, it drops slightly to 74%, but only 40% go on to finish college if their highest level was Algebra II. So upper-level mathematics, moreover, PreAP and AP-level of this type of math, are great indicators of college success, which can translate into a successful career and LIFE!! Go Math!!

Now, most people favor open enrollment. But in math, because of it cumulative nature and pyramidal skill structure, not learning skills and concepts at a lower level is direly detrimental to success in subsequent courses. In this sense, there should be some type of qualifications for enrolling in PreAP/AP courses, rather than just "good strategy." The math department seems to stand alone in its desire for a student's prior exhibition of desire and proficiency of lower-level curriculum as a requirement for entrance into higher-order, more rigorous classes. This is perhaps the vice of being a quantifiable, less subjective, and unfortunately for seasonal players of the game—a cumulative discipline.

Aside from English, which is necessary in establishing an effective and relatively efficient way for us to communicate with each other (although in my opinion, there is an egregious, rampant misuse of reflexive pronouns, myself excluded), the only discipline that crescendos with the entire collective knowledge of the subject and that requires daily, that is daily, discipline in order to be successful, in the sense of successfully mastering the requisite skills and understanding the holistic underpinnings of how it all ‘fits’ together is (and I know this doesn’t come as a shocker) is . . . . . MATHEMATICS (long version of the word used here in light of its demanding eminence). If you teach, and don’t teach math, or can’t do math, or are afraid of math, you will never understand the complexity of teaching math to the masses that are, thanks to open enrollment, free to “experience” math at a rigorous level. Math people are different; we pride ourselves on that. We are very emotional, but our emotions are rooted in logic, and thought, and reason, and common sense. When any argument, or lack thereof, goes against this, the ones that are equally adept and proficient in the verbal realm voice their opinion, in spite of their better judgment that it will be of any consequence in a world dictated by emotions and pragmatic, ecumenical, bureaucratic influences and special interest groups.

Fine! If some long-established organization with clout and influence, who happened to have successfully lobbied as the touchstone of college-like rigor in the high school level (ETA, a.k.a. College Board) want to dictate a curriculum to me, and thank God they have established a reasonably challenging one, and Texas has decided that every student should have the opportunity to “experience” this rigorous, challenging curriculum, then who am I, as a cog in the wheel, to say otherwise? Let any student who so desires to matriculate into a PreAP or AP class do so. Is this tantamount to passing the class? Moreover, is it equivalent to actually learning the concepts and skills? No! It is true that some individuals possess more natural ability to be successful with mathematics, but the differences are more distinctly divided among individuals rather than races. The culture of different races, in most cases, has a strong influence, from a very early age, as to the internal desire and work ethic of an individual. Unfortunately, math is not a discipline in which one can just decide late in his educational career to undertake at an in-depth, deep, successful level, unless the desire, or newfound curiosity, or interest in being academically competitive, or the interest in “experiencing” math is accompanied by a very trenchant desire and willingness to sweat (and maybe even bleed) a bit. Cultural differences aside, synaptic connections must be made at an early level for students to be able to handle mathematical concepts and computations on an AP level. Not that this cannot be made up for through redoubled efforts and uncommon persistence, pertinacity, and patience, but with so many competing interests for students these days: internet, band, work, family, friends, band, television, church, and band, etc, this required effort is often too much to muster on the public’s dime. They often do not feel the true brutality of the real world until it’s too late: either on a job where they are expected and required to be responsible, conscientious, and industrious (is this not the original intent of free and public education?), or in college, attending on their own money, where most college professors don’t care what becomes of you, because you are merely getting in the way of their research (at least this is my experience in math classes, which in my opinion is the only flaw of being too left-brained).

So, if we are not going to win the argument over selecting who gets into the PreAP and AP classes, then send them our way. We are in the profession because we do believe in every student’s abilities and potential, but we cannot do it for them. Mathematics, for the most part, is an individual “sport.” It is not a team game, nor is it for spectators. The habits of mind that are developed in the successful practitioner of mathematics are skills that transcend mathematics. I truly believe that people who can do math, can do anything (which the Stanford results tend to support)—all the more reason to let more people try.

Hurray for open enrollment, just so long as we don’t get that confused with open entitlement.

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