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Jan 12, 201101:34 PMEducation Matters

A Rigorous Course

Jan 12, 2011 - 01:34 PM

Montgomery County public school students took a record-setting number of Advanced Placement exams in 2010—29,854 to be exact, up from 2009’s all-time high of 28,575. Nearly 72 percent of tests received a college-ready score of 3 or above.

And this is good news?

The Board of Education would have us think so. “Once again, our students have demonstrated that they want to take challenging courses and are prepared to succeed in doing college-level work,” board President Christopher S. Barclay said in a release posted on the MCPS website. “These outstanding results on the 2010 Advanced Placement exams also provide one more piece of solid evidence that the emphasis on rigorous course taking in MCPS is the right thing for students.”

Is it?

Maybe we should ask the families featured in the new documentary, Race to Nowhere. The movie is creating a grassroots buzz over its message about high-stress competiveness in public and private high schools. Bethesda-area parents and students have been flocking to local showings, including those at Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Walt Whitman high schools.

In the movie, which will be shown at Walter Johnson High School on March 3, students just like ours are so overwhelmed from trying to achieve the perfect college resume and making sure they pass advanced tests that they aren’t actually learning much. Some resort to cheating; some are getting sick and some are turning to drugs to handle the stress.

The message is clear: We parents have created this pressure. After all, aren’t we the ones who succumb to the phone call from the principal wondering why our child isn’t taking more AP classes? Aren’t we the ones who shuttle kids from afterschool drama club to evening soccer practice and then wonder why they’re awake at midnight doing homework?

After watching Race to Nowhere recently, I had a moment of clarity. Last fall, I sat through information nights for the county’s public high school magnet programs, including one at Rockville’s Richard Montgomery High School. Getting into the school’s well-regarded International Baccalaureate Magnet Program isn’t easy: 900 students vied for just over 100 spots last year.

But if your child does get in, life is golden, according to several parents who spoke about their children’s experiences in the rigorous program. If your child is accepted, “you have hit the jackpot,” one dad stated. Minutes later, another parent repeated the phrase.

The words struck me at the time, but didn’t hit home until after I saw the movie. I have hit the jackpot? What about my daughter, who’d actually go to the school? Is this really all about us parents?

Of course, there are students who thrive under such academic pressure and I’m not suggesting that we hold them back from achieving all they can. But what is the true percentage of kids who are able to handle advanced work and yet keep up with all the other activities that fill their lives?

After listening to all the superlative advanced offerings at another high school information night last fall, one parent had a simple question: What about an average kid? What should she do?


Old to new | New to old
Jan 13, 2011 07:05 pm
 Posted by  Alex F

Recently on our high school list serv there was an excellent discussion as to whether to allow 9th graders to take an AP course. Having volunteered for several years in the MCPS system in science, english, and music classrooms, I can cheerfully report that, yes, Virginia, there is a wide spectrum of learning styles and ability among our student body. I saw frustrated 'slower learners' trying to keep up, and bored-to-tears 'faster learners' light years ahead of the class material. My take on this? Let students and their parents decide what is the best for that student. At least, we parents are being made aware of the pitfalls of 'helicoptering' and 'racing to nowhere' and pressuring our kids beyond their limits. We have to be careful not to live vicariously through our children's accomplishments, and to stave off our (sub)conscious competitiveness so prevalent in the DC area. Hopefully, as parents we will advise our kids more wisely thanks to these public fora. Let us be wary that the new 'higher level' classes do not become the new 'norm'. But, all the same let us preserve the CHOICE students can make, as to whether to take more challenging courses or not--and let's support MCPS making those more challenging courses available. Just 10 years ago we were lamenting the low quality of our public education system compared to other industrialized nations. Now that higher math and more AP courses are offered, is the pendulum swinging the other way?

Jan 13, 2011 07:53 pm
 Posted by  Paula

Both of my children attended public schools. We moved to a school system that had the International Baccaulaureate program. This program prepared both of my kids for college. The biggest thing they learned is time management. Both of my kids did not get straight A's in high school but have managed to be on either the President's list or Dean's list every semester in college. So my advice, I would rather my child stressed out in high school than in college. As parents we can help them cope with the pressure. Once they are off to college, it is comforting to know, that they are capable of the work and not overwhelmed. The only thing with doing the AP IB track, consider going lighter on the extra curriculars otherwise your child will be overwhelmed. They can add the fun stuff in college as intramural sports or leisure skills, especially if they received a bunch of college credits. Let that be part of their reward for all of their hard work! This will help balance the challenges of college with the fun side of college.

Jan 13, 2011 07:55 pm
 Posted by  dleibman

Wonderful post, Julie. Like you I have one daughter in a magnet program and another applying this year. I think about the issues you raise all the time and have come to no hard and fast conclusions. Should any 6th grader, even the brightest, be doing homework at midnight? Should she be foregoing extracurricular activities to stay on top of her school workload? Our oldest daughter is happy, thriving, and loves the challenge of the accelerated program. She wouldn't trade her experience for the world. But I've often thought it all too much -- especially during some of those teary late-night hours. I guess it all boils down to the kids: Do they love it; can they handle it? Parents and educators need to be asking themselves this all the time and know when it's working for each child and when it's not. So I agree with the first poster: Keep the choices (better yet, create more, especially ones that foster creativity and critical thinking), but parents must stay keenly mindful.

Jan 14, 2011 03:50 am
 Posted by  OlneyMom

Julie, thank you so much for starting this blog.
Great job raising the issues and the questions and offering perspective.
I have one child who has enjoyed MCPS G/T magnet schools since 3rd grade and is now in the IB program at Richard Montgomery High School and another child who graduated from our local high school with some AP classes on her transcript.
I firmly believe MCPS is all about the high end kids (high end academically and high end financially) to keep up the reputation of the district. Good luck to the average kids. And woe to the kids whose families don't know how to work the system.
I enjoy seeing you confirm some behind the scenes stuff and raise the questions that we parents talk with each other about "over the fence" and on-line.
And yes, my kids who have had the advantages of this great education still have trouble with their multiplication tables. (So much for the accelerated curriculum that pushed algebra in elementary school at the expense of basics. I ended up paying for a high school math tutor for years.)
All that said, I still think we are blessed to have such a great school system.

Jan 14, 2011 09:51 am
 Posted by  Dave Haaga

I'd encourage people to research to what extent your kids can sample the more challenging courses/activities a la carte. Each of my kids took a number of IB and AP classes, spread out across semesters, without completing the full IB program with extended essay and so forth. Those of us who made sure to take at least one easy class each semester in college can appreciate the benefits of this strategy.

More generally, as a teacher I don't understand why we've let challenging come to be so highly correlated with extremely time-consuming. It would be great if kids who are especially adept in a particular subject could read more advanced material, study more complex issues, or what have you without the pressure to spend private-law-firm-junior-associate hours completing homework, to the detriment of their ability to enjoy sports, other interests, relaxing and doing nothing, etc.

Jan 19, 2011 07:49 pm
 Posted by  susan w.

Thanks Julie for putting a spotlight on the wake up call from the documentary. I have always been an advocate of more play for children in the preschool and elementary school years. Watching the burden of work that my daughter is tasked with in 6th grade is shocking. Her delight at exploring the ice covered world on a snow day in the midst of exams reminds me how little time she has to simply explore on her own. She is a capable, curious, motivated student, so I shudder to hear her ponder "How can I do all the work I have and still live?" She's only 11, and deliberating work-life balance. I believe we've set her up on a treadmill to which she was unable to give informed consent.
I agree w/ the post by D. Haaga that advanced material and discussion of more complex issues does not have to translate into hours of work and study at the expense of the students' social, physical and emotional well-being.

Jan 23, 2011 01:40 pm
 Posted by  Bethesda Mom

Wow. This is a very interesting post. I agree that our children should have a choice in what courses to take, but when is too much too much? Good job.

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