What AP Classes Can Teach Us About Building Stronger Curriculum for All Students

When millions of parents became de facto teachers during COVID-19, they saw firsthand a deep-seeded, widespread problem in American education: lackluster content and curricula that doesn’t educate or inspire students. 

Top-down attempts to improve what students learn yielded mixed results historically and generally faced intense backlash. That’s one cause of today’s decentralized approach to content. When someone says instructional material you may think of a big corporate publisher, but you should also think of downloads of wildly varying quality from Pinterest or TeachersPayTeachers.

But it’s not hopeless. We can get rigorous content in front of students without a top-down approach. Here’s how.

We must amplify and share the high-quality content and curricula already developed in our very best schools. This is how the Advanced Placement (AP) program from The College Board began.

Nearly 70 years ago, the AP program started as an elitist affair among a group of seven public and private schools seeking to provide “superior” students with access to college-level courses. 

Today, AP is much more egalitarian: 70% of the nation’s high schools offer some form of AP, and access to AP is seen as an equity priority. The College Board has focused their efforts to help traditionally underserved student populations access and succeed in AP courses, and schools and districts often provide resources for underserved students, like “AP for All,” where all students can access these rigorous courses, regardless of GPA, income or other barriers. 

The AP program provides high-quality educational options for millions of students across a range of educational settings. And a robust market of third-party support for AP, including books, tutoring, and videos, like Khan Academy, have made accessing this program even easier.

AP’s success is not the result of top-down directives from state legislatures or boards of education: just eight states and the District of Columbia require districts or schools to offer access to AP courses. Instead, schools and other education providers willingly adopt or align to AP offerings.

So how do we take the lessons of the AP program at this moment so more students, especially students furthest from opportunity, can access better content and become engaged learners?

The best schools and networks of schools that have built programs with track-records of success in getting low-income, special education, and English Language learners on or above grade-level, should collaborate to adopt an AP-like approach to help other school systems adopt similar academic programming.

We must encourage these schools to collaborate, develop, and support the adoption of shared curricular standards. A current lack of direct incentives make this a challenge, but foundations can create such incentives. Foundations should fund the AP-like approach to further accelerate progress among students. 

The schools that have the ability to innovate, develop their own content and curricula, and focus their support and structures on students furthest from opportunity, are a natural starting point for where to begin.

For example, Success Academy and Achievement First, two leading charter networks in New York and the northeast, already provide open access to curriculum guides and instructional resources. Houston-based KIPP charter schools partnered with Great Minds on an effort that ultimately resulted in Wit & Wisdom, a top-rated K-8 English Language Arts curriculum that has been adopted by Baltimore City Public Schools and other school systems. But that is a starting point.

To build on this foundation, schools, especially schools that serve students in grades K-8, should come together to build something akin to AP: a singular, open, and accessible set of curricular standards that bring high-quality instructional content to classrooms, packaged with content-aligned assessments and educator support. 

High-performing charter schools, with foundation support, could rapidly improve outcomes for kids without waiting on state policymakers to lift charter-related fiscal and policy barriers that inhibit seat growth. In fact, reaching students should not be limited by school walls at all.

There are bright spots of strong curricula and content in our schools. The challenge is how to share that work broadly so that any school can access high-quality curricula that can help students from all backgrounds succeed

Read “From Pandemic to Progress: Eight Education Pathways for COVID-19 Recovery” here.

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