Toward universal least common denominator education: A story about the new AP Physics course

I recently met with an AP Coordinator to discuss the new AP Physics 1 course that will become available in Fall 2014.  The course is designed to become the new standard first high school physics course, replacing the standard high school physics and honors physics courses.  The idea is to attract more strong students to take physics – the science subject most strongly correlated with STEM bachelor’s degree attainment – instead of skipping the subject so they can earn AP credit in AP Chemistry or Biology courses.

One of the selling points of this scheme is that if all of the 20% of high school grads who now take the standard or honors physics courses in Florida instead take AP Physics 1, then the AP Physics course-taking rate would be 20% – a remarkable and boast-worthy number (it’s about 2% in Florida right now).

The AP Coordinator was thoroughly unimpressed.  She patiently explained that her goal was for 60% of high school grads to have AP credit, and a course like AP Physics 1 that would appeal to only 20% of high school students would not get her any closer to this goal and was therefore not worth one lick of effort.

It was one of those “How did we get here?” moments.  How did we get to the point where an Advanced Placement course that would likely be taken by the 20% of high school students most likely to pursue science and engineering careers is not worth any effort because its constituency is too narrow?

The Common Core is a wonderful thing.  The idea of using competition among states to push schools to raise the achievement levels of the bulk of students is terrific.  After all, one of the primary jobs of our public schools in 2013 is to prepare all of these students for economic roles that would allow them to achieve middle class lifestyles.  The NGSS has a similar goal.

But our society still needs scientific and technological leaders.  If the public K-12 schools don’t want the job of preparing our best and brightest for these roles, then who will do it?  (Yikes!  That sounds like a school choice argument!  Is that where we’re heading?)

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