Graduation season is the perfect time to point out this headline on The Washington Post website: “How does a high school full of low-income kids become best in the U.S.?”
The answer, according to longtime education reporter Jay Mathews, is to require all students to take a serious load of advanced placement courses.
The high school in question is the IDEA McAllen College Prep public charter school in McAllen, Texas, along the Mexican border. Almost all of the 393 students and their teachers are Hispanic, and 77% of students are from low-income families.
Yet in the latest annual Challenge Index school ratings that Matthews has compiled for nearly 23 years, McAllen ranked first. In fact, charter schools that also require lots of AP courses held 15 of the top 20 spots on his list of 300 schools.
McAllen’s workload is demanding. Students must take a total of 11 AP courses and exams to graduate. All juniors also start the two-year International Baccalaureate diploma program while continuing their AP work. McAllen requires six IB exams, some lasting longer than three hours, plus a 4,000-word research paper.
Mathews had a good idea in devising his Challenge Index. He does not look at a school’s standardized test scores, which he says are more a measure of family income than school quality. Instead, he ranks schools by their students’ participation in college-level work like AP and IB courses.
“I want to see which schools are welcoming average students into those challenging classes.” he wrote.
He started the list in 1998, when he was at Newsweek magazine, because education innovators told him that high schools could dramatically boost learning by getting more kids into advanced courses.
“A few schools then were already revealing the potential of even disadvantaged teenagers to succeed when given a chance to do college work with encouraging teachers,” Mathews wrote. “But most high schools provided few such opportunities. In some cases they banned students from AP courses if they had less than a strong B average.”
A couple that opened a charter school in Tucson, Ariz., were among the first into the AP pool, telling Mathews in 2001 that they required all students to take six such courses. Mathews thought parents would revolt, but he was wrong: The couple was opening new schools because of increased demand.
The two Texas teachers who created the IDEA charter network in 2000 read about the Arizona experience and decided to require AP and IB courses at their schools, even though most of their students were from low-income families while the Arizona student bodies were not.
At first, the IDEA effort was a disaster. Scores were low, partly because the most of the teachers could not even pass the AP exams.
IDEA invested in teacher training and support, requiring new teachers to take the AP exams as part of the hiring process. They hired some teachers who scored poorly, believing correctly that because they were smart and eager, they would succeed if they learned the content and the best ways to teach it clearly.
It took eight years for 50% of IDEA students — at 137 schools in Texas, Louisiana and Florida — to pass AP or IB exams. That’s not bad, given that the national passing rate is 60%.
Mathews admitted that he did not think such ambitious requirements could produce so many schools that parents love. “If people are looking for innovations pioneered by charters, this is one,” he added.
Here’s another excellent point: “The often-overlooked secret about such challenges is that students who fail difficult AP and IB exams often get as much out of the experience as those who pass,” Mathews wrote. “They realize from their own academic progress and the success of older friends in college that they learn more when forced to try harder courses than when taking easier courses as their neighbors do in regular schools.”
Southwest Mississippi has no charter schools. But it does have an abundance of students from low-income families, and we now have more evidence that when kids, families and teachers are willing, it is indeed possible to smash the cycle of education indifference and poverty.
— Jack Ryan, McComb Enterprise-Journal