On Mark Bauerlein’s Commentary in “The Chronicle of Higher Education”

In his Commentary “Give AP Credit Where Credit Is Due”, Professor Bauerlein explains how he “…chaired a group of high-school and college English teachers charged … with reviewing and revising the standards for…” an AP course.  (See his entire commentary at http://chronicle.com/article/Give-AP-Credit-Where-Credit-Is/137543/)

Prof. Bauerlein writes that there “…was a deliberate, two-year process. For instance, we examined the results of a curriculum survey of college English departments…If enough colleges regarded something as important…we incorporated it into the standards…”

I believe that Prof. Bauerlein and his committee made a fundamental mistake.  They assumed that “enough” college English departments really do require appropriate college level material.  In reality, college departments (of any subject) decide what they will cover in a course based on all sorts of criteria, not always including what is requisite for a basic college level knowledge of the material. This lowest common denominator approach that the AP committees are using, that of seeing “…if enough colleges regard something as important…” is not appropriate for deciding what should be in the standard AP course.

Look at the example of AP Calculus which I am most familiar with.  Here is what I posted from CalTech,

“…The typical high school courses, and the AP tests themselves, are woefully inadequate in explaining, or testing, why things work and how to justify one’s propositions…”

(See my post http://www.inside-higher-ed.com/more-on-ap-courses/)

Some of the material CalTech is talking about is what I referred to on NPR, when I said, “…I discovered … that [high school AP calculus students] did not know … the essence of calculus, without which, it’s not really calculus. It’s just calculations… I asked colleagues of mine what was happening, and they said, oh, they changed the AP exam and they left that material off…” (See my post http://www.inside-higher-ed.com/ap-calculus-courses-discussion-on-npr/)

How did the present AP course get watered down?  I can imagine a committee looking at a lot of colleges – a lot of colleges that want happy students who don’t have to struggle with calculus – that don’t require the fundamental parts of calculus.  Now, a vicious circle ensues.  Students who took AP Calculus want credit.  Colleges say, “OK, better give them credit.  We certainly don’t want to tell them and their parents that they don’t know as much as they think they know.”  Then the math department decides they better fit their course to – guess what – the new weakened AP standards.  Then someone else makes it easier, the AP Committee looks, the AP course is made to match the now easier material….

What do I think can be done?  In a nutshell, find a way to create a panel of experts – experts like Prof. Bauerlein – and task them with determining what a college student needs to learn in English.

Here is another way to look at it.  If Professor Bauerlein had a serious medical problem, I don’t think he would poll all the doctors in the country and accept the most common treatment, the one almost all of them know how to do.  I believe he would go to the best doctors he could find – probably at Emory where he teaches – ask a few of them what to do, then follow that advice.  If he would only take the same approach to AP courses.


  1. SSPHDtofinance says:

    I think the problem is how the APs have been watered down by reform. Also with the increasing amount of teaching to the test and prep book games and such. I LOVED the APs as a student in the early 80s! Went on to do a B.S. in chem, to Navy nuclear power school and even (several years later) to a Ph.D. in chemistry (with some solid state physics and mat sci). I actually always felt my very solid grounding from HS APs helped me. Ended up (casually) tutoring roomies in college or the like. Or just relying on my basics as I went up in course complexity.

    In 83 and 84 took AP Calculus BC, Chemistry, Bio, and English. Got 5s in all. Got 2 sems credits each for the math and sciences and 1 sem for the English. At the U.S. Naval Academy. Not Cal Tech, sure. But not watered down from a traditional curriculum.

    I had no problems with subsequent work in Calc3, DiffyQs, and Engineering Math, calc based physics, EE, systems engineering, engineering thermo or fluids.

    In chemistry, I always had a solid base for subsequent work and had no problems remembering how to do problems to TA kids even 12 years later at Northwestern.

    Yeah, we did Thomas Finney, but it had some epsilon delta in there. Made sense to me and worked through it in the beginning. I actually think the manipulation and word problem parts of calculus are MUCH more valuable than the “baby real analysis” that math majors tend to fetishize. Feynman was a badass because he could do tough integrals. Not because of proof techniques. Tricky integrals and algebra comfort are what harden you up for subsequent calc courses, in engineering course, and even in graduate physics and engineering (Bessel function hell). If you really want to be a math major and do real analysis, go for it (in your track).

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