Controversy surrounds New York City’s selective-admission high schools and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to change the time-honored path by which students gain entry to them; the dispute largely concerns how to ration the limited supply of a valued commodity in the face of mounting demand. Yet there’s another way to give more children access to a rigorous, top-notch education: increase the supply and distribute it more broadly across the city. A major move to do that has been underway for six years in Gotham’s high schools, in the form of mayoral efforts—first by Michael Bloomberg, now by de Blasio—to expand the well-regarded Advanced Placement (AP) program’s offerings by bringing them into more schools to increase the number of enrollees.
New York’s efforts follow a sixty-year, nationwide evolution and expansion of AP offerings, originally designed for students in elite high schools to accelerate their college experience at prestigious institutions. Today, AP is a massive program—some 3 million young people now take its exams every May—that spans 38 separate subjects. The courses now also boost disadvantaged youngsters who never considered college or experienced college-level academics, much less the possibility of gaining credit upon entry or skipping introductory-level classes. Score “3” or higher on AP’s 1-to-5 exam scale and, in the overwhelming majority of American universities, such opportunities await. What’s more, the indication on your high school transcript that you succeeded in AP classes increases the odds of getting admitted in the first place.
Numerous New York high schools have long given AP courses. Selective Brooklyn Tech, for example, offered 111 sections of twenty-nine AP courses this past year. Nonselective Bayside High School offered as many courses. And yet many of the city’s 400-plus high schools still lack such options. As recently as the 2015–2016 academic year, more than 100 schools—mostly in poor neighborhoods—offered no AP courses. The evidence shows that expanding AP access is not just a way to mollify the equity hounds making a fuss over prestigious schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science—it’s also a proven way to boost college-readiness for young people and, done strategically, would also eventually tone up middle and primary schools.
It’s tough, though, to disseminate anything effectively through a system as labyrinthine as the New York City Department of Education (DoE); it’s even harder, sometimes impossible, to impose something like AP on a high school that never offered it and where the faculty is unprepared or unwilling to implement it. Nor is it easy to teach AP-level courses to students with widely varying levels of engagement and motivation. Despite those challenges, de Blasio—building on Bloomberg’s AP Expansion program in fifty-five high schools—has rolled out AP for All, with the goal of offering courses in every city high school.
Dating to 2016, the venture involves partnerships and outside help (a practice initiated by Bloomberg), not just from the New York-based College Board, which operates and oversees AP, but also from the Dallas-based National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) and Seattle-based Equal Opportunity Schools (EOS). In recent years, all three nonprofits have pitched in to expand AP into more Gotham schools, to prepare more principals, ready more instructors, and encourage more poor teenagers and their families to pursue the venture.
More than a few high schools serving disadvantaged youngsters needed no mayoral nudge to make AP a key curricular building block. A notable example is the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice (SLJ), which shares a building in downtown Brooklyn with two other small DoE secondary schools. Opened in 2004, SLJ resulted from Bloomberg’s and former chancellor Joel Klein’s heroic move to create more intimate, safe, and functional learning environments for high school students. SLJ is an open-enrollment school with 460 pupils, nearly all black or Hispanic. Two-thirds qualify for federally subsidized meals and three-quarters have parents who never finished college. It styles itself a “college preparatory high school . . . committed to high standards and personal attention for all students . . . in an empowering environment that fosters intellectual independence and civic engagement,” and seeks to do this by treating “law and justice” as “the lenses through which subject matter is viewed and academic skills are developed.”
Though most pupils are disadvantaged, the school itself enjoys several advantages. Many of its students, for example, come from relatively well-functioning families in which someone—an older sibling, aunt, or cousin—attended college and can talk encouragingly about it. Many are from immigrant families that view education as a path to upward mobility. There may not be much money at home, but academic achievement is not an alien notion.
SLJ also operates with relative independence, thanks to bureaucratic buffering supplied by the nonprofit, well-connected Urban Assembly. SLJ has benefited from a succession of standout leaders and a cadre of dedicated, top-notch teachers. An exceptional external network helps, with generous partners that raise private dollars to supplement its relatively generous municipal budget.
A part of the curriculum since 2008, Advanced Placement has become a crucial resource that SLJ deploys to envelop its students in rigorous academics. Students receive no extra points on their GPAs for taking such courses. Instead, they enroll as an educational challenge, earning college credits, saving time and money, developing skills, and enhancing transcripts for admission. Even when they fail to earn top scores on the exams, admissions officers will see their efforts.
While most pupils understand SLJ’s college-prep focus, many arrive with dismal preparation for rigorous academics. The remedial burden is thus weighty, the more so when the school aims to place students in college-level coursework shortly after their slipshod middle school experiences. In response, the SLJ team engages in multiple strategies to overcome that bleak past—some discreet, like intensive course planning by teachers, others more overt, like establishing ninth grade as a schoolwide “foundational year” to prepare students for the academic challenges ahead. AP students, meantime, participate in “AP Camp” each August to improve their skills.
Once the school year begins, SLJ’s “after school learning academy” houses an array of tutoring opportunities and review sessions. Students also have access to off-campus mentors, internships, field trips, and a host of summer opportunities. SLJ still faces daunting challenges, however. Many kids don’t practice good academic habits (like completing homework), often because they have family obligations, after-school jobs, or other distractions.
Despite these challenges, an impressive number of SLJ students still take AP classes, earning qualifying scores on the end-of-year exams. In May 2018, a third of the school’s tenth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-graders (including about half the graduating class) were enrolled in at least one AP course and tackled 178 exams, yielding fifty-eight qualifying scores. In microeconomics, more than half the exams taken earned qualifying scores, and 27 percent of the class of 2018—more than the national ratio—emerged with at least one such score on their transcripts. Such statistics reflect SLJ’s success—a school that takes all who apply, propelling an ever-growing portion of its pupils through the AP experience, and with encouraging results.
New York, like many cities, has striven to launch AP in high schools that have scant prior experience with the program, but implementation is ultimately up to individual principals and teachers in those schools. To achieve success, instructors must embrace the mission, gain the requisite training, apply themselves to unaccustomed and demanding work, persist for years, and simultaneously persuade innumerable colleagues and constituents—including children and parents—that things are truly different. Indeed, they must sell harder work, loftier expectations, and deferred gratification—not an easy pitch for either teachers or teenagers. High schools must change their academic climate, offering advanced courses beyond the present grasp of even their highest-achieving students.
Today, many of New York’s high schools offer more AP courses, particularly in tough STEM subjects, and more students have signed up—including those who never considered themselves college-bound. The courses involve high expectations that interfere with other necessary and cherished pursuits, from earning money to sports and family duties. This interference only multiplies if students also attend the extra tutoring and study-skills sessions that accompany the classes—after school, lunchtime, even on Saturdays—and that often prove necessary for course success.
Teachers must work harder, too—perhaps an unwelcome change for veteran instructors and a major undertaking for novices. Among their duties is submission of their course syllabi for College Board approval. They likely fret about their students’ performance on the AP exams. Indeed, they’re volunteering to take a sizable risk (or being persuaded to do so): standing in front of an AP classroom means exposing their performance to public scrutiny and comparison. Guidance counselors must also change, rethinking entrenched patterns of course sequences and students’ schedules, reimagining post high school options for their advisees, and—because these are likely children without much college experience in their families—taking pains to coax them into a college-going mentality while helping them navigate the rapids of admissions and financial aid.
The introduction of these courses means staff reassignments and budgetary strains as well, including additional lab equipment, new textbooks, custodial and security charges for the overtime and Saturday sessions, and extra pay and tuition costs for teachers to partake of professional development during summer. A school that persists with AP incurs a host of long-term obligations, costs, and priority shifts. It adds up to a profound and enduring change in school culture, which is perhaps the hardest education reform of all.
Mayor Bloomberg’s AP Expansion program commenced in 2013 and ultimately reached 77 high schools. Though audacious, the program has proven doable, so long as schools are carefully chosen, the DOE sticks with it, and NMSI can continue injecting the requisite talent and resources. The program has since yielded a solid increase in participation. In 2012, not a single student took an AP exam in thirteen of the first fifty-five high schools in the program. In the other forty, nearly 1,000 students sat for a total of 1,148 exams in the six subjects. By May 2016—the third and final year of the initiative—two and a half times as many pupils (2,396) in those fifty-five initial schools took nearly three times as many exams (3,249) in those subjects, and numbers continued to rise thereafter.
But encouraging as they are, some of the statistics remain difficult to digest. In 2017, for example, more than 3,000 AP exams taken in those schools did not yield qualifying scores, and more than 2,000 exam-takers did not obtain a single such score. Though many students earned a score of “2,” and many teachers saw progress during the year, the actual pass rate remained underwhelming, fluctuating around 18 percent during the life of the program. Gains, moreover, varied widely by school, with the top-performing third of the Expansion schools showing impressive growth but the bottom third indicating little or none. This isn’t surprising, as no large-scale reform across multiple schools shows equal success in all, particularly over just a few years. Even NMSI, understandably fond of touting its successes, has acknowledged that as many as a fifth of the first group of schools showed minimal gains during its engagement with them.
Nor is success cheap. We estimate that the total price tag for the AP Expansion initiative amounted to about $10 million between 2013 and 2016, or roughly $47,000 annually per participating school. Mindful that 924 additional qualifying scores were earned from 2013–14 through 2015–16, it appears that the city’s price tag per additional qualifying score approached $11,000.
De Blasio entered City Hall in January 2014 with different education priorities from his predecessor. While Bloomberg’s cadres focused on high-stakes accountability policies, an A–F school rating system, closing subpar schools, and devolving authority to successful principals—nearly all of which drew the unions’ ire—de Blasio viewed unions as allies and benefactors. He preferred to centralize decision making and sought to turn around weak schools, not close them.
He was keen to push appealing programs into more communities, scrapping any that appeared exclusive or elitist. The mayor, moreover, came under pressure to show results. He fended off Governor Andrew Cuomo’s multiple reform initiatives, finding himself dueling with the city’s well-connected and solidly performing charter school sector. At the same time, he had to persuade legislators to renew mayoral control of the school system, which was scheduled to expire in June 2015.
De Blasio secured a one-year extension to demonstrate greater success in the K–12 sphere. So, in September 2015, he announced a half-dozen sizable reforms of his own, including “AP for All.” His major address, titled “Equity and Excellence,” painted a grim picture—“a tale of two cities in our schools”—and declared that “each and every child, in each and every classroom, deserves a future that isn’t limited by their ZIP code.” Bloomberg’s AP Expansion still had a year to run but would soon be overtaken by a far grander plan to deliver more courses to many more high schools.
During the first year of AP for All (2016–17), NMSI worked with 63 high schools—four carried over from AP Expansion plus fifty-nine others, including thirty-five with no prior AP program—again focusing on a suite of preselected AP courses, mostly in STEM fields. Equal Opportunity Schools worked with another twenty-four high schools that year, and would add ten more the next year, focusing on identifying poor and minority pupils who could succeed in AP courses but had not previously participated.
This is a difficult endeavor in any city, especially within New York’s sprawling bureaucratic system, where structures, governance, and personnel practices always complicate matters. Numerous high schools, nonetheless, have shown gains with AP for All. In Flatbush, for instance, an AP for All school operates in historic Erasmus Hall, one of five thematic high schools in that vast structure. But their smaller size makes it hard for any one of them to support many AP classes and, because they’re located under the same roof, it makes obvious sense to team up. Yet there’s been much turnover among their principals; they report to several different regional superintendents on the DoE organization chart; two of the schools start with sixth grade; and one is a “screened,” semi-selective school, while the other four admit all students. Under those circumstances, sustained collaboration remains a challenge.
The schools’ leaders generally welcome AP for All, however, and are striving to widen pupil and teacher participation. One principal termed it a valuable step toward making that school more college-focused and less sports-centric, and even to attract more “nerds” from more neighborhoods. Still, the principal estimated that it can take six to eight years to “build a culture of high achievement” in a school, even when the leadership is stable and committed.
That small school on the Erasmus campus participates in other DoE initiatives and has additional outside partners, including the City University’s “College Now” dual-credit option. The principal is convinced that students benefit from having some college-level academic experience during high school, and returning alumni attest to how the experience helped them when they reached college—even if they never earned qualifying scores on the exams. Teachers we talked with had a similar view: “If I can get a kid to a ‘2’,” said one veteran instructor, it will have done some good. It shows that “something happened.”
Whether it’s AP or NMSI, good leadership or something else, this small school has also made gains. It cannot yet boast many qualifying scores, but it’s attracting more academically oriented students, and its graduation rate has risen “from the sixties to the eighties.” It’s an example, though, of how persevering with AP for All calls for a major attitude adjustment among veteran teachers accustomed to advanced classes that are open only to the strongest students. In a city with many such teachers in many high schools—and a powerful union that has often resisted top-down changes—attitudes may be the hardest thing to alter. That’s compounded by the challenge of equipping teachers with the pedagogical skills and content knowledge needed to “scaffold” instruction for classes of up to 30 kids who bring a range of preparation and, perhaps, ability—along with differing levels of outside support in their lives.
The city has committed considerable resources to this initiative, though the sums look small within its massive education budget. AP for All funding was slated to double from $12.5 million in 2017 to $25 million in 2018, then double again by 2020. That’s a big raise from the estimated $10 million spent on AP Expansion. The eventual return on that increased investment remains to be seen as the program grows. (It entered 2018–19 with 252 high schools on the list.) But the gains in AP participation and passing scores already visible are nothing to dismiss. In all, reported the DoE, 36 percent of the city’s 2018 graduates took at least one AP exam and 19 percent earned at least one qualifying score.
Yet in New York, as elsewhere, increased participation, particularly among disadvantaged youngsters, has meant lower passing rates. For example, 35 percent more Hispanic students took AP exams in 2018 than in 2016, but the proportion passing at least one exam dipped from 47 percent to 43 percent. Black students’ participation also grew—by 15 percent—but their rate of qualifying scores also slipped slightly, to 26 percent. By comparison, Asian and white students raised both their participation and passing rates. It’s wrong to focus solely on qualifying scores, though, when a big, complex undertaking like this is new, especially when schools, principals, and teachers are still adjusting to it, and when many kids who don’t reach that bar may yet gain from the AP experience.
Still, we’re struck by how different this effort is from the contentious issue of admission to the city’s selective high schools. AP for All, and its Bloomberg-era antecedent are, above all, efforts to expand the supply of rigorous education offerings at the high school level—mainly so that more poor and minority youngsters can access and gain from them. It’s had hiccups and encountered pushback, and its success rate isn’t near what it should be. But it’s better to grapple with those challenges while trying to bake a much larger pie than to fight endlessly over how to apportion slices of a small one that came out of the oven years ago.
Editor’s note: This essay was originally published by City Journal. It is drawn from the author's new book, Learning in the Fast Lane: The Past, Present, and Future of Advanced Placement, to be published on September 17 by Princeton University Press, and is reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.