“Mutual Assured Destruction”

What educators know about the AP course system but are reluctant to tell parents.

I was speaking to a local educator recently who used the old nuclear war deterrent phrase “Mutual Assured Destruction” or “MAD” when referring to Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

Why?  This person knew what many teachers know – students are sucked into taking too many of these classes because their “smart friends” are taking them, and they feel that they will not be able to get into a top college if they don’t do likewise.

When I have spoken out against the AP system publicly I have often had teachers thank me afterwards for doing so, yet these same teachers are reluctant to do so themselves.  Schools receive kudos for the number of AP courses offered and for having high AP pass rates.

Parents, on the other hand, often react negatively when I make these statements.  When I spoke during a mathematics curriculum meeting at Highlands Elementary School a few years back, a gentleman reprimanded me gruffly in public by saying, “You do what you want for your children and let me do what I want for mine!

I will not deny that some children do well in AP classes as did my own daughters.  However, at that time I was a working parent in high-tech like many others around here, and I merely assumed the system was sound.  Now that I am retired and actually work with students on a daily basis, my opinion has radically changed.  I see, as does the educator quoted above, that, for every student who succeeds in AP, there are at least as many others (and usually more) who bite off far more AP classes than they can digest and end up ruining their GPAs.  These are often very smart, hardworking students, but may not be at the very tip-top of their class.  The AP system, while helping those in “the 1%,” often ends up hurting “the 99%.”

It has always been my understanding that the public school system’s mission was to try to educate ALL of our students, not design the curriculum primarily for those bound to Harvard and Yale.

I wrote about this problem extensively a couple of years ago in my articles: Critical Warnings re AP Classes and AP Exam Questions on Chapter Tests?!?.

I later discovered that the College Board, the creator of AP courses, disguises the poor results of the AP physics and math program by setting the passing grade extremely low!

I have also learned since writing those articles that many private schools such as our local Crystal Springs Upland School (CSUS) abandoned the AP curriculum for reasons similar to mine.  I strongly urge parents to read the document behind this link!  For example, the following quote from the article is interesting:

As Marilyn McGrath-Lewis, the Director of Admissions at Harvard University said, “We look at whether the applicant has taken the high school’s most demanding courses. But whether the classes are designated AP or not is irrelevant. Abolishing the AP classes won’t hurt the kids.” Shawn Abbott, the former Director of Admissions at Stanford said something similar, when, in an interview with Independent Curriculum he reported that those students at “…places where the curriculum is seen as more innovative and risk-taking…often have the intellectual vitality that we seek. The absence of AP courses at these schools doesn’t hinder their chances for admission to highly selective colleges and universities in any way.”

Also, just a few days ago, I came across the following article from a school superintendent on Long Island, New York via Diane Ravitch’s blog:


I urge parents to consider these articles carefully.  I returned to teaching eight years ago to try to pass along my love of science and math to today’s students, but I found that the current system has become little more than a series of hurdles for students to surmount.

For many students it tends to have the undesirable effect of killing any interest in science and math, and, even more alarmingly, can lead to unethical behavior when students become desperate to pass.

With the additional CSUS and Long Island information above, you no longer have to rely solely on my personal experience!


Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

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