I am always pleased when news organizations turn their attention to the recent increases in Advanced Placement participation in our schools, and I commend the Times and reporter Ron Matus for shining a light on this phenomenon.
The most recent article (Taxpayers pick up AP tab, Oct. 31) presented a straightforward cost-benefit analysis. Yes, the courses cost money for our school districts. And yes, families of AP students save millions each year in college costs.
However, there are so many more intangibles that must line up in the benefits column. As Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, the dean of education reporters, pointed out in his blog (in response to the Times article): "The courses and tests are invaluable because they energize high school teaching and learning and prepare students for the academic demands of college."
In a nation that has been falling behind academically — especially in math, engineering and the sciences — our nation's high schools are in serious need of energizing, and our students had better be prepared for the academic demands of college. That's the only way we can compete globally.
In Hillsborough County, we expect all our students to be fully prepared for life after high school, whether it involves college or career. Even if they earn a high school diploma, if they are not prepared for that next step, we haven't done our jobs. That means we need to start early and prepare them for high-level coursework, such as AP courses. That's exactly what we're doing with innovative programs like AVID: preparing middle school students to be ready to take that challenge and stretch themselves in high school AP courses.
We also need to support our teachers in their delivery of that high-level coursework. This past summer, more than 400 of our teachers attended our weeklong AP Summer Institute.
In Hillsborough County, our AP pass rate is not what it should be and not what it will be, as evidenced by last year's results where both our participation and our pass rate increased. We will continue our aggressive program of teacher training and student preparation, which are two time-tested strategies for getting results in the classroom. We believe we are succeeding beyond expectations in the first step in this process, which is to change a culture and open doors to promising young students.
I will remind you that not long ago our participation rate was not what it should have been. Not long ago, AP courses were for the elite, and high expectations were for the exceptional few. As a result of the School Board and our district's vision, our teachers' hard work, and a cultural shift in our district, more students from diverse backgrounds are participating in high-level courses. This has truly energized our schools, transformed classes and changed the life direction of many of our students. These students benefit from being exposed to the higher level coursework and from a clear message of high expectations.
Multiply that effect across the community, state and nation, and you can see the impact that this phenomenon can have. After weighing all the factors in the cost-benefit analysis, that is when you decide whether you are serious about making high expectations the norm, closing the achievement gap, and providing true opportunity for all students.
In Hillsborough County we have answered those questions in the affirmative. We are aware of the costs of encouraging our students to stretch themselves academically — and we're aware of the costs of not doing so.
MaryEllen Elia is superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools.