Hillsborough's school reform plan has a laudable goal: To get more minority and underprivileged children into college. Starting in the fall, the district will push more students to enroll in college-level Advanced Placement courses. The district believes students will rise to the challenge, and it will provide the supportive services they need to complete the more rigorous coursework. Raising the bar could make a difference, especially for a child who would be the first in the family to attend college. But the district also needs to watch that it is not setting up students to fail.
The move is part of a broad, ambitious experiment with the nonprofit College Board, the organization best known for the SAT college-entrance exam. Language arts and math teachers will use College Board curriculum to tackle higher level courses. The program is being tested this year at four Hillsborough high schools; the district will expand it to all of its nearly 70 middle and high schools next year. Officials said the early results are encouraging enough to incorporate the program even into schools already struggling with academics.
This program could help narrow the achievement gap and prepare students for good careers regardless of whether they plan to attend college. Officials said the focus on academics and emphasis on group work engages more students. Students in AP have fewer absences and cause fewer disciplinary problems. These courses are seen as a practical necessity for students in the ever-increasing competition for college slots, and students on the technical or trade route also benefit from learning how to better analyze and communicate.
The district has promised to support these students in the classroom and help with outside needs such as counseling or assistance in applying to colleges. While some teachers were skeptical, others say the program reminds them why they got into teaching. Invigorating teachers is a wonderful side benefit. But the district needs to be clear-eyed about expanding so much, so quickly. It needs to realize that many students face challenges at home in putting academics first. (Half the students in Hillsborough qualify for free or reduced lunch.) School officials, to their credit, seem genuinely committed to raising the bar, but they will need to back up this ambition with the necessary resources.