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The High School Government Course in the "Excellence for All" Era

Sat, April 18, 10:35am to 12:05pm, Swissotel, Floor: Lucerne Level, Lucerne III


Objective and Problems. The Advanced Placement (AP) program is the main brand of “rigorous” coursework in the United States today, and its U.S. Government and Politics course is one of the most enrolled, typically ranking fifth of the thirty-four AP courses offered (behind English Language, Literature, U.S. History, and Calculus). The objective of this paper is to report on three dimensions of an on-going study of this popular course: curriculum, instruction, and materials (resources). Each is geared to improving the quality of the course at a time when the inequality associated with the AP program is shifting rapidly. To wit: An “excellence for all” movement (Schneider, 2011) gained momentum in the late 1980s and by the 90s had brought social-justice school reformers into an alliance with social-efficiency reformers. An historic tension was resolved somewhat between advocates of tracking for “excellence” and advocates of de-tracking for “equity.” Many schools today, especially in urban districts, are expanding AP participation by lowering/removing entrance requirements. The discursive thrust is that all students should have access to excellence. Increased enrollments, however, have been accompanied by increased numbers of students who fail the end-of-course AP test (Dougherty & Mellor, 2010).

Regardless of increasing access to the course, there is concern that the quality of AP lags behind contemporary research on how people learn and what counts as learning (National Research Council, 2002). AP courses are notorious for cramming too many topics into a time-bound course, resulting in superficial coverage and test-prep teaching and learning. We have called this formula “breadth-speed-test” (xxx, 2013) and we believe that, despite its efficiencies, it falls short of a satisfying conception of advanced learning.

Method and Goals. “Access for whom and to what?” is our broad research question, attending to both equality and quality. Using quasi-experimental, non-randomized, design-based implementation research (Fishman et al., 2013) in partnership with four school systems, we have developed, implemented, and investigated a project-based approach to the AP Government course. We have three goals: (1) same or higher scores on the AP test, (2) deeper, actionable learning, and (3) success for a wider array of students, especially underserved students who are increasingly gaining access to the course.

Findings. This paper features data and analyses on (a) curriculum: the search for core content amidst “the hundred million things” that are in the curriculum and on the test; (b) instruction: the use of political simulations to deepen learning and foster civic commitment; and (c) resources: use and avoidance of text-based resources by both teachers and students.


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