Currently, The Gazette is running a series titled, “Sit down with Starr over the summer.” As of Aug. 1, staff writer Jen Bondeson, who regularly covers Montgomery County Public Schools, has reported seven sit-downs with MCPS Superintendent Josh Starr.
The Aug. 1 sit-down deals with academic pressures facing kids. But when Bondeson asked Starr about the source of the pressure to excel in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, Starr punted and suggested that MCPS kids themselves were the source of the pressure. Starr also noted that parents seeking “an Ivy League” college for their sons and daughters also added to the pressures.
I’m saying Starr punted on the blame because I do not believe that kids or their parents are the primary source behind the AP/IB race (pressure). AP/IB race? That is what I call our obsession with everything AP/IB (the pressure), and the need for kids to arm themselves with more and more AP/IB courses.
Let’s get real here—the overwhelming pressure to participate in the AP/IB race is driven by two things. First, there is the Challenge Index created by Jay Mathews of The Washington Post. And second, there are the school systems, including MCPS, that have completely bought in to the index and everything it stands for.
And none of that is really evil or bad—but it is what is.
I know Jay Mathews and I like him—a lot. In fact, I like the Challenge Index—a lot. But back in the day when Mathews dreamed up the index, I don’t think he actually believed it would turn into what it has become in the Washington, DC, region—or for that matter, beyond the region. Without a lot of debate, the index is now an annual race to the top for local high schools. Clearly, MCPS uses it as evidence that its schools are not only the best in the region, but perhaps the best in the nation. And within MCPS, individual high schools frequently use their index position as a yardstick to proclaim academic superiority. Further, high schools moving up the index—getting closer to the top—use their movement as evidence that their school is improving and becoming a more challenging academic environment.
But the kids themselves aren’t really responsible for any of this. Sure, we always find a segment of students who stay anxious about everything in life, including their high school transcripts and if that transcript has a sufficient number of AP or IB classes on it for Harvard or Yale. But if the index disappeared tomorrow, I doubt that we’d find many MCPS kids crying about its loss. And this is not to suggests that Montgomery County kids are slackers—they aren't—I just don't believe that most normal teenagers, on their own, think very much about this stuff.
But in my head, the race to the top of the index and the real source of the pressure to get there (and to remain there) probably resides somewhere in 850 Hungerford Drive—MCPS headquarters. I can’t imagine, for example, that Starr and his staff aren’t pressuring our high schools to do better and to enroll more kids in AP and IB classes. It sounds really good when Starr publicly says that there’s more to life than scoring 4s and 5s on six different AP exams. But in reality, how long would his MCPS tenure be if MCPS fell from the top of the index?
Unfortunately, not very long.
To read more about the Challenge Index, click here.