AP students and teachers reflect on courses

Although Burke is one of the most progressive private schools in the D.C. area, when it comes to Advanced Placement (AP) classes, Burke has taken a more traditional course. Last year, when seven private schools in the area announced that they were ending AP classes, Burke was not on the list. In fact, Burke continues to offer nine of the classes.

So how do AP courses differ from regular courses? Peter Attarian ‘21, who is enrolled in AP U.S. History, his first AP course in high school, summed it up: they are harder.  

According to Attarian, “It’s definitely a more difficult class but it’s also kind of rewarding just being able to know that I’m taking a more difficult level of class.” Still, he is not looking forward to the actual AP test. “I’ve never been that strong at tests,” Attarian explained, “and the whole idea of the AP curriculum revolving around one singular test is kind of difficult for me.”

Mitch Masucci, who joined Burke’s faculty this year, recognizes this problem.  Masucci has a lot of first-hand experience with AP courses. Even though this is his first year teaching AP U.S. History, Masucci has taught AP Economics for 12 years. He has also taught AP U.S. Government and even serves as a College Board scorer for the AP U.S. Government exam every summer.  

Despite his extensive experience with the AP curriculum, Masucci recognizes that it has limitations and can be “constricting.” “The curriculum for AP classes is set by the College Board,” he explained. “This means that teachers are limited to a specific curriculum and there is less “freedom to do kind of what you’re interested in as a teacher.”  As Masucci put it, “you have to teach what the College Board wants you to teach.”

One disadvantage to this approach is that teachers may not have time to engage students in class discussion on interesting topics that would divert them from the AP curriculum. “There may be things that I want to go off and explore in American history that I think my students might really be interested in,” Masucci explained, “But there’s not always a lot of time for that because we are under a time crunch all year.”

Another, related problem with AP courses is that they advance a certain perspective that is not always consistent with the values of a progressive school.  According to Masucci, “Certain courses lend themselves more to the AP style, probably a lot of math and science courses.” By contrast, he explained, “For things like European history, or U.S history, or World History, especially with progressive schools, there is a lot of American history that is very whitewashed and it’s told from a very Westernized point of view, and I think that there are a lot of other important points of view to explore. And I don’t think AP classes always do the best job of offering the opportunity to explore those voices and those points of view within their curriculum.” One way Burke has addressed this problem was by having AP US history students read Lies My Teacher Told Me, a book that discusses some of that whitewashing, over the summer, before the crunch of the AP curriculum begins.

Although there are downsides to AP classes, there is another side as well. Dropping AP courses raises economic issues for students attending public universities and other colleges that give college credit to students who pass the AP test. For these students, AP courses can mean graduating college in 3 ½ years, which is a significant financial savings.