Composition Forum 23, Spring 2011
Hansen, Kristine, and Christine R. Farris, eds. College Credit for Writing in High School: The “Taking Care of” Business. Urbana: NCTE, 2010. 314 pp.
Kristine Hansen and Christine R. Farris’s edited collection, College Credit for Writing in High School: The “Taking Care of” Business landed on my desk just as I received an urgent student e-mail, the likes of which I hadn’t seen before in my short tenure as a WPA. For one thing, the student was in high school; second, she said she was part of Wisconsin’s Youth Options Program which, according to the state’s DPI website, “allows public high school juniors and seniors who meet certain requirements to take postsecondary courses at a UW institution, a Wisconsin technical college, one of the state's participating private nonprofit institutions of higher education, or tribally-controlled colleges.” The website offers up a fairly vague theoretical justification for the program, noting simply that it “opens the door to greater learning opportunities for motivated students.” I will return to this e-mail later, but suffice it to say that Wisconsin’s Youth Options Program is just one example of the many concurrent enrollment programs or other “alternative” programs for early college credit that are gaining increased popularity and funding in the U.S. It is these alternative programs, especially as they relate to first-year composition, that are the subject of Hansen and Farris’s collection, a timely and instructive anthology, which is a must-read for current WPAs and graduate students hoping to pursue writing program administration.
In their introduction, Hansen and Farris lay an important foundation for the collection, outlining some of the political, social, and economic factors behind the rise of early college credit programs. Specifically, they point to the influential 2007 Harvard Education Press book, Minding the Gap: Why Integrating High School with College Makes Sense and How to Do It. The authors in the Harvard collection, from the worlds of education, business, and non-profit organizations, contend that the U.S. needs more college graduates to stay globally competitive, and the “gap” noted in the title refers to the education gap and subsequent earnings gap that occurs when so many high school graduates—particularly low-income and minority students—are lost in the “transition” between high school and college. Therefore, the Harvard anthology argues that the U.S. must “rethink and restructure the transition and build the structures needed for a seamless system” (qtd. In Hansen and Farris xix-xx: 2).
In terms of composition instruction, this push for a seamless transition, as Kristine Hansen points out in her excellent lead article, has opened up what she calls a “composition marketplace,” where students are presented with alternative “brands” (primarily Advanced Placement [AP] classes, International Baccalaureate Programs [IB], or concurrent enrollment [CE] classes) which can be completed or “take[n] care of” in high school (1-2). In a theme oft-repeated in the collection, Hansen, drawing upon the work of David F. Labaree, Richard Ohmann, and Jean-Francois Lyotard, notes that despite the potential quality of any of these alternatives, they reflect a growing and disturbing trend, by which education is primarily viewed not as a tool for the public good, but as a vehicle for personal gain and upward social mobility. And, she continues, as the value of education is seen as more extrinsic than intrinsic, then “credentials—grades, credits, diplomas, and degrees—take on a life of their own and become commodities sought for their own sake rather than for the learning they should represent” (5).
Despite this theoretical critique about the value and origins of such alternative programs, this is not a collection which ponders whether or not such programs should be abolished. Rather, the collection wrestles with how to make the most of these popular programs and ensure that their role in shaping and influencing writing instruction at the secondary and post-secondary level is subject to careful thought, planning, staffing, management, and assessment.
The bulk of the collection is divided into two primary sections, the first of which deals with Advanced Placement courses and exams and the second of which examines concurrent enrollment programs, where high school students take college-level writing courses, taught either by high school or university instructors. The alternative program that receives little attention in this collection—aside from a general overview in Hansen’s article—is International Baccalaureate. Hansen acknowledges that of all the alternatives, IB is “the smallest and probably least understood” (13), which this collection, in perhaps its only major flaw, doesn’t do much to demystify.
In the opening article in the Advanced Placement section, Joseph Jones traces the origins of Advanced Placement courses/exams to the 1950s, explaining that they arose from critiques of “progressivism,” a belief that schools’ efforts to “focus on the average student and his or her interests meant squandering the opportunities to engage the exceptional pupil” (43). Jones argues that while the content of AP English hasn’t changed significantly from the 1950s, the scope definitely has—in fact, it’s become big business, growing from just 500 students taking the first exams in 1956 to over half a million high school students taking one of the two AP English exams today (43). The effects of this growth are explained in Kathleen M. Puhr’s contribution to the collection. While Puhr notes some of the positive ways in which the AP English Language course objectives (as opposed to its AP Literature counterpart) are becoming more aligned with the WPA Outcome Statements for college writing, she notes that the College Board (who administers the AP exams at roughly $83 a test) has been advocating “access and equity,” a “desire to spread the benefits of AP curricula to as many students as possible” (80). This is, it strikes me, a curious stand for a test that was designed to combat “progressivism.” As a result of increased access, more and more underprepared writers enroll in AP courses and more and more teachers are sought to teach these classes; unfortunately, as Puhr points out, many of these teachers are not well-trained in the improved AP English Language curricula, some having never taken a rhetoric course in their lives (80-81).
What makes AP courses so attractive to many students, regardless of skill level, is that they’re not always seen or utilized as a tool for advanced placement in first-year college writing, but rather exemption from first-year college writing altogether, a phenomenon questioned by many of the authors in this collection and in earlier literature on advanced placement by authors such as David Joliffe and Bernard Phelan. One of the best articles in the anthology, by Colleen Whitley and Deirdre Paulsen, puts this exemption vs. placement argument to the test. They share their results from a study which tracked students at Brigham Young University who had taken both AP English in high school and honors first-year composition at BYU. Students overwhelmingly reported that they benefitted greatly from their college composition class (only 4% felt the class was not worth their time) and noted that, in particular, they learned much more about revision, research, and rhetoric than they ever did in their high school AP classes (108-09). Based on their study, Whitley and Paulsen reach the conclusion that AP courses, while beneficial, should not replace first-year composition courses, but should encourage college writing instructors to design more challenging courses to supplement the AP instruction many students received in high school.
This call to increase rigor in composition instruction, at both the secondary and post-secondary level, is also echoed by many essays in the second half of the collection on concurrent enrollment (CE). One of the premiere CE programs in the nation is Syracuse University’s “Project Advance,” a program detailed in this collection by Patricia Moody and Margaret Bonesteel. Syracuse’s program, which began in 1972 and now serves 6,600 students at 140 high schools, was founded on two primary goals: to improve the rigor in high school instruction and to give students a “jump-start [on] their college careers” (229). Again, this “jump-start” is seen by many legislators, industry leaders, and leaders of non-profit organizations (including Bill and Melinda Gates) as the key to minding the aforementioned educational and economic “gap” created when so many students fail to cross the bridge from high school to college. As Miles McCrimmon notes in his contribution, the political popularity of concurrent enrollment programs mean that they are “here to stay,” as they now reach “more than a million high school students annually” (208). In the state of Minnesota, as explained in the essay by Randall McClure et al., concurrent enrollment is definitely here to stay as Governor Tim Pawlenty recently invested $700 million in a program called “World Class Students” in order to ensure that every Minnesota student “take at least one year of postsecondary education while in high school” (qtd. in McClure et al. 192). McClure and his fellow authors support concurrent enrollment, especially for high school students from rural, economically disadvantaged areas. In addition to allowing students a “jump-start” on their college careers, McClure et al. note that CE allows rural school districts to offer a more rigorous, robust curriculum and helps them remain competitive, not losing as many students and dollars through open enrollment to other local high schools (202). Since open enrollment allows high school students options as to where to pursue their secondary education, if small, rural districts can offer a challenging, diverse curriculum, they are less likely to lose students to larger, more populated—and often more affluent—schools.
Despite the varying levels of enthusiasm about concurrent enrollment displayed by the authors in the collection, one thing became clear as I made my way through each essay—to be successful, these programs require an exceptional amount of coordination and oversight. Chris Anson believes that this oversight in CE writing programs is often lacking and calls for the creation of national assessment standards. He further advocates that colleges hire a director for CE (with release time) that is a separate position from the WPA (259). Yet, given the current economic climate, this scenario seems unlikely on many campuses, and I worry that WPAs will be asked to handle CE inquires (as I was with the Youth Options student) or even develop or oversee CE initiatives without the requisite knowledge, support, or time. In my own case, the student wanted me to waive the pre-req of our first-semester composition course so that she could enroll in a more advanced course in our Technical Communication Program. Her Youth Options enrollment form was due the next day, and I received pressure from our Director of Technical Communication (because he saw her as a prospective recruit to our program) to waive the pre-req since he felt she was a “good writer” based on a previous meeting with her. I had no direct evidence on which to make my decision and precious little time to assess her request.
The collection ends with a thoughtful “Afterword” by Doug Hesse, who returns to some theoretical questions regarding the “early college credit” phenomenon. Hesse acknowledges that CE and AP programs in writing offer students and institutions alike “quick indicators of educational quality” (291). Yet, he ultimately asks the question – “why the hurry?” (291). And when one considers all the cost, personnel, and administrative coordination involved with allowing students to “hurry” to complete a college course or earn college credit just 1-2 years ahead of schedule, Hesse’s question is important to consider. Is all this hurry worth it?
While the collection provides no easy answers to Hesse’s question, it expertly showcases and explores many of the different stakeholders and motivations at play in the world of early college credit. For college writing instructors and WPAs, the essays here challenge us to re-think the divide between “high school” and “college-level” composition instruction and the ways in which many of our institutions “reward” AP or CE students with exemption from further first-year writing courses or further writing instruction altogether.
Hoffman, Nancy, Joel Vargas, Andrea Venezia, and Marc S. Miller, eds. Minding the Gap: Why Integrating High School with College Makes Sense and How to Do It. Cambridge: Harvard Education P, 2007. Print.
Joliffe, David A., and Bernard Phelan. “Advanced Placement: Not Advanced Exemption: Challenges for High Schools, Colleges, and Universities.” Delivering College Composition: The Fifth Canon. Ed. Kathleen Blake Yancey. Portstmouth: Boynton/Cook, 2006. 89-113. Print.
Pawlenty, Tim. Foreword. Governor’s Budget Agenda: Education Budget Released for FY 2008-2009. Minnesota Department of Education, 2007. Web. 27 July 2007. <http://education.state.mn.us/mde/Academic_Excellence/High_School_Initiatives/index.html>.
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Wisconsin’s Youth Options Programs. WDPI, 13 April. 2010. Web. 3 Oct. 2010. <http://dpi.state.wi.us/youthoptions/>.
Review of Hansen & Farris, COLLEGE CREDIT FOR WRITING IN HIGH SCHOOL from Composition Forum 23 (Spring 2011)
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© Copyright 2011 Andrea Deacon.
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