Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Andrew Scanlan on Advanced Placement and their book, Learning in the Fast Lane: The Past, Present, and Future of Advanced Placement

Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Andrew Scanlan, two of the country’s most respected education analysts, offer a groundbreaking account of Advanced Placement (AP).

In Learning in the Fast Lane, Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Andrew Scanlan, two of the country’s most respected education analysts, offer a groundbreaking account of Advanced Placement (AP). Learning in the Fast Lane traces the story of AP from its mid-twentieth-century origins to its emergence as a springboard to college for high schoolers nationwide, including hundreds of thousands of low-income and underserved minority students. Today, AP strengthens school ratings, attracts topflight teachers, and draws support from philanthropists, reformers, and policymakers. College Board’s Jerome White connected with Finn and Scanlan to discuss their new book and all things Advanced Placement.

White: What inspired your research on the history of AP?

At the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where we mainly work, our interests have for several years included “gifted education” in its various forms, as well as the “excellence gaps” that result when some kids have access to such education while other, equally able, youngsters don’t. AP is really the most important high-school form of gifted-and-talented education—and nobody had ever written a proper “biography” of this enormously influential program. Moreover, high school is the toughest territory for education reformers to conquer. This was a natural fit, not even considering Finn’s personal connections with AP.

We were keenly interested in how AP grew to target traditionally underserved children and how it has tried to close gaps, not just in access, but also in outcomes, particularly as it has expanded over the past few decades. The challenges inherent in trying to achieve such lofty goals are huge and it’s important to understand how educators, philanthropists, organizations and governments have gone about it and what they’ve encountered.

White: What is your personal experience with AP from your education?  

Finn: I skipped my freshman year of college with the help of high-school Advanced Placement (and my granddaughter will take her first AP exams in 2020), so I’ve long had a personal interest in this program and what it can do for a young person. Recent service on the state board of education in Maryland also exposed me to a purposeful policy initiative to extend AP to more kids who might benefit from it. (One manifestation of that initiative can be found in our chapter on AP in suburbia.)

Scanlan: I didn’t grow up in the American school-system; I’m from Ireland. As such, I never took an AP exam. But in Ireland, we have a nationally benchmarked high school curriculum and testing system serving about fifty thousand kids each year. AP is the closest comparable thing that I can see to such a system in the US (and comparable, too, to what other high performing countries employ)—but the scale is just massive. I really wanted to learn more about what distinguishes AP from these other systems, how it has grown, and more about its history. Also, the opportunity to work with Checker was too good to turn down. His expertise in all things related to US education made the experience of researching and co-authoring this book an invaluable education in itself. 

White: How much access did you have to your research subjects?  

By and large, we benefited from wonderful cooperation—from the College Board, the National Math & Science Initiative, Equal Opportunity Schools, and any number of school and school system leaders around the country, including opportunities to sit in schools and talk with kids, teachers, and principals. To be sure, we encountered a measure of delay and bureaucracy in several places, but that was no surprise and, so long as we persevered, almost always came out OK eventually. 

White: How has the book been received thus far? 

It’s early days still, but terrific so far—from the comments of peer reviewers to the praise from jacket “blurbers” to positive feedback from none other than Trevor Packer to the willingness of several influential publications to write about it and/or allow us to place adapted excerpts in their pages and on their sites. To date, we’ve had an excerpt appear in City Journal, focused on our story of AP in New York City (chapter 5), and a review appear in Inside Higher Ed, with other excerpts and interviews in the pipeline coming soon. 

White: What is a common misconception you encountered about AP? 

Probably most common is the now-obsolete view that AP is yet another education benefit for those who already have plenty of them, i.e. something that mainly helps the already-fortunate. In the early days, that was more-or-less correct but beginning in the 1980s and continuing in a very big way today AP has also become a key lever into college and college success for disadvantaged kids. That doesn’t mean they yet have equal access or that their performance is yet equivalent—those are among the big challenges today—but nowadays it’s most definitely an opportunity creator, not just a privilege consolidator. 

White: Can you tell us about any inspirational AP stories from teachers or students?  

Read the portion of our New York City chapter that describes the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice. It shows how a terrific public high school—great leaders, great counselors, great teachers, ample resources, a remarkably “put together” program—can do remarkable things with AP for poor and minority youngsters, many of them entering 9th grade there from miserable middle schools.

We have many more profiles of schools from different contexts in the book. In many places, the going has been tough. We show that it’s not always easy for AP to prove a booster rocket to kids who have lacked access to high-quality coursework (and in many cases to decent middle schooling) but that’s a challenge worth facing up to. 

White: What surprised you the most in your research? 

The scale and pervasiveness of Advanced Placement in American education today—and the rapidity with which it has grown in recent decades. The pains the College Board has taken to sustain quality along with quantity. But also the bona fide challenges that AP faces today—that’s chapters 8 through 11 of our book!—including some that the College Board alone cannot resolve, such as: How does AP react to growing competition from dual credit, International Baccalaureate, and other such programs? How does the program react to some elite private schools and universities drawing back from it in recent years? In these polarized times, how does AP manage to keep both sides of the political spectrum happy in the contentious realms of social studies and history? These and other debates are with us for the foreseeable future and how the College Board deals with them will shape the future of the AP program. 

White: Given everything that you have come to know through your research and experience, what do you think is the future of AP? 

That’s what the last chapter is all about! It unpacks five key (and complex!) roles that we see AP playing today and tomorrow in American education as well as four big challenges or dilemmas that it faces moving forward. It’d be great if those wanting to know more might actually pick up the book! (Clue: we end up quite bullish.)

One encouraging finding that emerges from the data is how much progress there’s been over the last ten years, in particular, in lifting low-income students and students of color into the program and addressing some of the alarming drops in pass rates associated with large-scale expansion to kids who previously wouldn’t have had much of that access to AP. Though there’s a long way to go to reduce the performance gaps, for the past decade those gaps between student groups have been relatively stable, despite the ballooning numbers of new AP students. That’s a form of progress!

We’d love to see a sequel to this book ten or fifteen years hence that shows how AP has moved on to actually close some of those pervasive performance gaps. This is a major challenge faced by education systems around the world, and arguably the single most important challenge facing US education today. 

Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Andrew E. Scanlan is a research and policy associate at the Fordham Institute. Their new book, Learning in the Fast Lane: The Past, Present, and Future of Advanced Placement, will be published on September 17 by Princeton University Press. 

PolicyEd recently released a video on Advanced Placement that also features Learning in the Fast Lane.