Growing Advanced Placement in Montgomery County, Maryland

Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Jack Smith, seen here in 2018, has expanded the district's offerings of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes.
Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Jack Smith, seen here in 2018, has expanded the district’s offerings of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes.

Amid the enduring mediocrity of American secondary schooling and the nonstop caravan of reforms, experiments, and pilot programs intended to fix it, there lurks a sixty-year-old success that has not drawn the attention or plaudits that it deserves. Now engaging nearly three million high school students who sit for some five million exams every year, the Advanced Placement program has quietly worked its way into the offerings of most public and private schools, the policies of many states and districts, the admissions and placement decisions of hundreds of universities, the educational aspirations of countless families, and the academic programs of innumerable college students. Along the way, it has emerged as a nearly unique standard of rigor and quality for the K–12 system, a source of professional gratification for myriad teachers, and—remarkable in these fractured and politicized times—a de facto national high school curriculum joined to a battery of exacting tests that are widely deemed “worth teaching to.”

Unlike charter schools, “dropout recovery” schools, and virtual schools, Advanced Placement is not a newfangled institutional form. Unlike today’s enthusiasms for personalized learning and online instruction, AP is not a pedagogical or technological novelty. Unlike “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” AP is not a federal program or mandate. Unlike the “Common Core,” it’s not something that states impose on reluctant school systems and teachers. Rather, it’s a privately operated, mostly privately financed, and almost entirely voluntary curricular option for high schools and their teachers and students, one that’s been competently managed and adroitly led by the nonprofit, nonpartisan College Board. As such, AP enjoys an excellent reputation and is broadly popular among both parents and educators, including many who bridle at other items on today’s reform agendas. It has mostly avoided the politics and fads that roil contemporary American public education, even as it has gradually evolved into a significant player in the longest-running and most compelling reform impulse of all: to widen educational opportunity and foster upward mobility for disadvantaged youngsters.

For several decades after its founding in the mid-twentieth century, AP was a modest venture, scarcely visible on the K–12 scene, that conferred extra advantages on a relative handful of already-fortunate kids attending a short list of exclusive private and posh suburban public high schools. Today, however, Advanced Placement’s profile is far higher and markedly different: A host of policies, auxiliary programs, and booster organizations have widened access to it. Not only is its scale vastly greater, its cadres are also much more diverse, both demographically and geographically, and it’s being deployed strategically in many places to strengthen the secondary schooling and postsecondary prospects of poor and minority youngsters who long lacked access to high-level coursework.

Most such places, unsurprisingly, are cities brimming with disadvantaged students, but others are big—and increasingly diverse—suburbs where AP was long concentrated in a handful of schools in posh neighborhoods but lacking or skimpy in other parts of the district and where equity-minded leaders are struggling to extend its reach.

One such locale is Montgomery County, Maryland, where a superintendent bent on reform has teamed up with a smart, feisty nonprofit to widen and diversify access to Advanced Placement. We profile those expansion efforts in our forthcoming book, Learning in the Fast Lane: The Past, Present, and Future of Advanced Placement (Princeton University Press, 2019, $29.95, 296 pages), and share a portion here:

Maryland’s largest school system—enrolling some 163,000 pupils in 2018—is generally high performing and highly regarded. This sprawling suburb of Washington, DC, is home to many well-educated and well-connected professionals who seek—and will practically kill to obtain—a first-rate public education for their children. The system is fairly well funded—some $16,500 per pupil in 2018—and offers many programs, special services, and extra opportunities. In 2018, its top three high schools also led the state on the U.S. News rankings. The class of 2018 had a composite SAT score of 1167 (versus 1066 statewide and 1049 nationally) and an average composite ACT score of 25.1 (compared with 22.5 for Maryland and 20.8 for the United States).

For as long as anyone can remember, however, the Montgomery County Public Schools have contained two distinct realities. A large swath of the district—boasting such familiar names as Chevy Chase, Potomac, and Bethesda—is well off, degree heavy, mostly white and Asian, and very high achieving. The sources of that achievement include robust Advanced Placement programs in schools from which nearly all graduates go on to four-year colleges. In 2017 seven of the district’s twenty-five high schools saw more AP exams taken than they had students in all four grades, averaging almost 1.3 exams per high school pupil—and more than 82 percent of those exams yielded qualifying scores. That’s an enormous participation level and an awesome passing rate.

Yet the rest of Montgomery County—indeed, most of the county—looks very different, and so do its schools. Communities with names like Wheaton, Silver Spring, Briggs Chaney, and Brookville contain plenty of poverty and lots of black and brown faces, including many immigrant families. Caused by shifting demographics and residential patterns over several decades, it means that people whose impressions of Montgomery County were formed earlier may not fully grasp how changed it now is.

The eighteen high schools located in that “other” county averaged barely half an AP exam per student and managed a pass rate of 59 percent. The five lowest performers among them clocked just twenty-six exams per hundred pupils with a pass rate of 45 percent—a stunning contrast with the high flyers a few miles away.

Parts of Montgomery County resemble an urban school system with 150 languages spoken, and more than one-third of pupils qualifying for subsidized lunches. All this—plus thousands of youngsters who reside in sprawling new developments that are neither poor nor rich but too raw to have much character, culture, or tradition—makes its way into those eighteen high schools. Many are decent-enough places, neither stellar nor troubled, the sort of middling schools that rarely get much attention for either their successes or their travails—Superintendent Jack Smith terms them “neglected”—while a handful are (as educators tend delicately to put it) “more challenged.”

Just as there are fewer programs for gifted students in the elementary and middle schools of “the other county”—a situation that Smith is forcefully addressing—most of its eighteen high schools haven’t had nearly as robust AP programs as in the seven already noted. Insofar as AP classes are available, the kids coming into them tend to have parents with some college education, are likelier to be white or Asian, and are less apt to have their lunches underwritten by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Although a procession of recent superintendents strove in various ways to equalize resources across the county, to integrate schools racially (including much busing), and to boost achievement in the poorer neighborhoods and schools, most of that attention focused—this was the No Child Left Behind era—on bringing low achievers up to proficiency. Not much heed was given to the “excellence gap,” which meant that smart poor kids tended to be shortchanged, much as they have been across American education. Less-than-proficient pupils took priority, as did narrowing the achievement gaps that separated poor and minority youngsters from their better-off peers. Children who were disadvantaged by virtue of poverty, language, ill-educated parents, or race but nevertheless managed to reach the proficiency bar were not seen as an urgent problem for the district, even when such kids were capable of achieving far more.

Jack Smith had paid attention to excellence-gap issues before he became Montgomery County Public School’s newest superintendent in 2016, and he brought that concern with him. As he pored over data and visited schools, he saw vividly how lopsided were the county’s high-end achievement demographics, how much human potential was thereby wasted, and how important it was to find strategies by which to bring more advanced learning opportunities to more of the district’s poor-but-able pupils.

“We can’t have some who achieve at the highest levels and some who don’t achieve,” Smith declared at a school board meeting soon after arriving, according to a Washington Post account. “We can’t have some who walk into accelerated programs in college and many who find themselves in remedial college or working in the lowest wage jobs in our society and they cannot get living-wage jobs. We cannot tolerate it any longer.”

Smith likes to quote the Home Depot slogan, “You can do it. We can help.” With manifest sincerity, he says he wants every kid in the far-flung—more than five hundred square miles—district to be challenged, to go as far as they can, including many more youngsters making their way into advanced classes. But it’s not just getting them through the door that matters. Even more important, Smith says, is helping those young people feel that they belong in such classes and assisting them to gain enough self-awareness and confidence to succeed there.

He set out on several fronts to move this immense system—with its truly huge bureaucracy and its long-time-in-harness, well paid, and generally very liberal elected school board—to do more for those kids.

At the secondary level, he’s no fan of à la carte dual credit, nor wild about associate’s degrees in “general studies,” but sees merit in versions that can equip high school students with actual credentials or degrees in fields with bona fide career opportunities. (He cited cybersecurity as an example.) Montgomery County Public Schools has teamed up with Montgomery College to operate several career-oriented “early college” and “middle college” programs, focused in areas like engineering, information technology, and preparation for teaching math. Mostly, though, Smith seems confident that the district can itself supply whatever accelerated and college-level academic work its students need—and he must be sensitive to union issues that arise when students are taught by college instructors rather than members of the district’s bargaining unit.

Instead, Smith’s chief strategy for narrowing the excellence gap at this level is to boost AP and International Baccalaureate participation in the eighteen schools that hadn’t had much of it or opened it to enough of their students. With help from Maryland’s “Lead Higher” initiative, he enlisted Seattle-based Equal Opportunity Schools to change the modus operandi in those schools. Equal Opportunity Schools works with high schools across the land to identify more minority youngsters who could likely succeed in AP (and International Baccalaureate) courses and to implant attitudes and practices in those schools that will lead to big increases in those numbers both in the near term and over the long haul.

At a cost to the county of about $17,000 per school (not including state or other support), Montgomery County Public Schools contracted with Equal Opportunity Schools to work with four of its “other eighteen” high schools beginning in 2016–17, adding six more in 2017–18, and the final eight in 2018–19. Smith’s goal is for each school to have two years of intensive collaboration with Equal Opportunity Schools, which is twice as much as the organization supplies in most other places.

In Smith’s view, this is more than an Advanced Placement/ International Baccalaureate expansion effort. It’s also a broad high school reform strategy: changing adult mindsets regarding what kids are capable of and how to help them achieve their utmost. That way it becomes an enduring change in schools, not a temporary fix. And the superintendent regards this not just as boosting numbers but also lifting psychological barriers: getting kids to believe they belong in such classes, getting teachers to believe that more different kinds of kids can succeed there, and persuading the entire school team that it’s their responsibility to ensure that these young people make it.

Such an ambitious reform should commence well before high school, of course. Smith and his lieutenants understand that boosting more kids into high-level learning options in the upper grades requires a cascade of other changes starting in kindergarten (or before), and the district is altering its curriculum, staff development, and much more, to try to effect the needed alignment, well aware of how complicated all that becomes.

As for the schools’ capacity to handle larger Advanced Placement/ International Baccalaureate enrollments and classes, Montgomery County Public Schools is making parallel moves on the human resources front, including shifting back to December the following year’s student course selection, school schedules, and identification of staff needs, thereby making it easier to recruit talent to teach those classes—and to retain instructors who might otherwise be lured by competing districts.

Ample staff development is needed, too, because advanced courses don’t succeed unless those teaching them possess the requisite knowledge, pedagogical (and psychological) skills, and passion to make this work. In the schools working with Equal Opportunity Schools, the district pays for summer training institutes and mounts its own sessions for school teams on topics like “growth mindset” and “trusted adults.” Equal Opportunity Schools has found that students are likelier to tackle a challenging course if encouraged by an adult in the school whom they like and trust. That “trusted adult” may be an administrator, teacher, or coach, not necessarily a guidance counselor. Because of an all-encompassing union contract, district leaders don’t have a free rein on the human resources front, but they’re generally able to dismiss or move teachers who refuse to flex with a school’s changing instructional needs.

Equal Opportunity Schools is acutely data-intensive, mining a school’s existing information and casting a wide net for other evidence of pupil potential, while also surveying students and teachers on their attitudes and aspirations. In the Equal Opportunity Schools experience, a young person’s motivation to embark on a challenging class predicts success there better than test scores or previous grades—and such motivation can be stimulated by adult encouragement, peers, and a heightened sense that yes, “I may actually belong there.”

Like Jack Smith, Equal Opportunity Schools views that sense of belonging as hugely consequential, which is why its operatives strive both for swift acceptance by the school’s adults of a more inclusive attitude toward who should enter advanced courses and for a swift front-loading of nontraditional students. They’ve learned that minority youngsters are apt to shun those courses on grounds that they won’t feel comfortable in such a classroom if, when they peer in, they see only a sprinkling of “kids like them.”

All the data and survey results are fed through sophisticated Equal Opportunity Schools algorithms—and smart human brains—in search of young people who had not participated in Advanced Placement/ International Baccalaureate courses but could likely succeed there. Just as important is altering adult behaviors, such as how advisors and teachers help students select courses and how instructors respond when unfamiliar kids walk into their classrooms, so as to create a culture of equity rather than preference. Only then will the “access gap” and in time the “excellence gap” be narrowed.

While the National Math and Science Initiative works with a school over several years (and at considerable cost) to train more teachers, expand the building’s AP capacity, give extra instruction to students, and—where resources and politics allow it—offer cash rewards for qualifying scores to both pupils and teachers, Equal Opportunity Schools generally seeks underutilized instructional capacity and ways of rearranging a school’s extant resources to augment that capacity. Its representatives work intensively with a school’s leaders and teachers to locate “missing” students (of whom they estimate the United States contains three quarters of a million), kids who are “currently stuck just across the hall from the education they need and deserve,” and to install the systems and—it is hoped—shift the culture.

The goal is to equalize participation in advanced courses— Equal Opportunity Schools is agnostic as between AP and International Baccalaureate (where Equal Opportunity Schools founder Reid Saaris once taught himself). They’re not especially concerned with what subjects the kids sign up for or whether they earn qualifying scores on the exams. The National Math and Science Initiative focuses on science, technology, engineering and math fields and on passing the May exams, and has also achieved considerable success, as detailed in a different chapter of Learning in the Fast Lane. The Equal Opportunity Schools team is pretty confident that participation itself—provided that one sticks with the class and gets a passing grade from the teacher—confers both cognitive benefit and a boost in self-confidence and future aspiration as well as increased likelihood of entering and faring well in college.

The Montgomery County Public Schools expansion initiative launched swiftly. As Smith wrote his board in September 2017:

In one year, every participating high school in the district added more than one hundred low-income students and students of color to their AP/IB programs. Across the four pilot high schools, the number of students of color and low-income students in AP/IB classes increased by 40 percent. … As we move forward with this work, we intend to increase access by closing the equity gaps in ten MCPS high schools, working with EOS partners and school staff to identify approximately 1,400 underrepresented students across the ten schools by spring 2018.

Equal Opportunity Schools typically spends its first year recruiting kids into the following year’s AP and International Baccalaureate classrooms. It is only during their second year (for Montgomery County Public Schools cohort one, that meant 2017–18) that the organization would expect to see the fruits of those endeavors, not just in terms of more kids sitting in advanced courses, but also faring well there and perhaps passing the exams, too. The program is so new in Montgomery County that we don’t have a lot of hard data. We do know, however, that at the end of 2017–18, the number of AP and International Baccalaureate exams taken at the first four high schools rose by 41 percent (to 6,887 from 4,872) above the baseline year (2015–16). And these numbers rose fastest for black (52 percent), Hispanic (64 percent), and low-income students (68 percent), compared with Asian (39 percent) and white (27 percent) pupils.

The number of qualifying scores (3 or above in AP, 4 or higher in International Baccalaureate) rose too, by 26 percent (to 3,595 from 2,860) for all students in the four schools during this time. Again, the rates of increase were most robust for Hispanic (32 percent), black (34 percent), and low-income (43 percent) kids, compared with Asian (30 percent) and white (20 percent) students.

Such gains naturally encouraged Saaris and Smith, as did progress in lowering the within-year attrition rate (students who start but then drop an advanced class). At the same time, however, here as in most places, the impressive increase in AP and International Baccalaureate participation was joined by a decline in the overall exam pass rate, which went down to 52 percent from 59 percent in the four schools. Equal Opportunity Schools insists, not without reason, that this is a predictable consequence of opening the doors to many more first-time AP students, and they estimate that 85 percent of the growth in AP exam taking from 2016 to 2018 came from first-time exam-takers. As we saw in New York City, a relatively modest drop in overall passing rates can be viewed as a kind of success when the participation of nontraditional youngsters is rising so rapidly. Given more time, Equal Opportunity Schools says, these newcomers will become more accustomed to this kind of rigor, their instructors will have more experience teaching them, and pass rates will tend to stabilize.

The solid rise in AP and International Baccalaureate participation and in the absolute number of passing scores contributed to Montgomery County’s decision to add two more cohorts of high schools and to keep Equal Opportunity Schools working in the first four schools for another year. Early signs from the second cohort were encouraging, too, as those six high schools witnessed nearly one thousand more students signing up for AP and International Baccalaureate courses in 2018–19, again with the largest gains among their minority pupils.

A Tale of Two Schools

Northwest High School

Located in fast-growing Germantown, fast-growing Northwest High School is demographically diverse and has a reasonably solid history of Advanced Placement participation and passing scores but now—with a dynamic principal, the superintendent’s encouragement, and Equal Opportunity Schools’ help—is bent on growing that program and drawing more (and more different kinds of) students into it.

Northwest offers no International Baccalaureate program but a number of pupils take dual-enrollment courses at nearby Montgomery College and—in conjunction with the same institution—it houses one of the district’s rare “middle college” programs, this one focused on engineering careers.

Montgomery College itself makes creative use of AP exams to validate some of the dual-enrollment classes taken by Northwest students. When these classes are taught by high school teachers, the college treats the exam as a quality control mechanism. A student seeking college credit for such a class must get a qualifying score on the AP exam as evidence of having completed college-level work.

Although the district doesn’t automatically pay for AP exams, it grants fee waivers for kids who seek the help. Nor are students who enroll in AP courses obligated to take the exam, but those who don’t sign up for the test may hear from their guidance counselor.

Expansion of AP at Northwest has brought growing pains, as the school suddenly had to accommodate hundreds more students in those classes, which it did by adding more sections. Teachers who weren’t already teaching AP were reluctant to do so, which forced the principal to scramble to recruit a cadre of new (sometimes beginner) teachers to staff those classrooms. But the Equal Opportunity Schools recruitment push did not, for the most part, cause Northwest’s already-sizable (thirty-pupil) classes to grow larger.

A number of students who volunteered (or were persuaded) to register for AP classes also—inevitably—turned out to be ill-prepared for academic work at that level. Teachers reported slipshod study skills, inept note taking, weak reading comprehension, and sometimes a lack of diligence. Getting those kids up to speed has been a struggle for instructors, and we heard grumbles from a few veterans who were accustomed to AP classrooms full of eager, well-prepared “traditional” pupils. New teachers, on the other hand, seemed calmly to accept the added challenge, perhaps because they had nothing to contrast it with.

Equal Opportunity Schools focuses on getting kids into advanced courses in eleventh and twelfth grade, so they concentrate their outreach efforts on tenth graders. They also tend to think more of single classes than of course sequences. But Northwest already had many of its abler students embarking on an AP sequence as early as ninth grade, typically in social studies (for example, US Government as freshmen, US History as sophomores, World History in the junior year, possibly Psychology as seniors). Smoothly melding that pattern with the Equal Opportunity Schools approach took some doing and highlighted the need for more attention to readiness for more students. How, for example, to ensure that students entering AP English Language in eleventh grade were adequately prepared by their ninth and tenth grade English teachers? How to develop more pre-AP classes? How to work more effectively on vertical curriculum alignment with the middle schools that feed pupils into Northwest?

The teachers with whom we met felt that participation in courses like these is a plus for kids whether or not they get a lofty exam score. Some, however, were frustrated by the pedagogical challenge of differentiating instruction within their more diverse AP classes—several implied that they’re having to “dumb it down”—and by the presence in their classrooms of kids who don’t appear fully committed to doing the work. School leaders, on the other hand, waved off this problem by naming instructors who—they said—work 24/7 to get their variegated populations of AP students to succeed both in class and on the exam.

Springbrook High School

The streets around Springbrook High in outer Silver Spring look like a well-established if tattered suburb, but this school comes closer than Northwest to “inner city” demographics—almost 80 percent black and Latino, almost half eligible for subsidized lunches—and historically has had some of the county’s lowest AP participation and passing scores. It also has a reasonably robust International Baccalaureate program that has traditionally attracted the school’s stronger students, at least in the humanities. (Kids focused on math and science tend to favor AP as a more rigorous path into the science, technology, engineering and math realm.)

The initiative at Springbrook feeds kids into both AP and International Baccalaureate, and it’s not always a smooth transition. Observing several classes, we saw a number of inattentive students and watched heroic efforts by teachers to engage their pupils. As at Northwest, AP teachers here insist that they’re not wedded to exam scores but are willing to settle for participation and hope their pupils will at least get 2’s in May. Also like their peers at Northwest, teachers at Springbrook remarked on their uncertainty as to how best to handle kids who enroll in AP classes but don’t do the work and don’t keep up. Once again, however, this concern was voiced more by veteran teachers than by new instructors who hadn’t previously experienced the “traditional AP demographic” in their classrooms.

The students we spoke to—who appeared to come more from that traditional population than new Equal Opportunity Schools recruits—seemed fully cognizant of the challenge (and importance) of keeping up with the work but also signaled that they could get the help they need either from teachers (“we have almost a second class at lunch time”) or from peers. The kids are accustomed to working together because here, as at Northwest, teachers emphasize group activity in AP classes, believing that this boosts pupil motivation and participation.

School leaders voiced pride both that the program had successfully attracted many more kids into Springbrook’s AP and International Baccalaureate classes and also that the newbies were sticking with it. One teacher suggested that the Equal Opportunity Schools recruits felt really special when encouraged to sign up for AP and International Baccalaureate and didn’t want to lose that feeling by dropping the class, even when they found it hard.

Will It Work?

There’s good reason to expect Smith’s ambitious Advance Placement and International Baccalaureate expansion initiative to bear some fruit, so long as the district sticks with it. Early returns were promising. As we have seen, AP and International Baccalaureate participation at targeted high schools rose in 2018, especially among black, Hispanic, and low-income kids and lesser but still encouraging gains in passing scores were notched in the first cohort of schools. Yet challenges remain. As in other places that have launched ambitious AP expansions, participation is rising far faster than qualifying scores. There can be many reasons for this, including weak preparation among students and inexperience among teachers. As opportunities for more kids to take more such classes open up in more schools, more AP teachers are needed and more principals and district hierarchs have to muster the commitment to make the requisite changes and see it through.

But Montgomery County is off to a solid start. For all its unwieldy size, this is a well-led system with much talent and bench strength in its staff. That makes Montgomery County Public Schools the kind of place that Equal Opportunity Schools seeks out: one with the capacity to embed and sustain an initiative like this. As one of the most appealing—and generally well paid—places for educators to work in one of the country’s most alluring metro areas, the schools of Montgomery County are also a talent magnet, and that magnet is powerful enough to hold onto most of those it attracts. With total enrollments rising, there are more teaching jobs every year (which mitigates potential union opposition) and, despite the competitive teacher job market around the Washington Beltway, Montgomery County Public Schools has done well at attracting well-educated people to its instructional and administrative ranks. District leaders are nimble enough to shift their hiring calendars and strategies to stay ahead of the game. Smith also noted that expanding AP and International Baccalaureate in the county’s less privileged schools creates welcome career opportunities for youngish teachers who are keen to take on such courses, else they’d have to wait for veteran instructors to retire from schools where such classes have long been entrenched.

Equal Opportunity Schools is a sophisticated and experienced partner organization; school budgets are relatively robust; and the fact that the venture is cloaked in the rhetoric and spirit of equity rather than elitism plays well in liberal Montgomery County. Yet making lasting changes in a school’s culture—especially that of a big, complicated high school—is a major crusade. There’s inevitable sluggishness on the part of counselors accustomed to handling course placements and student schedules in a certain way and from administrators who must alter staffing assignments. Teachers are apt to worry that introducing more of “those kids” into their classrooms will swell pupil numbers to unworkable levels, will cause their lofty passing rates to fall, thus making them look less effective, and may force them to slow the pace of instruction and perhaps falter in preparing their students for rigorous external tests. Teachers also know that working with a room full of kids at different levels of preparedness, background, and motivation is far harder than teaching a homogeneous group of practiced overachievers.

Politics are also unpredictable. Parents of those veteran overachievers tend to grump to principals and school board members when Ashley’s and Brandon’s accelerated classes take in lots of different kids. Although equity is the name of the game for Equal Opportunity Schools as well as Montgomery County Public Schools, district leaders dare not alienate the upper-middle-class part of the county that makes the most noise, pulls the most strings, and pays much of the bill. What’s more, equity concerns can readily shift back to worrying about low achievers rather than potential high flyers, particularly if achievement gaps should widen or graduation rates falter.

Leadership matters, too. Although the district had several energetic reformers at its helm before Smith arrived, boosting AP and International Baccalaureate participation (and other gifted-student opportunities) in “the other county” wasn’t on their agendas—and there’s no way to be sure that it will remain high on his successors’ agendas. (Smith is sixty years old and may or may not seek another post—but his predecessor was eased out by the school board after a single four-year term.) Initiatives such as this can wither, or simply sink into routines, especially when external partners such as Equal Opportunity Schools turn their eyes elsewhere, unless those in charge of the school system keep pushing on their own. Equal Opportunity Schools itself may also be in flux, as visionary founder Reid Saaris stepped down from the CEO role in early 2019, and it’s not yet known who will succeed him or how smooth will be the transition in working arrangements with partner districts like Montgomery County Public Schools.

Nor is it easy for even the strongest and most dynamic of school-system leaders to push all of the collateral changes in a giant organization that are ultimately needed for ambitious reforms like this to bear maximum fruit—such as better aligning the curriculum between target high schools and their feeder schools (and their feeder elementary schools), keeping this initiative compatible with the state’s ever-changing graduation requirements and testing practices, finding the right balance among AP, International Baccalaureate, dual credit, and the schools’ own honors classes, and locating sufficient funds in the vast budget to keep this program progressing even as other demands and constituencies press hard.

In sum, Montgomery County has rich soil in which to plant this initiative—but it’s not immune to drought, flood, and locusts. What we find there is a solid history of success with AP among the schools and populations that have historically sought out such opportunities, along with big challenges—and exciting opportunities—that surface when leaders ask tough questions about who else in their districts might benefit from similar programs but haven’t had much access to (or encouragement to participate in) them. Today, the district finds itself today with thousands of youngsters who could and should be on a path to success in college but have not previously found the academic opportunities, personal supports, and culture of encouragement that would place and keep them on such paths. Successfully implementing an AP expansion effort is a promising response to those challenges, but doing it right—and sustaining it over the long run—demands vision, courage, and expert leadership.

Excerpted from Learning in the Fast Lane: The Past, Present, and Future of Advanced Placement by Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Andrew E. Scanlan. Copyright © 2019 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Andrew E. Scanlan is a research and policy associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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