A funny thing happened when a third of Kentucky high schools threw open the classroom doors and invited all students into advanced math, science and English classes.
They came in droves and did well.
Young Kentuckians are hungry for rigorous, college-level work — including students who are not usually seen as potentially high achievers, even by themselves.
Also, Kentucky high schools have teachers who, with some high-quality training and collaboration, are qualified and able to teach Advanced Placement classes.
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We know this because in 2008 Kentucky became one of the first six states to pilot the National Math and Science Initiative's College Readiness Program.
The five-year, $13 million grant was administered by the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., the non-profit founded almost 30 years ago by Lee Todd and Kris Kimel to boost Kentucky's competitiveness.
A study last year documented remarkable results, including soaring AP success rates, improved ACT scores, less need for remediation and better grades as college freshmen.
Also impressive, if less quantifiable, is the cultural change. The program seeks out low-income and minority students, those least likely to be tapped for gifted or advanced classes.
While there are many elements of success — including Saturday study sessions and financial incentives — the most important, by far, says AdvanceKentucky's executive director Joanne Lang, is open enrollment. High expectations produce high performance.
Built on The College Board's AP curriculum, long an indicator of college readiness, the program rewards students who pass the end-of-course AP exam, earning college credit, with $100. Teachers who meet goals also receive financial rewards. The program pays students' testing fees.
AdvanceKentucky has delivered content-heavy professional development to thousands of Kentucky educators, including teachers in feeder schools.
All this for $300 per student in an AP class.
The dramatically higher AP enrollments are holding steady, even after schools graduate from the program and the reward money ends. Some schools are fund-raising to pay AP exam fees and keep the program going. Data suggest students benefit just from participating in AP classes.
Now that the grant has ended, the challenge is at least two-fold:
■ How to imbed high expectations in even more Kentucky schools, especially those that have been timid about challenging their students and teachers.
■ How to pay for it.
The legislature has wisely stepped up to partially fill the gap, appropriating $3 million for the program over the current biennium. Despite that and a patchwork or support from many sources, including Berea College, not as many schools will be able to participate as in earlier years.
Kentucky has almost 90,000 high school juniors and seniors. In its first three years, Advance Kentucky enrolled 10,500 students, most in more than one AP class. The ripple effects are raising the sights of younger students and their teachers.
Whether this model will be as effective in other schools remains to be seen. But if any philanthropists would like to help Kentucky catch up in the race for knowledge-based jobs and companies, investing in rigorous math and science instruction for more students looks like a good bet.