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Pushing Advanced Placement
Dallas business and philanthropic communities lead the way in promoting incentives program

By Kay Mills
Dallas, Texas

Robert Trevino stands before his Advanced Placement calculus class at Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas and delivers a warning: Scoring 25 or 50 on homework is not good. "I'm warning you now you need to get back with it. You're not doing what you need to do. I want to see you more often in the morning and in the afternoon" for tutoring. Officially, tutoring is Mondays and Wednesdays, he tells them, "but I'm here every day. Come in at 8."

His message has the ring of the celebrated Jaime Escalante's lectures to his students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles two decades ago. Trevino hopes for similar results-students who can pass the tough AP calculus test and who are better prepared for college.

Like Garfield, Jefferson has mainly Hispanic students. It has two AP calculus teachers, Trevino and math department chairman Minh Nguyen. Last year one Jefferson student passed the AP calculus exam. The difference now is the support for these students and teachers from the Dallas business and philanthropic communities. Spurred originally by the O'Donnell Foundation, others, including the Texas Instruments Foundation and retired PepsiCo president Roger Enrico, have joined the effort.

Last year 62 Jefferson students took courses to prepare for AP calculus, which, like other advanced placement classes, is a college-level course. Forty now take AP calculus. Trevino has a self-imposed goal: to see ten students pass the test. He is confident they can do the work. Each Jefferson student who passes an AP math or English test will receive $500 per test and could qualify for a $10,000 college scholarship, all donated by Enrico. Trevino would also receive $500 for each passing score. He and his fellow teachers, and ultimately their students, are also benefiting from extra training.

For example, Trevino and other Dallas AP calculus teachers spent one late afternoon learning techniques to help motivate students. One of the teachers read aloud from a "Cal-Clueless Mystery," and her colleagues solved a series of problems to eliminate suspects in a fictional case. Tutoring also was stressed. "Although we think working math problems at night is fun," said one of the lead calculus teachers, June Harmon, "many kids don't want to stay late."

Teacher Martha Lee (right), with students Paul Love and Cassandra Estrada, in an Advanced Placement biology class at Townview High School, in Dallas.
State governments in Texas, California and Florida, among others, have created programs to help AP students and teachers. Some districts have found private support, such as Guilford County, North Carolina, where the Harris Teeter grocery chain contributes five laptop computers and five $2,500 college scholarships for students who pass five or more AP exams. Crown Automotive Group, a string of car dealerships, throws a party for the students, one of whom won an Acura donated by the firm.

But there is "nothing close" to the level of private financial involvement seen in Dallas and seven other Texas school districts, said Lee Jones, vice president of the College Board, which administers the AP program. That's important, Jones said. "In many school districts, especially at this time of economic downturn and budget cuts at the state level, which is the main support for education, if we could replicate that kind of business and corporate support for challenging AP courses, it would be a big win for students."

Photos by Kris Hundt, Black Star for CrossTalk
Robert Trevino (right), who teaches Advanced Placement calculus at Jefferson High School, in Dallas, hopes Alex Tovar and other students will pass the AP calculus test this year.
Peter O'Donnell, Dallas philanthropist and state Republican Party chairman from 1962 to 1969, started the incentive program. In 1990, after Texas had landed the superconducting supercollider project for high-energy physics research, O'Donnell decided that the schools around Waxahachie-those that the scientists' and engineers' children would attend-needed help.

A self-described "education junkie," O'Donnell felt that the AP program offered the best way to challenge students. The O'Donnell Foundation that he and his wife established provided financial incentives: Each student who passed AP tests in English, math or science received $100 per test; AP teachers received $100 for each of their students who passed the exam, as did their schools. The foundation also paid to train teachers for the AP courses.

The year before the program began in 1990, students in the nine schools involved in Ellis and south Dallas County passed 54 AP tests. Five years later, there were 521 passing scores.

In 1993, Congress killed the supercollider as too expensive, but O'Donnell kept at his project. The superintendent in Dallas at the time approached the O'Donnell Foundation after learning that one high school in south Dallas County-Duncanville-had more passing AP exam scores than all of the then 22 high schools in Dallas combined, said Carolyn Bacon, the foundation's executive director.

The program began in Dallas in the 1995-1996 school year, adding the concept of lead teachers to aid their colleagues. O'Donnell helped recruit more donors, and the program spun off a non-profit management and resource agency called Advanced Placement Strategies, headed by Gregg Fleisher, a former Dallas AP calculus teacher. The foundation also is underwriting development of curriculum guides for middle school pre-AP teachers in English, science and math, so that students have the background needed for AP classes.

Texas Instruments Foundation, philanthropic arm of the Texas Instruments semiconductor company, took over O'Donnell's commitment to ten high schools in 2001. This year marks the beginning of retired businessman Roger Enrico's involvement at five high schools, including Jefferson. AP incentive programs in the core subjects have spread to seven other Texas school districts, including Abilene, Amarillo, Tyler, and Wichita Falls. Programs in the arts are available in some schools in ten Texas districts. Several other donors are involved in Dallas, and the Texas Education Agency has given $450,000 a year to conduct pre-AP English training in seven school districts.

Rosalba Estrada, 18, is a beneficiary of the program. She is a senior at Skyline High School, a majority Hispanic school in Dallas which has had AP classes but without the training resources, support for teachers, tutoring and financial incentives this program added. "There's a premium placed on these courses now," said AP Strategies' Fleisher. "It filters down."

Estrada belongs to the first generation of college goers in her family. Last year she passed five AP tests-chemistry, statistics, English, French and history. She received $300 (foreign language and social studies classes don't qualify for incentives). This year she is taking two AP calculus classes, AP government and economics, AP English, AP physics and AP French.

"I can't imagine myself in a class where they're not bombarding me" with information and work, she said. She would like to attend either the University of Texas at Austin or Southern Methodist University. "I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, now maybe a chemical engineer, or maybe a lawyer with a mathematical mind."

Estrada is not alone in her success. The year before Skyline became part of the incentive program, approximately 150 students there took AP classes in math, science and English; there were 17 passing scores on those AP tests. Last year approximately 450 students enrolled in AP classes, 182 took the tests, and there were 91 passing scores.

Skyline is one of the ten schools in the Dallas Independent School District that have been involved in the incentive program. Overall, the year before the program began in 1995, 269 students at those schools took 379 exams in math, science and English; there were 157 passing scores. Last year, 1,531 students took 2,572 AP exams in those fields. There were 1,047 passing scores.

Results also improved across race and gender. At the ten schools in 1995, there were 29 passing grades on AP math, science and English exams among African American and Hispanic students. Last year this group had 417 passing scores. Looking only at math and science results, African American and Hispanic students had ten passing scores in 1995, 224 in 2002. "We didn't really start the program out to help African American students, but I'm glad we did it," O'Donnell said. "And look at the results."

Female students also showed gains, earning 73 passing scores on AP math, science and English exams in 1995, but increasing to 539 in 2002. Of those passing scores, 232 were in math and science.

Vickie Richie, Skyline's principal, said that her school is making a special effort now to identify students who have the potential to do this work but who might have gone unnoticed. The best recruiters for the AP program, she added, are college students who return and tell others how these courses gave them a head start on campus.

Statistics from the National Center for Educational Accountability, an offshoot of the Education Commission of the States, show, for example, that Hispanic students who passed an AP exam and enrolled in a Texas public college or university had a first-year grade point average of 2.89, while those who took, but did not pass, an exam had a 2.50. Both groups fared better than first-year students who had not taken an AP exam; their GPA was 2.09. Results were similar for white, African American and low-income students. Students who passed an AP exam, or at least took one, stayed in college at higher rates than those who did not.

The program "builds confidence, particularly with minority students," said Martha Lee, lead AP biology teacher for the schools supported by the Texas Instruments Foundation. "We know they're going to take the test so we work especially on preparing them. As the year builds, they start to say, 'I can do this. I can do this.'" Several teachers also agreed that the incentives have made the AP program more inclusive, because more than just the top kids are expected to take these classes.

This program "forced the kids to focus on college," said Brenda Bradford, the Dallas school district's AP coordinator. "AP is college work. They might not have thought about it otherwise. For the teachers, it set a standard of excellence. Good teachers are absolutely critical to this. They know someone is looking at what they're doing. They know kids are going to get rewards. Synergistically, it changes the whole climate of expectation and excellence."

Bradford said that the incentive program also kept in the classroom a lot of teachers who were thinking about retirement-experienced people between 50 to 55 years old with years of service. They now have better resources-extra novels or more science equipment. "For me personally, if I needed something, I got it. In education, that's rare."

Former PepsiCo President Roger Enrico is financing advanced placement classes at five Dallas high schools.
For the teachers in this AP incentive program, it's not the money that matters (although most are happy to have it for the extra work). Instead, it's the support they receive from lead teachers who suggest ways to teach difficult material, as well as the sense that the school system-and people outside that system-care about their efforts.

"I've seen a pep in their walk," said Jefferson principal Ruth Wilson. They will need the pep: Of Jefferson's 1,700-plus students last year, only 12 passed AP exams, eight of them in Spanish.

Wilson wanted to get her school involved in the incentive program, and she got the chance when Roger Enrico, former head of PepsiCo (and a National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education board member), heard about the program from O'Donnell. "I was interested in finding some way to add value to the school system," Enrico said. "I didn't want to go and reinvent the wheel. I'm not an educator."

The schools that were not already part of the incentives program were generally considered tougher in terms of showing gains. Enrico will provide $500 incentives per test passed for both teachers and students at five high schools, and $10,000 scholarships for students who pass the AP English language test their junior year, show proficiency in AP English literature and AP calculus in their senior year, and score 1100 or better on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests taken for college admission.

Enrico wants to make sure that students receive good counseling to find the right college and succeed once enrolled. Gregg Fleisher, AP Strategies president, is working with the school system to hire two college advisers, at Enrico's expense, to work with the 300 AP students at the five schools he sponsors. They would help in finding colleges and financial aid, and would remain in contact with the students once they reach college.

Enrico estimated his contribution at $2.5 million over five years. During its five years as the principal donor in Dallas, the O'Donnell Foundation contributed $3.6 million. "That's an absolute peanut when you compare it with the results," O'Donnell said. In 2001, the Texas Instruments Foundation took over the schools O'Donnell had backed, and has pledged $2 million in incentives over five years.

With Enrico committed to the program, Suzee Oliphint, executive director for advanced academic services for the Dallas district, asked last spring for applications from schools not already receiving the incentives. The district selected five high schools-Kimball, Roosevelt, Seagoville, Sunset and Jefferson. Last year there were only 12 passing scores at these five schools on the AP English language, English literature and calculus tests.

Each donor brings a different wish list. Texas Instruments Foundation is interested in research and development in education programs, and "this particular program was too good to pass up," said foundation president Mike Rice. He hopes to learn why young women are not taking AP physics, and why those who do are not passing the test.

Last year, for example, 61 girls took AP physics at the ten Texas Instruments Foundation schools but only 11 passed the test. Members of the Women of Texas Instruments, a company-wide organization, speculate that many physics teachers are men and communicate differently with female students. "We don't see these deficiencies in math," Rice said. Working with the foundation, AP Strategies is trying to determine whether the problem lies in the instruction or in the female students' preparation.

Eight Dallas high schools are not in the incentive program, but they do have AP classes, and their teachers participate in training and summer institutes. "Those schools have not been completely neglected," Oliphint said, but their students do not receive any money.

What about the policy of paying students and teachers extra for their success? Shouldn't they be striving to do well anyway? "People get paid for academic achievement all the time," said Fleisher. "If you get 1600 on your SATs, you are not going to pay for college. This is nothing new in the education system."

Michael Boyles, a senior at Townview High School, thinks the advanced placement financial incentives are "a nice little bonus when you're done," but not a good reason to take the classes.
Some students, like Michael Boyles, a senior in the science and engineering magnet at Townview High School, see the financial incentives as "a nice little bonus when you're done" but say they don't take the classes for the money. The classes are worth much more than the incentives, students add, because passing the AP exam earns college credit for the course, possibly reducing the time-and thus the tuition-they spend on campus. But Teresa Whinery, a junior at Townview, said, "Having the money is a very nice thing." Incentives also cover part of the cost of the test, which is $80, "so if you're taking four or five tests, that's good, too," she added.

Some experts raise questions about this approach. "There is extensive literature about rewarding kids for stuff you'd like them to be intrinsically motivated to do," said Joshua Aronson, assistant professor of applied psychology at New York University, who has written widely about improving academic achievement. The concerns identified center on undermining creativity by focusing on winning money, and on the risk that students will lose interest once rewards stop.

Aronson said he generally favors putting resources into making learning so interesting that students want to do it. But he added that in the Texas case, $100 per AP test passed sounded like "a smart level of incentive" because it would reinforce students' and teachers' commitment without distorting the real goals of learning.

"There is a critical question to ask," he added. "Do students construe the money as a bribe that's needed to induce them to study or as a bonus and financial support for caring about success? Bonuses are better. Ultimately, you want kids to develop a strong sense of themselves as scholars. If kids think that they had to be bribed-or scared, or otherwise pushed-into studying, you can frustrate that development."

To buttress the program in Dallas, AP Strategies has hired curriculum experts who help the teachers. "We share things-books, ideas. There are people I can call up," said Rebecca Jensen, who teaches AP statistics and AP physics at Townview.

But AP teachers do not have this opportunity unless they teach math, science or English courses. Said Deanna Dove, who teaches AP U.S. history and human geography at Townview, "It's wonderful what the sponsors do." But she would like social studies to get that help, too. As would Marsha Evans, Townview AP art history teacher, who confessed to a touch of jealousy, wishing that she had someone to help her teach about Oriental art.

Texas has seen "a massive expansion of students taking AP classes," said Uri Treisman, director of the Charles A. Dana Center, an education research and resource unit of the University of Texas at Austin. In three years, the state has gone from one in 12 students taking these courses to one in eight. Treisman said, "Peter O'Donnell is a modest man." But he credited him with being the force behind the state's support for these programs. Most reform efforts work on improving literacy among low-achieving students, and that is important, Treisman said. But O'Donnell had the vision to see that those efforts needed to be balanced by stressing high achievement as well.

Kris Hundt, Black Star, for CrossTalk
Gregg Fleisher runs Advanced Placement Strategies, which coordinates the AP incentive program in Dallas high schools.
The state contributed $11.5 million to AP programs last school year and $16 million this year-paying $30 toward each exam fee, $450 per teacher toward expenses for training seminars, $100 to schools for each student passing the AP exam, and providing grants for equipment. The latest O'Donnell initiatives support the statewide effort to improve preparation of students and teachers for AP classes, and have produced "a very good working partnership between the state and a private foundation," said Evelyn Hiatt, senior director for advanced academic services at the Texas Education Agency.

The Dana Center now operates programs that help students prepare for AP courses and tests, and provide online and traditional curriculum support for teachers. With all this effort, there are still some questions to be resolved, Treisman said. Which of these different strategies for improving AP participation and performance are most "scaleable," that is, usable in more schools? Which of the components is most important? How can these strategies be combined?

Asked why the business community has become so involved with the AP program, Texas Instruments Foundation's Mike Rice said, "I lay that at the feet of Peter O'Donnell, who saw the whole supercollider program as a disaster if we couldn't get competent people to be the engineers." As for his foundation's involvement, Rice said, "If you look at it from a hard-nosed dollar perspective, we have to be able to hire good people to run our factories and work in them." In addition, the quality of a community is highly dependent on the quality of education, Rice said. "We're in a trot when the pace of change is a 100-yard dash. So we're creating even bigger problems as we go."

Rice added, "Let's face it, Texas Instruments can get good people. My reason is that the quality of the community is tied to education."

Former Los Angeles Times editorial writer Kay Mills is the author of four books, including one on the federal Head Start program.

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