Meeting the Challenge of High School Calculus, III: Foundations

David M. Bressoud, May, 2010

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Succeeding Decades

The intention behind the creation of Calculus AB was to facilitate the transfer of calculus into the high school curriculum. The CUPM report states this quite clearly:

“While the high school calculus movement grows rapidly, as it is expected to do, the one-semester at a time advanced placement afforded by our proposed system of course units will permit an orderly transition of the first unit of calculus to the high schools and then two semester units, and so on. Thus, as the high school program advances, the sequence we propose will provide smooth and flexible progression of lower college subjects to high school while it takes care of individual students by advanced placement, all without the necessity of periodically reconstructing the college program.” [6, p. 21]

The spread of calculus into the high schools exceeded expectations. From 1970 to 1990, AP Calculus grew from 10,000 AB exams and 4,000 BC exams to 65,000 AB exams and 13,000 BC (see Graph 2). The change in the ratio of AB to BC exams was particularly dramatic, shifting from 5:2 in 1970 to 5:1 by 1990 (Graph 3).

Graph 2: The growth of AP Calculus, 1973 to 1990.

Graph 3: The ratio of AB exams to BC exams, 1969 to 2009.

The movement of calculus into the high schools that the CUPM had envisioned was now well underway.

These decades witnessed a transformation in the perception of the AP Calculus program from an elite institution designed for the best of the best to a challenging program of college-level work that was attainable by any good student with drive and ambition. The story of Jaime Escalante’s experience at Garfield High as recorded in Stand and Deliver helped to cement this perception.

But the expansion of this program also required large numbers of high school teachers who were prepared to teach it. Governor Richard Riley of South Carolina, who would go on to become President Clinton’s Secretary of Education, led the way. In 1984, he passed the Education Improvement Act, mandating access to AP Programs at every school in the state and two-week summer institutes led by a college faculty member assisted by a secondary "master teacher" to prepare South Carolina teachers to teach these courses. Before the end of that decade, many southern states had embraced the AP Program as a vehicle for improving public education, and several of them, most notably Florida, were paying significant bounties to schools with successful AP students.

As the AP Calculus Program grew, it also took on a fresh importance as a vehicle for connecting high school and college faculty. During the 1960s, the National Science Foundation had supported such collaborations, as in their summer mathematics conferences for high school teachers that were led by college faculty. But such efforts dried up in the ‘70s. By the 1980s, the summer AP institutes were among the few venues where college and high school mathematics faculty worked together. Inevitably, as the calculus reform movement emerged, AP Calculus would come to play an important role both in helping high school teachers to see calculus as more than a collection of procedures to be memorized, but also in bringing together the most dedicated and innovative teachers from both the college and high school communities who shared their enthusiasms and ideas for more effective calculus instruction.

NEXT: Growing Concerns

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[6] CUPM, A General Curriculum in Mathematics for Colleges: a report to the Mathematical Association of America, Berkeley, CA, 1965.

Access pdf files of the CUPM Curriculum Guide 2004 and the Curriculum Foundations Project: Voices of the Partner Disciplines.

Purchase a hard copy of the CUPM Curriculum Guide 2004 or the Curriculum Foundations Project: Voices of the Partner Disciplines.

Find links to course-specific software resources in the CUPM Illustrative Resources.

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David Bressoud is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and President of the MAA. You can reach him at This column does not reflect an official position of the MAA.



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