There are some interesting articles in the new edition of Independent School Magazine, Spring 2010, NAIS’ website. As I write this, the newest edition is not yet posted.
One of the articles, Having the AP Conversation, written by Roger Weaver, former Headmaster of Crossroads School in Santa Monica, CA, really struck my interest. Crossroads School is a member of a consortium of independent schools that have taken the leap into new ways of thinking about curricula. Can we teach our advanced curricula through an approach that relies on teachers designing interesting, relevant, challenging, and 21st Century courses that have coherence with the mission and philosophy of the school, as opposed to farming out our advanced curricula to the College Board by adopting their Advanced Placement, test-driven courses? The answer for 14 schools who belong to the Independent Curriculum Group (ICG) is yes. These schools have essentially dropped the AP program for the freedom to design their own advanced study curriculum. See their website for more information and the list of member schools.
In his article, Weaver asks and offers some answers to a series of thoughtful questions. Here is the list:
1. Does your AP program align with the fundamental core values, philosophy, and practice of your school?
2. What might the senior year look like (I would add feel like) if you did not have the AP program?
3. Does the AP program drive course selection by students (and parents) in positive ways? I would add faculty advisors in this mix as well.
4. If the AP program had never existed and someone came knocking at your door to sell it to you, would you buy it now?
5. Are your students getting putative preparation, course placement, and credit advantages in college that they believe would accrue to them taking AP courses? (How do you know and have you collected the data for the current reality?)
6. Would replacing the AP program with teacher-authored, advanced-level courses be “dumbing down” your curriculum? If so, why?
7. Is the AP really strengthening your students college admissions profiles and how do you know? ( I would add has the school researched what colleges would say or do if question 6 was implemented?)
8. Why as an “independent” school is it a good idea to outsouce the top end of your curriculum?
You can read Roger Weaver’s answers to these questions in the Spring 2010 edition on page 37. However, from the experience of Crossroads School, as well as the other 13 schools in ICG, the answers to most of these questions are that it doesn’t matter what “advanced curriculum” a good independent school has, what matters is that it has a thoughtfully constructed and well implemented program. In fact, ICG schools believe that moving in the direction of creating teacher-authored, advanced-level courses unleashes the creativity of the faculty and offers students more interesting, relevant, and in-depth experiences in the disciplines that interest them.
One of Weaver’s points in the article is that it is not helpful for schools interested in evaluating the effectiveness of their AP program to come at it from the question, “should we scrap our AP program?” He would advocate an approach that uses his eight questions, and probably others, to explore whether the AP program is meeting the school’s (and student’s) needs in the 21st Century. His suggestions seem quite sound and may in fact lead to a school deciding that the AP program is “just right.”
Another article of interest was written by Jennifer De Forest, current Upper School Head at The Calhoun School in New York City. She writes a compelling article that advocates for school-centered research, Bridging the Research Practice Divide. She outlines the history of “progressive” education that was more “research-based” to a model of “college prep” education that is focused more on filling the minds of students with content. I think she hits the mark by encouraging independent schools to think of themselves as laboratories of teaching and learning in which faculty are teachers, researchers, and inventors of knowledge about how to students learn best and how to teach them well. We (independent schools) should not relinquish this responsibility to higher education. She writes about encouraging more partnerships between independent schools and schools of higher education.
At the Center for Teaching, we are in the midst of this work. Our Faculty Cohort model uses Teacher Action Research as a method to help faculty see themselves as risk-takers, researchers, and curriculum developers. Brenda Cobler, a 6th grade science teacher, taught science in a somewhat “traditional,” but certainly effective manner. She is a long-standing teacher who has experienced success with a hands-on science curriculum. However, she wanted to know if she implemented a project-based curriculum for part of the year through a service-learning program would her students’ interest and engagement in science positively change. While she knew students were learning in her course, she was not totally satisfied with the overall output.
Check out her article, Learning By Doing Applies to Teachers As Well, in the CFT’s online newsletter, Insights Into Teaching, where she outlines the project, its success, and what she learned from the experience. In summary, the project was amazingly successful, her students reported being more interested and engaged as a result, and she learned a great deal from the experience and enjoyed the work. She is continuing the work and collaborating with another colleague. If you are interested in more information, you could email Brenda Cobler at email@example.com.
If you want to learn more about what the Center for Teaching is doing in areas of teaching and learning, the 21st Century classroom, formative and summative assessment, and the work of its Faculty Cohort contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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