Avoiding academic rigor mortis

Suzanne Fogarty

The world is changing, and with it, education. Today’s children are taught with Smart Boards instead of chalkboards, in virtual classrooms instead of one-room school houses. And instead of preparing students for a particular profession, educators must prepare them for jobs that don’t yet exist.

And yet, a high percentage (close to 40 percent) of public and private schools are still reliant on a standard of academic excellence that was introduced in the 1950s: Advanced Placement courses. What was first implemented as a method to help skilled students accrue college credit in high school and earn their bachelor’s degree earlier, has come to exemplify what it means to be an intellectual, to dictate how courses are taught and to determine the path of one’s entire collegiate experience.

Alixe Callen

The result? Academic rigor mortis, the stiff and stifling definition of how we expect students to learn.

Which is why Lincoln School and St. George’s School, two very different institutions in Rhode Island, are united in a common mission – redefining rigor. A key part of this change are decisions by St. George’s and Lincoln to discontinue Advanced Placement classes, three and two years ago respectively.

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The reasons for this choice are varied and deep, and the result of years of exploration and consultation. At its core, we asked ourselves: Why are we allowing a group of people far away in an office we’ve never seen determine our curriculum?

By taking back the reins and defining what is rigorous for ourselves, we are able to give our students the kind of environment that offers a variety of perspectives, values critical thinking and allows them to learn with true purpose.

Though we made these decisions independently, we share the same motivation: to provide the best, most challenging academic experience for our students, one that prepares them for the world that awaits, and not just for a test they are required to take.

As independent schools, we know we have the privilege and important freedom to develop courses that best reflect the needs of our students, emphasizing depth over breadth, interdisciplinary learning and additional opportunities for independent study that stoke genuine curiosity. Because we’re able to make this change, we hope that others in both independent and public schools may someday be able to follow, to learn from our missteps and take on our best practices now that this new course has been established and proven.

We see rigor in action every day in our classrooms and, as the roots take hold, in the remarkable results of that kind of deep, rich learning. The colleges and universities of today are looking beyond test scores, placing more and more focus on whether or not an applicant has embraced the most demanding courses available to them.

Moving beyond Advanced Placement ensures that we can, in fact, create unique and innovative classes and opportunities that truly challenge our students’ inquisitive minds, courses such as Lincoln’s language and power or the philosophy of science, and at St. George’s, energy and ethics or currents in maritime literature. And during the college-admission process, in a sea of scores, courses such as these and the students who pursue them stand out.

Though we know we are not the first to have made this choice – some of the top academic powerhouses in the country have done the same, and we were most recently joined by a consortium of some of the best Washington, D.C., schools – we are leading the way in the Ocean State. Leading not just for our students but to stand as solid examples that the way we teach and learn must change on a larger scale.

High school no longer has to be a way station on the way to college, one that encourages students to consume information just to fill in an answer sheet. High school should be challenging and engaging in its own right, capitalizing on the staggering amount of social, emotional and intellectual growth and development that occurs between the ages of 14 and 18.

We believe that the best antidote to this academic rigor mortis, a condition in which students’ capacity is limited by such a narrow definition of what is considered rigorous, is to teach beyond the test and with tomorrow in mind, ushering in a new era that better reflects what our students need and where education needs to go.

Suzanne Fogarty is head of Lincoln School, an all-girls, Quaker independent school in Providence. Alixe Callen is head of St. George’s School, a coeducational boarding and day school in Newport.

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