I was once an academic dean, charged with leading my school forward literally into the 21st century, retooling our approaches to curriculum, assessment, and technology as well as managing little challenges like schedule change and phasing out our Advanced Placement courses. There were days when this felt like an uphill climb, and if we didn’t make it all the way to the summit on my watch, I like to think I at least helped clear a path from basecamp to a spot from which we could launch a series of summit-dash initiatives (design thinking, coding across the curriculum, a robust BYO laptop program) in the years since.
My next stop was the college counseling office, where I found myself challenged to explain to colleges what our school is all about and why our many new ways of doing things both improved and differentiated our school and differentiated our students as applicants.
One of the thorniest challenges we had as a school, at least as we contemplated it, was the whole business of dropping AP courses. For many parents, these are a kind of gold standard in academic rigor and gravity, and the magic letters “AP” on a transcript are supposed to unlock the doors to selective college admission like nothing else. However, courses subject to external audit for trademark purposes and built around a one-shot, content-heavy examination weren’t where we were headed, and our teachers were convinced they could create new courses that were more challenging, more engaging, and more in line with our instructional philosophy.
I now advise friends and clients to seek the cover of fellow innovators or organizations as they incorporate new ways of doing things, but in 2001 the AP-dropping field was small, when we first began internal conversations about moving toward home-grown advanced-level courses. In time I found kindred spirits, including Bruce Hammond, a college counselor at Sandia Prep in New Mexico, which had never had and actively resisted adding AP classes. One thing led to another, and we wound up presenting, with an enthusiastic admissions officer from Stanford, at the 2002 NAIS annual conference. Our presentation was given added luster at the last minute by the presence of an administrator from Fieldston School, which had just, and with much fanfare, announced the end of its own AP program. She was able to wave around a sheaf of letters from admission officers at competitive colleges—those colleges—assuring Fieldston that it would all be fine for their students.
Our little group of AP-questioners grew over time, and in time it coalesced into something called the “Excellence Without AP” group. Along with a probable trademark infringement, the name also seemed kind of negative, so in 2008 the Independent Curriculum Group was formed, shedding an “we’re against” image for a more positive emphasis on helping schools, academic leaders, and teachers build capacity in the design of high quality, mission-driven, school-originated curriculum and assessment.
Over the years The Independent Curriculum Group (or ICG) has sponsored gatherings for teachers and administrators to discuss questions as broad as the nature of teaching and learning and as specific as how to assess analytical thinking. With the retirement of Bruce Hammond as executive director earlier this year, I became its new leader.
Along the way the ICG has learned some ways to help schools and their leaders make the case for programmatic innovation; I’ve also been fortunate to spend some time working on this issue with the brilliant Tiffany Hendryx of Crane MetaMarketing, a master analyst of school culture and communication.
What Tiffany and I have applied to this process is a simple test that Crane uses regularly in its work with schools. With regard to innovative practice, it goes like this:
- Is the innovation AUTHENTIC? Does it fit in with other aspects of the school’s programs, mission, value system? Is it being implemented in ways that align with how it’s being described or promoted? Is it, in other words, both real and a real expression of the school?
- Is the innovation RELEVANT? Does it truly matter to current and prospective families and students as something that adds substantively to the value—real and perceived—of the school experience? Will people care?
- Is the innovation DIFFERENTIATING? Will implementation help make the school stand out in its marketplace, if that is a concern? Will this help the school’s students develop skills or habits of mind that will differentiate them among the generality of students?
As I think back on my own school’s decision to replace AP courses with our own Honors Advanced courses, I think we hit all three. One, the decision was mission- and values-driven, and we had the new courses up and running from the git-go. Two, as we had long positioned ourselves as a student-centered school, the decision signaled our commitment to resisting “teaching to the test,” attracting more families who share this value. Three, we were the first school in our market to make this move, and colleges did indeed applaud the deeper, more analytical nature of our new courses and acknowledge the ways in these could help our students stand out as applicants.
The Independent Curriculum Group continues to look for ways to support schools in developing new and better approaches to teaching and learning and to telling the story of their innovative work. We are also committed to helping train and develop school-based academic leadership that understands not only new ways to teach and organize learning but also how to help their schools implement and explain novel ways of doing things.
This October, incidentally, the ICG is holding a three-day event for academic leaders—deans, curriculum directors, directors of studies, department and division heads, assistant heads, and the like—in Rhode Island. We’re billing the event as “a time for us,” an opportunity for people sharing particular challenges (like getting buy-in on innovative practice) to get together, swap ideas, build Professional Learning Networks, and learn more about What’s happening? and What’s next? from one another and from our featured speaker, Jonathan Martin. Information on the event can be found on the ICG website.