An academically demanding curriculum is an essential element of excellent schooling in every era, equally for the 19th and the 22nd centuries.

The new Schools of the Future guide from NAIS  lists as the first of its 8 “unifying themes” that schools be academically demanding.   They then offer in the elaboration six paragraphs, including some very valuable elements to define what they mean by academically demanding.

The difference is that they must go beyond the traditional passive capstone of a written examination to active application of knowledge in a new situation.

The model schools emphasize depth over breadth, adopting in spirit the motto of the Singapore Schools, “Teach Less. Learn More.” Like those who annually “purge” their closets of outdated, rarely worn garments,these schools systematically scour the curriculum to eliminate non-essential and redundant content. Although all of theschools have students who perform well on AP exams, most choose not to teach AP classes, or like Brimmer and May, selectivelyoffer only those AP classes that are what Anne Reenstierna calls “more than a mile wide and an inch deep.”

It  is terrific to read in  an official NAIS publication that the core principles for advancing academically demanding learning in our schools include active application of knowledge,  depth over breadth and less is more:  educational leaders now across our association have the national association’s official publication behind them as they move in these vital directions.

At St. Gregory,we are working to realign our curriculum in exactly these ways:

  • sustaining our commitment to block scheduling for depth over breadth in each course period;
  • thoroughly deploying PBL with tech.  for the vigorously active application of knowledge,
  • changing away from a pattern of year-long survey courses in upper grade levels toward topical, inquiry semester seminars which intentionally privilege a Singapore style less is more learning philosophy.

However, as I said in my previous post, it still disappoints me that they didn’t, in either the short statement or the six paragraph elaboration, discuss how schools hold themselves accountable (or are held accountable by others) for such  academically demanding programs.  Assessment is, in my opinion, disappointingly left out of this critically important discussion of .

This might be a good moment to point out my regret that New Tech Network Schools are missing from this guide, in part because I think NTN is so serious about assessment, both internal and qualitative and external and quantitative.  New Tech Network, as one example, recently adopted and implemented widely the CWRA assessment for its students.  (It should also be said NTN does an outstanding job with PBL,  in my opinion even better than does High Tech High, (and I have spent three full days at each school, shadowing students and observing classes)).

Fortunately, in other areas of the guide, assessment does get is due attention.   The section on Essential Capacities for the 21st century century is not explicitly established for assessment, but offers an opportunity for schools to organize their own assessment systems around.  This is exactly what we did at St. Gregory, using a draft version of the essential capacities in fall 2009 to draft our own set of what we call Essential Goals for Gregorians, which we are now building into our report cards and conferencing for assessing our student progress.

Also included in the Guide is NAIS President Pat Bassett’s excellent essay, Demonstrations of Learning, (page 6 of the guide).   I love this list, and love the way schools can use them to frame their intended outcomes, and generate internal data on how successful they are being in their own, independent and uniquely determined, goals for their graduates.

Most importantly on this vital issue of serious assessment, the Guide offers news of the new accreditation standard, though I will say I am sorry it seems to have been almost buried in the appendix, down on page 39.  (As I keep saying, I wish this element had been included and underscored in the academically demanding section).

New Commission on Accreditation Criterion: The standards require a school to provide evidence of a thoughtful process, respectful of its mission, for the collection and use in school decision-making of data (both external and internal) about student learning.

Independent schools, rightfully, are independent, and should not ever be dictated to about exactly what data they must collect or how they must do so.   But I don’t think it is wrong for our association to expect that our schools employ effective data practices (or EDP as my new friend Steve Bodgdanoff refers to this practice).   Indeed, I think if we are serious about being academically demanding, and if we are intentional about what we intend our education to deliver for our students, we must choose the data we will collect, internal and external, and use it effectively.

The guide’s  bibliography points to a valuable source for further understanding this practice, an NAIS monograph by my friends Amada Torres and Jefferson Burnett, Student Outcomes That Measure a School’s Value-Added.   The monograph is must reading for educators working to interpret and apply the new Accreditation criterion.  The monograph highlights and features three tools in particular for this data collection: the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP); the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE), and the College Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA), and, as I have written before, we at St. Gregory are proud to be in the leading edge of this kind of work, inasmuch as we use all three tools.

It is my suggestion that schools and associations across NAIS and beyond seek to seriously evaluate the implications of this new criterion, and it would behoove us all to form working groups and perhaps think tanks to advance the work of our schools in this essential direction.   It may be that the new criterion deserves a guide of its own: there is a lot for us to learn about how we can use “Assessment 2.0,” or “Next-Gen Assessments” better, in more thoughtful processes, to improve instruction and learning, provide accountability, and promote our schools’ excellence.    This is by no means the only aspect of an educational approach for Schools of the Future, but I think that as we reinvent learning and retool our educational practices in becoming schools of the future, we must seriously ensure that our outcomes are indeed value-added!