“Welcome to the revolution!” That’s how a Wildwood parent framed an email providing me with the link to a Washington Post article in which eight prominent Washington, DC area independent schools announced their decision to eliminate their Advanced Placement (AP) programs. The “revolution” comment was, of course, a nod to the fact that Wildwood School decided very early on against offering advanced placement courses.
Launched in the middle part of the last century as a way to allow a select few to complete college early by taking introductory college-level courses in high school, AP exploded in the second half of the century. With millions of high school students taking AP courses, it’s no longer a program for a select few. The AP’s focus on memorization and multiple choice testing is no longer aligned with what students are increasingly expected to do when they arrive on college campuses, where synthesis, analysis, collaboration, and problem-solving are the norm.
Colleges and universities increasingly call on undergraduates and graduate students to collaborate and compete with their fellow students as they learn, rather than competing against them. That’s the kind of preparation today’s students need for life and work, and they aren’t the skills that are mastered by relentless memorization of content broadly covered.
To be clear: I’ve seen brilliant educators—including my oldest high school friend, now a public-school superintendent on Philadelphia’s Main Line—cover the content required for an AP exam, yet manage to inspire and engage students in deep and lasting ways. Too often, however, I’ve seen the opposite. The AP curriculum is very often a central factor in reinforcing in kids the woefully outdated notion that their high school education is little more than a long slog through a hyper-competitive factory model.
Schools like Wildwood, which never subscribed to the rote methods that marked too many students’ educations in the last 50 plus years, are now in the enviable position of being able to focus on the natural evolution of their mission-centered programming rather than delving into a change process that is itself disruptive and slow-moving. Because of Wildwood’s student-as-worker/teacher-as-coach orientation, we’ve been able to create, sustain, and continuously improve signature programming that allows students to go deep and make it their own.
Although Wildwood School students have taken a range of AP exams over the years and have generally done well, Wildwood School has never offered AP courses. (Students aren’t required to register for an AP course in order to sit for an exam.) From the start, we’ve chosen instead to allow knowledgeable and talented upper school teachers to create honors and other coursework that focuses on developing in students a deep understanding of the material. The content of our upper school courses isn’t disparate from AP courses; it’s simply not dictated by the AP test.
Take our annual Hamlet Night, for example. Juniors delve deeply into the literary, historical, and humanistic themes of one of Shakespeare’s most revered works. Wildwood’s tradition includes the memorization of the iconic “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, but every student, either solo or in collaboration with others, creates a project that is uniquely theirs—one that displays their mastery in understanding the work and that requires creativity, synthesis, analysis, and connection.
Beyond the benefits of not having outside limitations placed on required courses, the absence of AP also frees students to follow passions or find passions. Without the pressure to opt into a traditional AP course, Wildwood students, and others in similar schools, prove their intellectual and academic prowess by going deeper in the pursuit of understanding the topics that interest them most.
The absence of this type of conventional, limited, lock-step curriculum in Wildwood’s upper school leads naturally to positive, student-centered impact on the K-8 program that precedes upper school. In both scaffolded and organic ways, younger students begin to develop the skills and habits of mind necessary to benefit from the depth of learning they’ll enjoy in upper school.
Systems Thinking, a management tool with broad application, has expanded at Wildwood’s elementary program, including a robust public-private partnership now years in development. Systems thinking thrives in a school that focuses on students relying on intuition and interest, trusting their instincts to follow a lead as they learn. STEMinar, a cross-disciplinary math and science program developed for 6th graders, requires students to employ similar skills. Students are presented with engineering problems, which require them to iterate prototypes as they problem-solve.
Programs like Systems Thinking and STEMinar are made all the more possible—even necessary—in a school where the oldest, pre-college students are expected to meet learning standards by going beyond mastery of content and skills. In ways appropriate to their stage of development, our youngest to our oldest students are required to make connections between and across disciplines.
None of that is to say that the scaffolding of content and skill isn’t critical. It is. Especially as students move into upper grades, though, schools often miss myriad opportunities for students to master content and skills by doing authentic work that connects to their interests and across disciplines.
It may be a revolution for others, but it’s simply the heart of Wildwood. And it all comes back to the question we should be continually asking ourselves, as parents and as educators: what do we want for our children?
This broader focus is nothing short of our mission in action.
Wildwood School cultivates reflective scholars, bold innovators and compassionate leaders equipped with the skills, ethics and inspiration to transform their world.