Trying to coast can be human nature. Who really likes to do more? Yes, you have a few overachievers, but often the vast majority of us are not willing or able to fully push ourselves. This is why we need personal trainers, workout buddies, and accountability partners. Our students are no different, and this can form a culture of students not challenging themselves academically.
How do you know if your students are not challenging themselves academically? First, look at your student achievement data—including state test data, local assessment data, and ACT/SAT/AP scores. I would also encourage you to look at your building’s subgroups. Are your subgroups all taking equally challenging courses and achieving equally? As stakeholders, look at the data, draw conclusions, and be honest about what you find. The first time can often be pretty ugly. This is just a starting point. Look for opportunities for growth.
Address Gatekeeping and Attitudes
Once you have identified an area for growth, begin to work on a plan to move from your current state to the desired state. At Berea-Midpark High School, we talk about how all students should engage in a rigorous curriculum of upper-level courses, and our goal is to make our most challenging courses available to all students. The first step to this is getting rid of gatekeeping. You will need to get rid of unnecessary prerequisites and prevailing attitudes regarding rigorous curriculum being only for a select few. These attitudes are often long-held by both students and staff. Such attitudes and beliefs have to be addressed head-on. Trust me—students are capable of taking a demanding course schedule. Ability is never the issue.
The next step is actively recruiting students to take the most challenging courses based on their path for life after high school. Let them know you want them in rigorous courses, they can do it, and doing something academically out of their comfort zone is a good thing. The best person to make this pitch is someone the student trusts and believes in. Usually, this person is a teacher or counselor that the student has a relationship with from a previous class or year.
When students take the leap into a more rigorous curriculum, we need to support them. Doing hard things can mean failure. Failure is never fun, but it offers a chance to grow and come back. We have to help them build resilience. It is our job to help them through the process.
We make a big point of matching the student to an area of personal interest. If the student loves a particular subject, that is where we push them up the curriculum. The natural interest will often help keep a student engaged.
We have added rigorous upper-level courses throughout the curriculum to allow students to have more options. However, we have also removed classes that added extra layers to the curriculum. An example would be no longer offering honors government and instead offering only government and AP government. We believe extra layers are a form of gatekeeping, and students should be in the most challenging curriculum, not an in-between version that does not fully push them.
Ensure the course is being taught in a student-friendly way and the teacher is using best practices. As more students move into tougher courses, they may not “play school” quite as well. This means we have to differentiate, provide learner choice, reteach, and allow for mastery learning. These are all best practices, but they all require more work. Our job as leaders is to ensure the work is being done, which means supporting staff through this journey as well. This can mean additional professional development and working with teachers to help improve their instructional practices.
Finally, celebrate student, staff, and school successes. Schools show what they value by what they celebrate. If you won the state title in football, would the school mention that in the newsletter? Yes, of course we would, and we should. We also should celebrate our students and staff who are doing great things in the classroom and taking on a challenging curriculum.
I am sure there are numerous additional ways to build a culture of students challenging themselves within their class schedules. However, I know the ones mentioned above work. I have used them at two different high schools and had success in getting students to challenge themselves.
We changed the question from “what are you going to take?” to “which challenging course are you going to take?” The change of question is not subtle, and the results won’t be either. Begin to change your culture to one where everyone takes a challenging and rigorous curriculum.
Mark Smithberger is principal at Berea-Midpark High School, which serves the communities of Berea, Brookpark, and Middleburg Heights outside of Cleveland. He is the 2019 Ohio Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter (@m_smithberger).