One of the great dilemmas of strong independent schools – and, for that matter, colleges and universities – is teacher independence. About three years ago, we began asking ourselves a central question: How can we ensure that our courses are aligned and equitable without infringing on the creativity and excitement that are the essence of great teaching at Burroughs?
One of the differentiating factors of a good school is teachers who love their subjects and are inspired to teach. In many school systems, teachers are handed a curriculum and are told by administrators what material to cover on each day and then how that learning should be assessed. One of the reasons we see teachers at Burroughs stay for so long and remain so upbeat about teaching is that they are granted some latitude in what they cover.
For instance, while all of our junior history teachers will cover U.S. History, one will devote more time in the year to Jefferson, another will devote more time to the Civil War, and another may go through the year more quickly to spend more time on the Civil Rights movement, depending on their areas of expertise. The students can feel their teachers' passion for the subject matter and enjoy taking these deeper plunges into the material when they are led by a master in that area.
On the other hand, when two different teachers of the same course cover vastly different content, teach vastly different skills and have vastly different expectations for their students, are they really teaching the same course? Are they really preparing their students in the same way for the next level of work? Can varying class workloads impact student choices outside of the classroom?
During the 2016-17 school year, each department reviewed the essential content and skills that should be covered in each grade level. They reviewed each teacher’s syllabi to find areas where there is difference in content or differences in how students are assessed. We also looked at workload. At the end of the year, we agreed as a faculty that it was reasonable to ask middle school students to do an average of 20 minutes a night per class of homework and to ask high school students to do 30 minutes a night per course, or about two and a half hours a week (more for honors and AP courses). During the 2017-18 school year, each department implemented some of the changes that were identified by the previous year's assessment. Many courses added or dropped units or assignments, and teachers began to meet more regularly by grade level.
In November of this year, we surveyed every student to ask how much work they were doing for each of their courses. Over the last two months, we've reviewed that data and focused on the reports of the middle 50% of students – assuming that some students will work very slowly and deliberately and other students will simply whiz through their assignments. And the results revealed that we have made tremendous improvements. A vast majority of teachers is assigning the appropriate amount of homework, and the course expectations are more consistent than we were seeing just a few years ago.
Of course, we did identify some areas where we need work. There are a handful of classes that are giving more homework than they should or where two teachers seem to have very different expectations for their kids. The teaching faculty is committed to addressing these areas.
The most exciting part about the work, however, is that we seem to have gotten to this point without giving up any of the engagement or any of the energy that are the hallmarks of our classrooms. I visit a class just about every day and what I see continues to inspire me.