Advanced Courses at MPH
Statement from the Head of School | February 2022
Dear MPH Families,
Manlius Pebble Hill School has offered a strong and varied curriculum for many years, with courses that challenge its students and prepare them to meet the academic demands they will encounter beyond MPH. I recognized this even before I began my role as head of school in 2019, and upon arrival, I was inspired and encouraged by the equally conspicuous spirit of inquiry and innovation among teachers and administrators that ensured MPH was offering the best learning experience for its students.
That ethos of improving and enhancing MPH’s academic experience has included an ongoing conversation about Advanced Placement courses that predates my tenure as head. I am writing today to announce a significant curricular change that has emerged from this continuous-improvement mindset about how to best offer an enriching and stimulating learning experience for MPH students. Starting in 2022-2023, MPH will begin a transition away from AP courses by offering an advanced curriculum of its own design. Additional details are forthcoming, but I will share some key points here.
- This transition does not affect the Class of 2023. Current juniors will be able to take the AP courses we have offered to seniors in recent years.
- MPH will phase out AP courses over a period of three years. The first academic year without AP courses will be 2025-2026.
- This decision represents the culmination of an extensive review of our curriculum, a two-year process led by Head of Upper School Fred Montas, Jr. and Academic Council Chair Matt Twomey-Smith and involving all departments as well as Director of College Counseling Will Cardamone.
As a school, we are excited to develop an authentically MPH curriculum for the Upper School that will enhance students’ preparation for collegiate academic demands. We are fortunate to employ teachers who are highly engaged in their content areas as historians, scientists, writers, performers, artists, and native speakers of global languages. At the same time, developing our own advanced curriculum will allow students to build multiple skills across the curriculum that cannot be measured through standardized testing. Finally, and most important: As we continue to emphasize the well-being of MPH students, moving to an advanced curriculum allows us to offer challenging classes while being mindful of student health and wellness.
I am eager to see our most challenging courses emerge from our faculty’s strengths and be informed by our students’ interests. We will share more details in the coming days, and I am confident this transition will provide more opportunities to distinguish the MPH experience.
Head of School
An Advanced Curriculum That Centers on Students
Building an advanced curriculum allows MPH to offer challenging courses that are student-centered and consistent with the School’s mission and core values.
Courses in MPH’s advanced curriculum are designed to align with the mission and core values of the school. Students’ learning experiences reflect the purpose of an MPH education. In contrast, AP courses are shaped by the College Board’s mission to generate nationally normed courses that meet conventional notions of rigor.
Depth on Inquiry as a Priority
MPH’s advanced curriculum intentionally prioritizes a high level of conceptual complexity, not an accelerated pace and a heavy workload, affording time for probing, student-generated questions, and a depth of inquiry. AP courses are often a race against time to cover material every student must know for an exam in May.
Fostering Constructive Community Members
Learning experiences within MPH’s advanced curriculum are relevant to students and facilitate their development as responsible citizens and engaged, constructive community members. AP courses are driven by their subject areas’ demands, often leaving students to wonder how to apply what they have learned to the world around them.
MPH’s advanced curriculum puts students at its center to generate a learning experience that responds to their curiosity and develops their interests. The answer to a common student question in an AP course, “Why do we have to know this?” is often, simply, “Because it might be on the exam.” This response is the antithesis of the authentic, student-centered learning that is a hallmark of an MPH education.
Why is MPH moving away from Advanced Placement courses and exams?
As an independent school, MPH’s mission and core values drive its priorities. While MPH constantly reviews its curriculum, the primacy of Advanced Placement (AP) courses has been questioned but largely unchallenged at MPH, in part because of their steady familiarity. For well over a decade, however, faculty across divisions, including teachers of AP courses, have noticed a disconnect between MPH’s mission, which places students at its center, and the exam-focused AP courses.
The global pandemic has highlighted the contrast between the College Board’s priorities for AP courses and MPH’s priorities for its students. In the summer of 2020, at a time when MPH was preparing for an uncertain school year and adjusting course expectations to account for student well-being, the College Board announced that AP courses would remain unchanged. Maintaining the status quo with AP courses at a time when even colleges were adjusting their academic expectations compelled Academic Council to examine the place of AP in MPH’s curriculum.
Student-centered learning is at the heart of an MPH education. From Pre-K to senior year, students’ questions and interests play a significant part in their learning experiences. We believe it is essential that our most challenging courses also have a consistently student-centered learning experience. Courses that build on students’ sense of inquiry and discovery encourage the intrinsic motivation that is at the heart of lifelong learning. Our most challenging courses must also develop this intrinsic motivation.
In addition, we strive to have MPH’s core values become practiced skills and habits. Therefore, all of our courses must promote and reinforce MPH’s core values. For example, a student in an advanced course at MPH will have opportunities to exercise their agency in ways that are inhibited by AP courses because of their prescribed content. The range of choices in MPH’s advanced courses, which over time will extend to departments that do not currently offer AP courses, will allow students to engage more authentically in their learning by choosing courses based on their interests, not the course’s appearance on their transcript.
Significantly, this transition beyond AP will bring a coherence and cohesion to MPH’s curriculum. The principles and standards for advanced courses at MPH detail learning expectations that will influence the whole of our curriculum and unify the MPH learning experience. AP courses can have that effect within a department, but they do not provide expectations that connect subjects across the curriculum. In addition, the principles and standards for advanced courses, adapted from One Schoolhouse, will empower students and teachers and provide for a more equitable education. More teachers in more departments will be able to teach our most challenging courses, and more students will have access to courses that will be closer to college classes than the introductory and broad AP courses.
What was the process for making this decision?
In January 2020, Academic Council met with Head of School Dave McCusker to discuss the articulation of MPH’s curriculum, which would involve a full, formal evaluation of MPH’s curriculum. That work, which began energetically, slowed with the transition to distance learning in March 2020.
In October 2020, MPH’s Academic Council (which is made up of department chairs and other academic leaders) organized a subcommittee, led by Head of Upper School Fred Montas, Jr., to determine whether AP courses should remain as the high mark of our curricular standards and academic expectations.
That subcommittee met regularly through the fall and winter, examining a variety of materials, resources, and perspectives that supported and questioned AP courses. A significant part of this group’s study involved the effect of AP courses on college admissions. This subcommittee also examined the experiences of other independent schools that moved away from AP courses. In addition, the subcommittee administered a faculty survey about teaching AP courses that revealed a strong desire among teachers to move beyond AP courses. In February 2021, the subcommittee recommended to the full Academic Council that MPH move beyond AP courses. Academic Council unanimously accepted the subcommittee’s recommendation. In turn, Academic Council forwarded this recommendation to Dave McCusker, which he accepted in March 2021.
As the end of the 2020-2021 school year approached quickly, Academic Council pushed the process for this transition to the 2021-2022 school year. In October 2021, Academic Council organized another subcommittee to determine the process and timeline for the transition beyond AP. Led again by Mr. Montas, this subcommittee devoted its time to determining the principles and standards for advanced courses and a timeline for the transition. Its work concluded in December 2021.
What is the timeline for this transition?
2022-2023: Continue to offer AP courses, except for AP US History and AP English Literature.
2023-2024: In addition to the above courses, AP European History, AP Spanish, and AP English Language and Composition will not be offered.
2024-2025: Replacement of all remaining courses with advanced courses, except AP Calculus.
2025-2026: No AP courses offered.
Please note that other courses that are not identified here may be phased out prior to 2024-2025.
What kinds of courses will replace MPH’s AP offerings?
Courses that are conceptually challenging and meet the principles and standard for advanced courses at MPH will be labeled Advanced Studies. We anticipate that most of these Advanced Studies courses will be semester-long. Please note that MPH already offers courses that are not AP but place significant academic demands on our students, including Model United Nations, Emergency Medical Technician, Advanced Topics: Post-Classical World History, Advanced Topics: American Studies, Precalculus, Ancient Greek, and the MSON courses.
How will you know MPH’s advanced courses are sufficiently challenging?
MPH’s transition beyond AP courses will receive support from a few important partners. One Schoolhouse is an organization that supports independent schools in several respects, one of which is developing and maintaining an advanced independent curriculum. (MPH recently joined One Schoolhouse’s consortium of leading independent schools.) In addition, MPH is assembling a national panel of college professors to validate its advanced courses and assess their similarity to college courses. These professors will review course materials and make a recommendation to adopt the course or revise it. MPH’s continuing membership in the Malone School Online Network also provides important resources for teaching conceptually challenging courses to students who are ready to take them. Lastly, MPH’s growing participation in The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School provides important professional support for teaching that is consistent with the latest research in mind, brain, and education. Our work with the CTTL will be important for teaching challenging courses while reinforcing healthy learning behaviors.
MPH teachers who want to offer an advanced course must go through several steps before that class is offered at MPH. Those steps include meeting with their department chair to plan the course, submitting a course proposal to Academic Council, and having the course description, outline, and sample assignments reviewed by members of MPH’s panel of college professors. In addition, teachers will participate in professional development through One Schoolhouse to ensure they understand and implement the principles and standards that guide advanced courses at MPH. Also, as a member of the One Schoolhouse Consortium, MPH can submit its advanced courses for review to receive a designation that indicates they meet One Schoolhouse’s standards for an advanced independent curriculum.
How will students know if they are eligible for an advanced course?
Students may enroll in an advanced course only with permission of the instructor and the Head of Upper School. A student with a particular interest in an advanced course may overcome other factors that might suggest the course is not appropriate for them.
What will colleges make of MPH’s advanced curriculum?
MPH’s academic reputation is well established among colleges. College admissions officers assign declining significance to test scores and want to see students who not only take the most challenging courses their school offers, but also develop skills that prepare them to be inquisitive, responsible, and empathetic community members, in and out of the classroom.
How will MPH inform colleges of this change?
MPH’s school profile is an important part of each senior’s college application, and it will be updated to reflect this transition as it applies to each senior class. In addition, Director of College Counseling Will Cardamone’s good working relationships with admissions officers has helped them understand the reasons for this change, which they have welcomed.
Is it common for independent schools to move away from AP courses?
It is increasingly common for independent schools to offer their own advanced courses in place of AP classes. Here are some independent schools that do not offer AP courses or are in the process of moving beyond them: The Baldwin School (PA), Beaver Country Day School (MA), The Berkeley Carroll School (NY), The Calhoun School (NY), Cascades Academy (OR), Chapin School (NY), Choate Rosemary Hall (CT), Christchurch School (VA), Concord Academy (MA), Crossroads School for Arts and Science (CA), Crystal Springs Uplands School (CA), The Dalton School (NY), The Derryfield School (NH), Ethel Walker School (CT), Ethical Culture Fieldston School (NY), Georgetown Day (DC), The Haverford School (PA), Holton-Arms School (MD), Horace Mann School (NY), Landon School (MD), Lawrenceville School (NJ), Lick-Wilmerding High School (CA), The Loomis Chaffee School (CT), Maret (DC), Marin Academy (CA), National Cathedral School (DC), The Nightingale-Bamford School (NY), Packer Collegiate Institute (NY), Park School (MD), Phillips Andover Academy (MA), Phillips Exeter Academy (NH), Pomfret School (CT), St. Albans School (DC), St. Luke’s School (CT), St. Mark’s School (MA), St. Paul’s School (NH), Sidwell Friends School (DC), The Spence School (NY), The Urban School of San Francisco (CA), Western Reserve Academy (OH).