Beyond the AP: A Template for Curricular and Cultural Change | Peter Hatala and Dr. Meredith Legg | 17 Min Read

February 12, 2024

Noting the constraints imposed by Advanced Placement (AP) programs and the potential for a more creative curriculum, independent schools are increasingly opting to eliminate or significantly reduce their AP offerings in favor of home-grown alternatives. In their 2018 joint statement on their collective move away from the AP, eight DC area independent schools expressed the hopes of many schools making the same decision when they wrote, “We expect this approach will appeal to students’ innate curiosity, increase their motivation, and fuel their love of learning.” 

While the “why” for moving “beyond the AP” is often clear and compelling, the “how” is the more daunting task to consider. While the temptation exists for school administrators to simply decree a change and expect a lock step response from faculty, such increasingly outmoded approaches to curricular change often produce poor results, little enthusiasm, and fail to create a culture conducive to creativity, innovation, and shared sense of purpose and belonging. In moving beyond the AP at Emma Willard School, a 9-12 girls’ boarding and day school in Troy, NY, we sought to engage our faculty in a collaborative, multi-step process. This process aimed to generate substantial and enduring changes in our curriculum, fostering a sense of shared direction, alignment, and purpose. These steps mostly correlated with John Kotter’s Eight-Step Change Model, which can be adopted and modified as necessary to serve as a framework for various forms of large-scale change.

Kotter notes that “The most general lesson to be learned…is that the change process goes through a series of phases that, in total, usually require a considerable length of time. Skipping steps creates only the illusion of speed and never produces a satisfying result.” 

Phase 1: Establish a Sense of Urgency 

Emma Willard’s process was unrushed but filled with a sense of urgency to solve a real problem. While I don’t know a single educator (ourselves included) who wouldn’t recoil a bit reading Kotter’s suggestion that institutions might “manufacture a crisis” to spur change, there remains a powerful principle to salvage here: a sense of urgency is necessary to authorize big changes. The “why” should be powerful, real, and speak to authentic needs. 

Our decision to make changes was driven by three key factors. First, a recent comprehensive self-study connected to our decennial accreditation highlighted the need for greater cohesion in our academic program. Despite our commendable efforts, our work was isolated, and it became evident that our academic program required a clear, unified direction.

Second, the same self-assessment, supplemented by student surveys and the collective experience of our faculty, underscored the detrimental impact of not having a clearly defined direction for our academic program. It was observed that external influences, particularly the expectations set by the College Board, were increasingly shaping our academic culture. Additionally, students were expressing a sense of pressure to become, in their own words, “academic machines.” This pursuit stood in stark contrast to Emma Willard’s mission, which emphasizes instilling in each student a “love of learning” and fostering the “habits of an intellectual life.”

The findings of the survey and self-assessment were communicated to the full faculty and presented as subjects for open discussion. Over the course of these meetings, a position that had for years been circulating among some of our faculty came to the fore: get rid of the AP. While this is ultimately where we would land, it was not yet clear at this point that we would. A crucial clarifying step was still missing: articulating a clear and compelling vision for our academic program that would reflect our mission, our values, and the needs of learners in the 21st century. Additionally, it was important that this vision not sacrifice academic challenge, but redefine rigor. Crafting such a guiding vision would give us a tool by which to assess our academic program, including our relationship with the AP curriculum. 

Questions for schools to consider: 

  • Moving beyond the AP will not be the right decision for every school. What problem is a move beyond the AP (or any other major curricular shift) attempting to solve? How certain are you that not having AP courses will contribute to solving the problem? 
  • Is there general consensus among stakeholders that there is a problem needing urgent attention? If not, how can the problem be effectively communicated and made apparent?  

Phase 2: Create a Guiding Coalition to Conduct Research and Craft a Vision 

Next we set to work drafting what would become Emma Willard’s academic program pillars of intellectual flexibility, purpose & community, and equity & justice. These would serve as our beacon, ensuring that we didn’t just leave the AP behind, but that we would go beyond the AP to create a more inspiring and relevant program. Our program would come to rest upon these pillars and, once used as a foundation for curricular redesign, this would allow us to clearly communicate a vision for our program to students, parents, and colleges as we celebrated the strength of our new curriculum. 

While a small group of academic leaders initially drafted the pillars, it was a community effort to revise, edit, extend, and finally adopt them. They were then presented in draft form to a wider group of leaders representing all areas of the school: department chairs, college guidance, admissions, residential life, and more, for feedback. Once this wider circle had approved re-drafted language, they were brought to academic departments for departmental discussion and additional feedback and revision. Finally, once every teacher had participated in the feedback process, they were brought to a full faculty meeting for final consensus and were unanimously approved. This cyclical and highly participatory approach that engaged the full academic community — draft, share for feedback, revise, repeat — would be used successfully at other stages of the change process to ensure these changes were an expression of the community’s will and thus deeply rooted and likely to matter. 

Once we had crafted a vision, we held our program up to that vision asking, “Is our existing program aligned with what our school could and should be?” We then got to work exploring and addressing gaps and misalignments through the creation of two working groups: a “Grade 9 Change Team” and a group tasked with investigating the role and future of the AP. 

Continuing to favor an inclusive process, the Change Team was led by the director of curriculum and innovation and consisted of members of each academic department, our director of research, and a member of our residential life team. Over the course of several months, this team worked diligently to identify ways to better align our program with our program pillars. By again using an iterative process that engaged the full faculty, the community was able to shape the team’s initial ideas. In the end, we landed on several major changes that we would pilot in grade 9 and then scale up to grades 10-12 in subsequent years: 

  • The creation of our READY Seminar, a comprehensive health and wellness program that teaches students “How to Human” and aligns deeply with our purpose & community and equity & justice pillars. 
  • The creation of seminars housed within our history program that would teach students how to dialogue across differences, explore and reflect on the meaning of justice, learn what it means to hold competing views while remaining in community, and explore how identity, life experience, and values can shape one’s perspective. 
  • Reflection and metacognition practices that would be embedded throughout the curriculum to encourage students to think about their own thinking, reflect on emerging understanding of content, set goals, and celebrate successes. 
  • Reflection practices that would culminate in student-led semester comments and foster a rich dialogue between student and teacher
  • The adoption of at least one experiential learning opportunity per course in each semester. These would take the form of place-based and field experiences, sustained project and problem based learning, or service learning. We were fortunate to have  already existing experiential learning offerings, including a capstone program and many practicum options, and the people who managed this work, as our partners. 

These new offerings were an initial effort at transforming our practices to better align them with our aforementioned academic pillars. 

The “Beyond the AP” team at Emma Willard, made up of faculty and administrators, led a multipronged approach to investigating every aspect of what a move beyond the AP could mean for us. They used research from One Schoolhouse and other independent school-focused organizations on schools that had moved away from the AP. Our admissions office contacted many schools that had made the shift to hear about the impact from the perspective of enrollment. Did enrollments suffer? Did parents rebel? No. In fact, our research pointed to happier kids, contented parents, and no loss of enrollment, especially when schools fully committed to the change process and were clear about why they were forging a new path. Our college counseling office surveyed the fifty colleges our students applied to most frequently, all of which reported support for the move so long as we could communicate to them the characteristics of our most challenging course of study. These findings were presented to the faculty who continued the conversation about a possible move away from the AP during our regular Teaching & Learning meetings. Finally, informed by faculty feedback and perspectives, senior administrators made the decision to abandon the AP.  

Our vision for life beyond the AP also needed to include a path for the design of mission-aligned Advanced Studies courses. In our move away from the AP we had no intention of abandoning rigor, but redefining it. To complement our program pillars, we looked to principles of deeper learning to inform future course design and adopted Grant Wiggins’ and Jay McTighe’s backward design model to ensure we were embedding our pillars and principles of deeper learning into our curriculum. 

A team composed of members of each academic department was charged with creating a rubric and a substantial course map template that would be used to create and assess proposed Advanced Studies courses. When creating this team we were sure to include some of our star AP teachers who saw great benefit to the AP curriculum. Their voices were invaluable in retaining what was best about the AP and ensuring our newly created curriculum would outshine the AP’s version of rigor by emphasizing depth over breadth, ramped up research opportunities, and greater alignment with the kinds of work students would encounter in selective colleges. 

Questions for schools to consider: 

  • Do you have a vision for life beyond the AP? Is it inspiring and mission-aligned? Does it reflect the best of what your school can be? 
  • To what extent have you engaged those responsible for the success of your changes in the process of crafting them? 
  • Do you have a plan for ensuring your new advanced courses will remain appropriately challenging? 
  • How can faculty expertise be celebrated and elevated through the process of moving beyond the AP and in the design of new courses? 

Phase 3: Communicate the vision 

Once the decision was made to go beyond the AP the work of communicating that vision to parents and prospective students began. We held sessions with parents to hear their perspectives, answer their questions, and to communicate the benefits of a redesigned and more relevant advanced curriculum. Naturally, we discussed the positive reception by colleges. Parents generally joined us in our excitement over our burgeoning vision for the future of the program and what our attempt to refocus our efforts on a love of learning might mean for their child. Our admissions office then worked to redesign admissions materials and began communicating the value of our new courses to prospective students and their families. Conversations between academic leaders and admissions were crucial in ensuring we were clearly articulating the benefits of our evolving program. 

Questions for schools to consider: 

  • What work needs to be done to prepare your community to share your vision with current and prospective students and their families? 
  • Does your school have a unified and clear message to communicate about your move beyond the AP? 
  • Are offices across your school, from admissions to academic leaders, to college counseling, aligned in their vision for the future of the academic program? 

Phase 4: Remove obstacles to the vision 

To give faculty the tools they would need to be successful creating and sustaining new Advanced Studies courses and the new approaches generated by the Change Team working group, the school invested time, money, and energy toward their success. Any faculty, no matter how expert or hard working, needs these kinds of support. We provided both in-house professional development in ”gold standard” project-based learning and benefited from professional growth provided by Challenge Success. This work was embedded into the year and faculty had ample opportunities and support to design and receive feedback on project development. Additionally, we partnered with Harvard’s Jal Mehta for a full day of professional growth devoted to his approach to deeper learning outlined in his book In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School. 

We used Teaching & Learning meetings (our version of faculty meetings) to focus on developing reflective practices for the classroom. This work ran in tandem with the creation of the school’s new Center for Teaching and Learning that would provide ongoing support to faculty as they explored new instructional practices and tightened up old ones.  Importantly, we embedded moments into the school year dedicated to faculty design of new Advanced Studies courses and provided a week of stipended work at the end of the year to finalize that work. During this week, faculty were guided through the various stages of the backward design process as they completed their Advanced Studies course maps. We embedded peer-to-peer “critical friends” processes into the design week so that faculty could give and receive feedback across departments and support each other in the creation of their new courses. In support of our equity & justice program pillar, we partnered with Dr. Liza Talusan, author of The Identity Conscious Educator, who provided support for our faculty during their design week in embedding diversity and inclusion principles into their course design.  Not only did the week lead to the creation of new mission-aligned advanced studies courses, it built interdisciplinary connections and conversations. 

Questions for schools to consider: 

  • How is your school devoting time and resources to ensuring faculty are able to do their best work designing new courses? 
  • When professional growth is necessary for curricular change, how are professional growth opportunities intentionally structured to avoid the largely ineffective “one off” PD experience? 

Phase 5: Plan for and create short-term wins 

Kotter notes that “Real transformation takes time, and a renewal effort risks losing momentum if there are no short-term goals to meet and celebrate. Most people won’t go on the long march unless they see compelling evidence within 12 to 24 months that the journey is producing expected results. Without short-term wins, too many people give up or actively join the ranks of those people who have been resisting change.”

At Emma Willard, both the transition beyond the AP and the changes led by the Change Team were meant to be rolled out slowly. Faculty needed time to adopt the changes, as well as time to see them in action, assess their efficacy, strengthen weak points, and to feel good about them. The Change Team work began at the 9th grade as a kind of pilot year that was assessed, reassessed, and revised before bringing similar changes up to grade 10, and then 11 and 12. Each new phase of the rollout felt like a new win. To support a slow rollout, we phased out AP courses over the course of three years, ensuring that students who entered our program expecting certain courses by the time they graduated could still take them. This timeline would also allow those designing and teaching new Advanced Studies courses an opportunity to reflect on and share the success of their courses and to share their experience with others. When new courses were developed using the mission-aligned course map, faculty presented them in Teaching & Learning meetings. Some of those courses can be found here. Celebrating these excellent new courses and the faculty who created them generated a positive buzz about our direction and our faculty “pioneers” had an opportunity to showcase their incredible creativity as expert educators. Additionally, new courses were showcased and celebrated on the school’s website

Once a new Advanced Studies course was up and running faculty participated in two self-assessments over the course of the year to see if their goals for the course were coming to fruition as fully as they had planned. These self assessments were shared with the teacher’s department chair and the Director of Curriculum and Innovation who used them to both celebrate strengths and successes, and as a starting point for offering support where needed. 

Questions for schools to consider: 

  • What will it look like to be successful with a change initiative in 3-6 months? In a year? In two years? How might those milestones be assessed and how might those wins be celebrated? 
  • Finding ways to assess newly created courses can both validate and provide direction for faculty. What kinds of assessment tools will work for your community and its culture? 
  • Who will be tasked with shepherding and monitoring the development and efficacy of advanced courses over several years? 

Phase 6: Anchor the change in the culture 

Our move beyond the AP was coupled with other changes to our curriculum and programming that have been described above. They were supported by time and resources, as well as the creation of a Center for Teaching and Learning. More than that though, they were supported by what amounted to a cultural shift in the way we discussed and thought about teaching and learning. The trends that authorized our move to a new and unique curriculum, the sense of urgency to do better for our kids, had opened the door to more than a decision to drop APs: it had allowed us change the conversation about our work as educators, about our curriculum as a whole, and about what education should be in the 21st century. Any change effort that simply instructed faculty to create new non-AP advanced courses might have resulted in some new courses, but it would not have done much else. The way the change process was approached embedded new patterns, habits, and ways of thinking into the life of the school. Kotter notes, “In the final analysis, change sticks when it becomes ‘the way we do things around here,’ when it seeps into the bloodstream of the corporate body. Until new behaviors are rooted in social norms and shared values, they are subject to degradation as soon as the pressure for change is removed.” In going beyond the AP, we got much more than a few new courses.  

Additionally, continuing with a backward design process, once the characteristics of our highest level courses were established, faculty began mapping 9-11 core courses, embedding our program pillars, Change Team changes, and deeper learning principles, into their redesign. This move both ensured vertical alignment between our courses and that the principles and practices at the heart of our change initiatives would live in all aspects of our curriculum.

Questions for schools to consider:

  • What bigger questions does a move beyond the AP raise for your school? That is, what’s at the heart of the move that might open up space for asking and answering bigger questions about your program? 
  • How might a new vision for your school’s “best learning” inspire other curricular and programmatic shifts? 
  • Once new advanced courses are created, what aspects of your curriculum need to be backward engineered to ensure students develop the skills, content knowledge, and habits of mind necessary to be successful in upper level courses? 

The way schools manage change efforts can push entire systems towards better reflecting the characteristics of Peter Senge’s “learning organization”: a place where “people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”[1]Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 1.  Or, to put it more simply: a school where people are working together at their best and doing their best for their kids. Rather than a seemingly insurmountable mountain to climb, or perhaps worse, a series of tasks to complete, curricular change efforts can at their best be humanizing, creative, and community building experiences that give birth to much more than revised curriculum and the development of new programs.

You may also be interested in reading another article written by Peter Hatala for Intrepid Ed News.


1 Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 1.

Peter Hatala

Peter Hatala is currently Director of Studies at The Webb Schools. Previously, he was the Director of Curriculum and Innovation at Emma Willard School.

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