Striking the balance

by Vince Durnan, director

Considering change: USN evaluates its curriculum alongside other independent schools.
Here's the conundrum: how do we stay functionally and practically connected with the rest of the educational world without losing our independence and creativity? We walk a challenging line, with perils on either side. Too conventional and we're just like all the rest—too idiosyncratic and we risk alienation from a whole range of important opportunities. We live in search of a golden mean.

Cases in point are numerous—let me share just a few. For starters, think about our curriculum, built incrementally grade by grade through K-12, around academic departments and corresponding credit distribution requirements. The baseline version of this system draws on the old Carnegie Unit (education geeks among us will recall its origin was around 1906 as 100 hours of classroom time in an academic year), and the standardization of a secondary school diploma. From those days came what's now the typical four years of English, math, science, language, history, and maybe art, as the baseline expectation so familiar and so universal and so immutable in American schools.

Linked to that curricular structure is a common calendar built to contain that course of study, and linked to that calendar is a set of high stakes tests to help sort students to determine admission to education beyond high school. It's a whole package of what and when and how. And the why connects to college and to life thereafter. But taken to its natural conclusion, the tendency of all high aspiring schools to follow the same path generates a counterintuitive conclusion—a kind of regression to the mean.

If all our students take the same courses with the same grading scale in the same sequence, the chance that they will then look indistinguishable from one another is considerable, isn't it? And the aim of all that course taking, at least for many of those students, i.e. the golden ticket of competitive applicant pool college admissions, can, as a result, be more elusive or at least harder to count on. Imagine trying to sort through the thousands and thousands of applications being evaluated in offices mere walking distance from our front door and trying to pick the best ones, given the similarity of all our programs using the same common denominator.

Absent other distinguishing characteristics for a transcript, the importance of standardized testing scores will only grow in magnitude. With so many straight-A transcripts, would it not be tempting to overvalue the numerical simplicity of SAT or ACT scores? The same can be said of Advanced Placement scores, once a way to accelerate through undergraduate years and now one of the only standard metrics available to differentiate one bright student from another and one school from another.

To turn our back on these systems is to risk, however unwillingly, truncating the range of options for our students after graduation from USN. To deviate from a department oriented academic structure, it could be argued, risks leaving students unprepared for what they'll find in higher education. To move away from high stakes tests, whether semester exams or national assessments of academic potential, could leave our students at a disadvantage relative to others who are seasoned veterans of admittedly imperfect exercises in sorting the best from the rest.

So we press on in familiar routines, enjoying the successes produced by so many USN students within the current system, yielding to convention but trying not to sell out or frame the whole experience as a transaction between young people, their families, faculty members, and the world after USN. Still, if leading schools all follow the same recipe, we'll all get the same loaf. And it seems to me that the benefit of playing along that way could be decreasing. It may be that in coming years those who are willing to create something more personal, more intrinsically meaningful, and more easily distinguished from the mass of educational experiences being generated elsewhere (and increasingly by schools abroad), may be rewarded for the courage to choose that direction.

These are enormously high stakes issues, and there's no compelling quick fix of which I'm aware. But it does seem like the time for a deep inquiry into the unintended consequences of the system and structure we know so well. In recent months we've been invited to preliminary conversations with groups of leading schools nationwide targeting new ways to think about what we do, also acknowledging the importance of being in good company when considering change. There will be more to share in months and years to come as discussions here and elsewhere deepen, but for now, it's probably most helpful just to commit to the inquiry. And to keep working the balancing act.

Glad to share notes from our version of the trenches,

    • Director Vince Durnan and Trustee Xiu Cravens accept gifts from principals visiting from China.

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