05/09/2019 by Lawrence Alexander |

Here Are the Questions School Leaders Should Ask Themselves About ‘Rigorous’ Curricula

Female student raising hand in class

“I don’t want the outside stuff interfering with our coursework.”

“These kinds of courses won’t appear rigorous enough to selective universities.”

“We don’t have enough time in our school day to teach extra stuff.”

“Inclusion is fine, just as long as we don’t lose our major contributors.”

“It’s my job to teach my kids morals at home. They go to school to learn.”

“You social justice warriors just want my White kids to learn how unimportant they are.”

Do any of these statements sound familiar? These are the not-so subtle objections levied at the mere mention of culturally responsive and inclusive curricula. This issue is pervasive, impacting K-12 education, higher education, public schools, and independent schools alike.

No educational institution is immune to the use of “rigor” as an excuse in traditional American education, which ignores some of its underrepresented citizenry. Where will history find independent school educators standing as the conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice are pitted against academic rigor?

This year our school, The White Mountain School, offered an English elective entitled, “African American/Latinx Literature Survey.” At our small, independent boarding school in northern New Hampshire, where our domestic students of color represent about 15% of the population, this was monumental news.

The course sign-up quickly filled two sections, with White students and students of color eager to join. The class was also popular with juniors and seniors who opted to take this course over Advanced Placement literature. Participation in the new course changed the composition of the traditional AP literature course. The initial pushback on campus was palpable.

People questioned me, the school’s college counselor, about why I recommended the class to students who were interested in it rather than directing them to the more “rigorous” AP course. They asked, “How can you recommend that students not take a more rigorous course? How will this look to their colleges?”

I had the following questions for them:

  • How will we, the school, look if they don’t take a course that resonates with their cultural experience or desire for personal growth?
  • Why don’t students of color feel like AP literature will include voices from mouths that look like their own?

This example shows the problem with curricula that hide racism, sexism, and homophobia behind the thin veil of rigor. The problem with the course at my school wasn’t the course itself. It was in the cultural denial students felt in every other course they’d taken. How often are we asking our students of color, girls, and LGBTQIA students to “tuck in” the shirt tails of their identity to neatly present themselves in the waistband of traditionally rigorous curricula?

Please don’t take my word for it.

Ask faculty who teach AP history, human geography, or literature to audit their curricula for cultural inclusivity. Ask your AP calculus or science faculty to audit their curricula for course content on stereotype threat and the inclusion of nonwhite contributions in STEM.

Better still, ask yourself, “How ‘rigorous’ is rigor anyway? Have we constructed a culturally truncated knowledge base and valued it too highly?”

If you are an instructional leader at your school or you can influence one, I urge you to talk with your faculty and, most importantly, your students from underrepresented backgrounds to see if they feel like part of the team or just one of the mascots.

This article originally appeared in the summer 2019 issue of DiversityIS magazine.

Lawrence Alexander is the outgoing Director of College Counseling at The White Mountain School in Bethlehem, N.H., and a CS&A Search Associate, leader of our Diversity, Equity, &Inclusion Consulting Group, and our Director of DEI. He is a member of the DiversityIS Editorial Board.

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