Finding the Escape Velocity for Dramatic Policy Changes

by Greg Cooper, Dean of Studies at EXPLO Senior.

The second in a series about how the laws of physics informed my school’s decision to cut APs.

I have always been fascinated by black holes — regions of spacetime with such an immense gravitational force that not even light can escape.

Facing such a big challenge feels insurmountable and I think any of us who have spent enough time in schools have felt the institutional equivalent of these light-devouring chasms in space.

I think back to faculty meetings about a new innovative idea in which the focus seemed to be on all the reasons that the idea wouldn’t work, or when forward momentum stalled in its tracks because the pull from some massive obstacle was too onerous to overcome.

However, in these instances, the trouble usually wasn’t a truly insurmountable challenge — our schools are not actually black holes, regardless of how it might feel when big curriculum decisions are on the table.

In my last post, I used the metaphor of gravitational lensing to talk about how massive entities in our educational universe distort our ability to see the path ahead. When my former school sought to move away from AP courses in some disciplines, we first had to devise a strategy to help the community clearly see through the distortion and conceive that there even was a different possible path.

But that was just the first step. Once we could meaningfully engage with the problem at hand, and identify the forces holding us back, how might we escape those forces?

At my former school, AP courses felt like a black hole. We wanted to move away from the APs in some disciplines and replace them with offerings that better fit our pedagogical goals. The forces pulling against us were massive — the college admissions process, standardized tests, parent expectations, tradition. Added to these external forces were our own narratives and assumptions that led us to believe attempts at escape were futile.

It takes significant propulsion on the right course to escape the pull of a black hole. In physics, this is known as the escape velocity. The key is finding the right combination of forces to give us enough acceleration to allow us to break free.

To escape the pull of the APs, an engagement strategy was just one piece of the equation. We also needed real answers to the reasonable questions that would arise:

  • What would replace APs?
  • How would our students distinguish themselves in the college application process?
  • Would colleges understand what we were trying to do, and how our non-AP courses maintained the level of challenge for which the AP label served as a known proxy?

Admittedly, we were a school with the resources and reputation that allowed us to consider what might be a much heavier lift for other schools. Our rocket was already significant. For many, the gravitational pull is much stronger.

Achieving escape velocity isn’t just about devising a plan, but also being realistic about the contextual factors defining our environment. The more massive the object you are trying to escape, the larger the escape velocity. You often need to find or build booster rockets. We had three:

  • New facilities and classroom resources.
    We had recently opened a new STEM center. Adding to our faculty expertise were an amazing makerspace and new laboratories. The AP curriculum and its looming exam didn’t leave room for full use of these resources. We could present our plan as a way to take full advantage of these new facilities.
  • Favorable timing.
    We had added momentum from our return from COVID isolation. After more than a year of online or hybrid learning, our students and faculty were eager for something new, different, and more meaningful than what had come before. Something about education had changed, and it was time for us to think about how we could be a part of that change.
  • Value shifts in education.
    The national conversation was rife with talk of “test optional” and similar topics. Although some of that has started to slightly retreat, the idea of critically looking at many of the traditional narratives pervading our educational landscape remains.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to any particular challenge, but there is an escape velocity.

Figuring out just what that velocity is requires both an accounting of the size of the gravitational pull — just how significant are the various forces for a specific institution — as well as what conditions already exist, or can be created, to help propel things forward.

Ask yourself, “What boosters do we already have, and what can we build to help us on our way?”

Our institutions are not black holes, and our problems do not require the stuff of science fiction in order to solve them. Once we can fully conceptualize the magnitude of the forces holding us back, we can be realistic about what we can accomplish and at what cost. Then, add some ingenuity to the resources at our disposal, along with a healthy dose of confidence that escape is possible, and we might just find that those faculty meetings full of reasons “why not” take on a different tone.

Greg Cooper is the Dean of Studies at EXPLO Senior. He was previously the Upper School Dean of Studies and a History & Social Sciences teacher at the Ransom Everglades School in Miami, Florida. This was PART TWO in his series about how we can use the Laws of Physics to reimagine how we tackle the massive obstacles schools face. Be sure to read, PART ONE, Gravitational Lensing and the Educational Universe and PART THREE, Beyond the Event Horizon: Curricular Transformation.