College & Workforce Readiness

In Age of High Tech, Old-School Cambridge Curriculum Makes Unlikely Gains

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 21, 2018 10 min read
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Prince William County, Va.

Here at Potomac High school, students are sorting stacks of note cards. Each represents a facet of a research paper they’re currently working on—part of an international exam that can confer college credit, and for some, a specialized diploma.

Senior Brandon Cleveland is looking at whether countries and sporting organizations should legalize performance-enhancing drugs. His piles include one on research on whether drug testing is effective, one on the most common drugs and their effects on humans, and one specifically on cycling. His classmate Hajrah Choudhry is working on an essay about the media’s culpability in Islamophobia. Her topics include variations in hate-crime laws and media norms in different countries.

Their essays have to go beyond surface-level Google research to include international and scholarly sources, looking into how different countries and communities have wrestled with the topic in question. And as the students are learning, it isn’t always easy to find the right resources.

“The research is so recent, it’s kind of hard to find some of these articles,” said Owen Kidd, a junior, whose essay is on the link between professional sports like soccer and football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease that can result from head trauma. “And some of them are opinions that I can’t really use.”

Global Perspectives is one of the aligned systems of courses and exams offered by Cambridge Assessment International Education, a nonprofit import from the United Kingdom. Although still fairly unknown in the United States, Cambridge is beginning to compete seriously against more popular academically challenging programs like Advanced Placement and the International Baccalaureate, betting it can make gains among schools that see analysis—especially as expressed through writing—as a route to school improvement and college readiness.

And more districts are paying attention.

Students say the exams, usually heavily essay-based, are often deceptively simple, because while the prompts are short, it’s not possible to answer them without mastery of the subject. In Cleveland’s words: “There’s always something you have to add to the question, something deeper.”

It’s a common refrain among students who have sat for the exams.

“You do have to know really in-depth what you’re talking about,” said Leah Strumf, a senior at Brentsville High School, another district school using the program. “They’re not really looking for content; they’re looking for analysis on the topic. Can you make a judgment about it? Can you recognize your biases about it?”

Past and Present

Despite debuting in the United States in 1995, Cambridge initially made little effort to promote itself in this country. Now its U.S. branch is fully staffed up and incorporated as a nonprofit.

Across the spectrum of offerings, which begin as early as primary school and span almost every subject, the number of Cambridge exams taken by students has doubled since 2013 to more than 100,000. (Many students take more than one.)

Philosophically, Cambridge sits somewhere between the AP and the IB. It is less all-encompassing and interdisciplinary than the IB. But it is more prescriptive than AP, setting a detailed syllabus or content plan for each of its courses.

If the group’s name brings to mind images of stately stone buildings and rugby courts, that’s not surprising. It is a division of an organization that emerged in 1858 from the University of Cambridge, and remains tied to the 800-year-old institution.

In a sense, what makes Cambridge traditional—its focus on the liberal arts, rich texts, and well-thought-out argumentation—is also what makes it new again, in an age of tech saturation and loosely defined concepts like personalized learning . Its syllabuses tend to prize depth over breadth, with humanities exams changing every few years to reflect different “set texts” or emphasizing different periods of history.

Much of Cambridge’s current work is now focused on bringing interested districts on board, alongside the more humdrum job of getting the courses accepted in state policy—so that students who get passing marks on the exams can earn college credit or weighted grade point averages.

“We’re really seeing a major growth up the East coast, but it’s a highly top-down market. And a lot of the steps and building blocks need to be put in place before you can really start to grow,” said Mark Cavone, Cambridge’s regional director in the United States.

Cambridge can be costly, on the order of $93 per exam per student, which is covered here by the Prince William County district. The exam fee is roughly comparable to that of AP, though for new schools Cambridge also assesses a one-time school inspection fee. Resources and training also cost money.

Data show that the largest growth in Cambridge courses has been in high schools. But some observers like Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center for Education and the Economy, who selected the curriculum for a school improvement pilot his group began in Arizona, feel that Cambridge could be more powerful if adopted in earlier grades, so students have the prerequisite skills needed to master its blend of independent thinking and application.

“If used as part of a systemic reform, Cambridge is an incredibly powerful tool to change metacognition,” he said. “But in Florida and in many of the places where it’s been used, it is used as an elite program.”

Increasingly, though, the group is billing itself as a route to increase equity and reduce achievement gaps in schools. Several of its newer district partnerships, in Nashville, Tenn., and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., have incorporated the program as part of larger improvement efforts.

Goodbye, Multiple Choice

School administrators here say they appreciate the flexibility the program offers and the way it can complement other goals, like a cyber-security pathway Potomac offers, without subordinating them.

“We like to try to customize a program that will fit the needs of the student,” said Michael Wright, Potomac’s principal. “We have kids in the welding program who are also taking a Cambridge course.”

The Cambridge imprint can be seen throughout these two Prince William County high schools, even down to the quiz that Potomac English teacher Yasmin Griffin gives her students on the first few chapters of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man: It prioritizes writing over multiple choice. In fact, there are very few multiple-choice questions on Cambridge exams in general, and none in the humanities.

With her students, Griffin emphasizes how to annotate novels for clues to the authors’ tone, syntax, and use of dialect. “I tell them it’s like an ongoing conversation they have with the novel,” she said. And it will set them up well for their Cambridge English Language exam, in which among other things, they’ll have to complete a text while mimicking its author’s style and tone.

Cambridge high school math courses combine some calculus with either statistics or physics, rather than the traditional Algebra 1, geometry, Algebra 2 course sequence, and it de-emphasizes the memorization of theorems and proofs.

“We skip over some of the theoretical underpinnings and go into the real world applications, which is honestly why students often find it challenging. Every question is a word problem,” said Brentsville math teacher Juli Dempewolf. “I think that’s the hardest part for U.S. students, the question they ask about math: ‘When am I ever going to use this? What’s the point?’

“I will say with this curriculum, my students can always tell you what the point is. They may not love it or be masters at it, but they know why they’re doing it.”

Science exams, meanwhile, contain a laboratory component, where students are expected to conduct an experiment on their own, not merely observe or predict its outcomes.

Learning How to Argue

Global Perspectives is a newer addition to the Cambridge stable. It is also a requirement for students who attempt to earn the Cambridge Advanced International Certificate Diploma, granted to students who get passing scores on a series of the exams across several content disciplines.

Students who earn the credential have demonstration of mastery they can carry to hundreds of universities worldwide. Usually only a handful of students at these high schools try for the diploma and fewer complete it, though student scores on individual exams are generally trending upward. (In the United States, about 70 percent of students who strived for the diploma in recent years successfully earned it.)

As a capstone course, Global Perspectives encapsulates the Cambridge philosophy: research, argumentation, and reflection. The first “paper,” as Cambridge often calls exam components, focused on comparing two articles and judging the strength of their arguments and sourcing. Now students are working on the second paper, focused on research.

“This class has given kids a chance to develop a skill and not just a body of knowledge. And those are skills professors want to have them in college, to be critical of what they read,” said Catherine Mumford, who teaches the course at Potomac.

As students craft their essays, teachers can help them to generate ideas or outline their findings, and they can suggest fresh avenues for research. But they can’t actually mark up the completed essay. That’s left for the Cambridge examiners.

Students at Brentsville have started exchanging early drafts with their peers for feedback. Many are struggling, though, with the process of refuting a counter-argument, one of the expectations that the Cambridge graders will want to see, so that’s the focus of teacher Carolyn Weddel’s lesson today.

She warms up by having her students, one by one, take slips of paper from her “refutation jar,” filled with statements they’ve written earlier in the class. Each student will have a few moments to come up with a plan for refuting the argument.

First up, for an unlucky student who hasn’t yet taken global history: “The Cultural Revolution is one of the worst events in China.”

The next student has to refute this one: “UVA is worse than Georgetown.” That would be easier, were it not for the University of Virginia flag that hangs conspicuously next to Weddel’s blackboard.

Growing Pains

Weddel took Cambridge courses as a student at Brentsville in the 1990s, and back then, few colleges knew what the program was or how to recognize students that had completed its courses. Now, more than 600 colleges do.

But the Cambridge approach does not teach itself—and much can depend on teachers’ skill at implementing the program. Those used to other rigorous programs, in particular, sometimes struggle to respond to the different emphases in Cambridge courses, Weddel noted.

“I don’t think it’s a lack of interest or a lack of belief in Cambridge. It’s just such a different model than what teachers are taught with standards-based, AP-based classes where there’s a huge survey and a lot of vocabulary to cover,” she said.

Teacher training can still be a challenge, administrators here say, since until recently teachers generally had to travel to Florida, which has the largest concentration of participating schools. But Prince William’s Parkside Middle School, the county’s only lower secondary to use the Cambridge classes, is now an approved provider of training.

There are also the tensions inherent in squeezing an essentially British system around American mandates. Mumford, who has taught the program’s U.S. history course in Prince William County, also had to cover state standards for Virginia history, on which students are tested separately, which made for a breakneck teaching experience.

Weddel says it’s all been worth it to teach Global Perspectives, however.

“This is the sort of class you dream you’ll get to teach before you’re a teacher,” Weddel said. “Not being limited by really rigid standards allows me to flex to the interests and needs of the students; and they feel like they’re included in the process. They’re more invested.”

Librarians Holly Peele and Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this report.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2018 edition of Education Week as U.K. Curriculum Import Becoming Increasingly Popular


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