The state Board of Education will be voting Thursday, Sept. 13, on the location and curriculum for the Arkansas Governor’s School for the coming four years. Both setting and curriculum are absolutely critical to the success of the Governor’s School, and changing both would be detrimental.

The standard pre-college, technological or advanced placement type of curriculum proposed by Arkansas Tech is not what AGS was designed to provide. There would also be conflicts when college students share food services, activity centers and programs with AGS’ high school students.

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The Governor’s School idea originated in North Carolina in 1963 and was so good it spread to many states, finally coming to Arkansas in 1980 thanks to the fantastic efforts of several women (including Martha Bass and Elaine Dumas) who had the interests of Arkansas youths in their hearts. I was co-author of the original overview for Arkansas Governor’s School and directed it from 1983-2000.

A common observation of teachers is that some of the brightest students cannot be intellectually challenged in class and sometimes hide in the overworked teacher’s classrooms. Most teachers wish they could give them something more. Normal high school classrooms are limited by the need to teach to the middle, and are especially challenged to bring the lowest-performing students up to standards. It often means the really good students are underserved. AGS was designed to address this need.

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As a Ph.D. molecular geneticist with a secondary education background who was teaching mostly premedical school students, I assumed the students needed advanced content in their areas of interest. But I quickly learned (from other governor’s schools) that content was not nearly as important as stimulating these students’ intellectual curiosity and giving them tools to research the information they needed to advance. Stimulating them to identify resources specific to their interests, to be able to digest and absorb those ideas, then to share them with their cohorts and teachers, was much more important than giving them more specific content of our choosing.

It is absolutely amazing to see students take off and fly when given this kind of challenge. I learned over the years that governor’s schools that had adopted more standard “pre-college” advanced curricula for their core soon failed, as students know they can get that in advanced placement in their high schools and governor’s schools are perceived as just more summer school. Predetermined content that they are tested on does not inspire the gifted and talented students to explore their own ideas and to think in creative ways. Governor’s schools that simply provide advanced information are doomed to fail.

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It was recognized that gifted and talented students needed to be challenged beyond their special interest/ability and to think in terms of their field of interest’s impact on culture and society. Students with varied specific talents and knowledge are brought together to think about the major problems, ideas and challenges of our world. Teachers in these classes are great at encouraging the kind of open discussion and interplay between ideas not found in standard classrooms, as such discussion does not directly move students to perform better on standardized tests. Students benefit from hearing from often “controversial” speakers who encourage students to make up their own minds on subject matter. Often, education is only the teaching of what the teacher thinks is “right” and the student is simply indoctrinated with that idea. While there are facts and there is truth, in many important areas that students need to prepare for, they have to form opinions based on their best judgment. Helping students develop critical thinking skills, be open to other people’s opinions and reaching own best judgment are the goals of Arkansas Governor’s School. Alumni of the Governor’s School programs express great appreciation for their experience.

Much of the controversy over the AGS through the years has centered on the American Family Council’s Jerry Cox’s criticism that students are being taught to think on their own rather than being taught what to think.

Those who have no personal experience with the unique nature of the program and the unique setting are prone to think that it can be as successful and as beneficial with a classic advanced school curriculum and on a campus with college students and classes going on. Believe me when I say that is not true.

Dr. Bruce Haggard is an emeritus distinguished professor at Hendrix College.

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