Asleep at the wheel: missing oversight on tracking and scheduling

Here’s an item from the life of a soon-to-be-9th grader at Rolling Meadows:  tracking is slated to be eliminated in biology.  Instead, students will select between traditional and “agricultural” biology, with the option in either case for an “earned honors” designation.  Here are some excerpts from the letter sent to parents:

Selected tasks and assessments will be identified as the means by which they could receive “Earned Honors” Credit.  Our goal is for ALL students to master difficult tasks and to achieve at the highest level.  The opportunity to earn Honors credit by learning and achieving more in our biology courses is now available to every RMHS student in the class.  . . .

After researching schools that have implemented an “Earned Honors” model, we have found that students, regardless of their previous academic success levels, have seen improved performance throughout all of high school.  Students who would have been in an “Honors” section earned the Honors credit anyway, and many other students rose to achieve at a higher level than they had previously thought possible!

This sounds great — but is it too good to be true?

What exactly will the “selected tasks and assessments” be that will earn the “Honors” designation?  Does this mean that simply doing more homework — busywork, even — is what merits the “Honors” designation — extra problems in the nightly homework?  Or does it mean that students will be expected to teach themselves new material in these additional “tasks”?  Regardless, this abandons the notion that Honors classes are teaching more challenging material by moving at a faster pace than the “regular” classes and really calls into question what “Honors” means or what its purpose is, in that case.  If it’s a matter of student independent work rather than classroom instruction, then why should it be connected up to that classroom at all?  Or to what degree is “Honors” about learning at all, vs. simply the first step in earning extra designations on a path towards applying towards more selective schools?  Is it nothing other than a way of earning an A++, a 4.5 grade to boost the GPA?

A quick google search points to Evanston Township High School as the originator of this concept (e.g., “No Child Written Off: ‘You Can Get Smarter'” at The Atlantic and “D202 board reviews earned-honors program” at Evanston Now as well as and a scholarly analysis at Phi Delta Kappan)  and, in fact, the only other schools which show up as using this approach are the schools of Madison, Wisconsin and District 214’s own Elk Grove High School, as featured in a report in its student newspaper this past fall.  In that school, according to the report, the “earned honors” concept was applied to English:

Throughout the 2020-21 school year, freshmen in English classes will take several assessments to determine whether or not they will receive honors credit at the end of the year. This way their credit is not determined by their placement in a single class and instead through several opportunities of demonstrating skills.

From a teacher perspective, this can be seen as a positive opportunity for all students at EGHS. Alissa Prendergast, a freshman English teacher at EGHS, said she sees this change as an opportunity for students to interact with one another in ways they may not have been able to before.

Again, this suggests that the instruction the students receive is the same.  Unlike the typical Honors English experience, students don’t read more books or write more essays in the Honors track — or if they do, it appears that this will happen entirely outside of class with independent learning only.

Now, maybe this isn’t a problem — perhaps there had never been anything special about Honors instruction anyway (though my son tells me that only in Honors classes did the kids read Shakespeare and Huck Finn, and the non-Honors classes just read popular novels, and few of them at that).  And the objective of this approach is to get more kids and especially more ethnic minority kids to ultimately be on the Honors and AP track in later years, on the expectation that ethnic minority kids generally are less likely to be automatically tracked into those classes by their standardized test scores and are less likely to seek them out, but, if pushed, will do the extra work to be designated as “Honors.”

And maybe this works.  I have too little information on how it’s meant to play out at Meadows this coming year or how it is working at Elk Grove, only the fear that my son will be a guinea pig.

But again — recall the headline at Evanston Now:  the school board reviewed the program.  In fact, the changes were implemented only after the school board voted on the changes, as reported by CBS Chicago.

In District 214, not only has the district not voted on these changes, but they were not even discussed at any school board meeting.  Recall that I myself read through four years’ worth of meeting minutes.  At no point was this an agenda item put up for a vote.  Instead, month after month, the board unanimously approves items that are a part of the “consent calendar” and many of these are changes to the academic handbook which are numbered but about which no detail is provided in the minutes, and they are approved en masse, with no discussion.  Perhaps this change was slipped through in such a fashion and thus nominally “board-approved”; perhaps there was no approval at all.  The general public has no way of knowing whether the board knew what it was approving and agreed, or has no idea to this day that de-tracking has been implemented — let alone having had the opportunity to comment before it was approved.

In other words, this is another case in which the school board is failing to exercise oversight.

Here’s a second item:  the block schedule.

As it happens, Rolling Meadows has had a block schedule for a number of years.  Rather than 50 minute periods daily, periods are (or were) 90 minutes every other day — with the small loss in instructional time being balanced out by the halving of the time at the beginning and end of class getting started and packing up.   In addition, Meadows has a feature unique among the schools, a “seminar” period, in which all student had a “study hall,” but because it was the same period for all, students could seek help from teachers or resource centers by “moving” during seminar.  Seminar was also used for special sessions such as counselors’ presentations on post-secondary options.

This is nothing like the current block schedule in which each class has only 70 minutes every other day, and in which there is no “seminar” (and in which even for the in-person kids, there is no “moving” allowed).  But the superintendent had sent out a survey asking about family interest, by school, in a block schedule going forward, and the Prospect student paper reported that the union was voting, at each school, as to whether this would happen.

But here’s the kicker:  the class periods in the proposed block schedule would not be the 90 minutes of the RMHS version.  They would be only 80 minutes — better than the current 70, but still deficient.  And, again, according to this article, students would not have a common “seminar” but instead a “mandatory study hall” which the student journalists wrote they hoped would make up for the loss in instructional time.

I doubt parents, when they answered the survey, believed they were supporting this loss in instructional time.  And, again, this is the sort of change which the school board should be discussing in public, rather than being decided upon by the administration (whether directly or indirectly by defining the parameters of a vote).

Two issues.  Two further reminders that the school board is asleep at the wheel.; Niabot, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


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