Experts at ETHS forum decry tracking

Administrators at Evanston Township High School pulled out all the stops last night to teach the community about the merits of its proposed restructuring of Freshman Humanities Honors, due to take effect with the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year.

Administrators at Evanston Township High School pulled out all the stops last night to teach the community about the merits of its proposed restructuring of Freshman Humanities Honors, due to take effect with the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year.

The venue was a special meeting of the District 202 Board of Education, with the restructuring proposal as the only item on the agenda. Typically this means cramming everyone into a classroom in the North Wing of the high school and allowing public attendees three minutes each to make comments with no response from administration or board.

Last night was different. The meeting was held, town-meeting style, in the school auditorium, where about 200 attendees had plenty of room to spread out and stash their rain gear. Four microphones were available for the public either to make comments or ask questions, to which the administration was more than willing to respond. The board sat on the sidelines and watched the proceedings.

But first, a panel of educational experts extolled the benefits of the proposed program, whereby all but about 50 slow readers are taught the Honors Humanities curriculum, enabling any student to work hard enough to obtain Honors credit, which adds half a point to the score when computing grade point averages.

This would replace the current system, where an elite group of top students, almost all of Caucasian ethnicity, are selected while still in middle school, to enroll in an all-Honors classroom, putting them on track for Honors and Advance Placement courses in their future high school years.

The expert team included Harrington V. Gibson, Ted Purinton, Richard Streedain and Catherin Weidner.

Gibson’s credentials include Northwestern University and Harvard, including research into instructional approaches proven to be successful with black male students. Purinton is chair and assistant professor of the Department of Educational Leadership at National-Louis University. Streedain is a professor of educational leadership at National- Louis. Weidner is a professor at Lake Forest College and the parent of an ETHS student.

In the previous two board meetings where this restructuring was discussed, the public comment had elicited a number of concerns that were addressed Monday night by the panel. District Superintendent Eric Witherspoon set the tone with a rationale for the restructuring. In the current system, he said, students are tested and then “sorted and labeled” before they get to ETHS and are assigned to classes.

“That sorting and labeling is not working,” he declared. “If it locks out students so that they can never experience this high-powered school,” he added, “then we’re not doing our job.” The new program gives ETHS an opportunity to do something “really profound” with our students, he insisted. “We will finally be a school that does not put lids on its students.”

Gibson, a former teacher at Walker School in Evanston who has done research on tracking, said that tracking contradicts the principles upon which American schools were founded. “Students rise to their expectations and fall to their expectations,” he said, while the restructuring raises the expectations of all students

Purinton insisted that the proposal “is a bold initiative that will receive national attention among colleges.” He told parents that college admissions officers are most interested in how far a student goes to differentiate himself from other students in the school. “My guess is that more students will be accepted at high-profile schools as a result of this program,” he said.

Streedain said schools ought to teach for understanding and teach for diversity, while Wagner said that tracking of students, which started in the United States in 1920, was based on the false assumption that intelligence was fixed, while research today indicates that many factors are indicative of one’s academic performance. Among those factors, she said, is the ability to work with persons of many abilities as well as cross-racial understanding.

She concluded that “if any school can tackle the issue of racial inequity, this is the school.”

When the comment period began, of the 35 persons making comments, the majority, including some teachers and students, were positive about the program.
When a parent suggested the school run a pilot program, which was a popular suggestion at the previous board meeting, Witherspoon countered that “we’ve had 127 years to get it right. We know what happens when you give students high expectations.”

Bruce Mitchell, a popular English teacher at the school for 32 years, now retired, said: “This is a courageous undertaking. It is multi-cultured, open, and interconnected.”

Comments that could be considered negative about the program concerned the ability of teachers to differentiate the needs of students in a class with a wide range of academic ability and questioned how rigorously the administration would evaluate the results of the restructuring. Some of these commenters recommended a go-slow process, rather than instituting the program in 2011. One suggested the establishment of an outside advisory group as part of the evaluation process.

A vote on the proposal is scheduled for the December 13 meeting of the board.

Video of the meeting is available online.

Charles Bartling

A resident of Evanston since 1975, Chuck Bartling holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has extensive experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, radio stations and business-oriented magazines.

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