They had to set up extra chairs for the 100 or so spectators, mostly concerned parents, who turned out for Monday night’s meeting of the Evanston Township High School Board to hear Superintendent Eric Witherspoon deliver an impassioned call for changing the freshman Humanities Honors program at the school.

They had to set up extra chairs for the 100 or so spectators, mostly concerned parents, who turned out for Monday night’s meeting of the Evanston Township High School Board to hear Superintendent Eric Witherspoon deliver an impassioned call for changing the freshman Humanities Honors program at the school.

He said the proposed change “will open doors and push students to greater achievement.”

But not all parents were convinced. About half of the 20 public comments after Witherspoon’s presentation expressed grave doubts that the program would achieve its intended outcomes.

Messages on the Internet over the weekend after the proposal was made available on the district’s web site warned that the 1 Humanities Honors class was being dropped. Witherspoon countered that not only was it not being dropped but that it was being expanded to include all students that were at grade level in reading. It was the current mixed-level (regular and Honors) class that would be discontinued, to be replaced by the Honors curriculum. However, not all students in the class would receive Honors credit, he said, only those that achieved at an Honors level.

This added a bit of uncertainty that bothered some parents as well as some Board members.

Suppose a student qualified for Honors credit one semester, but failed to do so the next? To a prospective college examining the transcript, it might look as if the student dropped out of Honors after one semester, and that would not look good.

Other comments raised doubts about the ability of teachers to differentiate between students at different levels in delivering the material. Lower level students, for example, might be overwhelmed at reading the Odyssey, while it would be a welcome challenge for a more advanced student. How would a teacher deal with that?

Another parent said, “Apparently we’ve done a poor job of tracking. How can we make tracking work better?”

Other persons commented favorably on the proposal, particularly those with African-American students, who feel that their students were unfairly placed in regular classrooms when they might be in a position to excel with a more challenging curriculum.“This puts everyone on a level playing field” was a common refrain.

In fact, that was one of the principal reasons cited by Witherspoon for starting everyone at the same level so that motivated students would have a better chance of success in high school. Brain research indicates, he said, that people can get smarter as they mature. He predicted rather confidently that the new arrangement would result in more students qualifying for Honors and Advance Placement in later years.

Board President Rachel Hayman thanked the public for their comments and assured them that their concerns would be addressed. She noted that the issue will be discussed at the next two meetings of the Board, on Nov. 22 and 29, before the board votes on it at its Dec. 13 meeting.

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...

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9 Comments

  1. Everyone is equal at ETHS but some more than others

    The way I see it, Witherspoon is proposing to mix advanced students with the "regular" students in order to help the regular students.

    This is the equavalent of mixing motivated academically smart hardworking students with not-as smart and motivated students in the same group and asking them to do a group project together. We all knows what happens. The motivated students do most of the work but the credit is dispursed equally. After that, the motivated hardworking students are not as motivated and hardworking anymore. The challenges are gone.

    If Witherspoon wants rigorous standards for regular students then raise the bar in the REGULAR classes. Why involve AP and honors classes? 

    Also, I’d love to know what the teachers think.  So far nothing, nary a peep.

    And, Witherspoon claims "non-white students are excluded from pathways to honors and AP classes before they even step foot into the high school." Why is that? The problem seems to be at the middle school level. 

    Witherspoon’s idea is a bad idea all around.

    1. Everyone is equal at ETHS but some more than others

      Students who read at a 5th grade level will compete in classes with those at a college reading level using texts and curriculum designed for the top readers.

      How can it fail?

  2. How will teachers handle ?

    Teaching a fairly homogeneous class is hard enough but what about having the teacher handle a very mixed level class ?

    Take for example if the class is covering Shakespear and Hesse in a class.

    Some students may be completely lost by Shapepear’s language while others want go deeply in to the characters and motivations of the characters and the historical connections.   The same with Hesse, but here perhaps more emphasis on religion, but some students will want and be prepared to discuss the German text for added meaning.

    How much time will the teacher spend on questions from the very inquistive minds vrs. questions from the students who are sinking ?  I assume the teacher will have to tell the inquistive students to go to the library, research it on their own, etc. and spend most of the time with the students having trouble.

    Given most teachers will grade somewhat on a Bell Curve, there will be a few students who will "bust the curve" which will mean more students on the low end will get even lower grades than they would have in a homogenous class—just giving an ‘honors’ label will not make up for the grade scale; if students in the same class are graded on different scales, than that is not only immoral and probably illegal but will depress the bright students [why work so hard when someone with much less a command gets the same grades] and the challenged students will get a false sense of accomplishment much like the old "just pass them along" schools have done for years.

    The bright students will be bored [read how many gifted students "drop out" during their education form boredom] and the challenged students will be swamped and made to feel even more inferior.

    High school is not the time to be "making up" for the failure of prior education.

     

    1. Teachers are reflective learners

      What is a ‘bright’ student?

      What if we said all students have the capabilities to be bright, but it is the opportunities that are presented to them that enable them to be successful, productive students?

      How will teachers handle this? This is what makes teachers professionals. It is by giving students the opportunity to work on authentic task that allow them to stretch their critical thinking skills. 

      What does that mean? Not one person being given a 10 page paper and another a 2 page paper, but instead an assignment that allows each student to bring their individual knowledge, connections, inferences to create new meaning.  Allowing student to explore and reveal knowledge.

      Is the equation (more work=more brightness) or giving assignments that respectfully ask students to gather, assess, evaluate and synthesize information in a creative manner?

      1. So are the teachers not professionals ?

        The author wrote  "How will teachers handle this? This is what makes teachers professionals. It is by giving students the opportunity to work on authentic task that allow them to stretch their critical thinking skills. "

        ==============

        I guess that means that since the students are not meeting standards that the teachers of those students are not professions [i.e. capable].  Thus they need to be replaced.  If all their tricks have not worked, why would this new stunt work.

        Some people complain about standardized testing.  It is the race to the bottom of trying to assume all students are really at the same level—they just need some new class organization.  Grade inflation and trying to teach all students at the same level has forced more testing because the grades or even graduation has lost so much meaning.

        Face it not all students are equal or capable of being equal—-we can try to help each student meet his potential but the end result will not always be what the liberals want.  No matter how long a student spends on the golf course, very few will become Tiger Woods.

        You have to address the problems long before high school—-trying to correct the problems at ETHS won’t fix much/anything.  Remember the failure/drop-out rate in the first two years [or less] of college, shows that the K-12 is fooling alot of students.   We need to get the schools back to educating rather than the latest educational theory, increasing the administration size and teacher pensions.

    2. students with inquisitive minds

      How much time will the teacher spend on questions from the very inquistive minds vrs. questions from the students who are sinking ?  I assume the teacher will have to tell the inquistive students to go to the library, research it on their own, etc. and spend most of the time with the students having trouble.

       

      This is exactly what I fear.  I am afraid that this proposal will lead to persecution of kids with enquiring minds.  I remember back in first grade, when the rest of the kids were learning how to add and subtract two digit numbers, the teacher made me sit in a corner and study my textbook on nonlinear partial differential equations and not bother her.

  3. Good or not, period.

    This is ridiculous.  People are either good enough to participate in an honors class or they’re not.  If there is a concern about not having enough minorities in the honors classes, back up a step and figure out why they aren’t making it. 

    There is no way teachers can successfully teach a merged "regular" and honors class without dumbing it down.  Therefore, not providing the higher education the honors students deserve.

    1. No Way?

      "No way"?

      Are you claiming, or do you believe, that the students who earn honors credit in the mixed-honors sections are not really earning honors credit?

       

  4. Public Education is Doomed!

    Schools are clearly becoming nothing more than political playgrounds and using kids as social experiments without any real thinking about the long-term implications.  We all understand that schools are facing large budget crisis, but continuing to punish high-performing and high-testing students is not the way to accomplish anything positive.  It is their test scores that are bringing the federal money into the schools in the first place via NCLB and perpetual testing that everything is now based.

    As the parent of a high school student that is currently in all honors classes, if this ETHS situation were to happen in our school district, we would leave in a heartbeat and enroll in a private school.

    Perhaps that is the solution, all kids who have worked hard and earned their way to where they are should leave public schools and enroll in private ones immediately.  All of the remaining kids can stay where they are at end just suffix all courses taken with "Honors" and "AP".

    Problem Solved!

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