Red Apple Mom

September 1, 2011

Honors Curriculum Delivered “Max Headroom” Style?

FACTS:

  • Over 1000 people have signed FAIRGRADE’s iPetition calling on FCPS to bring back upper-level, high school Honors courses.
  • FAIRGRADE and the Restore Honors group have advocated for this issue since February 2011.
  • The School Board held a work session on this issue AND DIRECTED the superintendent and his staff to bring them more information so that THE SCHOOL BOARD could make some informed decisions.

Any reasonable parent, teacher and taxpayer would think the process would play out with our elected officials – School Board members – engaging the public and teachers right?

WRONG.

Last Friday, Superintendent Dale informed the School Board that HE was making the decision to put two courses on-line and call them HONORS even though these classes will utilize the AP curriculum.  Good solution?   No.  Here’s why:

1.  Dale’s solution is not an HONORS solution.  The HONORS curriculum already exists so why not put THAT online? HONORS courses are appropriate, high school level courses.  Instead, Dale is putting up college-level AP course material but not requiring participating students to take the AP exam.  Since the student won’t be required to take the AP exam, how will there be any measurement that they mastered the material? Furthermore, parents and students want the high school HONORS curriculum- not “AP-Lite.”  Students already have the more demanding AP option and have expressed the desire to combine AP with less rigorous but still demanding HONORS courses.

2. Dale’s solution to parents’ calls for more rigor in curriculum choices puts students in front of a computer screen without a teacher who could provide the critical student feedback and engagement required of an upper-level course.  According to the proposal, students will meet “virtually” with their teacher one night per week.  How is this “Max Headroom” delivery going to work and are teachers really okay with that?!

3.  Once again, our unelected Superintendent is making curriculum and policy decisions WITHOUT proper oversight and approval from our ELECTED School Board members.  Why do we even have a school board then?!

4.  Principals, to FAIRGRADE’s knowledge, have been given no implementation plan for this proposal.  At least one principal has told FAIRGRADE he was very surprised to have this sprung on him only a week before school officially begins. This principal was emailing other principal colleagues for their input about handling potential teacher reassignments.  How’s that for poor FCPS planning?!

Here is the real story on Dale’s solution.  In part, it’s all political.  School Board Chair Janie Strauss can now run around and tell parents, “Look we listened.  We’re offering the courses on-line.  And in the process we’re going high-tech for students.”  In doing so, she’s hoping the HONORS issue won’t be a drag on her re-election campaign.  She’ll tell parents the problem is now solved – except the issue is not solved, and I bet she won’t tell parents any of the drawbacks I just outlined above.

Dale’s solution is also a set-up for failure of upper-level, HONORS courses.  It is poorly designed and contains no implementation plan.  Students don’t even know this option exists yet because principals just found out about it themselves.  And if students don’t know about it, then they won’t take the classes.  And that’s when FCPS will deliver the final HONORS death blow by announcing that there is no longer student interest in upper-levels, HONORS courses.   Mission accomplished on FCPS’ part with ZERO benefit to our students.

It would be nice to know if other school districts are going online with these courses and if there are any published success rates.  How many FCPS parents want their child to be a guinea pig in FCPS’ expansion into the new “online frontier” without any data to examine first?  I don’t.

Unfortunately, there are no answers to these questions because our unelected superintendent and his staff have bypassed the School Board and did not get approval for this serious curriculum alteration. Parents upset with Dale’s solution ought to personally hold Jane Strauss accountable for permitting this to happen on her watch as School Board chair!  Her lack of leadership on this issue is astounding!

Final points to consider – these two proposed online courses are NOT honors material.  That much is clear.  Kudos that FCPS wants to go online but we should have a community-wide discussion about all aspects of this education delivery vehicle first.    If the goal is to go online, why not begin with foreign languages first?  Programs like Rosetta Stone can provide student feedback without a teacher.   Can FCPS say the same about advanced courses?  Without an engaged School Board to ask these questions, we don’t know.

Related News Articles:

Fairfax County Schools to Offer Honors Courses Online  (Washington Post – 9.1.11)

Online Honors Class Offerings Spark New Debate (Fairfax County Times – 9.2.11)

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July 20, 2011

Fairfax County School Board’s Discussion on Honors Courses

School Board Work Session

Someone wasn’t prepared for class Monday!

Monday’s School Board work session (7.18.11) on the Honors issue ran for two hours. It could have been more productive if Peter Noonan, the Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services, had come prepared for the same discussion many School Board members – and members of the public –  thought they came for.

Some attendees thought the discussion would focus on curriculum choices that best serve all FCPS students.  Noonan’s presentation instead focused on why FCPS believes a two-tiered curriculum best serves underrepresented minority students.

Patty Reed

When Noonan finished his presentation, Patty Reed -who represents the Providence District – stated, “I’m very troubled…this is not an objective analysis.  I would throw out this presentation and start over…present the pros and cons of a three-tier curriculum and see how many other school systems offer three tiers.” 

Dr. Dale stated, “You raised a different question than what we came for.  That wasn’t today’s presentation.”

Reed replied,“This is what makes me most upset.  That is a decision that should be made by this Board.  We never had that discussion (to remove Honors courses from the curriculum).” 

Dan Storck of the Mount Vernon District told Noonan that he did not understand FCPS’ assertion that the curriculum for standard level, Honors and AP courses is essentially the same.  Noonan later stated, “So why have a middle choice (Honors) when the classes are the same?”

The problem is that all students are not the same.  Some students are not ready or prepared to take multiple, college level AP courses.  Although the curriculum for the three tiers may be similar, the classroom expectations between standard level, Honors and AP courses are vastly different.   Why not have a middle option to serve all levels of learners who want a rigorous, yet balanced course load?

FCPS’ excuse was to cite College Board marketing materials which claim that students who score a 1-2 on the AP exams are better prepared for college. (College Board is the organization that prepares and sells the AP curriculum to thousands of high schools across the country.) 

At-Large School Board Member Tina Hone didn’t buy the argument.

She asked, “Is it better for a kid to take the AP class and fail the exam or take the Honors class and pass?”

FCPS’ curriculum expert Noonan said, “The AP class.”

Hone quickly pulled out a Harvard study demonstrating that students who passed Honors courses did better in college than kids who got a failing 1-2 grade on the AP test.

Hone stated, “This (study) runs a bit counter to what you guys are saying.   It’s saying the Honors kids are doing well.  This is the kind of data we need to make decisions on.” 

She’s right.

FCPS would like the focus of this debate to stay on underrepresented minorities and closing the achievement gap.  But here is the reality:  Limited curriculum choices are not helping our students overall.

While there has been a small increase in the number of FCPS minority students who are taking AP courses, it is clear that a much greater number of FCPS students are now relegated to Standard Level (gen ed) courses because FCPS has removed the Honors option and these students can’t afford the stress that comes with a full plate of AP courses.

Bottom line – Honors courses provide rigor for all student groups – no matter what their ethnicity or socio-economic background.  The learning potential of the overall student body should not be sacrificed so that FCPS can artificially close the achievement gap.

FCPS should focus on what’s best for ALL students.  Bring back the upper-level, high-school Honors courses FCPS and continue encouragement of minority participation in both AP and Honors courses.  That would truly be a win-win for all FCPS students!

July 7, 2011

FCPS Flexing Its Muscle to Kill Upper-Level Honors Courses

Fairfax County Public Schools is exerting its muscle in trying to kill the effort by parents and teachers (and privately some principals) to re-institute upper-level, high school honors courses for 11th and 12th graders.

The most critical point now is this:

  • FCPS officials are misleading School Board members by telling them that 100% of FCPS high school principals across the county are on board with FCPS’ phase-out of these upper level, high school honors courses.  However, some high school principals are privately reaching out and telling FAIRGRADE they want to KEEP these classes.  They know these classes benefit our student population across the board.

I will not identify who these principals are because they justifiably fear the Superintendent’s powerful machine.  Dale and company hold the careers of these principals in their hands.  Last spring, we saw negative repercussions for teachers at West Potomac High School who publicly spoke out in support of keeping these Honors courses.  So who could blame these principals for wanting to remain anonymous?

It’s a sorry state of affairs that this fine school district conducts business this way.  School Board members can still get to the TRUTH  and bypass  Superintendent Jack Dale’s iron fist if they really want to.

One option for School Board members is this:  Reach out and speak privately and directly with as many FCPS high school principals as possible before the July 18th work session on this issue.  Solicit their views and assure these principals that their identities will remain private so as not to jeopardize their careers.

With hope,  enough School Board members will see FCPS’ attempts to whitewash the truth and rise to the moment – as they did when they agreed to change FCPS’ grading policies in 2009.  They told the Superintendent NO then – and they should do it again.

Right now, our great school district is on the edge of a curriculum cliff.  FCPS can offer fewer options that serve fewer students or they can offer a three-tiered curriculum, including Honors courses, that gives students a wider range of learning options.

In this case, more is better and FAIRGRADE has the facts to prove this point.

School Board members – please pick up the phone and reach out to our high school principals.  Don’t take this school district over the cliff without the facts.  FCPS’ all-out pursuit to close the achievement gap should not be done at the expense of FCPS’s reputation to deliver a quality education to ALL students.

June 1, 2011

Hey Jay Mathews – No Need to Re-Invent the Wheel on Honors

The Washington Post

Image via Wikipedia

Jay Mathews’ column in Monday’s Washington Post asserts that Fairfax County parents who are fighting to bring back Honors courses should place their efforts on “reforming” what constitutes an Honors course.  As a member of FAIRGRADE’s leadership team, Jay contacted me last week while prepping material for his column.

Jay’s idea is that FAIRGRADE and other advocates should follow Alexandria public school system’s approach which mixes AP students and regular students in one class – giving the AP students more homework.  Jay says this approach has inspired Gen Ed students to switch to AP.

And that is all well and good – for Alexandria.

As I pointed out to Jay – Alexandria has one high school.  Fairfax County has 26.  It’s comparing apples to oranges.  What works for TC Williams HS in Alexandria is hardly applicable in Fairfax County when you consider our very large class sizes and varying student demographics.  I also asked Jay to survey our teacher unions for their opinions before advocating for this “combo class” approach in his nationally read column.  FCPS teachers tell me they are already overloaded with classroom responsibilities.

Jay asks at the end of his column, “The national trend is fewer tracks (gen.ed and AP – no honors). Why not show that Fairfax can do even better than other systems?”

I asked Jay, “Why not let Fairfax demonstrate that this national trend might be wrong in the first place?”

The data that parent groups like FAIRGRADE are bringing forth does raise serious questions.

My FAIRGRADE colleague Megan McLaughlin agreed to let me re-produce her message points she sent to Jay:

1.  Your column made NO mention of the fact that FCPS data shows that “on average” approximately 30% FCPS AP test-takers do NOT pass their exams in AP English and Social studies.  Why did you not cite this, and cite the fact this demonstrates students have NOT mastered the subject material? For those students, Honors courses could be a better fit.

2. Your column made NO mention that FCPS’ data shows 2-tier levels actually INHIBIT students’ pursuit of academic rigor.  (Approx 50% of Woodson’s Honors English students opt-out of AP English for 11th/12th grade and end up w/no option but Gen Ed. Furthermore, FCPS data on under-represented minority participation in AP courses has been virtually stagnant (FCPS Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee Report 2010)

2.  Your column stated that Montgomery County and Loudoun County are reducing their Upper-level Honors in English & Social Studies.  What evidence do you have of this, as it contradicts our research as well as the Washington Post’s article by Kevin Sieff printed on May 21st?

3.  Your column stated that Peter Noonan (FCPS Superintendent for Instructional Services) has “seen the research” that 3-tier levels can cause students to follow their friends and NOT take more rigorous courses.  PLEASE cite his research source. If you don’t have it, why would you include this in your column w/o verifying it?  I will re-send the ONLY research that Noonan provided the public, and ironically it does NOT support the removal of upper-level HONORS courses.

4.  While FCPS should encourage MORE students to pursue Upper-level college-prep/honors courses, they still need to provide Gen Ed for those who may need it (ie: ESL, Special Ed, etc).

5. In terms of ACADEMIC EQUITY, why does FCPS offer Upper-level HONORS in Math/Sciences but not for English & Social Studies? Why do the IB schools have 3-tiers (Gen Ed, Standard IB, Higher-level IB) but AP schools aren’t allowed to?

6. West Potomac/RHC parents have specific Honors/AP teachers who have been professionally punished for speaking out on this issue. That is a story that I hope Kevin Sieff, you or the Washington Post will write about.

My last thoughts for Jay Mathews…

Participating in your child’s education shouldn’t mean doing FCPS administrators jobs on data-gathering for them – and for free no less!

Jay wants Fairfax to “lead the nation” on this issue.  If FCPS administrators agree, then parents and teachers deserve a full review of all the data to determine what is best for our students before asking them to serve as “combo-class guinea pigs” for the nation.  I care more that our students in Fairfax County receive a well-rounded education and curriculum offerings that meet their needs – and Honors courses do that.  So let’s not re-invent the wheel.

Related Articles:

Why Not Honors Courses For All?  (Washington Post, May 30, 2011)

School districts Move Away from Honors Classes in Favor of AP Courses – (Washington Post, May 21)

A Questions of Honor – (The Connection Newspaper, May 18, 2011)

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