Red Apple Mom

September 1, 2011

Honors Curriculum Delivered “Max Headroom” Style?


  • 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?


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)


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!

April 28, 2011

Restore the Honors Courses

I don’t know how many more questionable policy-making decisions I can take from FCPS.

The latest?  The gradual elimination that has taken place of most English & Social Studies Honors level courses for 10th, 11th and 12th graders when there is a corresponding AP course offered.  FCPS has been conducting this phase-out over a number of years.  No one really noticed it was happening. Only recently did the popular documentary, “Race to Nowhere” get a lot of people asking where all the Honors classes had gone.

These honors courses need to be restored.

Never mind that this decision to eliminate these courses appears to have been made without a definitive vote by the School Board.  Never mind that the “evidence” FCPS’ Department of Instructional Services has produced to “justify” this decision appears to be a misinterpretation of the data.

The bigger concerns here are the negative impact on FCPS student achievement and college admissions opportunities.

Elimination of these courses, which include English Honors 11, English Honors 12, World History Geography 2, US History Honors and Government Honors, means our high school students have limited curriculum choices.  They can take a Gen Ed course which many students find less challenging and not as rigorous as the Honors option –  or they can load up on AP classes – whether they are ready and capable or not.

Equally high performing and competitive school districts in our area  – including Montgomery, Howard and Loudoun counties offer their students a 3-tiered curriculum that includes these English and Social Studies Honors courses.

So why is FCPS making decisions that in effect make our students less competitive?

FCPS’ 2-tier curriculum is like a restaurant menu that offers only two choices –a plate of rice or a plate of meat.

Where are the vegetables?

You need the vegetables.

Students deserve the additional choice of Honors course options for the challenging educational value they provide.

FCPS School Board Chair Kathy Smith disagrees.

Yesterday, Smith told WAMU-88.5 public radio station reporter Jonathan Wilson “I think we are better served – when a kid has a choice and wants to take a more rigorous course – if we can put them in an AP class.  It’s been proven through studies that those kids are more successful in college.”

Smith doesn’t seem to grasp that not everyone is ready for an AP course.  Importantly, not every student is capable of taking 4-5 AP courses in one year either.  Even FCPS recommends that students take no more than 2-3 AP courses per year.

FAIRGRADE and another parent advocacy group called Restore Honors Courses (RHC) recently learned that at Woodson High School, the data demonstrates students who formerly were taking Honors courses are now choosing Gen Ed classes over AP when the Honors option is no longer available.

Does FCPS know if this is happening in the rest of our high schools too?   And why are parents and teachers doing the research and compiling the data that FCPS administrators should have done a long time ago?!

Here’s another aspect of this issue to consider:  Remember how hard the community fought alongside FAIRGRADE to gain the extra 0.50 GPA weight for Honors courses?  The removal of these Honors courses means that the student who doesn’t want to take the college level AP course only has the option for the Gen Ed version now – and Gen Ed classes don’t get extra GPA weighting.  That results in a less competitive kid when college admissions officers are looking for academic rigor on a student’s transcript and top GPAs for merit scholarships.

School Board – I hope you’ll reverse this decline of our curriculum offerings and restore these five Honors courses or we may see students submitting letters like this with their college applications:

“Dear College Admissions Officer,

FCPS doesn’t offer a three-tiered curriculum like equally competitive school districts.  My only choice was to stress out and take a full load of 4 or more AP courses, which FCPS by the way discourages, or taking Gen Ed courses. 

As I tried to balance my weekend job, school and sports schedule in order to be a sane, well-prepared student, I took FCPS’ recommendation of only taking 2-3 AP courses. 

Please do not be misled by the lack of rigor on my transcript.  If there had been an Honors course alternative, I could have and would have taken it.  Of course I would have had a higher GPA then too. 

I’m sure you understand.  After all, EVERYONE does know how great Fairfax County Public Schools are right?”

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