Why dismantle leveled high school courses?

By Jess Wisloski
For The Essex Reporter

The move to consolidate classes in secondary schools has come into focus in recent weeks as Essex High School administrators have been discussing how such a plan might work here.

Dismantling levels, which is also tied to tracking – or the movement of a student through their academic career on a certain course of same-level classes – is part of a nationwide movement that began rolling out in a visible way last year.

Communities from Colorado to Virginia, including a number of towns in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, have begun to integrate high school courses that previously had been taught in sections that correlated to their academic rigor.

Following the lead of these the schools was Essex High School’s next step, according to Principal Rob Reardon, who explained to dozens of parents on Monday night why the district had been discussing merging the 100 and 200 level classes with teacher leaders last month. The plan could eventually include the elimination of honors and advanced placement classes as well.

“…Schools in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Maine that were further ahead than where we are in Vermont, have used that strategy. So, for example, what does that mean? Instead of Grade 10 Honors English, they have Grade 10 English,” he said.  “And depending on the learning that the student chooses to do, they could earn honors credit, which would then appear on their transcript, or not, in the same class.”

“What I don’t have an idea of right now is how that actually works. So what would need to be done is to have a team visit these high schools that have been successful in terms of doing this,” he said.

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Across the U.S.

In Charlottesville, Va., English teacher Nicole Carter told a TV station that an unleveled but honors-oriented class that was open to all students “leads to a wider variety of perspectives in class discussion, because the kids are coming from various backgrounds,” according to WVIR, an NBC station.

How does that work? It’s taught as an honors class. Students read similarly themed books of different rigor levels, and the teacher breaks down discussions and assignments together, more as they might do in a middle-level class.

In New Hampshire, one superintendent said he considered leveling a form of “segregation” and to continue the practice of doing it in the schools was dated.

“We think that leveling and tracking and this academic segregation process will be coming to an end sooner than people are thinking,” Mark Ryan, associate superintendent of curriculum in Manchester School District, told New Hampshire Public Radio. The district was cited by federal civil rights investigators in 2014 for a lack of minority students in honors and advanced placement classes. The reports stated that leveling in freshman classes was a barrier to those students’ success.

“In addition, investigators found that the potential barriers to greater participation in higher-level learning opportunities included the assignment of freshman high school students to academic ‘levels’ based largely on performance testing and the fact that changes out of the assigned levels are infrequently made,” according to the U.S. Department of Education report.

Manchester, despite some pushback from teachers, has since adopted a plan for collapsing leveled courses, NHPR reported.

Essex’s superintendent, Judith DeNova, has acknowledged taking such an approach was going to require a lot of work with teachers. The National Education Association has formally come out against unleveling, and the local union has said they want a voice in the changes.

“It’s not easy work that we’re doing, and we want to ensure that our community stays supportive of our work, so they’ll have a basic understand of our forward movement as we change,” DeNova said.

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Unleveled in Vt.

Keri Gelanian, principal at the renowned Rivendell Institute, in Orford, N.H., which serves predominantly Vermont students, said teachers are right about the difficulty in teaching unleveled classes. Overcoming that difficulty would be one of the toughest parts of the transition, he said.

But his school district’s stated philosophy against leveled classes — it was created just in 2000 — was part of what attracted him to work at Rivendell.

“It sets the same expectations for all kids,” he said. “It forces the school to be more accountable to the kids, in terms of their differences in their approaches to learning, their difficulties their strengths, and it puts the onus on the school to respond to the kids and where they are,” he said. All students at Rivendell are expected to take Chemistry, he said, and all students must take Algebra 2, he said as an example.

“It’s hard work for the teachers. You’ve got to really think about what you teach and how you teach it, in order to try and reach a full range of kids,” he said.

When Gelanian spoke to a Lebanon, N.H. panel of educators about a move to unlevel Lebanon’s schools, he said the resistance was palpable, but predictable. “The infamous achievement gap in education is a socioeconomic issue. It’s not a thinking issue, it’s not a kid issue. It’s economics. And it plays itself out in communities and it play itself out in schools.”

Rivendell has kept dual-enrollment college courses, and offers an “honors challenge” for high achievers, but it doesn’t have advanced placement options.

At Champlain Valley Union High School, in Hinesburg, which has long been an untracked or unleveled school, the curriculum director said they see it as a value to both students and teachers.

“Students set a model for each other, students set expectations for learning, and students who learn together, learn to live together,” wrote Katherine Riley, curriculum director, in an email. She said administrators felt it also helped teachers perfect their craft.

“It benefits teachers, as all groups of learners have diverse needs. In a leveled system, it is easier for teachers to falsely assume that all learners are in the same place,” she said.

Harwood Union High School, an 800-student secondary school in Moretown, is just starting to rethink how they lead courses, and co-principal Lisa Atwood said their integration of the state’s new proficiency standards are what nudged their work at integrated classes along.

“We haven’t done that across classes yet,” she said, but explained that a few honors-level courses being taught at a higher level had adopted a more heterogeneous, or mixed learning styles, approach this school year. The school is planning to integrate all of its humanities, American studies and ninth-grade classes next year.

Honors distinctions are something they’re going to offer in 2016 within the heterogeneously organized classes.

Grades are no longer weighted, she added, and students are not ranked.