Referring to a proposal to restructure the Freshman Humanities and Biology classes over the next two years, District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said, “I’m excited about moving away from racially segregated freshman classes to classes that integrate students of all races who are ready for challenging work.”
The proposed restructuring, discussed again at the Nov. 22 School Board meeting, will “open more opportunities for students…, raise achievement expectations for all students” and “provide a uniform … process that encourages students to earn Honors credit,” according to administrators. Their presentation was a follow-up to one made to the Board at the Nov. 8 meeting that described changes to honors-level work, which will now be evaluated according to standards that align with AP and International Baccalaureate assessments.
Elimination of Stand-Alone Honors and Level Assignments
Under the proposal, incoming freshmen will be assigned to one of two levels in the 1 Humanities course. Students who score above the 40th percentile on the Explore test will be assigned to 1 Humanities; students who score below the 40th percentile will be assigned to 1 Humanities with Support.
If the proposal is approved, there will no longer be a stand-alone honors level of Freshman Humanities. To qualify for honors credit, students will take benchmark assessments and earn honors points throughout the semester, rather than being assigned to classes or levels where regular or honors credit is conferred strictly based on the fact that the student is in the class or the level.
Administrators have maintained that students who are assigned to a “regular” level track (historically primarily minority students) as freshmen tend to stay at that level rather than attempting to move to higher level challenges, inhibiting the opportunity for them to improve their academic achievement.
Administrators further clarified the support that will be provided to lower-performing students. Students in the 1 Humanities with Support course will be taught a “curriculum modified from the 1 Humanities common core curriculum, designed to meet the needs of struggling readers” and will also “receive a double period of reading support.” Students between the 40th and the 50th percentile will be enrolled in a “supplementary reading course” while they participate in the new 1 Humanities course.
Curriculum Improvement, Differentiated Instruction and Professional Development
Dr. Diep Nguyen, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction and Dr. Peter Bavis, Associate Principal for Teaching and Learning provided the Board with more details about the new curriculum, professional development for teachers and how honors credit would be earned.
Dr. Nguyen said that the curriculum will be enhanced by “high expectations aligned with the recently published Illinois State Board of Education Common Core Standards, intentional teaching of high level thinking skills and effective effort and built-in, differentiated support to help students learn at their highest level.”
Going forward, Dr. Nguyen said the District will “form interdisciplinary curriculum teams of teachers to ‘map’ the common Humanities courses and build common assessments, review and validate the Common Core 1 Humanities curriculum and field test common assessments, and use internal and external experts to help build high expectations and support for students.”
The need for differentiated instruction has been a continuing theme and consistent concern in light of the implementation of a classroom structure that includes a range of student abilities. Although according to administrators, at least 80 percent of students who will be assigned to the 1 Humanities course are reading at grade level, some Board and community members have expressed concern about the ability of teachers to handle a variety of student capabilities.
Dr. Nguyen said that Evanston Township High School administrators consider “skillful teaching” as defined by consultant Dr. Jon Saphier as “having a comprehensive understanding of teaching and learning, and a large repertoire of tools, and bringing it to bear in order to match the curriculum and instruction to the needs of students within specific contexts.” This approach, according to Dr. Nguyen, was initiated at ETHS as a “major part of professional development since 1999.”
The District has many resources to help with professional development, Dr. Nguyen said, including several outside consultants, nine instructional coaches, and organizational structures such as the District’s professional learning communities (PLCs) and lesson study processes.
Guidelines to Earn Honors Credit
Administrators also sought to clarify the new approach to honors credit. Under the proposed system, students in Freshman Humanities (and later in Biology) will have to earn honors credit through a series of five benchmark assessments administered throughout the semester and evaluated against a five-point rubric aligned with International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement approaches.
“All students in 1 Humanities will participate in the earned honors credit,” Dr. Bavis said. “All students will take the assessments. It’s not an option, it’s not extra. If students score well enough they will earn honors credit.”
Dr. Bavis said that teachers will grade the benchmark assignments cooperatively so that assessments will not be based on only one person’s evaluation. And finally, the goal will be for teachers to help students do the work that is required to qualify for honors credit in a process-oriented fashion.
“That’s why I love the way we have configured this performance based grading system,” said Dr. Nguyen. “The educator in me [wants to say], ‘Let me teach you how to earn honors credit.’ We have built in ways that will teach them to how to be successful.”
Teachers Support Changes
This meeting attracted teachers and students, as well as parents, who had been the main speakers at the previous meeting.
Despite the fact that at least one Board member and many parents have expressed concerns that teachers will not be able to handle the new structure proposed for the freshman courses, three seasoned ETHS teachers spoke confidently about their extensive experience and comfort with teaching a range of students at every level and debunked the idea that being more inclusive in the classroom meant a reduction in achievement levels.
History teacher and ETHS alumnus Matthew Walsh said that contrary to popular belief, even Advanced Placement level classes have a wide range of student capabilities. “We must, and do, differentiate in AP, as in all other classes.” He also said that in the AP Psychology class, which had grown larger and more diverse in recent years, there was improved performance.
“I have never been in a classroom where everyone was at the same level,” said history teacher and ETHS alumnus Franz Calixte. “Differentiation occurs in every single class, every single day in some shape or form. For the past three years, we have received explicit instruction on how to differentiate based on more recent research and findings, but this is something that district teachers have been doing for years.”
English teacher and English Department instructional coach John Stephenson echoed his colleagues. “Because of the many resources available to us and because of our student population and our commitment to our craft, we teachers can succeed in providing all of our students with the best education possible.”
Students Weigh In
ETHS junior Emma Milliken said that being in a mixed level class “gave me an environment in which I could grow and learn much more than when I was in a straight honors class.”
Senior Naomi Daugherty said that she was a minority student in straight honors classes and had developed the stigmatized view that “other minority students in regular or mixed-level classes could not achieve at the same level (as she could).” She changed this perspective last year, she said, when she was in a mixed-level class and saw other minority students who were “gliding through their regular classes” while never being offered the opportunity for honors level work.
Eric Lindner said that he felt that the proposal needs work and that there are issues with how the teachers will teach and how it will be evaluated. Although he advocated implementing the proposal, he cautioned, “Don’t rush into the process.”
Eric Baker asked the Board to adhere to their previously promised three-year evaluation of the modified Freshman Humanities structure before proceeding with the current proposal.
Most parents speaking at the meeting urged the Board to go more slowly, to implement different parts of the restructuring in a gradual or pilot approach, asked for the full three year evaluation to be presented before moving forward and expressed concern about the restructuring’s effect on high achieving students.
However, others said “we can’t wait” because “unempowered” black and poor students and their parents need “advocates”.
The School Board will meet again in special session on Monday, November 29 on this issue and is scheduled to vote on the proposal on December 13.