A proposal to change a sophomore history course at Evanston Township High School raised concerns among some District 202 board members, not because of the course content, but because it would follow the earned-honors model of conferring honors credit previously used only for the recently restructured Freshman Humanities and Biology courses.

The proposed change in the course is two-fold, the first being the format and content of the course and the second being the use of the earned-honors model. 

Currently, sophomores can take a hodge-podge of semester-long courses to fulfill their history credits: Asian Studies, African History and Culture, Russian History, Latin American Studies, Middle East Studies.  Dr. Peter Bavis, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, proposed to change to a single year long course, Modern World History: a Global Perspective. 

According to the proposal, the course will “continue where the freshman curriculum left off [the beginning of the 19th century, according to administrators] … Students who have completed this two year cycle will have the option to take the Advanced Placement World History exam at the end of their sophomore year.”

Board members Jonathan Baum, Scott Rochelle and Gretchen Livingston all objected in some measure to using the earned-honors model for any additional courses before evaluative data on its effectiveness had been reviewed.

Over the past several years the Freshman Humanities and Biology courses have been restructured through a process of de-tracking and implementing a systematic method of awarding honors credit. 

Last spring, administrators proposed a significant evaluation of the restructuring with the support of Dr. David Figlio of  Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research and a team of researchers from Northwestern, the American Institutes of Research, and Harvard University.  At the time, Dr. Figlio said that the earliest any analysis would be available would be the end of 2013 and that “this policy and implementation is a work in progress.”

Mr. Baum said that he recalled that when the Board approved the restructuring of the Biology course that the District would not “extend the use of the model” until it had been evaluated.

“I don’t know whether earned honors works yet,” said Mr. Baum.  “This is not about earned honors and about sophomore history … This is about being faithful to the process … to evaluate before we change.”

“It was my understanding that earned-honors  [program] was one of the many moving parts of the freshman restructuring,” said Mr. Rochelle.  “We have people who we’ve enlisted to evaluate this – we haven’t seen anything about … whether it’s working or not – seeing this here nestled into this new class – I’m not buying it – we owe it to everyone to see how it’s working.”

“I don’t have a strong objection to earned honors,” said Ms. Livingston. “There’s a lot to recommend it. I thought assurances were made that we’d get more information.”

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon sought to make a distinction between the freshman restructuring, which included both de-tracking and implementation of earned honors, and the use of the earned-honors model in sophomore history.  All of the current semester-long sophomore history courses are, according to administrators, already mixed-level courses.

“This is not about de-tracking,” he said.  “This is how teachers are going to have a set of standardized expectations.  We need to have some mutual agreement about how honors is granted.”

History teacher James Sklar, who worked on the proposal for the new course and has, by his own admission, has taught all levels of history and all of the currently available semester long sophomore classes, stressed the need for standardization of how honors credit is awarded.

Currently, he said, “it’s highly variable … not fair … It’s necessary to ensure that all students are being held to the same standard.”

Dr. Witherspoon said his understanding was that the Board approves courses and teachers decide how courses are evaluated.  “The Board has never asked us to assess how we award honors credit in all the other courses we offer.  We are trying to create more consistency.”

While Dr. Witherspoon acknowledged that “the Board can do whatever [it] wants,  I really believe that our teachers [should] decide how to evaluate students.”

Other Board members did not share the concern about the implementation of the earned-honors model.

Board president Mark Metz said he was surprised the topic was a source of so much controversy.  He reminded the Board that Prof. Figlio had told them that there would not be any data available until next year and that it was risky to draw any conclusions about success or failure prematurely.

Board member Rachel Hayman pointed out that Ms. Livingston and Board member Deborah Graham had complained in earlier meetings about the “lack of rigor at the sophomore level” and said she thought Ms. Livingston would be pleased with the new approach.  Ms. Hayman reminded her fellow Board members that “we used to have 37 grading scales and now we have one” and the administration was able to implement that change without Board approval. 

“I think this [the earned honors model] makes all the sense in the world,” said Ms. Hayman.  “We need to respect the decisions of our educators.”

“I echo what Rachel said,” said Board vice president Martha Burns. “Is it just the earned honors credit you are struggling with … I would think everyone would embrace this … I still can’t hear what the concern is.”

This is about being faithful to the process … to evaluate before we change.”

Ms. Livingston said she agreed that the change in curriculum was welcome but said

 “I think we’re collectively making this harder … What I am saying is … we have not received the information we requested … I don’t know how I can be any more clear about this …I don’t want to dictate how teachers evaluate – I would like to see the information.”

Both Ms. Burns and Mr. Metz agreed that although they did not personally feel the need to see evaluative data before approving the course change, they would review what was available with the administration to see if something could be provided before voting on the course change.