An update on “earned honors” – and its embrace by the school board

from, public domain.

We are now coming to the end of Year 2 of the implementation of “earned honors” in District 214, so I wanted to provide an update on the classes and the district’s activities.  Some of this recaps my most recent article on the topic, from back in January, but I add in more recent information as well.

First, as to the facts of the matter:

At Rolling Meadows, freshman biology is offered as a single class for all students but those with special needs, rather than offering different options for honors and non-honors kids.  In order to accommodate different learning abilities, the class essentially operates as a self-study period, in which students watch videos and work on worksheets, with periodic group activities and tests.  The class is intentionally designed not to ever require any homework.  Grading is done on a scale of Exceeds, Meets, or Almost Meets Expectations (my words, not theirs, which are more jargon-y and I don’t recall them precisely), with, in practice, grades below a C recorded as an incomplete on the expectation that somehow, later on, students will catch up.  At the same time, grades are not tracked in Infinite Campus and are up for negotiation at the end of the semester.

Without any means of direct comparison, I have no way to concretely judge whether my son in this class is learning the same level of material as he would at a Prospect or Hersey honors class, but common sense would say it is impossible for this to be the case.  He certainly doesn’t feel that he’s learning lots that’s new compared to his life sciences 7th grade course material.  And as to the “regular” and the “honors” kids being combined, the only advantages I can see are that any given teacher has proportionately fewer “difficult kids” to manage and each teacher has an equal share of the “good kids.”

It is my understanding that the freshman biology class at Elk Grove works similarly, with different independent work to earn the “honors” designation.

However, I have likewise gotten admittedly secondhand information about the geography and the freshman and sophomore English classes at Elk Grove:  there, the parent reports, there is no “differentiated” instruction but the same curriculum for all.  Instead, all students who earn over an 85% in a grade-level curriculum are given the “earned honors” label.  Parents who have followed this will know that early on the district claimed that these courses are being taught “at an honors level” but I have also heard indirectly that students who were in “honors” classes in middle school have reported that their freshmen English class is easier than their 8th grade class.  This isn’t a surprise, but certainly means their claims to the contrary are dishonest, and eventually will catch up to them, when highly-selective colleges decline to count it as “honors” work or when honors students aren’t prepared to enter the AP track in 11th grade.

Second, as to the school board:

Over the course of the fall, I spoke during the Public Comment period at multiple board meetings and asked for them to be transparent about the Earned Honors program and for the board to discuss it and go on record with its approval rather than giving a tacit, behind-closed-doors approval.  I even went through the Attorney General’s appeal process when my FOIA requests were denied because each and every document related to the program (but for parent letters) was deemed to be exempt from the FOIA process for various reasons.

But the March 3 board meeting I did not attend — it was a “workshop” meeting, held at Hersey High School, with nothing on the agenda other than a “Hersey High School Spotlight” and a “Teaching and Learning Update.”  My expectation based on the agenda was that this was a “fluff” meeting meant to allow Hersey staff to showcase their school to the board.

Then, at the following meeting, we learned that the vaguely-named “Teaching and Learning Update” was actually a presentation on the Earned Honors program.  And, no, I don’t believe it was mere oversight that this was presented at an unrecorded workshop meeting without any indicator in the agenda that this would be discussed.  Here’s what the subsequent minutes said:

 Superintendent Schuler introduced P. Kelly and E. Hart who presented an update on the Earned Honors Pilot currently in its second year at Elk Grove and first year at Rolling Meadows. A video featuring teachers in the pilot, commenting on the strengths of the program for both teachers and students, was viewed. The students who participated will be monitored their junior and senior years to see if the growth continues to maintain or escalate. More students at EGHS have signed up for junior AP English than ever before. Next steps include calibrate, measure other outcomes, track where they go next and expand PLCs. The Board discussed how to showcase the program to the public with greater detail and data, to make it easier to understand the greater benefits.

This is the entirety of what is available to the public.  (According to my web search, a PLC is a Professional Learning Community, or a team of teachers grouped by content area, so this seems to be a jargon-y way of saying detracking will be expanded to other subjects)

The video itself was not posted; after a FOIA request, it has been uploaded to YouTube, via a “private” link (that is, it isn’t visible to anyone browsing D214 YouTube comment but only to those who have this link).

And the video itself?  It provides no substantive information on the program.  It consists of teachers praising the program — that’s it.

At the 0:38 mark, a biology teacher says, “I used to think that honors classes were just for smart students and now I realize that I can do it.”  (Again, see above — if the class content isn’t as difficult as a “real” honors class, this is a trivial statement.)

An Elk Grove English teacher says “the biggest benefit that I see is opportunities for all students to have access to learning experiences and peers that they maybe wouldn’t normally see in other classes.”

A Meadows biology teacher says that the class has helped students build relationships with each other and the teacher earlier in the year.  (How would the Earned Honors model do this?)

The English teacher returns to enthuse that all students have the same opportunities rather than being set in a fixed path (honestly, I think this speaks very poorly of the system, if teachers don’t think they are able to notice the kids who would do well if moved up a level, and don’t think they can motivate and encourage students, otherwise — and parents have told me that in reality children are being invited to move levels).

At 4:30 into the video, a Meadows science teacher addresses the question of “rigor,” which she says is not about work or content covered but about students “being able to reflect on their learning” and have “problem-solving skills” because students can look up information on Google.

At 6:00, a teachers says “earned honors shouldn’t be about doing more work or doing work faster,” but about thinking outside the box and collaborating with classmates.

At 8:45, the English teacher addresses differentiation, but she doesn’t provide any specifics of what she actually does to meet all students’ needs.

And based on this video and presentation (the latter of which is not available to the public) and any questions they may or may not have asked (no such questions are recorded in the minutes), the board members at the following meeting, on March 17, gushed about this program:  Andrea Rauch and Millie Palmer both spoke effusively about how fabulous it was (at about the 1 hr 50 min mark), and then Dan Petro said, “I wish Elizabeth Bauer had been at that meeting because she has been complaining about it for months” — wholly ignorant or indifferent to the fact that the prior board meeting was, again, not recorded and given a vague title so the public had no way of knowing.  (I would pull specific quotes but the video player at the link is not working properly now.)

No interest in other points of view, nor even the opportunity for parents or students themselves to speak, except as quoted by the promoters of the change.  (One of the teachers in the video said, “no one has complained” — but there has hardly been opportunity to provide feedback and what parent wants to put up a no-win fight?) And no interest in concrete data — just a complete buy-in of the idea that it’s better for kids to be mixed in together rather than given differentiated instruction, or at least at Meadows and Elk Grove, because you cannot convince me it is mere coincidence that these schools are losing their honors classes, not Hersey or Prospect.

How much further this program will go, and whether enough other parents will finally put up enough of a fight to end it, no one knows.

from, public domain.


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