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Class Struggle
In-depth coverage: Education Page |  The Answer Sheet
Posted at 03:06 AM ET, 10/20/2011

Should everyone take honors classes?

Earlier this year, I said educators should try eliminating grade-level courses in high school and move everyone into honors or AP courses. Did I think anyone would actually do that? No.

Wrong again. As some upset e-mailers have been telling me, the Anne Arundel County schools are going ahead with such a plan, in a slapdash way made worse by not preparing parents for the change.

Karen Colburn, who has a seventh-grader at Central Middle School in Edgewater, said her advanced-track son found himself in mixed math and English classes slowed to a crawl so non-honors students could catch up. “Kids are repeating things they learned in elementary school,” Colburn said. “Also, supports are not in place for special education children and some standard-level children.”

Anne Arundel Schools Superintendent Kevin Maxwell, in his monthly newspaper column this week, acknowledged “some missteps in the communication of some of these initiatives” but said “our goal remains to raise the achievement of every single child.” He and his school district have a good record on that. Anne Arundel has significantly raised participation in college-level high school courses such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate.

At Annapolis High School, with the county’s highest high school poverty rate (35 percent), the portion of students from low-income families meeting federal learning targets has jumped from 26.5 percent in 2006 to 69.2 percent this year. Among students at that school receiving special education services, the portion reaching the federal standard has gone from 24.3 percent to 76.7 percent in that same period.

Annapolis High delayed its own honors-for-all plan after parents and the city-appointed Annapolis Education Commission objected to the speed with which it was being implemented. I think Central Middle and other county schools should also slow down. They haven’t devoted enough time to training teachers and educating parents in how this can succeed.

Colburn’s son, for instance, finds that his Algebra I course, usually for the most accelerated seventh-graders, this year has students who did not take pre-algebra in sixth grade, as he did. My next book, “The War Against Dummy Math,” is about a national pilot program in the 1990s that required all students to take Algebra I. But it dealt with ninth-graders, not seventh-graders, and had success only because teachers had intense summer training and parents were given detailed briefings.

My May 30 proposal for an end to regular courses in Fairfax County applied only to some courses, and only for 11th- and 12th-graders. Fairfax has opened its high school honors courses to all students who wanted to enroll since 1998. But that means only those who think they are ready to jump in, whereas Anne Arundel wants to include everyone, whether they want to or not.

I am glad Anne Arundel honors parents are getting a taste of the thin gruel that has been standard fare for non-honors students. One parent was shocked to see, when she observed her daughter’s new English class full of regular kids, that it included 25 minutes of silent reading and review of an elementary school lesson. As Maxwell knows, many non-honors students are ready for more and deserve to get it.

A volunteer for the Annapolis Education Commission told me that two teachers in the group that studied the honors-for-all plan at Annapolis High think it could work. A commission majority, however, wanted it tried in a few small classes first. The school district, he said, has tentatively backed off its plan to put all ninth-graders into honors English but is still keen on honors science and social studies for all ninth-graders next year.

The commission noted the success Annapolis High has had with changes already made. Why jeopardize them, and alienate parents, by moving too fast? The principals of all the schools pushing honors-for-all have the right intentions but ought to be clear about what they are doing and be careful to do it right.

By  |  03:06 AM ET, 10/20/2011

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