We have been discussing the issue of tracking in high school, particularly the standard system of regular (or general), honors (or advanced) and Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses. Parents in Fairfax County are resisting the school district’s elimination of honors courses, leaving only a choice between regular or AP classes. I suggested the district get rid of the regular and leave only honors and AP, because research shows that the college skills taught in honors classes are also important for students who want to get a good job or go to trade school right out of high school.

This generated much comment from around the country, including the two responses below from high school administrators who share the belief that they are not giving all of their students the enriched education they need. I think they provide a useful perspective from inside schools. What do you think of what they are saying?

Mike Musick is the principal of Conifer High School in Conifer, Colo. About nine percent of its students are low-income, and its AP test participation rate is high enough to rank well on my annual Challenge Index list. Amy Fineburg, an assistant principal, asked that I identify her high school only as a high-achieving one in Alabama. But I can say that its demographic and academic characteristics are similar to Conifer High’s.

From Mike Musick:


I have served as a principal in Conifer, Colo., for the last four years. When I started, the school had no honors classes and only 7 AP offerings (three were in Art). Approximately 150 students of 1,035 took 250 AP tests. The student body had a culture of “entitled free periods” and skating out of their senior year. Last year, 352 students took 684 tests and over 150 9th and 10th grade students were in honors classes. Our goal is to continue to work with our students so they understand that rigorous courses is their path to college and post secondary success.

All the research points to students taking more rigorous courses as the number one way to improve achievement. Consequently, in this age of greater accountability and teachers and principal’s evaluations tied to students performance, I reflect on [a comment from one of my coaches] when he would say, “...each week my job depends on 16- to 17-year-olds’ decisions on the field and and court, so my goal is to leave nothing for chance and hope that my players make the right choices that we drilled on do diligently.” One area where I believe we leave too much in the hands of our students is course choice. Too often, schools spend very little time on their registration process.

The process usually includes a counselor going in to a class for 30 to 45 minutes and talking to the students about the offerings and sending the student home or to the computer lab to complete on-line registration. We assume that the student will make an informed decision and choose the most challenging courses. What we find is too often they choose courses with little or no guidance about how and why to choose the most rigorous courses. In Caralee Adam’s article in Education Week, she notes that only 15% of white students choose a rigorous course schedule and as few as 6% of African American and 8% of Hispanic students make the most rigorous choices. I know you have been a champion of rigor, but our schools need [to be] more intentional about getting students in to the “right” course for students success.

Mike Musick

From Amy Fineburg:

Hi Jay!

We eliminated the advanced track in our English courses in the hopes that our regular courses would become more advanced. We have told our teachers to teach the regular courses as advanced since we are a college-prep high school. Over 80% of our seniors go to a 4-year college, and we give over 850 AP Exams each year. Our English department was the only department with three tracks, and we could not identify a real content difference between advanced and honors in non-AP grades (9th and 10th) and advanced and AP. The students in advanced said they chose that course with two goals in mind: to do less work and to avoid being with special education students and behavior problems.

When I heard this, I was appalled. The regular students were taught at a very low level, well below college prep. These classes had more discipline problems than the others, and some of our regular teachers even said those kids couldn’t do college level work, even though these kids intended to go to a 4-year state school in the fall!

As a current administrator and former 14-year veteran of the AP classroom, I am frustrated that teachers don’t want to teach students who are not “ready already.” As I read the comments to your blog, it struck me that the main argument against your proposal was that some students wouldn’t be prepared for taking more difficult courses, thus setting them up for failure. Here’s the logic flaw I see: if they are not already prepared to write analytical essays, think critically, and read with fluid comprehension, what exactly are we teaching them? Isn’t it our job as teachers to teach them these skills if they don’t have them when they come to us? Isn’t it our job to take those who already have these skills and help them refine them? If we don’t identify students’ learning needs and then teach to those needs, then who is really failing the class?

To me, the argument that we shouldn’t push kids because they aren’t ready already shows that we care more about the content than the kid. The reason why we educators are not winning the education reform battle is that we are talking out of both sides of our mouths. We say we want to reach all students, but when we are asked to do so, we say the job is impossible.

Do we need resources to reach all students? Yes. Teaching those who are not ready already takes time and money. But in order to get more time and more money, we need to advocate practices that don’t put our content before our kids. We look heartless when we say not all kids are ready for college. We are saying that 14- and 15-year-olds, who are far from mature enough to make these kinds of life decisions, aren’t going to college. Why can’t we prepare them for the generic goal (college) and help guide them if they choose a more specific goal (career)?

Amy Fineburg