I have been arguing with Kathy Callahan, a Fairfax County parent who thinks I am naive to suggest that the school system eliminate general-level classes in high school.
Our fight is over honors classes, the middle level in the standard tracks of general, honors and Advanced Placement courses. Fairfax is getting rid of honors courses in subjects that have an AP option.
This leaves students with what many parents consider a bad choice: stressing out over long AP reading lists and exams, or getting no homework and little learning in a general course.
I said that the general courses are a waste for everyone. The option should be just honors or AP. Research shows that students who don’t want to go to college still need honors-course skills to be able to read, write, do math, and manage time well enough to get a good job or trade school slot right out of high school. If we leave them in low-expectation general courses, we will have failed them.
Callahan said I was missing the point. She unleashed a powerful argument based on her daughter’s experiences in physical education, of all things. Her story suggests that when you mix students who want to do the work with those who don’t, the class sinks to the lower level.
Callahan’s daughter has just finished eighth grade at Carl Sandburg Middle School. “She’s had a terrific classroom experience in general,” Callahan said, “thanks to the many targeted levels of academics in that school. However, there have been two years of completely wasted time in P.E. Half of the kids in her class simply refuse to participate. They talk so loudly that she can’t hear instructions for whatever they’re to do. Many of the kids don’t bother to [wear the P.E. uniform]. They sit on the bench and take the F.”
Ambitious students such as her daughter might try to exert themselves when told to run around the track, but they feel humiliated when so few of their classmates follow their example.
“My daughter had been excited for the volleyball unit, because she thinks volleyball is fun. I’d love for her to get a little experience in that, as it’s a sport that starts officially in high school, and perhaps she could join the team,” Callahan said. “But alas, when half of the kids on the court are chatting, dancing, sulking and flat-out refusing to touch the ball, it’s impossible to learn to set up a play.”
She noted my argument that regular kids would be more likely to apply themselves in history if it were an honors class full of students yearning for college. She asked me: “Did my kid’s ability, preparation and enthusiasm bring up the level of play” in P.E.? Did it bring up the expectations of the teacher for the group? It did not.” I did not get a response from the Fairfax County schools to my request for a comment.
I know the situation she described. I have been in many inner-city middle and high school classrooms — in core courses such as math, English and science — where apathy and lethargy rule, and teachers don’t do much about it. Many people are willing to accept those conditions as unfortunate but incurable, just as Callahan views P.E. class at Carl Sandburg. I can hear the excuses: “It’s just P.E. We won’t let them behave like that in English or history.”
Yet, such sloth is allowed elsewhere; otherwise Callahan would not be so upset about her child being forced to take general courses. I have seen smart inner-city administrators and teachers turn such classes around because they think they are important. I don’t understand why Fairfax, one of the nation’s best school districts, can’t summon more respect for eighth-grade P.E. and the example it sets for the rest of the school day.