Parents in Fairfax County have proved themselves one of the largest and most powerful forces for innovation in American education. But they have taken a wrong turn in their effort to save the three-track system—basic, honors and AP/IB— in the county’s high schools.
Many Fairfax parents actively oppose the elimination of honors courses in upper high school grades. They don’t want to leave their children with the choice of just the basic course or the college level Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate version. “Let’s keep choices on the table,” West Potomac High School parent Kate Van Dyck told me.
They can win this fight and keep the honors courses, but it will take some courage and imagination. Instead of insisting on the old three tracks, tell the schools to keep the honors option and eliminate the basic course.
We are not talking about ninth- or 10th-grade students who are just getting adjusted to high school. The controversy mostly affects 11th and 12th grades, where AP and IB courses are concentrated. Yet I still have trouble persuading Fairfax parents that killing the basic course will work. Barry Meuse says that would leave “students who have no interest or intention to go to college” with “two inappropriate choices—college prep and college level.”
What he and other parents are missing is the uncomfortable but well-researched fact that these days every student needs at least a college-prep curriculum. The qualities that make you ready for college---good reading comprehension, clear and persuasive writing, math through at least Algebra II, presentation and time management skills---are the same needed to get a good job or trade school slot upon high school graduation.
The people running the system went from three to two tracks because they want to move more kids to a higher level. Fairfax is one of the highest-scoring school systems in the country. If Fairfax educators can’t raise the standard for all, who can?
Many parents understandably worry that the basic kids aren’t ready for honors or AP. They think giving them a lower-level option is good for them. Van Dyck likes the three to five learning tiers available in Prince George’s County, where she is a teacher.
But my colleague Kevin Sieff’s story on the Fairfax honors debate notes that many U.S. school systems, including local high performers like Loudoun and Montgomery counties, have been cutting back the three-tier system. Prince William County got rid of it 10 years ago. The local systems holding firm to three or more tracks include our two lowest- performing, Prince George’s and the District.
Peter Noonan, a Fairfax assistant superintendent, has seen the research showing that students ready for high level courses tend to stay with their friends and reject the most rigorous track when given three choices. I have spent the last three decades watching energetic teachers drag such students into AP and IB. The results are almost always good. A decade ago Fairfax parents endorsed the school board’s decision to open AP and IB to all students, something few other systems were doing then.
What would happen if you added regular students to honors classes? Jack Esformes of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria mixed seven AP students with 21 regular students in each of the five government course sections he taught each year. Nothing was dumbed down for the AP students. The regular students received less homework, but once they discovered they were often as clever in class as the alleged smart kids, some of them switched to AP. Many of them told me they liked the challenge of being taught at such a high level.
The Fairfax parents have likely lost the three-track battle. Only five county high schools still have three tracks--and only in one course, and those will disappear next school year. The national trend is fewer tracks. Why not show that Fairfax can do even better than other systems? The county should keep honors, eliminate the basic course, and give everyone’s kid a chance at a head start in college, or life.