More Than English 10: Let’s REALLY Talk About Our High Schools

First, I want to say BRAVO, RUTH, for putting it all together and bringing it on home to us. Thanks, too, to the BOE members who overrode BOE President Johnny Winston Jr’s decision to table this important discussion. Finally, deepest thanks to all of the East parents, students and teachers who are speaking out … and to the many West parents, students and teachers who have also spoken out over the past few years.
As we begin what will hopefully be a thoughtful and thoroughgoing community-wide conversation about what’s going on in our high schools, I’d like to clear up some muddiness about what’s happened at West in the past few years. I think it’s important to have our facts straight and complete. In doing so — and in comparing what’s happened at West to what’s now going on at East — I’d like to draw on the image of an animal experiment (that apparently never happened). In one condition, a frog is put into a bath of cool water, the temperature is gradually raised to boiling, and the frog dies without a struggle. In another condition, a frog is put into a bath of boiling water, immediately jumps out, and lives to tell the tale. As I see it, West was put in the first condition. The administration implemented small changes over the course of several years, with the ultimate goal of turning 9th and 10th grades into two more years of middle school. Students and parents were lulled into thinking that everything was O.K. because, hey, what’s one small change? East, in contrast, has been put in the second condition. There, the administration seems to have the same goal of turning 9th and 10th grade into two more years of middle school, but has introduced all of the changes at once. Like the frog placed in the boiling water, East has been shocked into strong reaction.

So what’s been going on at West? Advanced learning opportunities have been gradually whittled away, that’s what.
This year, as everyone knows, West HS implemented it’s new core sophomore English curriculum, English 10. (Did you know that West has also implemented a single Social Studies 10 curriculum this year? More on that in a moment.) It is also true that some of the old English electives (perhaps 5 or 6 — not the dozen that was recently reported somewhere else on this blog) are no longer offered at West. That’s because they have been “rolled into” the single English 10 curriculum. Not necessarily a bad thing.
All West sophomores are now required to take English 10. West sophomores used to be able to choose their English courses from (almost) the full range of English electives. (Certain honors electives required the permission of the student’s 9th grade English teacher.) Within English 10, students may elect to take an “embedded” honors option. From what we have heard from current sophomores and their parents, the implementation of this embedded honors option (which also now exists in biology and 10th grade social studies) has been highly variable across teachers. We have heard about one teacher who discouraged her students from taking the honors option because it was just more work. Another teacher, we have been told, lets her students sign up for the honors option but makes no distinction between the honors and non-honors students in the class, in terms of course work requirements. Yet another class we’ve heard about has 10 honors option students and is essentially functioning as an honors section because of the high level of student-led discussion. It does not appear that anyone is overseeing the implementation of the embedded honors “program” in English 10. Of course, West does not have a full-time TAG coordinator, as is being proposed for East.
Some other details —
While taking the required English 10 course, West sophomores can also take certain additional English electives (mostly the lower level, less challenging ones). Yes, that would mean taking two English courses in one or both semesters of 10th grade.
Finally, this year, a very small number (7 out of 500-plus) of West sophomores were “instepped” over English 10 and allowed into the full range of English electives as 10th graders. These accelerated placement decisions were, for the most part, based on these students’ 8th grade WKCE scores in reading and language arts (taken during the first semester of 8th grade). Interestingly, 9th grade students were not allowed to use their 8th grade reading and language arts WKCE scores in order to be “instepped” over English 9. In fact, no West student is allowed to test out of English 9 anymore, although it used to be that some advanced 9th graders were allowed to skip over the second semester. In contrast, at Memorial — the only other MMSD high school with a single 9th grade English curriculum right now — 4 or 5 freshmen are allowed to skip English 9 and go right into English 10 Honors each year.
It is important to note that the chief reason the West community was given for the implementation of English 10 was, in a nutshell, the achievement gap. (Indeed, the achievement gap was the rationale for the entire Small Learning Communities initiative.) We were told that certain groups of students have high failure rates in English, as well as low participation rates in the more challenging English electives at West. The hope was that English 10 would boost these students’ achievement and self-confidence, such that they would voluntarily elect to take the more challenging English electives as juniors and seniors. The thing is, West’s English 9 was similarly intended to close that achievement/participation gap and — according to a November, 2005, report written by SLC Evaluator Bruce King — there is no evidence that English 9 has had an impact on what is clearly a very serious problem. That absence of evidence is why West parents pleaded with school and District officials last year to stop plans for implementing English 10 and instead take the time to evaluate and fix English 9. No one listened — at West or “downtown” — and West went ahead with its plans.
I mentioned that West has also implemented a single 10th grade social studies curriculum this year. The single curriculum replaces the three “flavors” of 10th grade social studies that used to exist. (West sophomores used to be able to choose between courses with a greater emphasis on a particular time in history — e.g., the Middle Ages or the Ancient World.) A few years ago, there was also an integrated English-Social Studies option. It, too, has gone away. The overriding reason why these courses have disappeared is that they produced ability grouping; that is, higher performing and more highly motivated students were self-selecting into certain courses and not others, creating ad hoc honors classes. This was seen as a problem. The solution was to get rid of the classes.
I also mentioned that embedded honors options are now available in biology and Social Studies 10. I have not heard anything about how they are going. I do know, though, that many people see the embedded honors option in regular biology as a threat to the single section of Accelerated Biology that parents have had to work so hard to save in recent years. In contrast to the situation at West, the number of sections of Advanced/TAG Biology offered each year at LaFollette and East are adjusted to meet demand.
The SLC initiative has been “blamed” for many of the curricular changes that have been implemented at West — though no one has ever explained to us why we couldn’t have honors sections of many of these courses in each of the four SLC’s, a plan that would increase the accessibility of honors courses and could easily be combined with efforts to increase the diversity of the students who take honors classes. (Actually, I’ve heard that some high-level administrators favor that plan. I am hoping they make their preference known soon.)
In any event, there are several important issues in all of this:

  1. There is an absence of adequate school-based and/or District-based data supporting the specific changes being implemented (West) and proposed (East).
  2. There is an absence of adequate evidence from the empirical literature supporting the specific changes being implemented (West) and proposed (East). (Why, even UW Professor Adam Gamoran told the Superintendent and BOE last January that they are operating on “belief.” And did you know that research consistently shows that the students who are hurt the most by “de-tracking” are poor and minority students of high ability?)
  3. It is not clear how the bulk of these changes are going to help the huge percentage of high school students in our District who are reading below grade level and who, therefore, are at risk for poor performance and less learning in most any other course they may take.
  4. There has been an all-but-complete absence of adequate community dialogue about these issues and changes. The community has not been allowed to have a meaningful impact on the planning. There has been only the appearance of partnership. This is because plans have been presented to community members (sometimes even BOE members) after most of the decisions have been made. We are asked to “tweak” and “ask clarifying questions” only. At West, the stonewalling by District officials was more than severe.
  5. The appropriate District professionals (for example, TAG staff) and their expertise have not been included in a respectful, substantive, meaningful way.
  6. There is a cross-high school equity issue regarding how students of similar high ability and motivation are treated and what educational opportunities are made available to them. (State and federal mandates — as well as the District’s fear of litigation — insures far greater equitability of educational services for other groups of students — which is not to say they are necessarily well-served.)

As the East community experiences and reacts to a concentrated version of what the West community has experienced, dribbled over the past several years — and especially as the BOE, the press, and even the District Administration take greater notice than ever before of what we are all saying to them, East and West — I am hopeful that the tide may be turning, and that meaningful dialogue is about to begin.