Madison Metropolitan School District high schools plan to move away from “standalone honors” courses for freshmen and sophomores in the next few years, with an Earned Honors system expected to replace them.
The goal, MMSD leaders told the School Board Monday, is to bring rigor to all classrooms for all students and give more students access to the level of learning that goes on in standalone honors classrooms. Disparities in the demographics of standalone honors classrooms are driving the change, with ninth grade moving to entirely Earned Honors by the 2022-23 school year and 10th grade the following year.
“We should see high level of rigor and an equal quality of programming across every single one of our classrooms,” executive director of curriculum and instruction Kaylee Jackson said.
The Earned Honors system, which began in MMSD for ninth-graders in 2017-18 and expanded to 10th grade the next year, allows students an “opportunity to earn honors designation at the end of each semester/course by meeting predetermined criteria,” according to the district’s presentation. That opportunity is offered across all classrooms, rather than students needing to enroll in honors-specific classes that can be intimidating for students of color who are unfamiliar with them, have been given low expectations by staff or do not see students who look like them in those classrooms.
“This is about levelling the playing field of providing access for all,” co-chief of secondary schools Marvin Pryor said.
East High School principal Brendan Kearney, who expressed support for the change along with the other three comprehensive high school principals, recalled his first day of teaching at the school. His first class, he said, was non-honors and included just one white student, whereas in his second-hour honors class, there were about three students of color, “and that’s in a school that’s fully two-thirds students of color.”
“Whatever the intentions, whatever the efforts that have been made, our current honors system has the effect of sorting students by race, by ethnicity, by language and by disability,” Kearney said.