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Schools Restoring Honors Courses, But How Remains The Question

Some parents say inconsistencies across county aren't fair to students

Following last month's school board decision to , how each school is fitting those classes into its curriculum varies widely as the system is putting its faith in principal discretion — upsetting parent advocates who worry all students won't have the same opportunities.

After the Jan. 26 vote added five courses — English 11 Honors, World History and Geography 2 Honors, English 12 Honors, Virginia and U.S. History Honors, and Virginia and U.S. Government Honors — the school system's instructional services department sent out new course descriptions to all student services directors and principals to include in their course catalogs, Assistant Superintendent Peter Noonan said. 

Principals choose how to distribute and discuss that information, along with how they are planning to fit the classes into their schools' schedules, Noonan said.

But parent advocates from Fairgrade and Restore Honors, the groups who successfully lobbied the board to reintroduce a three-tiered system in humanities, say "some high schools continue to place obstacles in the paths of students and parents with misinformation, delayed information or a lack of balanced advice" about the changes.

They also say one plan being pursued by some high schools in the county — linking the English and History courses and requiring a student to take both at either the AP or honors level — goes against the intent of the initial decision: giving students more options.

"[It's] totally contrary to the open enrollment policy for high school courses in our county," advocate Kate Van Dyck wrote in an email Friday. "This forced pairing restricts access to other AP courses in math and science, or worse, forces students to choose between being totally stressed by too many college level courses or risk failing a core course at the AP level when successful learning or good grades might be achieved by taking either History or English at a more appropriate level."

It also contradicts the recommendation of guidance counselors, they say, who advise taking no more than two to three AP courses at a time. If a student was planning to take three AP courses and were forced to take APs in two subjects off the bat, for instance, they would only be able to pursue a similar course in one more subject instead of in two.

"Where is the oversight from the Department of Instruction on this situation?" she wrote.

Noonan said while linking courses is not something his department is specifically recommending to schools, it is a practice used often and widely across the county, including during his time as principal of .

"We rely heavily on principals to make decisions," Noonan said. "We at instructional services are into the work of developing and designing curriculum, not designing master schedules."

Schools are taking different approaches to how they engage their communities, Noonan said, and are also working with different registration deadlines. Some simply sent out Keep In Touch e-mail messages while several more have held or are planning to hold meetings.

Earlier this week, more than 100 parents who said linking the courses this way helped reduce stress levels and student workloads.

Hayfield High School parents say they have heard the practice will also be adopted at their school.

At , where administrators plan to give a presentation to parents at Monday's PTSA meeting, students can register for either of the classes or they can opt for both of them, but "we will not link them at this time," Principal Mark Merrell said. West Potomac High School appears to have the same plan.

"We tried this approach off and on about 15 years ago and the program never really gained much traction," Merrell said.

The curriculum for the reinstated courses is already being developed by teachers, Noonan said, and will be completed late this summer. As part of the school board's decision, Noonan's department was also instructed to complete a wider study of the K-12 curriculum and "possibly revise existing policies to more fully integrate its Student Achievement Goals in the FCPS program of studies," the motion said. The study would also include a study of the differences between standard, honors and advanced course offerings and "a discussion of how to ensure increased and equitable student access to advanced academic offerings."

The review was motivated in part by some of the parents who lobbied the school board to reinstate honors courses this winter, some of whom shared stories about the absence of challenges in standard-level courses: no essay assignments in one English course and an assignment to make paper bag puppets in another.

Noonan said there is an important distinction between the content of advanced, honors and standard-level courses — the last of which he called "extraordinarily rich and rigorous" — and how it is delivered.

"Our program of studies for all standard-level courses is all college and career ready, but if it's not implemented [as intended] then we've missed an opportunity," Noonan said.

Greg Brandon February 11, 2012 at 12:25 PM
I believe Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are supposed "to have at their core a belief in teacher leadership and involvement in school improvement efforts. This corresponds well with the generally accepted belief that improving classroom instruction is a significant factor in raising student achievement."(http://www.centerforcsri.org/plc/elements.html). Would it be a stretch to expect high school PLCs to examine more closely how to better integrate cross-discipline courses such that homework load is somewhat mitigated? Speaking of homework, there is quite a bit of discussion about the utility of homework. In a short google search, I did find some lukewarm support: "With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement was found to be positive and was generally statistically different from zero." (http://www.nctm.org/news/content.aspx?id=13814) "Statistically different from zero" is a far cry from a +0.7 or better correlation.
Impartial Observer February 11, 2012 at 12:40 PM
Madison's Principal Merrill, thank you for having common sense on this so I don't have to fight another battle with FCPS.
Kathy Keith February 11, 2012 at 01:26 PM
Good comment, Mr. Brandon. An English teacher could easily accomodate the students by offering choices to students on what they read and write--they could choose to read something which would support their history class. I don't know if your children have yet taken AP classes. I found that the AP classes my kids took were driven by the AP tests. Much like the SOL's in FCPS, it seems that instead of teaching the material and developing interest in the subject, that the teachers are more driven by practicing for the tests. This may or may not result in better AP scores. I would love to see a study on a comparison of classes that did minimal practice for the tests and concentrated on the material versus the classes that spent one day per week (or more) practicing for the tests. I don't know about AP scores, but I would bet that SOL scores would be much higher, the students would enjoy school more, and would actually learn more and be better prepared for the future.
Louise Epstein February 11, 2012 at 02:24 PM
TJ mandates team-taught English and social studies classes for sophomores and juniors, and gives students a choice of standalone or team-taught English and government classes as seniors. Some humanities teachers perceive more collaboration and benefits from collaboration than their students. That is not a criticism of these teachers or their classes. It's just an observation about cognitive dissonance. High schools need to look closely at which pairs of teachers genuinely collaborate on most lessons or at least units. Some teachers don't, and their classes can be as good or better than the classes with more collaboration. My children benefitted from having humanities teachers who generally "did their own thing" well. Why not give students - and teachers - the opportunity to choose between team-taught and standalone versions of English and social studies classes?
Barry Meuse February 11, 2012 at 04:00 PM
Two points. First, it's a hope and far from reality that Fairfax County 'standard-level courses' are "extraordinarily rich and rigorous' (Noonan). I can applaud the hope but not neither the reality nor the effort by school administrators to achieve the hope. There are no audits of courses in Fairfax County. It's not enough to 'set standards' and sit back and await 'hoped-for' outcomes. One needs to audit or sample courses to assure the material is being taught at an appropriate level. Audits provide measurable data that lay the basis for year-on-year corrections. With no audits, there's no data; with no data, there are no measures; with no measures, statements on performance are meaningless rhetoric.. Second, Noonan says "Our program of studies for all standard-level courses is all college and career ready, but if it's not implemented [as intended] then we've missed an opportunity" shows just how much school administrators are missing the opportunity. Their job is not only to set standards but to measure progress and institute corrections where standards are not being met. If we audited classes and measured progress, we could measure tangible year-on-year progress and apply corrective action to weak areas.. .

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