The school board at Evanston Township High School, near Chicago, voted unanimously to eliminate a separate freshman honors track in humanities, because too few minority kids qualify. There will be humanities — “English” and “social studies” to us old-timers — honors, but students will pursue it within a general course. That is the idea, as best I can determine — conversations with ETHS officials tend to devolve into education theory jargon, and I hold a small candle of hope that this might be the best idea in the world — that it will, as they believe, inspire more students to do better work, and I just don’t understand it. But it seems predicated on the belief that a teacher instructing a room of excited students can operate the same as a teacher with a roomful of less inspired students. Is that so?
As a parent of two boys I used to refer to as CWBs — children with brightness — my first impulse was to castigate ETHS for, as schools so often do, failing its best students in the dubious theory that, being smart, they’ll be OK.
A student body can be roughly divided into three parts: the slow students, the middle-of-the-bell-curve majority, and the top 5 percent.
The middle majority of course is taken care of; that’s what schools do — make the doughnuts, process the most kids in the most efficient manner, given whatever half-rational, half-insane pedagogical theory holds sway at the moment; for the past decade that would be the need to constantly test and assess.
The laggards have their LD classes and their personal aides and the weight of law demanding their needs be met, in theory.
But the brightest kids? Work done, already having read the books just now being sniffed by their classmates, they grow bored, at least in grade school. Often they are dragooned to help their classmates, a relief to the teachers and fine in developing the nurturing aspects of the kids’ personalities, but maybe not so good at helping them continue to excel.
That’s what ETHS seems to be doing — rather than focusing on what’s best for the honors students, they’re press-ganging them into use as racetrack rabbits for the rest of the student body. Rather than inspiring each other — which they’ve waited years for the chance to do — they’re to be examples, again.
To put ourselves in ETHS’ shoes, mainstreaming the best English students is of course good for the school, in that it puts the average students in with the achievers, studying together in classrooms, rather than seeing them blow past into separate honors classes that, if you squint, can seem a kind of apartheid. The top students are, in that sense, acting as surrogate parents, giving their peers exposure to the love of education they may not be getting at home. So that’s good, right?
Is it also the racism of low expectations? You bet. Rather than pushing the middle kids into aiming high, the target is being lowered. Lewis Carroll’s “Everybody has won and all must have prizes!” ETHS estimates that 72 percent of freshmen will earn honors credit, which puts a new spin on the word “honors.”
It makes sense, if you see the purpose of education as raising esteem — not an insignificant goal in some populations (though the student population at my house has the opposite problem, a surfeit of self-esteem. “Just what the world needs,” I’ve wearily told my eldest, several times, “another arrogant doctor.”)
Is this shift entirely bad for the honors students? Not according to a heartfelt essay posted on the Evanston RoundTable by ETHS junior Emma Milliken, who says, after two years of honors — or “institutionalized racism” as she calls it — that being in mixed classes has made her more empathetic and more comfortable with her peers. Useful, though not the same as learning literature.
Teaching kids is complicated — a lot of balls to juggle — and while ETHS focuses on racial dynamics, it seems to have bobbled the honors ball. All I know is, if my kids were in ETHS, I would be worried that my school district had decided to try to create a fair society by balancing it on the backs of my children.
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