Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Insuring Access to a Rigorous Curriculum

An article this week from the Ed Week blog talks about a study that was recently done in Florida which states that the students who accessed rigorous and challenging classes, especially in 9th and 10th grade, were more likely to graduate from high-school and also more likely to go to a four-year college or university.  Additionally:
"While most relationships were the same across demographic groups, Hispanic, African American and poor students experienced a slightly higher increase in high school graduation rates when they took a rigorous course by 10th grade." (source: http://www.edweek.org/)
The best preparation for students to both get into college and then be successful in college is the exposure to more advanced coursework, whether that be International Baccalaureate classes, Advanced Placement classes, or dual-enrollment, a way to take classes at a two or four year college and also receive high-school credit.  These classes emphasize not only content knowledge, but also higher-level reasoning, critical-thinking skills, creativity, and collaboration, all of which are key to success in college and in life.

There are concerns, though, about minority students having access to these higher-level courses.  For example, there was a school in Evanston, Illinois, where a teacher of honors' science classes stated that "out of 26, you might have three nonwhite students." (source: http://www.chicagotribune.com/)  Because we now live in an educational culture that looks at and examines data, we are able to see that there are often disproportionate numbers of African-American and Hispanic students in our advanced classes as compared to white students.  Organizations like College Board have noticed that minority populations are accessing courses such as Advanced Placement classes more and more, but that there is still a great deal of room to go.

Thus, one of the movements has been to close minority achievement gaps and to increase minority enrollment in advanced coursework.  This has led some school districts, including my own, to take a hard look at the curriculum and make some choices to encourage more students to take the higher level classes.  The school in Evanston mentioned above proposed eliminating the freshman honor's English course and instead having all 9th grade students take a humanities class together that would discuss art, literature, and philosophy, all with honors level rigor.  In my own neck of the woods, several years ago Fairfax County Public schools began to eliminate the "middle" level of core-classes (English, Social Studies, Science, and Math) and only leave two options: the regular level and the honors/AP/IB level.  As the article from Evanston discusses, there was a concern that students were being placed onto regular or advanced course tracks, and that once they were on one they could not easily move off.  Further, these tracks often fell along racial lines.  By eliminating the honors section or by taking away the middle option, the intention was that either all the students would be together, accessing a high-curriculum, or, in the case of Fairfax County, that with only two choices of level, more students would choose the higher one.  In our case, it worked.  Last school year:
"Greatest gains were made by underrepresented minority students, with Hispanic student AP enrollment increasing by 38.9 percent and Black student AP enrollment increasing by 14.5 percent." (source: http://www.fcps.edu/)
However, there is the counter argument that multiple levels of coursework are needed in order to be able to serve all students.  This last month the Fairfax County School Board voted to again offer the middle level of courses, the 'honors' level, so that students will typically have three choices in their core-classes for much of their high-school career.  The feeling was that you had a significant number of students who were not yet ready for the AP or IB level, yet who needed a more rigorous curriculum than the honor's level afforded.  Further, you had students who would try to balance multiple AP classes with a less rigorous course who found the only choice open to them was a regular class.  In Evanston, there was a great deal of concern that the top students would not learn all that they needed while waiting for other students to move forward.

I believe there are valid arguments on both sides--do I believe that it is a concern when advanced academic courses are culturally and racially disproportionate to the population of the school as a whole?  Yes, I believe we should want to change that.  However, I also had those students who took an AP class who would have perhaps benefited from a year at the honors level, and I had those students who took regular classes who really needed more challenge.  In the Fairfax County debate, I choose to believe that those on both sides really only had the best of intentions.  For my district, a decision has been made, but for myself and for all school counselors trying to help their students become college and career ready, how can we continue to insure that all of our students, including our minority students, have access to that rigorous curriculum that is shown to help them be successful?
  • Find data tools to help you identify students who may be ready for the honors level curriculum.  For example, College Board has a program called AP Potential which, utilizing PSAT data, can help you to see which students in your building are ready for an AP class.  You can even use this information to help your school select which AP classes would be best to offer given your population.
  • Use your academic advising sessions to find students areas of strength and interest.  In your conversations with students as they are signing up for classes, be on the lookout for areas that they have consistently done well in, say English, for example.  Maybe they are not ready in all their classes to take the higher level, but if there is just one area that they excel in, they can start small with an honors English course.  Further, if they are passionate about an area like psychology, their strong interest and love of that subject might help to motivate them to work through challenging reading, notes, and class discussions in an AP Psychology class.
  • Work within your school to build supports.  This one is huge.  At my school, our AP Coordinator runs a mentoring group for any interested advanced academic students, but targeting our minority populations.  She includes summer institutes on study-skills and note-taking, as well as matching them up with a mentor who teaches advanced courses and who checks on them throughout the year.  At Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, they have run groups like The Cohort as a way to provide both academic and personal support to minority students to encourage and keep them in higher level classes.  If your school has AVID programs or College Partnerships, consider working with those leaders to help boost students into higher level courses as well as linking them to college and career success.  There are students who can do well in advanced classes if they have a little bit of help along the way.
  • Emphasize study, note-taking, and test-taking skills at all levels.  Students are much more successful at these classes if they have a strong foundation.  These are lessons and groups that can be done in elementary, middle, and high school, and could also be coordinated with teachers on a school-wide level in all classes. 
No matter what classes your school or district offers, we, as school counselors, serve as advocates for all of our students.  We are the ones who sit with students and help them to select classes that will get them towards their goals--it is an important role. In getting our students college and career ready, we need to do our best to help them build up the academic skills necessary to be successful in their post-secondary options.  Exposure to advanced academic curriculum is one such way that we can directly help them meet those future challenges.

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