Equity and Honors
There’s a kerfuffle in San Francisco Unified at the moment regarding a plan to eliminate honors classes in the 9th grade. There are pros and cons, but I like the spirit of the idea. The motivation seems to be a desire to reduce early tracking in high school, and to allow teachers at a given school more time with a students in a heterogeneous setting to accurately assess and build their capacity to succeed in honors. Part of the flap is that this plan was hatched without the contractually-required union involvement. That’s a problem, but not the problem I want to think about here.
Since taking office in 2007, Superintendent Carlos Garcia has pushed a steady message of equity. He says things like, “The San Francisco Uniﬁed School District sees the achievement gap as the greatest social justice/civil rights issue facing our country today; there cannot be justice for all without closing this gap.” And I agree that that we, public educators, and the institution of public school, play a key role in creating a society where the Horatio Alger, Jr. mythology is at least plausible.
I just can’t help but find all of these conversations a bit silly when San Francisco Unified School District is home to Lowell High School. This is a school that consistently ranks in US News & World Report as one of the best high schools in the country. Visiting there is like going to another planet where everyone is better at everything — it turns out that the same households and habits that support good academics also support good athletics.
Lowell’s student population is 2,597, out of a district total of 16,423 high school students. So we’ve got the top 15% of our students, academically speaking, sequestered in an honors school. Putting the rest of our conversations about reducing tracking or “equity” in that context makes Superintendent Garcia’s plan to move “Beyond the Talk” seem like just more talk.
This is not a knock on Lowell. I have friends who attended Lowell and colleagues who work there that I respect very much. I’m just struggling with some heavy cognitive dissonance as we try to have a conversation about reducing the negative impacts of tracking in the name of equity, while at the same time our district’s whole high school system is massively tracked.