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April 29, 2011 / Ben Chun

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.


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  1. Garth / May 2 2011 1:00 pm

    There is sort of a balance required – when do schools allow those students that are capable of high level work to achieve that higher level? The other side is when do the same schools decide that the slower students need to be left behind? Are we cheating the smart kids by requiring them to stay in a main stream classroom but are we cheating the slower kids by separating them out? If we do not allow the above average students to be above average I think the nation will be shooting itself in the foot. We need to get the higher level kids on that higher level and then work on dragging the lower level kids up. At present the higher kids are being dragged down so the low does not look so low. Do not close the gap by putting a lid on the top. Close the gap by pushing on the bottom.

  2. Ben Chun / May 2 2011 1:05 pm

    When you say, “the higher kids are being dragged down so the low does not look so low,” what exactly do you mean? In what ways are higher kids being dragged down?

    • gasstationwithoutpumps / May 5 2011 7:51 am

      I can’t really speak for Garth, but I suspect he is referring to things like “trigonometry” classes that spend all their time reviewing algebra, because the bottom half of the class didn’t understand it and were passed on anyway. The top students get ground down by huge piles of mindless drill on stuff they’ve already mastered, rather than being allowed to go on to learn new material. Elementary schools are particularly bad at claiming that “all children are gifted” and forcing kids together by age rather than by readiness to learn particular material. Courses are then taught at the level of the bottom third of the class.

      I’ve posted on this theme before, for example at

  3. Garth / May 5 2011 9:52 am

    Eliminating honors type courses and mainstreaming students that need special help puts all levels in one classroom. Theoretically this sound good; the high level students will set a visible example for the average to lower students and supposedly motivate them to improve. I have been teaching math for twenty years and I have never seen this happen. Typically I have to spend most of my available small group and individual help time with the low to low-middle students in an effort to just to get them to pass the course. I do not have time to teach the upper level students the advanced material they are capable of. The smart kids learn quickly what the minimums are to achieve the grade they want and they will excel at attaining that minimum. They are not challenged. The higher level kids end up with much less that they are capable of simply by the logistics of teaching very diverse students. The regular 100 point test is designed for the “average” student. The smart kids can ace the test easily while the average student will do the “average”. This sort of puts a cap on the class. The result is a greatly reduces spread of grades.
    Let me do a weird hypothetical here. Keep the class as it is, all levels in the one class. Provide enough teachers to teach the various levels; accelerated, “average”, lower, special needs and so on. Write a 200 point test that will challenge the upper level students, has questions for the “average” students and questions for the lower level students. The test must be designed so the “average” students still get in the 70’s and 80’s (not percent but points). Now the high level students will be not be restricted to 100 points. Test scores could possibly range from the 50s to the 180s. Now the low looks really low.
    My point is that the smart kids can be dragged down by having to meet “average” standards. Kids being kids these smart kids will often do nothing more than meet those standards. Throw those smart kids in an honors class, require them to meet a higher standard and they will do it.

  4. Ben Chun / May 5 2011 6:11 pm

    I’m certainly not advocating that we put everyone in a single classroom. Or that we do away with honors entirely. Those high-level classes (speaking as an AP teacher) are important. And tracks are okay as long as you can move between them. But once those tracks turn into ruts and we start slotting kids into them before they even get to high school… we’re probably missing a bunch of kids you might later call “smart” because we make the judgement call too soon. Then on top of that, we’re not really pushing the kids in the accelerated classes, because the kids and the teachers are satisfied at going 20% faster than the “average” others. But really, we’re being left in the dust by, for example, Russian and Chinese scholars who take the idea of pushing the top classes faster much more seriously than us.

  5. Garth / May 6 2011 7:31 am

    “Simply place each student (separately for each subject) at the level they are currently prepared for”. Isn’t that a nice way to say tracking? As soon as students are separated by ability there is tracking. If we are going to give students the opportunity to learn at their highest level there is going to be tracking (or some equivalent under another name). The school has to have the flexibility to make sure there is a method of moving kids to different tracks easily. My wife teaches 7th grade math in a public school. She teaches two levels, advanced and standard. Kids are supposed to test into the advanced class. For some reason parents have gotten the idea that for their child to succeed in life they must be in the advanced math class so the parents tell the administration to place their child in the advanced class regardless of test scores or observed ability. So my wife gets a large number of kids (25% – 50% of the class) that are absolutely unprepared for advanced level work. As a result the class failure rate is very high and standards are lowered in an attempt to lower the failure rate. The administration is unprepared and unwilling to move students to their ability level. She also has a 5th grader in her advanced 7th grade math class. He is able to do the work with no problem so he is at the correct achievement level for math. Socially and behaviorally he is at the 5th grade level so he is a management problem with the rest of the age-grouped class.

    These are the kinds of problems the teachers in the trenches have to deal with. No matter if it is tracking, placement by achievement, or some other name it is the teacher that eventually has to make the whole thing work.

    We really cannot compare our education system to the Chinese or Russian, or most other highly “successful” systems in the world. Our social system is simply too different. If we pushed our students like some of those systems the lawsuits would bury our education system.

    As I see it the solutions to the problems with tracking and getting the most out our kids learning abilities are not insurmountable, they are just highly unlikely. Pay teachers what their education and responsibility deserves. This will attract more qualified people to the field. Reduce class sizes so achievement levels are possible. 30 kids in a math class is just plain stupid. Do not fund education with local taxes. When times get hard people do not want to pay more taxes. The only way they can reduce their tax load is to vote down local tax increases. Reimburse parents in some manner for their child’s good grades and penalize parents with children with poor grades. This would greatly improve parental responsibility for a child’s education (and would probably start riots somewhere).

    This thread makes me think. Thanks.

    • gasstationwithoutpumps / May 6 2011 5:10 pm

      No. The evil “tracking” refers to labeling each child early in life and keeping them in fixed track that dictates their future opportunity.

      Also, note that I did not advocate putting students in classes by “ability” but by “achievement” or “readiness”. That is, teach each student in their zone of proximal development (if you want the accepted eduspeak terminology).

      “The administration is unprepared and unwilling to move students to their ability level.” This is exactly the problem I refer to. Students are getting short-changed because of adminstrators’ (and sometimes teachers’) beliefs that any heterogenous group of kids can be taught together.

      It might help to unlabel the classes “standard” and “advanced”. Instead have math A, B, C, D and place kids in whichever they are prepared for (based on testing), moving them up as they master the material. My son has been to two private schools that used systems like this for math, and it worked well in both. No parents were pushing for their students to be in classes that were too advanced or too low level—everyone was looking for the sweet spot where their kids were effectively learning. There was some movement between classes as students showed that they were initially placed incorrectly (either too high or too low), but there was no stigma attached to moving to the right class.

      30 kids at very different levels in a math class is nearly impossible to teach. Teaching 30 kids who are closely matched in ability is not at all difficult. The problem is more with the mixing of random ability levels than with raw size.

      California moved away from using local taxes to fund schools. The result was a massive DROP in school funding, so be careful what you wish for.

      • Garth / May 9 2011 12:03 pm

        No matter how I look at it, it all percolates down to money. Most public schools cannot afford more than two ability or achievement levels because even low paid teachers are expensive. The teacher computation here is count students; divide by thirty to get the number of teachers required. This presents problems for the administration, the parents and the teachers. I really do not see a big change in the education system until the funding system changes.

        I did not know about the California change. What joy.

  6. gasstationwithoutpumps / May 9 2011 12:20 pm

    Note: placement by achievement does not require more classes, just better scheduling. At the (private) elementary school my son attended for 3 years, all math classes were scheduled at the same time, and everyone changed classrooms to go to the appropriate class. They did not need many more classes (just a couple at the top end for kids who were a year or two ahead). Kids were placed in the appropriate class based on a placement exam in the first week of class, and a few percent were moved a month later if the initial placement turned out to be wrong.

    Thinking of needing multiple levels of clases for same-age kids misses the point—you’re making same-age more important than same-level.

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