Evanston High School officials are lamenting that not enough minority students qualify for honors courses. So, they've come up with an elegantly simple solution:
Get rid of the honors courses.
Under a controversial proposal approved on Dec. 13, Evanston's high school board eliminated honors-only freshmen humanities, a mixture of English, history, art and similar studies, beginning next school year. The honors students--incoming freshmen who score better than 95 percent of their peers nationally on their achievement tests--would be shuffled off into the standard humanities classes, now comprised of students scoring in the 40-to-95 percentiles. The same fate could befall the freshman honors biology class the following year, depending, of course, on how well the humanities plan fares, and don't we know that education experts will conclude that the results were swell? The rationale for this change is expressed in the usual gobbledygook--"vertically aligned assessment," "content and critical thinking," "heterogeneity," "models," "common core standards," ad infinitum. All of it designed to demonstrate elevated expertise and superior intellect, well beyond that of mere parents and others, armed as they are only with common sense. It was left to student council co-president Naomi Daugherty at an earlier public hearing to innocently state the real purpose. Noting that the top honors courses are composed mostly of white kids, she said: "It's time for all students to experience excellence." In other words, it's all about race and social leveling. Flipping Daugherty's logic on it's back, one might say of the super-achievers who no longer will have their accelerated, more challenging honors courses: "It's time for no student to escape the experience of mediocrity." Seeding a freshman class of about 700 with a 100-plus super-smart students and hoping to raise everyone's test scores seems a bit of a stretch. The school administration claims that academic studies show it's possible, but 440 parents who signed a petition opposing the plan apparently regard it more as an act of faith. As Susan Mendelsohn asked during a crowded pre-Thanksgiving public hearing to air the proposal: "What in this proposal is better for the top students?" Lawsuits are being prepared. Plans are being laid to elect a new school board. This sort of utopian leveling is to be expected from the Progressive Enclave of Evanston, proudly "diverse" and still high on Obama hopium. The town of some 75,000 enlightened souls was among the first in the late 1960s to institute busing to achieve racial balance in its grammar schools. But this compulsive leveling flows not from logic. It is hard boiled ideology. It's more of the same "rub-off" sociology that makes Left ventricles flutter. As in: "If we mix in enough super achievers (i.e. white students) with the general school population, some of their brilliance will rub off on the low achievers." Perhaps. Put aside the implicit and stunning racial underpinning of such a claim. Think of this, instead: Low achievers already inescapably notice that they are at or near the bottom of the class, and now they will have the message drilled home to them when the prodigies arrive. In an age when self-esteem is so highly valued, how can the progressives in Evanston be so blind? Never mind the impact on the elite kids: They could be bored out of their minds without the special challenges of an honors course. The justification, as best as I can decode from the jargon, goes something like this: The abolition of the honors-only course is a necessary step toward ridding schools of what educators now view as the rigid track system that brands kids by "predetermining their educational trajectory before entering our doors." Well, who isn't against branding kids as losers for their entire school career? The answer to being stuck in a "track" is to allow students to move between tracks, as my high school did 50 years ago. It used to be called, "making the grade." School Superintendent Eric Witherspoon decried a system (i.e. his system) that stratified and trapped students in lower level courses for their entire school experience. "They [students] almost never ended up leaving that level, so they'd be here for four years, but they'd never make it to honors or AP [advanced placement] classes." Never mind that entering freshmen who scored below 40 percentile on standardized tests are placed in the "1 Humanities with Support" course. The "with support" courses are heavily weighted toward minorities because disproportionate numbers of minorities in the school district score lower on the tests. This is ironic: administrators harbor the belief that what is good for most students isn't good for all students. Namely for the lowest scoring and, incidentally, minority students who literally are kept in a class by themselves. But such is the level of the flawed logic, exaggeration and self-deception that accompanies this proposal. Here's another deception: They'll be calling all the regular humanities courses "honors." That's because brighter students languishing in them can get honors credit by doing extra work. It's as if just the name of the course will make it an honors class. What could be more like Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average? The school district spends more than $20,000 per student, a stunning amount, yet has repeatedly failed to meet federal academic standards. School officials might well be responding to federal education bureaucrats who have increasingly been sniffing around for civil rights violations by schools that fail to provide minority students enough "access" to honors programs. Progressive Evanston being nailed for such discrimination would be high irony, indeed. Yes, they should raise standards and provide all students an opportunity to think of themselves as special students--if they are able to reach the highest achievement levels. But why they have to abolish a merit-based honors course to do it remains a dumbfounding mystery.
This column first appeared Dec. 17 in The Chicago Daily Observer