After administrators withdrew a proposal to utilize an earned-honors approach for new courses in history and geometry at the sophomore level, the District 202 School Board approved, in a divided vote, a slate of new and revised courses for the 2013-14 school year,
Usually, course proposals are an uneventful affair, but this most recent request prompted intense discussion during the Nov. 19 Board meeting and continued at the Dec. 10 meeting, when the vote took place. The controversy centered around the proposal to extend the earned-honors model, which had previously been used only for two courses taken by freshmen: Humanities and Biology. Implementing the earned-honors model for those courses was one of several changes implemented in the freshman restructuring efforts over the past several years. Administrators proposed that the earned-honors model be used in two new courses for sophomores, World History for Us All and Geometry in Construction.
Board members Jonathan Baum, Scott Rochelle and Gretchen Livingston had all objected in some measure at the November meeting to using the earned-honors model for any additional courses before evaluative data on its effectiveness had been reviewed.
David Figlio, the Northwestern University professor who heads the team conducting the evaluation of the restructuring, attended the Dec. 10 meeting and advised the Board that it was not possible to isolate the impact or effectiveness of a single measure, such as the earned-honors model, since several variables had been implemented in the freshman restructuring effort at the same time.
"I don’t think we’re going to know which component is successful … only whether the restructuring is successful," he said. Dr. Figlio has also said that no evaluation data will be available until late 2013 at the very soonest.
Superintendent Eric Witherspoon told The RoundTable that "it was necessary to modify our recommendation because we were being asked to isolate and evaluate one variable in ninth-grade restructuring, which is not our approach in a school setting."
However, he said that, despite the need to revise the proposal in response to the sentiments expressed by some Board members, "teachers are conscientious about assessing students in their classes. Teachers determined that the earned-honors credit model, along with the benchmark assessments provides the best structure for assessing learning outcomes for students and assuring that all students are taught to the same high standards aligned with Advanced Placement (AP) and Common Core Standards."
Dr. Peter Bavis, assistant superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, explained the value of the earned-honors model, citing its "fairness … consistency … high challenge," even as he "respectfully" withdrew the recommendation for its use with two new courses.
The Board was under some pressure to approve the course proposals, since administrators needed to "go to the publisher [with course descriptions for the following year] before winter break," said Dr. Witherspoon, so students could plan their schedules in January.
Board members also continued to squabble about whether or not there had been a "consensus" or an "agreement" about whether to wait for the evaluation before extending the use of the earned-honors model.
Board member Rachel Hayman said that having had "gone back to … [the] minutes, [she found] … this was not a consensus of the Board." Mr. Baum disagreed, saying that he thought "it was an understanding."
"I didn’t envision when we put it in place … that we wouldn’t make other improvements," said Board President Mark Metz. "This is a way for teachers to assess who is doing honors work."
Mr. Rochelle said he was "disappointed that the proposal was withdrawn … [I] thought there could be a middle ground." He also said he still did not feel "the proper process" [of waiting for evaluation] was followed.
"Evaluation, from my perspective, was an enormous component of my decision to approve the restructuring," said Ms. Livingston, who was on the Board when the biology course was approved. "We can’t know anything about how this is working until we get the results of his research. … If we don’t have that information, we can’t sit here and make that decision."
In a prepared statement, Mr. Baum said, "It is unsound to extend elements of the freshman restructuring to other grade levels and subjects unless, and until, our outside evaluation, based on external measures, demonstrates that these changes, in fact, increase academic achievement for students at all ability levels. I hope that this action will reassure our community that we are now truly committed to research-based, data-driven decision-making."
Mr. Metz said, "I don’t feel we’re indicating that we’re not data-driven. … We don’t have the data yet. … We always assess and keep improving. … I’m left to wonder why we want our administrators to go to their backup plan. We’re telling teachers and administrators how they should assess students. … This is unprecedented. … We’re on thin ice."
Ms. Hayman appealed to her colleagues opposed to the inclusion of the earned-honors model to reconsider their position.
"Having heard that Dr. Figlio said that we won’t know whether earned-honors is successful or not, why wouldn’t we accept the administration’s original proposal [to include it as the method of awarding honors credit in the new courses]?" she asked.
No one indicated any change in position.
The vote was taken later during the action part of the meeting’s agenda. By then, Mr. Baum, who had strongly opposed the new use of the earned-honors model, had left, citing family responsibilities.
Mr. Rochelle, Ms. Livingston and Board member Deborah Graham voted in favor of the administration’s amended proposal that excluded earned-honors from World History for Us All and Geometry in Construction.
Ms. Hayman, who said, "It’s no secret I am a big fan of the earned-honors model," and had objected to its removal from the proposal, abstained from the vote. Mr. Metz and Vice President Martha Burns voted no. Ms. Hayman appeared to regret her abstention, but it was too late to change her vote and the proposal without the inclusion of the earned-honors model was approved.