BHS 9th Grade Humanities Make the Shift: Heterogeneous Classes, Earned Honors, and Proficiency-Based Learning

After two years of careful study and preparation by the 9th grade humanities teachers at BHS, the team is making some exciting changes.  As Principal Amy Mellencamp has been discussing in PTO meetings and at 9th grade orientation in the past few weeks, 9th grade humanities courses will shift to a system of proficiency-based learning and differentiated instruction for the 2013-14 school year.  Rather than assigning students to honors or college prep course sections for English and social studies, all students will take the same interdisciplinary humanities course that will hold every child to the same high, proficiency-based standards.  Within this course, all students will have the option of pursuing honors credit, which they can earn by (1) choosing to read more and write more, (2) knowing more content at a deeper level and (3) demonstrating growth towards personalized goals in the 9th grade habits of mind: perseverance, intellectual risk-taking, and collaboration.

In my work as the Teaching & Learning Environments Fellow, one of my charges is to help think about the classroom environments – including teaching teams, the student groupings – that are most beneficial for all students.  I’ve been working closely with the 9th grade humanities team as they develop and pilot systems for earned honors within heterogeneous classes.  I’ve also been present at some of the parent meetings where we’re explaining these shifts, and have heard a number of important questions and concerns from parents and students about all of it.  This blog post is my take on addressing some of those questions.

Where did this change come from?

Principal Amy Mellencamp made the decision to de-track the 9th grade humanities classes based on unanimous recommendation from the team of 9th grade humanities teachers, who believe (based on the research described below) that shifting to a system of earned honors within heterogeneous, differentiated classes will benefit all of their students.  The BSD Equity Counsil and the Partnership for Change have been supporting this shift by providing important resources such as diversity and equity training for teachers and funding for ongoing coaching and professional development around proficiency-based learning and differentiated instruction.

Some parents may feel that this change came out of nowhere!  But Amy Mellencamp made the decision to make this shift based on two years of research compiled by the 9th grade humanities teachers.  These teachers are currently piloting systems and structures for differentiated instruction and earned honors, and hired a coach last summer who’s been working with them since the fall on developing and refining these systems.

Why the shift?

When I put this question to the 9th grade humanities teachers, their immediate answer was pretty straightforward: We’re doing this in order to provide high-quality, high-expectations, challenging instruction for all of our students.

They then elaborated on a number of related reasons why this system will benefit all of our kids.  For me, the most powerful reason has to do with the growth mindset.  This has become a somewhat trendy catch-phrase in the education world, but its root meaning is tremendously important.   Having a growth mindset means believing that intelligence and ability are changeable, and can grow through effort.  This is in contrast to the fixed mindset, which considers intelligence and ability to be fairly set in stone.  What is powerful about these mindsets is that a growing body of research shows them to be self-fulfilling prophesies.  If you believe your intelligence is fixed, you won’t be able to change it much.  If you approach learning with a growth mindset, in contrast, your intelligence and ability can grow tremendously over time.1

What the research says, and what I have seen in countless successes and failures with my own and others’ students, is that a leveled system that assigns students into honors and non-honors classes contributes to a fixed mindset that is just as detrimental to students in the honors classes as it is to those in college prep.2  When students understand that they have been assigned to the honors section on the basis of their prior grades and demonstrated ability, several different negative thought patterns can result: (1) I’m smart, so I shouldn’t have to work hard.  This mentality is particularly likely to develop when students transition from middle school, where they may have gotten good grades without having to work that hard, to high school where they may encounter more challenging work.  Another, equally detrimental thought pattern is: (2) I got here because they think I’m smart, so I’d better continue getting top grades and not let anyone know if I’m struggling (because then they might think I don’t belong here).  This thinking leads “honors kids” to focus too often on the grades rather than the learning.  And it is a powerful incentive to avoid the kind of challenges and intellectual risks that we want them to take on – pursuing ideas and projects that take them outside their comfort zone and develop their creativity and problem-solving – because if what matters is the grade, why pursue something that might not work out?

Being assigned to the non-honors class, of course, contributes to the fixed mindset as well.  It sends kids the message, we already know the limits of what you’re capable of.  And we find that, particularly with ninth graders, we really don’t know yet what each student is capable of.  This is illustrated by our 9th grade teachers’ descriptions of students who were assigned to college prep but are clearly read for higher-level reading and writing assignments, and of “honors” students who are getting D’s in class but still get the honors designation on their transcripts.  So one of our primary aims in shifting to heterogenous classes is to send the message: We have high expectations for everyone.  Every one of you gets access to the same challenging, engaging curriculum.  And every one of you has the opportunity to reach higher and earn honors – you are the most important determinant of whether you’ll earn that distinction, not your 8th grade teachers or your guidance counselor or your parents.  You.

In designing the system for earned honors, teachers thought carefully about what getting that honors designation should truly mean.  They came up with three things: honors students should (1) read more and write more, (2) know more content, more deeply, and (3) demonstrate significant growth towards personalized goals that each student sets in the 9th grade habits of mind: perseverance, intellectual risk-taking, and collaboration (notably, these are habits of mind that help promote a growth mindset).  Importantly, this doesn’t mean that students earning honors will just do more work, or take on extra projects outside of class.  To achieve item 1, students will choose”honors challenge” options on regular class assignments require them to do lengthier or more complex reading and writing tasks.  To support this, humanities teachers often divide the class into smaller groups for targeted instruction that meets each group where they are.  For example, one teachers might work with half the class on writing more compelling or complex analysis while the other teacher works with other students who need additional practice in selecting evidence for an argument.  (By the way, this is one of the brilliant aspects of teaching in a team.)  To achieve item 2, students will need to achieve an average of at least 80% on assignments graded for knowledge and understanding.  This means that they’re responsible for learning and remembering more of the content that’s taught – not learning extra stuff on their own.  They also complete an assignment each quarter in which they must connect the current content to something they’ve learned or experienced previously, within or outside of school.  This pushes students to understand the content more deeply, with greater analysis.  To achieve item 3, each student conferences with a teacher and sets goals that are personally challenging.  This is one of the most important parts of the system – especially for students for whom, even in a traditional honors class, wouldn’t be particularly challenged because they are already highly skilled readers and writers.  For these students, setting a challenging goal around intellectual risk – for instance, aiming to argue an outside-the-box idea or one they’re unsure of – might result in more intellectual growth than anything else.

Other, more systemic reasons for making this shift include the need to prepare all our students for a world that is far more complex and unpredictable than it was even 20 years ago.  We need all students, not just some, to be fluent and capable readers, writers, and creative and analytic thinkers in this information economy – in order to make Burlington flourish in the years to come.  Importantly, the skills that education research has found correlate most closely with long-term success in school and career are the very habits of mind – perseverance, creativity, and collaboration – that our earned honors system is designed to foster.

Some important concerns… and some answers.

Parents are raising important questions and concerns about this shift.  What follows is an attempt to address them.

I want “honors” to include direct instruction that meets my child where she is and raises her skills to the next level.  Honors shouldn’t just be about doing extra work.  Yes – everyone involved in this absolutely agrees.  No matter what skills and abilities your child comes in with, she will receive frequent direct instruction that meets her at that level.  As described above, team teaching in the humanities courses helps make this happen.  Teachers divide the class into smaller, ability-matched groups for direct instruction on targeted writing skills or on reading analysis.  They may also form “reading circles” in which students at different reading levels work in homogeneous groups to read, analyze, and discuss a text; teachers circulating between groups can provide on-the-spot direct instruction to support those groups.  (The important element is that groups form on the basis of specific skill needs, and therefore aren’t the same each time.  No single student is pre-assigned to a class based on outdated information about her skills.  Equally important, those different groups can them come together to have rich discussions about the themes and connections between texts or historical events – discussions that are richer with a greater diversity of students in the room.)

I am afraid that my student will be bored and un-challenged.  This is a very real and legitimate concern.  We too want your child – every child! – to be challenged and engaged; this is an essential element of high-quality education.  Teachers are working hard to create differentiated classrooms that will challenge and engage every student.  The earned honors system is an important part of this.  We plan to fully engage and challenge all students, at all levels.  And if you or your child feels like he’s bored, or isn’t being challenged, we want to hear from you.  Teachers acknowledge that they won’t get it perfect every time, and feedback from you and your child is essential in helping to continually improve the quality of teaching and learning.

That said, it’s important to be aware that the kind of challenge your child experiences in a heterogeneous 9th grade humanities class might at times feel different than the challenges they experience in leveled classes like biology or math.  In addition to providing academic challenge for all students, the 9th grade humanities team is dedicated to challenging students in developing essential habits of mind (described above) that even the most academically able 9th graders may struggle with.  If your student already reads and writes at a sophisticated level, we will continue to challenge him in those academic areas but he may find the most challenge in meeting personal goals around perseverance, intellectual risk, or collaboration.  The team is also committed to challenging students to have authentic conversations that explore the themes of the 9th grade humanities course – themes of power and privilege, identity and diversity.  These conversations may feel less comfortable or fun than the discussions students have in classes where they are more likely to be around peers of similar backgrounds, because conversations about weighty topics with diverse groups does push students out of their comfort zones.  Providing all students with these broader and deeper opportunities for challenge is one important reasons why we are making this shift in the first place.

I’m afraid that my child’s college application won’t be as competitive if she doesn’t have “honors ” courses on her transcript.  There are a couple of misconceptions here.  First, in making this shift, BHS is not eliminating honors in 9th grade English and social studies.  Your child can still get the honors designation on her transcript – it’s just that she will earn this by her work and growth, rather than being assigned to an honors section at the beginning of the year.  Second, even if honors does not turn out to be a good fit for your child in this class, colleges look at the overall pattern of courses taken.  They ask guidance counselors to check off whether a student has taken a challenging and rigorous course of study throughout high school – they don’t count up individual honors credits to compare one student to the next.  So if your child gains the skills in ninth grade that allow her to be successful in a rigorous sequence of courses as she moves through high school, she will be all set.

I’m afraid that this shift will result in a decrease in standardized test scores, especially for high-achieving students In fact, a large body of research shows that heterogeneous grouping raises the test scores of low- and middle-achieving students while having no significant effect on test scores of the highest-performing students.3,4  Several case-study examples in New England support this conclusion.  Colchester High School shifted to heterogeneous grouping with differentiated instruction nearly a decade ago.  An analysis of their NECAP scores over the time period of the shift shows significant growth for students with lower and middle-tier scores and slight growth for students in the top tier.5  BHS teachers have been working with some of the lead teachers from Colchester who coach other teachers in differentiated instruction techniques, in order to learn from their successes.  In a similar example, Noble High School in Maine (where a group of Burlington teachers and school leaders traveled to do a site visit last year) made the shift to heterogeneous grouping and 9th grade teams in the late 1990s.  According to the Maine Agency of Education website, “After the first three years of reform, Noble saw a 25-percent increase in both the low and average student MEA scores without a drop in the high scores. Instead of 35 percent of students going on to college, now 50 to 70 percent do. ‘This was the best thing that has happened since I began teaching,’ said 23-year veteran Noble science teacher, Bob Miller. ‘(Before these reforms) parents were not happy and kids’ aspirations were low. It was very rewarding to have good leadership and to come up with changes that produced these results.'”6

Additional research cites the benefits of heterogeneous grouping for high-achieving students that can’t be so easily measured on standardized tests.  For example, several studies have shown that high-achieving students working in collaborative, heterogeneous groups gain deeper understanding and stronger retention of academic content; they are also more likely to use higher-order problem-solving skills.7   Moreover, the 21st century skills that colleges, business leaders, and innovators all highlight as the most important for success aren’t yet measurable on standardized tests, but are promoted when students work in diverse, collaborative groups.8  These are skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, effective communication, creativity and curiosity, cross-cultural understanding – the very skills that the community of Burlington identified as the essential skills every BHS graduate should have.

Ok, so I support the idea of differentiated instruction in theory, but it seems like it will take so much time and training to do it right.  Our teachers don’t have that time.  Shifting to a proficiency-based system of differentiated instruction does take an enormous amount of time, effort, and training.  We are fortunately to have the Nellie Mae grant, which funds the Partnership for Change, to support a deep investment in teacher training and support for this shift.  Through the Partnership, the 9th grade humanities teachers are working with an instructional coach from St. Michael’s College who is working with the 9th grade humanities team to support the development of a proficiency-based system with differentiated instruction and earned honors.  Partnership for Change Fellows, such as myself, also support these teachers by compiling research on best practices and helping teachers implement it in their classrooms.  Moreover, Burlington High School has made a commitment to supporting the entire ninth grade team by providing a common planning period in the schedule (1.5 hours, twice a week) when teachers meet together to develop the curriculum and pedagogical strategies to support differentiated instruction.  Since we know this is the right thing to do, and we currently have the resources to support it, now is the time.

For further reading:

1. Dweck, Carol (2006)  Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  New York: Ballantine Books.  [Dweck’s website also has some great resources.]

2. Bronson, Po (2007) The inverse power of praise: How not to talk to your kids.  New York Magazine.

3. Mathis, William (2013) Research Overwhelmingly Counsels an End to Tracking, National Education Policy Center.

4. Strauss, Valerie (2013) The bottom line on student tracking. Washington Post.

5. Walsh, Molly  (2014) High school honors classes: Elitist or not?  Burlington Free Press.

6. Maine Agency of Education.  Berwick a Leader in High School Reform.

7. Johnson, D.W. and R.T. Johnson (1992) What to say to advocates for the gifted:For those who fear that cooperative learning is detrimental to high-achieving students, here are research-supported answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.  Educational Leadership.

8. Wagner, Tony.  (2008) Rigor Redefined. Educational Leadership.





Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)