OPRF High School’s plans to eliminate separate “honors” and “college prep” courses for most freshman classes have been the subject of much discussion within the community. While there has been a lot of discussion, there has also been some confusion about what the plans actually are. The plans involve three changes happening simultaneously.
1. Changing which students will be in each class. Currently freshmen are enrolled either in honors classes aimed at the highest achievers or in college prep courses aimed at other students. The administration reports that currently about 50% of incoming freshman choose one or more honors classes. It’s also important to know incoming freshmen can chose honors or college prep courses regardless of previous achievement. The plan is to combine students from both into a single course. This affects English, history, and biology. There will still be separate courses in math. First-year world language courses will also be taught as a single course, but students who have previously studied a foreign language will be allowed to place into a second-year course. These changes only affect freshman year.
2. Changing the curriculum itself. Many people have asked how it is possible to teach classes which there is such a wide array of student achievement levels. The short answer is that it isn’t possible with a traditional curriculum where teachers instruct classes. Instead, there will be a fundamental change to the style of teaching itself so that teachers are not directly conveying knowledge to the class from the front of the room. Instead, students will work on more projects and use self-discovery as a means of learning. In educator lingo, this is sometimes referred to as a “constructivist” philosophy of education. This approach is already being used in some classes, and it can be good or bad, depending on how it is implemented. That is, there is a fine line between structured self-discovery and self-directed independent study; too much of the latter of which can be problematic for high school students.
You’ll notice that the change in teaching philosophy is being forced by the move to classes with mixed student achievement levels. It doesn’t seem OPRF is seeking the right balance of constructivist and traditional instruction possible with both honors and college prep. The high school could have moved to a constructivist philosophy long ago and within today’s current course structure. Are the curriculum changes beneficial or are they the forced byproduct of the combination of honors and college prep courses? These are questions that deserve evidence based answers.
3. Providing additional support for lower achieving students. OPRF may provide additional tutoring or after-hours homework centers; the details haven’t been announced. This seems like the clearest victory for equity. Still, it seems additional supports could be implemented without eliminating honors courses.
The administration isn’t making a secret of any of these changes, yet they haven’t clearly articulated all of these changes together in one place.
What should parents and community members do? First, encourage the district to consider providing the additional supports (item #3) without blowing up today’s curriculum and honors course structure—this is more precise way to address the achievement gap without risking harm from changing the curriculum and eliminating honors courses. Second, if the planned changes happen, pay attention to the new curriculum and supports to be able to advocate for your children as needed. Third, hope for the best, as these are major changes that could have a big effect on the educational outcomes for our community.