In his most recent Washington Post column, Jay Matthews proposes a new way to de-track schools. Instead of eliminating the honors track (the typical strategy), why not eliminate the lowest track instead and allow regular students into honors classes? In support of this, he cites an anecdote from Alexandria Virginia:
Jack Esformes of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria mixed seven AP students with 21 regular students in each of the five government course sections he taught each year. Nothing was dumbed down for the AP students. The regular students received less homework, but once they discovered they were often as clever in class as the alleged smart kids, some of them switched to AP. Many of them told me they liked the challenge of being taught at such a high level.
Why not show that Fairfax can do even better than other systems? The county should keep honors, eliminate the basic course, and give everyone’s kid a chance at a head start in college, or life.
The fact that non-honors courses are watered down and unchallenging is unfortunate, but is an artifact of the poor preparation many students receive in K-8. The elimination of formal "tracking" (into programs such as vocational, general, and college prep) resulted also in the elimination of ability grouping. This translated into full inclusion, and brought about the so-called differentiated instruction, in which instruction is 1) not differentiated and 2) not very often given. Although Mr. Mathews has maintained that the theories of teaching taught in ed schools stays in ed schools and that they don't make their way into real classrooms, he is tragically mistaken. All he need to is read the accounts of parents in newspapers to see that the "math wars" and other battles of the education wars are more than "two groups of smart people calling each other names" as he once intoned to me.
Students who do not have access to outside help (parents, tutors, or learning centers like Sylvan) are held hostage to poor educational practices and are thus bound for the non-honors track in high school. The non-honors track could be much more challenging than it is, and there can still be an even more challenging honors track. Mathews is quite rightly longing for more challenging courses in high school, but is not acknowledging some of the major reasons why they are offered only in the honors track.For more on this, see Garelick's most recent piece for Education News.