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By Rick Rayfield
Removing honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses has been proposed at Harwood. The rationale is that tracking – long debated in many different forms by researchers and educators – is bad. Hence detracking is good. I argue that at Harwood this is not really detracking. Dropping AP and honors courses is a bad choice.
Everyone agrees that tracking has advantages. Higher performing students are grouped in tracks, as are middle and lower level performers. The tracks allow better student-to-curriculum fit, appropriate levels of challenge and frustration, test scores and so on. The debate has raged in the field of education for years over whether the downside of tracking justifies the advantages. Some studies claim that tracking has negative effects on the students in the lower tracks; some argue the opposite. The arguments fill books and journals. As a teacher for over 30 years, I have reviewed and experienced some of them. The two biggest issues, I think, are locking a student into a track at an early age – the curse of non-fluid tracking, and the unjust tendency of low socioeconomic and minority students to be trapped in low-level tracks.
First, Harwood's handful of honors and AP courses is not tracking. Students are not placed there; they choose these courses. They want to be challenged. They want the best education at Harwood. They want to get into the top colleges. Students often choose to leave these courses. This is called fluidity. There is not classical tracking at Harwood. The opportunities for student choice are too fluid to make that claim.
Second, we do not have a typical minority problem at Harwood. Sure there are minorities but not the ones that the national research studies say are unfairly short-changed by tracking. Other factors tend to lock Harwood students into self-defined tracks: sports, music, social groups, family expectations, health issues and self-perceptions. These are real struggles for the students. Band or chorus? Chemistry or lacrosse? My friends or my career? And these struggles will not change with detracking at Harwood by eliminating honors and AP courses.
It is not easy to digest the education shop-talk about global education trends and about being entrepreneurs and not employees. Under the claims are many debates and little clear evidence. I bet we will continue to see brilliance emerge from both the Ivy League grads and the undereducated boot-strappers in every area of human endeavor. Nobel Prizes, Medals of Honor and decent hard-working citizens will come from every walk of Vermont childhood. Or they will if any of our kids manage to get into top colleges at all. Without honors and AP courses, we will return to the years when only a couple Harwood grads went to top colleges each year. Now, we got handfuls. Those courses provide education and challenge. They help students get better SAT scores. They are what top colleges look for on high school transcripts. They promote success in college courses later. Why would we risk losing that avenue when detracking has little proven gains? Instead we should work to improve educational choices and atmosphere for all students.
Twenty years ago Harwood led the state and much of New England with an outstanding reputation for our special needs programs. So did our elementary schools. The special needs programs were mandated but unfunded by the state. The towns of Washington West rose to the challenge and funded those programs with our local tax dollars. Many families moved into our district to take advantage of those resources. Terrific. Harwood has also bolstered the opportunities for gifted and motivated students by adding honors and AP courses. These contribute to a heightened academic atmosphere for everyone at Harwood. They contribute more than just impressive college admissions. We all gain community pride, a sense of excellence, a striving for the best from each person according to his abilities, an appreciation for brain athletics as well as body athletics that require teamwork, persistence, practice, judgment, ingenuity, and character. Let us not slam shut the door to excellence in educational challenge and college admissions for an unjustified experiment with our young people. Let us not step back. Let us keep the gains we have made and forge ahead with new ones. Let your Harwood School Board members and the Harwood administration know that this deserves more clear public discussion.
Rick Rayfield lives in Fayston.