Open enrollment

In recent days I’ve talked with several colleagues and a couple of students concerning overrides into honors-level math classes. All high schools have to face the question of what to do when a student and his or her math teacher disagree about the appropriate next course. There seem to be three different models:

  1. The teacher’s recommendation is law, and the student cannot override it.
  2. The teacher’s recommendation is the default, but the student and/or parent can jump through a number of virtual hoops in order to override it.
  3. The student can sign up for whatever s/he wants, regardless of the teacher’s recommendation.

Weston follows model #2. The hoops consist of talking with the current teacher, a prospective teacher of the desired course, the counselor, and the department head, as well as filling out a form. This deliberately cumbersome procedure is designed to ensure that the override is not being done casually, and that everyone is going through this with open eyes. After all the steps are carried out, the student is admitted to the desired course (assuming that there is space available). The usual context for this process is when a student is recommended for a college-prep (CP) course but wants to be in honors.

The Weston parent community would never stand for model #1, but I have sometimes heard people advocate model #3. There is a certain logic to that: a student picks a course (with parental signature) and lives with the consequences. If s/he picks an honors course inappropriately, the results are either a bad grade or a decision to drop down to CP. What’s the harm?

Well, I’ll tell you what the harm is. Suppose we follow model #3, and as a result we schedule six sections of honors geometry and only four of CP. And then it turns out that 42 honors geometry students find out that they are over their heads and try to drop down to CP. But since there are only four sections of CP, it turns out that only 8 slots are available, so 34 extra kids are stuck in honors, being understandably discouraged and making it nearly impossible for the teachers to maintain a positive honors-level atmosphere.

“Why not just switch one or two honors sections to CP?” you may ask. You can’t do that becuase the 34 kids in question are spread out among six sections meeting in six different blocks, and it would be horribly disruptive to the entire schedule to try to switch everyone around. More than disruptive, it would probably be impossible.

In order to maintain an appropriate level of classroom discourse, it’s essential to have a critical mass of appropriately placed students. It’s OK to have two or three who are over their heads, but if half the class doesn’t belong there it will poison the well for everyone. That’s not being elitist, it’s just reality.

Categories: Teaching & Learning