Everyone who wants to do so should be able to take honors-level courses…right?

Yesterday afternoon, one of my students was hanging out in the Math Office after school and started chatting with me and another teacher about a concern of hers: why was it so difficult to override a teacher’s recommendation and take an honors-level course even though the teacher didn’t recommend it? The question can arise in any subject — and in this case wasn’t actually about math courses — but we naturally had to respond in the context of math.

The student’s proposal was that a student (presumably with consent of her parents) should be able to sign up for any course, or at any rate for any level of the appropriate course.

Before you read our reply, you need to know our current system. In case you’re not from Weston, here’s the process we use:

  1. The current teacher makes recommendations, usually in consultation with the students but always using his or her own judgment.
  2. A student recommended for honors or AP (advanced placement) can freely decide not to accept that recommendation.
  3. A student recommended for college-prep can try to override into honors or AP, which involves conversations with five people and getting signatures from all of them: a parent, the current teacher, a teacher of the desired course, the guidance counselor, and the department head. The signatures merely indicate that they have had the conversation, not that they approve, though the current teacher does have to check a box indicating a level of confidence in the original recommendation.
  4. If there is room in the desired course after all the recommended students have been scheduled, the override is approved. Usually it turns out that either all overrides into a given course are approved, or else none are. Occasionally there’s a need to admit only some overrides, which requires a decision criterion such as seniors before juniors or higher grades in the current course before lower grades. Fortunately that doesn’t arise very often.

So, we explained three possible alternatives to the current system:

  • A. Don’t allow overrides at all. The teacher’s recommendation is final.
  • B. Allow all overrides, creating new sections as needed. (Another version of this option is not to solicit teacher recommendations at all; just let kids sign up for what they want.)
  • C. Allow all overrides, but don’t let students change courses in the fall. Whatever you sign up for now is final.

Alternative A clearly wouldn’t fly with Weston parents, so it’s not worth discussing. (Besides, we teachers sometimes make wrong recommendations. Every couple of years I find that a student of mine who overrides my recommendation ends up doing just fine in the more advanced course.)

Alternative B is what this student was asking for. My colleague and I explained what the inevitable result would be: an honors course would be flooded with a large number of inappropriate students, many of whom would decide to drop the course between Labor Day and Thanksgiving (our deadline for withdrawing from a course without getting a W on your record). The first result would be a combination of very small honors classes and ridiculously large college-prep classes, clearly an undesirable consequence. Rearranging the master schedule to turn one honors section into a college-prep section would be a scheduling nightmare, as the students would require massive rescheduling of their other courses. Don’t even go there. The second result would be that too many of the inappropriate students would stick it out, probably learning something useful in the process but dragging down the rest of the class. Class morale suffers if more than 28% of the students are inappropriately placed. (I just made up that statistic, but you know what I mean.)

Alternative C would solve the first problem described in the preceding paragraph, but it would make the second problem worse. Much worse, in fact. Also, once again, we would have a system that Weston parents wouldn’t stand for.

So, I’m convinced that the current system is best…but I’m interested in hearing any rebuttals.

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Weston