In 2004, I began coaching a rural public high school in northern Maine. Seeking an entry point that would provide me with helpful background information, I requested their “program of study"—that universal course catalog that explains what courses are available and how students can navigate their way to a diploma by the end of senior year.
Reading that first program of study for the meaning hidden underneath course listings was a turning point for me as an educator.
What I discovered then has recurred in different forms across many years of partnering with school systems from Maine and Florida to Colorado and beyond: American schools erroneously and inequitably sort students into different levels of course offerings with more or less rigor, more or less abstract thinking and teamwork, and more or less opportunity for meaningful engagement.
In other words, American high schools take the liberty of presuming what sort of futures lie ahead for their students and justify offerings with less rigor based on those assumptions. And they commonly create departmental placement procedures and courses that are at odds with their district’s expressed vision of education.
A program of study is a clear window into how a school perceives its students and how their offerings are allocated; often, the view is troubling.
First, the program of study often reveals a clear inequity of opportunity. Say a school offers two or more levels of high school biology, but only in the honors level does it permit students to engage in laboratory activities. Those honors students then receive more time each week for these labs, perhaps as one or more double periods. When you run the math on this inequity, you discover a hair-on-fire problem: Across three years of required science classes, missing out on two lab periods per week results in over 25 full days of missed science learning.
That’s not even considering the inequitable experiences that non-honors students have with less tactile learning, less group work, and the rest. Just look for the code phrases frequently employed in non-honors courses: worksheets, map exercises, and multimedia presentations all designed to “provide students with a basic understanding.”
A course catalogue can also shine a light on when we are presuming students’ post-high school futures. What does it mean to say someone is a “general student”? That’s a phrase I recently found in a current program of study. Hint: A general student is one you won’t be placing into an honors section. When a high school prefaces student descriptions with language such as “may not plan to continue their education in a four-year college program,” that school has decided it’s okay to design courses that lowball academic rigor on the assumption that the life trajectories of certain 14-year-olds are already set.
It is also common for schools to design courses that encourage teachers to recruit only the students they want in their room. When course descriptions begin with phrases such as “designed for students planning a career in ... " or “a college-level course designed for highly motivated seniors,” that teacher is signaling that only certain kinds of students are welcome. Isn’t it our job to educate everyone? Isn’t it our job to ignite new passions in students who previously had no interest in coding, or a foreign language, or anatomy?
Here’s what schools could start doing to address the underlying problems so often laid bare in their programs of study:
1. Unify around a school’s mission and vision. I wish we could de-silo academic departments and unify them around the school’s professed mission and vision. How high school departments became the fiefdoms they sometimes are is a mystery of institutional evolution. Nothing expresses unity (or disunity) more than the products of departmental collaboration: courses.
2. End de facto student sorting. It’s time we stop rationalizing the sorting of children into more-privileged children and less-privileged children. Public education is public education. When “all children can learn” is professed on the letterhead, we should not be OK with the reality that some children are treated better.
3. Rethink student “ability.” We should also stop equating success at doing school with student ability. Many educators still use the phrase “good kids” to reference children who excel at compliance—things like homework, politeness, and participation. (Who are the “bad kids” on the flip side of this term, one wonders?)
Those “good kids” overwhelmingly win access to high-level opportunities on the basis of their “good” behavior (or habits of work) as well as their academic ability. Homework is a desirable habit, but it is not ability. Likewise, non-completion of homework does not indicate a lack of ability. Missing work may have its roots in the work’s irrelevance to a learner, inaccessibility, the need to balance multiple overlapping school responsibilities, or a home life that is antithetical to regular study and practice.
Student success—if it is even used as a sorting device—should be measured primarily on records of academic knowledge and skills that are neither artificially inflated by doing school well or artificially diminished by a lack of compliance.
4. Admit to the fallibility of grades. We need to stop treating grades like they are empirical measurements. They are not. This matters because grades are nearly always used to determine who’s in and who’s out in high school; who gets access and who is denied; who does and does not receive academic honors or scholarships. As a colleague of mine passionately pleas, “Grades are meant for meat, not children.” While grades may have utility as a summary estimate of a student’s learning, there are far too many human and technical variables to pretend they are the perfect or the only measure of a child’s potential.
Schools can start this much-needed work with a close reading of their programs of study. Uncover the inequities that this document frequently reveals. Review all non-honors level courses for rigor, abstract thought, collaboration, and engagement with the world. Ask yourself if you would want your own child in those classes. You’re not done until the answer to this question is an enthusiastic, “Yes.”