Like everything else, honors classes in the Salem-Keizer school district were upended during the pandemic. But when students came back into the building, the district took advantage of the opportunity to re-work the way it offers honors classes. Now, instead of separate classes, honors students sit alongside their peers doing “embedded honors.” Eddy Binford-Ross wrote about this for the Salem Statesman Journal and joins us to explain.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: Like everything else, honors classes in Salem-Keizer schools were upended during the pandemic. But when students came back into their buildings, the district took advantage of the opportunity to rework the way it offers honors classes. Now, instead of separate classes, honor students sit alongside their peers doing embedded honors. Eddy Binford-Ross wrote about this as the education intern for the Statesman Journal recently and she joins us to talk about how it’s working. Eddy, welcome back. Can you explain how the tracking for honors classes or folks going into AP [advanced placement] or IB classes [international baccalaureate], how it used to work?
Eddy Binford-Ross: In Salem-Keizer, students are not segregated by ability in elementary and middle school, for the most part, except in math classes. And so in that shift from eighth grade to ninth grade and going into high school, that was when students were separated and put on either an honors track, which would lead to access to advanced placement courses and international baccalaureate courses, or they would be placed on a general education track. And a lot of that revolved around teachers and who teachers encouraged to take those courses and who teachers recommended for those courses.
Miller: What kinds of racial disparities were there in terms of who took these classes?
Binford-Ross: So it was pretty different depending on which high school in Salem-Keizer you looked at. So there were a couple high schools, North and McKay, who actually didn’t have any racial disparities between general education courses and these higher level AP and IB classes. But when you went into schools like McNary and South, my alma mater, you had these huge differences. So, for example, students of color at South Salem High School make up about 47.5% of the general student population. But when you look at how many of those students were taking international baccalaureate classes, they made up only 31.8% of students in those courses.
Miller: Did students and teachers and staff agree on the reasons for that disparity?
Binford-Ross: Not really. So when you look … they do to a certain extent. There is a lot of talk within the district around implicit bias and making sure that teachers are giving all students equal opportunity to access high level education. But people disagree on how accessible honors courses were before the switch to embed [them], and also how easy it was for students to be placed on the honors track [in order] to become an honors student. Well,
Miller: What did you hear from students, and I’m thinking particularly students of color, Latino students and Black students or Pacific Islanders, in terms of their understanding of the accessibility of these classes?
Binford-Ross: They felt like these classes were highly inaccessible to them. A lot of the students of color that I talked to talked about how they felt like they had to choose between being with their peers and people who looked like them and accessing higher level content. They said that they would have been open to taking more of these higher level courses if the demographics of these higher level courses weren’t so overwhelmingly white.
Miller: So the district, as a result of the pandemic, came up with a new embedded honor system. How does it work?
Binford-Ross: Because of how cohorting was mandated during the pandemic, the district couldn’t track students by ability. And so they combined all the ninth grade students or all the 10th grade students, and instead of having separate social studies classes for general education students and for honors students, they put them all into one classroom and then they continued that once they returned to in person. So that means that general education students sit alongside their peers who would have been in honors classes. And every single student in that classroom has the ability to access honors level work and work towards that honors designation on their transcript and they can work towards that at any point in the year. And teachers have been working to figure out the best way to get students this honors designation or to allow students to work towards this honors designation. What they’ve landed on right now is grading this work on a rubric and grading how students use higher level thinking and whatnot in projects. And then if they reach a certain threshold, then they’ve done an honors level work on this project.
Miller: But you write that teachers could now have 30 kids in a particular classroom with students’ abilities ranging from doing college level work to doing work that’s three grades below their current level. How does a teacher teach all those kids effectively at the same time?
Binford-Ross: Well, that is the question that critics of this program have been asking. And they say that it is not really possible for teachers to do this effectively. The president of the teacher’s Union here in Salem-Keizer said that the reception among teachers has been pretty poor to this new program and that teachers just feel like they don’t have the support they need to make this program successful and to be able to balance the abilities of all the different students in these classes.
Miller: You’ve got a really dramatic quote from the head of the teachers Union that ‘teachers do not feel like this is setting students up for success. It’s giving them a watered down version of honors classes’. How can teachers or students or parents or administrators assess the effectiveness or the rigor of these classes compared to the old model?
Binford-Ross: I mean, I think that’s the million dollar question, but I think that was the million dollar question before embedded honors as well. And when you looked at the quality of honors classes across the school district and even within one school, you had a huge difference largely depending on the teacher and you know how well that class set students up for success. And I experience that in my own honors classes, that it’s just so highly dependent on the teacher because honors classes were never standardized across the district. [That] is what the district told me. And so they didn’t have a good way of telling how rigorous honors classes were across the district before they embedded.
Miller: My understanding is that you took honors and IB international baccalaureate classes when you went to South Salem High. You just graduated last year and now you’re an observer for the last six months. You’ve been reporting on this for the Statesman Journal. Did working on this story affect the way you thought about your own experiences?
Binford-Ross: Yeah. So it was actually my own experience that pushed me to look into this story. I was talking to a current IB student for a separate story and she made a comment about how inaccessible those classes felt to her. And she felt like those classes systematically excluded people that looked like her. And that made me think about my own experience. And it made me think about how when I would look around my own IB classes, they were very white, especially compared to when I would look around my classes that were on the general education track. And so that’s what pushed me to get this data from Salem-Keizer that said things like ‘white students at McNary make up 62% of those taking advanced placement classes, while they make up only 49.4% of the student body’ and things like that. From there, once I got that data, I started looking into what the district was doing. And this embedded honors program is how they’re trying to address that clear inequity.
Miller: Has this embedded honors program changed the percentage of students of color who are taking part or getting credit for honors classes or moving into AP or IB classes?
Binford-Ross: So the district says that that question is tricky. And the data shows that as well. When you look at who is accessing higher level courses, it’s down across the board in Salem- Keizer, coming out of the pandemic. And district officials and school administrators say that students in the pandemic and with online schooling and things like that, just didn’t feel as set up to succeed in these classes as they did before the pandemic. So they think that there’s going to be a dip which we’ve seen before. You start to see rising rates of students of color and things like that accessing these courses. But where they did see pretty significant leaps are in english language learners who accessed honors IB and AP courses as well as students with disabilities. So in the fall before the pandemic, there were 35 students with disabilities across the district who accessed these courses, compared to 213 of those students with that designation who accessed these courses last semester. A huge increase.
Miller: Just briefly, is the district going forward with this embedded honors program?
Binford-Ross: Yes,they are. District officials say that it is necessary to address inequities that they’ve been trying to address for about eight years now and have had mixed results. So they say they’re sticking to this, this is the way it’s going to be going forward and that they don’t see that changing anytime soon.
Miller: Eddy Binford-Ross, thanks very much. Eddy Binford-Ross is a former education intern for the Statesman Journal.
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