Red flag rebuttal — Barrington schools explain their de-leveling philosophy

Presentation shares loud endorsement for changing the program of studies at BHS

By Josh Bickford
Posted 4/8/21

Teachers, administrators, a former college admissions officer and the principal of a high school in Massachusetts recently took turns explaining the rationale behind restructuring the program of …

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Red flag rebuttal — Barrington schools explain their de-leveling philosophy

Presentation shares loud endorsement for changing the program of studies at BHS

Posted

Teachers, administrators, a former college admissions officer and the principal of a high school in Massachusetts recently took turns explaining the rationale behind restructuring the program of studies at Barrington High School.

An April 1 virtual presentation offered parents and students an opportunity to learn why Barrington officials initiated the shift and what it means for all students in the district.

A few years ago, BHS officials began altering the program of studies to create more heterogeneous class groupings. At the same time, the school administrators began eliminating courses that had specifically targeted learners who needed additional supports, and just this year Barrington High School began removing Honors courses. The district is replacing those courses with an opportunity to earn an Honors designation.

The move, says district administrators, is better for all students. But some parents and students have pushed back against the changing program of studies and displayed their opposition with a display of red flags planted on the town hall lawn. They have written letters to the editor, organized petition drives and spoken out during school meetings.

Toward the end of the April 1 online forum, officials offered people the chance to ask questions. There were a few questions, but most of the speakers instead used the opportunity to vent their angry frustrations and offer detailed complaints.

One resident asked why the district had not provided a more diverse panel of teachers for the presentation — one with divergent views about the restructuring. But teachers on the Zoom webinar quickly responded, saying that they had not been polled by administrators on whether they supported the change or not. They said their support for the restructuring was based on the belief that it would benefit all students in the district.

Barrington High School Principal Joe Hurley spoke early during the presentation and referenced how the change aligns with the accreditation standards employed by NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges). He also said the restructuring of the program of studies will offer more students the opportunity to earn an Honors designation. School officials said that by removing Honors courses, it removes a barrier for some student to increase achievement.

Steven Pickford, the chairman of the Barrington High School social studies department, offered information about what the change has meant to students. The social studies department was the first to begin the de-leveling process. Mr. Pickford said that when the school eliminated the Level 3 social studies courses, students previously in those classes showed a 30 percent increase in proficiency. He said the failure rates declined.

BHS social studies teacher Bill Barrass said some students were taking those lower level courses because they knew they were easier — he said those classes had actually lowered the achievement bar.

Mr. Pickford said that without Level 3 courses in social studies, students are doing better, and many pursue higher achievement by later enrolling in Advanced Placement social studies classes and sitting for AP exams. In a typical year, he said, BHS students sit for about 800 AP exams, and of those, about 300 are in AP social studies courses. Mr. Pickford said the average score for an AP social studies exam at BHS is a 4 — one of the highest marks possible.

Mr. Pickford also said that because all students are not tracked into higher or lower level social studies courses they end up feeling like they are capable of taking AP classes and exams.

Data doubt

Later in the presentation, resident Devyn Smith questioned the amount of data supporting the restructuring. He said that while the recent trend exhibited in the social studies department was encouraging anecdotally, it was not enough to cite as clinical evidence.

Katie Novak, a consultant who has worked with Barrington High School teachers and administrators on the shifting program of studies, offered testimony to support the change. She spoke about the Universal Design for Learning, about how all students should have access to grade level rigor, and about embracing variability for students.

Ms. Novak said she is a mother of four children and understands how some parents might be concerned about whether the changing program of studies would be good for their kids. She said the new approach was better for all students, encourages greater executive functioning skills, and arguably allows for greater individual feedback within the classrooms.

Michael Woodlock, the principal at Groton Dunstable High School in Massachusetts, spoke during the presentation. He said Groton Dunstable began restructuring its program of studies a few years before Barrington High School. He said Groton Dunstable had not been allowing access and opportunities to all of its students before the change. He said Groton Dunstable had more levels than Barrington, but two years ago officials there began de-leveling and now the school offers Open Honors courses, which appear to be similar to the Honors designation newly-offered at Barrington High School.

Ms. Novak said NEASC, the accreditation association, is moving toward heterogeneous groupings of students. Ms. Novak, who served as keynote speaker at the NEASC winter meeting, said many international schools are also working to allow all students more access to IB, or International Baccalaureate programs. She said the restructuring at Barrington High School will challenge students to further challenge themselves.

Former admissions official

Barrington resident Annie Reznik also spoke during the April 1 presentation. She said she formerly ran freshmen admissions at the University of Maryland.

Ms. Reznik said she had a deep understanding of college admissions, adding that the process has changed dramatically from what it was 20 years ago. She also said that when she learned that Barrington was restructuring its program of studies she became excited. Ms. Reznik said the shift at Barrington High School will better prepare and equip students, that it will help students enroll in college with a greater sense of confidence. She said the change will help Barrington High School students build portfolios they can share with prospective colleges and distinguish themselves from their peers.

Some BHS teachers spoke about the work students have exhibited while achieving Honors designation. Mr. Pickford said the projects were student-driven, student-created, passion-based, research-based. In an effort to obtain the Honors designation, students need to show a deeper level of dedication and follow-through, he said, and they need to present their work to a panel of judges at the end of each semester.

Kevin Blanchard, the chairman of the BHS English Department, offered some examples of the work that has earned students an Honors designation, adding that they really needed to “earn it.”

Removing barriers

BHS English teacher Suzanne Pickford spoke about how the prior program of studies created divisions among students at the high school.

She said the school had previously offered two Grade 11 ELA courses — British Literature, which served as preparation for students planning on attending a four-year college, and College Reading and Writing, which was intended for students who may not be heading to a four-year college.

The courses, she said, created a real divide between students, which was highlighted when the department offered Shakespeare Day for British Literature students only. Ms. Pickford said students were troubled by the distinction. She said her students in College Reading and Writing would ask her why they couldn’t participate in Shakespeare Day. Eventually, BHS officials opened the event to students in both courses.

Ms. Novak said that when schools offer different level courses, it creates barriers that only allow certain students access to high levels of academics. She added that many schools are starting to eliminate those barriers — districts all across Massachusetts are doing just that, she said. Ms. Novak said the data has not shown any decline in the achievement of the highest learners. She said the approach has worked all over the world.

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