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Our school as a vehicle for changing societal inequities, not mirroring them

By David Barnett

What position would John Dewey, Vermonter and renowned educational reformer, take in today's discussion of tracked classrooms at Harwood Union High School (HUHS)? Dewey, who noted that education is instrumental in creating social change and opposed dual track systems in education because he believed that they would reinforce existing inequalities. Dewey, who advocated for democracy in school and in society.

Perhaps it's not fair to suggest what position this proponent of progressive education would take in this discussion, but I can't help but wonder if he might have some of the same concerns that I have as I read the arguments for continuing tracked classes at HUHS. You will notice in this piece that I use the term "tracked classes" throughout. I do this knowing that one could argue that this is not "tracking" in the truest sense of the word. But, I do feel that creating a system that is honors/non-honors in nature creates tracks that are unfair to many students, are based on arbitrary and capricious beliefs about ability, are deleterious to students' self-worth and structured in a way that unfairly predetermines opportunities for many.

One concern that has been noted in a correspondence that was recently shared is that in non-honors classes students are subjected to harassment by peers. The writer of this concern expressed a desire to protect honors students from having to endure harassment in non-honors classes. If true, this should worry us for all of the students in these classes, not just those perceived to be academically worthy of better treatment. Why would we, the community served by the school, be comfortable with any student staying in a classroom with such an environment?

A second concern shared is one of motivation, or lack thereof, in students in non-honors classes. The parent of an honors student noted opposition to his children being in classes with non-academically motivated peers. Is this why these students are in these non-honors classes? What is the metric used to accurately measure motivation? I would suggest Dr. Mel Levine's book, The Myth of Laziness. Levine notes that all human beings are innately curious and have a universal desire to be productive but need skill development to become productive adults. Surely these skills could be richly successful in heterogeneous classrooms.

Or, perhaps, is our school's tracking system mirroring society's inequalities? I would venture that if we looked closely we'd see that differences in tracked classes correspond to socio-economic status, parents' education levels, and opportunity. I hope that I live in an enlightened enough community where we'd truly reflect on whether our school is perpetuating societal inequalities and, if so, work together to end such practice.

During this public discourse honors classes have been referred to as the "rigorous" classes in the school. If this is truly the case, which I think is also debatable, why then, as taxpayers to our school system, are we comfortable with any classes not being academically vigorous? We shouldn't feel good knowing that any of our children arrive in classes that allow them to go through the motions of education without true concept attainment.

A final thought on a concern noted by a parent that without honors classes our children would not get into top-notch colleges. This is, in a word, wrong. Admissions officers are tasked with knowing the high schools in their regions. Something quite beautiful would happen if the designation "honors" were gone from HU. Admissions officers would have to really get to know our school. We would be opening a metaphoric door to invite colleges in to see why they need our children in their schools. We would be able to reinvent relationships between HUHS and post-secondary institutions. We'd even have the opportunity to forge strong ties with high-level institutions that value truly progressive educational opportunities.

I am excited that this discussion offers us opportunity for positive change. John Dewey argued that education and learning are "social and interactive processes, and thus the school itself is a social institution through which social reform can and should take place." We can be a model of progressive change for others to emulate – not a pillar of educational stagnation supporting antiquated structures that do nothing to build a more equitable society.

We can do this by supporting HUHS while holding the school accountable to positive change. Let's promote education for all students that: connects to our communities; demands real-world problem solving; and requires 21st-century skills and universal habits of mind, heart and work. Let's use the state-mandated Personal Learning Plan (PLP) regulations to be certain that all students are getting a rigorous academic education, not because they are in a class label "honors" but because the school is demonstrating that each student's PLP is being met.

Let's support school budgets that provide ample professional development to our teachers so that they can differentiate their instruction to meet students' PLPs. Finally, Harwood recently released that it has received the distinction of being accepted into the League of Innovative Schools. Let's look for, and support, real innovation.

David Barnett lives in Waitsfield.

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