A new type of classroom integration program at North Scott High School that eliminates separate classrooms for freshman honors students in English and social studies has received mixed reviews from parents and teachers.
The program is based on a type of differentiated instruction designed to give students the opportunity to work at three different levels on the same subject in the same classroom. Administrators are hoping the end result will be more students signing up for Advanced Placement, or AP, classes.
While the idea of differentiated instruction is not new to the school district, the program integrating honors students into classrooms with other students is in its first year.
Shane Knoche, the principal at the high school in Eldridge, Iowa, said he and other administrators wanted to address the falling numbers of honors and AP students.
“In the past, whoever was in Talented and Gifted was going into honors and there weren’t as many other kids,” Knoche said. “So now we are looking at ways to make it challenging for every student no matter what level they are and maybe increase our number of students that go into AP.”
North Scott administrators point to freshman level social studies classes that have received rave reviews from parents and teachers as a model for how the new program should work. One particularly lauded teacher, Ashley Laber, said her extensive experience with differentiated instruction in college prepared her for the rigor of changing her curriculum to meet the new standards.
She tested the new curriculum in her classroom in 2010 before the district decided to move forward with it.
“For my last two units for the school year, I did this on a trial basis with the students,” Laber said. “They gave me a lot of positive feedback; it seemed to work really well, and I saw a lot of success with reaching students at their level.”
The social studies classes have created such high interest in U.S. history that the high school will be offering two AP World History sections to sophomores.
“I’ve not heard of sophomores taking AP classes,” said Laber. “I’m sure they do, but not here at North Scott.”
In Laber’s class, students are given the option of taking levels of work designated “straightforward,” “hilly” or “mountainous.”
For the first unit, all students do the same kind of work. They then are allowed to determine if they would like something more challenging.
“The students and I have a discussion about different types of learners and I explain to them that the work we had been completing would be considered ‘straightforward’ work,” Laber said. “Then they can make a decision on how they felt with the challenge.”
Even after choosing a track, students are not required to complete work only on that level.
“We allow the students the flexibility to work with different levels at different times because some of the subjects are a bit more interesting,” Laber said.
In order to gain the honors designation in the U.S. history class, students have to complete at least 95 percent of their classes at the “mountainous” level and a portfolio project by the end of the semester.
Students in Laber’s class describe the “mountainous” work as being geared toward critical thinking skills versus rote memorization of facts.
“It’s more about interpreting the information as opposed to just knowing the dates and who was involved,” said Muriel Francis-Hoyle a freshman honors student.
Muriel, who is enrolled in several advanced classes, said she wasn’t crazy about the idea of integration at first.
“I just thought it would be easier to have a whole separate class because then it’s easier to have one-on-one with the teacher,” she said.
In Laber’s U.S. History class, Muriel said the work is difficult, but not beyond her ability.
“I do the mountainous work all the time, just because it’s challenging,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s abnormally hard.”
By contrast, she said the volume of work she was given at the beginning of the year in her English class was sometimes overwhelming.
Muriel’s mother, Lisa Francis, said she became concerned when her daughter was doing four to five hours of homework a night just to keep up.
Francis, an elementary school teacher in Clinton, Iowa, said she wasn’t familiar with the type of differentiation that was being offered at the high school, so she researched it.
“Being at a higher level does not mean you need more work; it means you need different work,” Francis said.
LeeAnn Webb, Muriel’s English teacher, has run into several barriers with the new program.
Webb said she has had classroom differentiation training from many of the same sources Laber has received training in, but none specifically targeted toward the language arts curriculum.
“English is kind of a different ballgame,” Webb said. “How do you have everybody reading the same novel, but differentiating within that novel?”
Webb’s first-semester class raised concern among parents like Francis, who felt their honors children weren’t being given the kind of attention they needed.
“We’re still struggling with it,” Webb said. “I think being able to find something that is challenging for everyone is difficult.”
Part of the issue with differentiating in an English classroom is the drastic range of reading ability Webb encounters in her classroom.
Overall, though, she said it has been a learning experience for her.
“Several parents contacted me and we did end up changing the curriculum a little bit in the second semester,” Webb said. “We’re not asking the kids to do as much outside-of-class reading.”
Audrey Rule, associate professor of elementary education at the University of Northern Iowa, specializes in educating gifted students. She said such students can be conflicted because “it’s not always cool to be smart.”
“One issue affecting gifted students is that there are a lot of different social and emotional issues and they need to be with other gifted students for at least part of their education," she said. (Editor's note: This paragraph has been edited for clarity.)
Gifted students can choose to “hide their ability to fit in.”
“Sometimes they will underachieve on purpose because of pressure to fit in.”
That sort of pressure can be seen from the other side of the spectrum as well, Rule said.
“You don’t necessarily want to group the slow readers together because they get the wrong idea and think they’re not able to keep up,” she said.
In Laber and Webb’s classes, the students are taught the same subject manner, then split into groups according to the level of work they want to complete.
Laber said in her U.S. History classroom she has seen students deliberately choose to take on more rigorous coursework.
In Webb’s English classroom, however, she said there were days when disciplinary issues kept her from teaching as much as she would like to.
“My frustration is that with the honors classes being separate, the kids who were in honors were there because they liked English and they’re very self-motivated,” Webb said. “Now they’re thrown in with kids that aren’t necessarily into English. So some of that time spent in class is me having to get some of those kids who aren’t engaged in what we’re doing.”
Webb said she has had to modify the way she handles disruptive kids in order to keep her class going.
Knoche and Jon Hawley, the associate principal, conducted a series of meetings for students and teachers to address their concerns.
Both Francis and her daughter said they were impressed with the way the school district responded to their questions.
Francis said she didn’t find any aspect of the new program unreasonable and was encouraged by how quickly her concerns were addressed.
“We really feel like the administration cares about us,” she said.
Ultimately, she said, it was a matter of the classroom evolving to meet the needs of the students.
“It truly is a work in progress,” Francis said. “It has its pros and cons and we’re working through it like you would with any new program.”
Knoche said the number of AP students in history was encouraging and while the English program wasn’t exactly where he wanted it to be, there were definite signs of improvement.
Last summer, to prepare for the program, the teachers were given 20 hours of differential instruction training and Knoche said they will be doing more training this summer.
“There are differentiation strategies that work for both subjects but we’re looking to take the training to a new level,” he said.
Knoche said despite some of the initials problems he was confident the program was going to benefit all of the students involved.
“We’re never satisfied with where we’re at,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to keep increasing our AP numbers and if we can do that I think we’ll be successful in everything we do.”