The persistent disparity in course leveling

How systemic racism impacts the makeup of honors and standard classes

December 4, 2020

The racial makeup of standard and honors classes by subject. See the full data set here. (INFOGRAPHIC BY ROWAN ROUDEBUSH)

At 8:20 am, students log into Zoom or enter the classroom for their first class of the day. Should that class be an honors course, there is a significant chance that they will be greeted by a room devoid of Black students.

At the high school, any notion of racial equity is discredited by the disproportionate number of Black students in standard classes. This disparity is strikingly obvious for science teacher Kate Wooley.

“In the days of in-person learning, you could walk down the hallway and you could tell which class was standard and which class was honors just by looking in the window,” Wooley said.

Based on the course enrollment data for the 2020-2021 school year, Black students at the high school are 140% more likely to be in a standard class than white students. But the racial disparities at the high school run deeper than this simple statistic: the oppressive and persistent force of prejudice seeps into fundamental parts of how education is structured in Brookline.

According to METCO Coordinator Malcolm Cawthorne, course recommendations, which start in eighth grade, are often biased.

“There would be kids who had B pluses in honors Geometry that would be told they should take standard algebra the next year,” Cawthorne said. “Of the recommendations that are standard, it’s disproportionately kids of color.”

According to Junior Obioma Ukomadu, students of color in younger grades are rarely expected to perform as well as their white classmates, and are not encouraged in the same ways. These low expectations also come from peers at the high school.

“There definitely are times where I’ve walked into certain classes and I get looks or people just don’t believe on first interaction that I’m smart enough or I’m the type of person who would be interested in taking that class,” Ukomadu said.

To better understand the disparities in course levels, the social studies department assembled a team in 2018, according to Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator Gary Shiffman, who is taking a leave of absence this year. The team researched how easy it is for students to move between standard and honors classes.

“We saw things that weren’t completely shocking, but still alarming,” Shiffman said. “In the cohort we studied, if you were a Black boy in a ninth grade standard class, you would be in standard for the rest of your social studies route.”

A variety of socioeconomic factors feed into this cycle of racial disparities at the high school. Over the summer students of color often fall behind more than white students, Adrian Mims, founder of The Calculus Project, a program that helps minority students succeed in high level STEM courses, said.

“Imagine year after year after year, you’re never doing anything enriching to keep your brain fresh. Eventually over time as that compounds, you will fall at least a year or two below grade level,” Mims said. “When you look at summer enrichment programs around STEM, a lot of them you have to pay for.”

Mims said that paying for these summer programs creates a barrier for students who need to supplement their family income, a disproportionate amount of whom are Black.

The larger context

According to Raul Fernandez, Brookline select board member and advisor on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) Racial Imbalance Advisory Council (RIAC), racial inequities in education are a part of a much larger structure of racism.

“When we look at educational systems, they’re connected to housing systems, which are connected to systems of policing, and what we call criminal justice, and economic systems, and so on,” Fernandez said. “These interconnected systems, because of institutional as well as individual racism, have for far too long, throughout the entire history of this country, held people of color and especially Black people back.”

This kind of structural racism has plagued education in Massachusetts since the very beginning, Fernandez said.

“If you look at the system of education in particular, in the development of that system there are people that from the very beginning were excluded from it. In particular, anyone who was enslaved, people of color more broadly, Black people especially, even women,” Fernandez said. “There were people for whom education has been used to assimilate them, like indigeous people, Mexicans, {and others}.”

According to Cawthorne, the creation of honors and standard classes was a direct consequence of this history of racism.

“Leveling too was a part of desegregating schools. It was one of the things that was done essentially to sort kids, and in this case it was a way to assuage white families and white students’ fears of being in classes with Black kids,” Cawthorne said. “One of the ways to alleviate fears with desegregation was to create tracks. So then, essentially, you can say white kids are smarter and put them in these higher tracks.”

Cawthorne said that our normalization of these systems means we often don’t think about their origins.

“I think it’s been so baked into the bread over time that we just assume it’s normal when the reality is it’s not really normal in the grand scheme of schools. Particularly in the Boston area where we’ve had schools since the 1600s. This {deleveling} is like 50 years old,” Cawthorne said.

Ongoing efforts

For the past several years, high school teachers and administrators across different departments at the high school have been considering different ways of dealing with these deep-seated forces of racism.

Math:

Adrian Mims, a former math teacher and dean at the high school, started investigating racial disparities in school for his dissertation at Boston College. According to Mims, when he was at the high school between 60 and 70 percent of Black students in honors geometry dropped down to standard geometry.

Mims subsequently did extensive research and sent a report on how to improve the performance of minority students to the superintendent at the time, Bill Lupini. Lupini agreed to fund Mims’ plan for a pilot program that would become The Calculus Project.

The effect of the program was immediate. According to Mims, in the first year of the program no Black students dropped down to standard Geometry. Through interviews with these students, Mims had discovered what had led to the previously high attrition rate.

“One {issue} was the fact that they were in isolation. You’d have multiple sections of geometry honors, and you’d have roughly 18 students who identify as Black or African-American spread out across eight or nine sections,” Mims said.

According to Mims, The Calculus Project formed a “critical mass” in a few honors Geometry classes, wherein 45 percent of students in a section would be from The Calculus Project. These groups of students started learning theorems and postulates together before the school year began, to prepare them for the new material and encourage them to support one another.

Ukomadu said that being in class with that critical mass helps create a positive environment.

“It feels more supportive, knowing that there are a lot of people who’ve had shared experiences in school. It feels more secure,” Ukomadu said. “In a class like that you don’t really feel the need to prove yourself.”

In the years since the first pilot program of The Calculus Project, it has expanded to a nationwide organization that works with school districts around the country to implement similar tutoring and cohorting strategies to provide disadvantaged students with opportunities to pursue advanced math courses.

While The Calculus Project has done a lot for the racial disparity in the math department at the high school, disparities still exist in course enrollment. Black students are 116 percent more likely to be in a standard math class than white students.

Social Studies:

After their 2018 study, the social studies department received funding to design a new course with the intention of limiting the impact of existing inequalities. Starting in the 2019-2020 school year, an unleveled ninth grade history class called World History: Identity, Status, and Power (WHISP) replaced the previously leveled ninth grade world history course.

“The premise of the new course was that all students in ninth grade should join the high school on the same footing,” Shiffman said. “Of course, kids are all different. We’ll meet you where you are, but we want you all in the same room.”

Shiffman said this change hasn’t had much of an impact on the disparities between honors and standard classes. According to the course enrollment data for the 2020-2021 school year, the same racial disparity exists in tenth grade history classes for students who took the WHISP course. 58.6 percent of Black students in 10th grade are enrolled in standard world history, versus 26 percent of white students. But Shiffman said it is too early to read into this data.

“It’s going to take a couple of years to figure out if we’ve actually done anything and done anything positive,” Shiffman said.

Another approach the social studies department took to managing the racial inequities at the high school was the invention of a mixed level course, Shiffman said. English teacher Dave Mitchell and social studies teacher Mark Wheeler created a mixed level eleventh grade class.

“They invented an American Studies course, which is a mixed level course, which is terrific. It’s thematic. It coordinates English and social studies curriculum. And that’s a way to keep kids from getting tracked into a low level course over years and years,” Shiffman said.

Despite these changes, Shiffman said the social studies department is looking to further change the structure of the social studies curriculum at the high school.

“{The} pandemic threw a monkey wrench into our plans. So we’re not going to do anything new next year, but eventually my vision is that we’ll have a big global studies mixed level tenth grade,” Shiffman said.

English:

According to English Curriculum Coordinator John Andrews, the English department has also considered deleveling ninth grade courses. However, the nature of English classes makes this change less straightforward than in other departments.

“In social studies, you can scaffold that content so that all kids have access to it at different levels, but you can still all be talking about the Mayans,” Andrews said. “In English, if you’re all reading the Odyssey, it is hard to scaffold so that it’s equally accessible to all students. As long as we continue to think a class needs to read the same book at the same time, which has been an anchor of an English class for many years, it is hard to open it up to a complete range of skill levels.”

However, the gap caused by differences in reading level has not ended the English department’s pursuit of a solution. The mixed level tenth grade classes, Real World Literature and Future World Literature, have experimented with changing the structure of a typical English class.

“In one of the World Lit classes a teacher is doing a unit on dystopias and they all read 1984 together. Then she’ll offer three different other dystopias that different groups of kids can choose to work at, and they’re all at slightly different levels,” Andrews said. “She’s not telling which kid needs to be with which book.”

According to Andrews, taking on content in more diverse, mixed level classrooms adds a new level of enrichment.

“It benefits a class to have students coming from lots of different places and lots of different voices and experiences all in the same room,” Andrews said. “It begins to look a little bit more like Brookline High than some of our other classes do at either end of the spectrum.“

Curriculum changes in the English department go beyond course offerings. The department has also been rethinking the core books they teach in order to better reflect the experience of their students, Andrews said. Part of that change involves discussion about who is teaching these core books. According to Andrews, the department over the last few years has committed itself to the diversification of its staff.

The English department has also set guidelines for how often its staff should reach out to the families of students and provide extra support, Andrews said.

Support Programs:

Living in Brookline as a person of color comes with a lot of harassment, Lloyd Gellineau, Chief Diversity Officer at Brookline’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations said.

“There’s everyday racist stuff that goes on citizen to citizen. It’s low level, but it’s persistent,” Gellineau said. “People don’t typically report these things; mainly because it happens so much. You would spend your life filing complaints.”

Cawthorne said METCO helps their students deal with this everyday racism.

“We have a space that is geared towards academic wholeness,” Cawthorne said. “Walking through a school like Brookline there are microaggressions, all kinds of things. Sometimes kids just need to come in and decompress and kind of shut out the outside world.”

According to Ukomadu, The Calculus Project and the African-American and Latino Scholars Program (AALSP) provide students of color with the extra academic support that is often missing in the school as a whole.

Shiffman said that programs like AALSP, METCO and The Calculus Project do a lot of good, but are never enough to address the core of the disparities at the high school because they build around existing inequalities.

The need for these types of programs represents the problem with the existing education system, Mims said.

“You really want to be in a situation where you don’t need the program,” Mims said. “You don’t need the program if the system is operating the way that it’s supposed to operate. The problem with education right now is that there are achievement gaps and opportunity gaps in every single school that exists.”

Fernandez said that in order for meaningful change to occur, moving past incremental changes is essential.

“We want to go beyond this idea of sort of one-off programs that will marginally increase the numbers of teachers of color over time,” Fernandez said. “{We want to} really rethink some of these larger parts of the system that really haven’t been addressed in a meaningful enough way.”

Steps to true reform

The persistent structures of racial inequality call for a consistent, all-in approach to reform. Fernandez said that in order for this approach to be effective, teachers and administrators must have diverse perspectives.

“Equity is about making sure that resources are distributed equitably, meaning that the folks who need, get,” Fernandez said. “To have more diverse groups of teachers engaging in dialogue about these issues is much better than having predominantly white faculty trying to figure out how best to serve and support students of color.”

The entire community must be involved in efforts to eliminate racial disparities for any lasting change to occur, Fernandez said.

“The way that I frame this is like moving, literally moving from one home to another,” Fernandez said. “When you move, everybody’s got to go. You don’t just move and leave people behind.”

Cawthorne said the COVID-19 pandemic provides a unique opportunity for this move to happen.

“We have an opportunity to think about schooling and all the things that are wrong,” Cawthorne said. “We have a chance to just wipe out a lot of the crap that we know creates disparities.”

In order to wipe out these disparities, everyone who is a part of the education system must be involved in discussing its future, Mims said.

“The three major stakeholder groups are the students, the parents and the educators. If you get those three major stakeholder groups working in concert together, that’s true reform,” Mims said.

Of these three stakeholder groups, teachers have a unique challenge to navigate when addressing racial inequities.

“It’s very difficult because most educators were not educated in this space that looks like the one that we’re trying to create, so it takes a lot of imagination,” Fernandez said. “Teachers also have to be of two minds. Be the people that are advocating for change, but also to recognize that sometimes they’re the ones that need to change too.”

Cawthorne said rethinking the purpose of leveling on a larger scale is an essential part of changing the existing inequalities.

“We have to think of breaking down levels differently, really locking in and focusing on what kids need to know to move to the next level developmentally. I think every subject could do that,” Cawthorne said. “It would really mean a shift in our current teaching.”

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  • N

    Nicholas C CarterDec 19, 2020 at 10:49 am

    Rowan thank you for writing this article and well done for publishing it! I really enjoyed reading your article. It was very informative and i learned a lot. It is encouraging that your school is creatively addressing this and finding ways to support all student to learn and succeed. I appreciate the realization that diverse content and mixed levels leads to enrichment! Diversity brings the possibility of growth and change. I was also surprised to learn that honors classes or these divisions grew out of racial segregation. It is amazing how when we do not understand or know the origins of something how we can ignorantly and blindly participate in perpetuating such injustices. I am curious how this has changed you personally and what has been the response to your work? I am grateful that you care to look at how the persistent force of prejudice shapes our world and your inquiry brings awareness allowing the possibility of change!

    Reply
  • O

    Ondina HatvanyDec 5, 2020 at 9:34 am

    BIG topic to tackle Rowan! LOVE that you chose this to look at…; ) Appreciate that you bring in the systemic issues that support racism. Find myself hoping you’ll write more about solutions to this systemic problem of racism!

    Reply
  • M

    Marilyn LissDec 4, 2020 at 12:50 pm

    So true. Fabulous article. Sad.

    Reply
  • K

    KikoDec 4, 2020 at 12:11 pm

    👏👏👏

    Reply