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The persistent disparity in course leveling - The Sagamore

The persistent disparity in course leveling - The Sagamore

The persistent disparity in course leveling - The Sagamore

Posted: 04 Dec 2020 08:16 AM PST

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.


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 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.

" 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.


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."


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