Northampton School Committee Member Draws Fire For Way He Challenged Combining Honors and Non-Honors Math Classes

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A school committee member in Northampton is taking flak for the way he asked a question about math students of varying levels of understanding being put in the same classroom.

Michael Stein, one 10 members of the city’s elected school committee, asked a question about “differentiated instruction” during a committee meeting earlier this month that didn’t go down well with the high school principal. Stein referred to students in combined classes as “second-class learners” and “first-class learners.”

Eleven teachers wrote an open letter to the school committee asking Stein to apologize, calling Stein’s language “hurtful,” “inaccurate,” and “extremely disrespectful and damaging to our students,” according to the Daily Hampshire Gazette. The teachers said that the combined classes have led to more students enrolling in honors math classes because they “can see the challenge work and the honors assessments and try them, and can make the decision to switch to honors without disrupting their schedules.”

But Stein, according to the Hampshire Daily Gazette, says the real issue is putting students with varying levels of knowledge in the same room. He noted that some school committee members last year objected to the math program’s new approach and said school officials should have come to the school committee for approval before combining honors and non-honors classes.

Northampton High School this school year is using  “embedded honors courses” in math, meaning students at the honors level and students at the standard level are taught in the same class.

A school committee member, Dina Levi, asked a math teacher during the school committee meeting February 10 to describe the difference between the two.

The math teacher, Rachel Stavely-Hale, a former nine-year chairman of the math department, answered this way:


So, when we made the switch to integrated math from the traditional Algebra-Geometry-Algebra II progression, one of the things that we talked about was needing as a department to have greater clarification in the differences between our standard college prep and our honors courses. So when we started implementing the integrated math curriculum, one of the things that we set out as a goal was to make sure that we were covering the same course content in those courses, and that really what was different was that we were asking the students in the honors courses to think about that content in deeper ways, and to develop their ability to communicate about that content in more sophisticated ways, using more formal mathematical language and notation, and basically instilling the kind of habits of mind that you’re going to need to do math at higher levels.

And so, because the content of the courses is the same, when we were shut down during the early pandemic, we realized that we were going to have trouble with kids learning math in a remote setting, and so we created year-long versions of our integrated courses, and the only way that we could do that was to have our honors students in the same sections with our standard college prep students. And luckily, because we had already done this work of making sure that the honors courses covered the same content as the standard college prep courses, it was actually not that much of a hardship to have them integrated in the same classroom section. And so we’ve moved ahead with that.


Stavely-Hale later acknowledged that teaching to varying levels of understanding in the same classroom is hard, and she suggested that not all teachers have gotten enough professional development to do it as effectively as they might.

Stein, picking up on that theme, said that he encountered that problem teaching college freshmen.

“In some of the classes that gulf was nearly impossible to overcome,” Stein said. “So I’m wondering … How difficult really is it to give all of these students a coherent class that serves all of their interests? I found it, depending on the composition of the classes I’ve taught, extremely difficult, to do that well.”

A transcript of his comments that followed and the subsequent back-and-forth between Stein and the principal of the high school, Lori Vaillancourt, is below (starting at 3:27:48 of the YouTube video of the meeting):


Michael Stein:  The other sort of question I would have is, you know, well:  What sort of effect does it have to have, sort of, second-class learners alongside first-class learners. And I don’t mean that, like, ranked, but there’s a demand at the honors that the rubric is X and it’s more demanding, and there’s a rubric for — I don’t know what we call the track — standard learners that the rubric is less demanding in some ways. I don’t know what that does psychologically to students that are in the same space. To me that seems a bit odd, right?

You say, “I don’t expect the same from you, because you’re not on that track, but we’re all in the same class.” And to me, it’s just —

Principal Lori Vaillancourt:  So I’m gonna ask.  Im gonna ask —

Michael Stein:  Please, I still have the floor. I still have the floor. O.K.?

We can talk about this in the curriculum committee. It’s just a question that I’m raising. And I’m suggesting we pick it up then. If we want to address it now, that’s fine. But I appreciate all of your time.

Principal Lori Vaillancourt:  Yes I wrote that question down, and I think it’s really important to raise with the math department when we go there. But I really feel like, in a public meeting like this, we cannot refer to learners as first- and second-class learners. I have to say that publicly, that I cannot tolerate that type of depiction of our learners and our students.

But I will put this down as a question that we can bring up with our entire math department at another time. So thank you so much.


Stein, in a later email message published by the Daily Hampshire Gazette, sought to clarify his remarks.

“My concern is that by having both groups in one class, with clearly defined yet different expectations (rubrics) we reinforce to the groups of students that one group is more capable than the other. … You may rightfully object to me using the phrase first- and second-class learners, but can you honestly say you are communicating anything differently to students by referring to them as standard and honors?”

He offered to participate in “a healing circle” if his email message didn’t suffice.


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