Combining Honors and Non-Honors Courses Will Promote Inclusion and Equity, Arlington School Officials Say

Printed from:

Arlington Public Schools administrators are lobbying to eliminate the distinction between standard and honors courses at Arlington High School by combining the two and calling them honors.

The proposal to combine general classes and honors classes comes in the spirit of promoting equity and inclusion, school officials say.

The official term for combining honors and standard students is “heterogeneous grouping.” (Advanced Placement classes, which are prized by selective colleges, would remain separate.)

An initial pilot program has been proposed to the community – which would heterogeneously group freshman English language arts classes to start.

“For School Year 2022-23, we propose that 9th grade ELA classes be heterogeneously grouped. By this we mean that all students in general education grade 9 ELA will no longer be grouped by perceived ability level,” the proposal states.

School officials have discussed extending heterogeneous grouping across all the core subjects during committee meetings this past year.

Matthew Janger, the high school principal, has been advocating for heterogeneous grouping for more than a year.

With help from Lesley University education professor and consultant David Nurenberg, Janger has put together support for the idea among administrators, teachers, and members of the Arlington School Committee, which oversees the town’s public schools.

Nurenberg is the author of the 2020 book “What Does Injustice Have To Do With Me?:  Engaging Privileged White Students With Social Justice.

Janger pitched heterogeneous grouping to members of the Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment and Accountability Subcommittee of the town’s school committee in October 2021. NewBostonPost obtained a video of the meeting, which conducted online but, apparently, not broadcast on local cable access television or subsequently posted on the web.

“Why are we doing this?” Janger said during the October meeting. “We know that inclusion and differentiation are better for kids, they are better for equity, they are better for a growth mindset. and they are better for achievement.”

Seniors applying to colleges might also gain a practical edge, he said.

“Right now, we have heterogeneous classes in eleventh and twelfth grade. In those classes what appears on your transcript is [an] honors class. … From the college perspective, it looks on that piece of paper – the same,” Janger said.  

Nurenberg, an associate professor of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, is acting as an unpaid consultant to the school district while pursuing credit toward a principal’s license, a school official told NewBostonPost.

During the October meeting, Nurenberg said research shows that heterogeneous grouping is preferable to keeping honors classes and non-honors classes separate.

“Research reveals that separating students into classes based on perceived ability level does not benefit students on either end of the performance spectrum… and contributes to fixed mindsets, racial and gender disparities for students who are in lower tracks,” Nurenberg said during the October meeting.

“Hard data collected thus far in terms of the impacts of heterogeneous learning on advanced-level students, research has shown grades have improved under this demographic,” Nurenberg said. 

On the other hand, data Nurenberg presented suggested that average students were found to maintain under heterogeneous grouping the same grades they received before.

But not everyone is sold. Some Arlington eighth-graders, for instance, attacked the heterogeneous grouping proposal in early 2021 after it was first introduced. The students circulated a petition saying they worried combining honors students and non-honors students into one class “can potentially be detrimental towards our schooling.”

The February 2021 issue of a middle school newspaper in Arlington called The Ottoson Insider described a then-eighth-grader identified only as Samantha as saying she was disappointed to learn that honor and non-honors courses might be combined. The story states:  “Samantha herself was planning on taking honors classes next year and is disappointed to hear of the potential course change. She was looking forward to interacting with other students who have the same academic interests she does.” 

Students may be underqualified to comment, though, according to a school official. Arlington superintendent of schools Elizabeth Homan has suggested that heterogeneous grouping is properly the province of education experts.

Homan addressed qualifications during the February 8 meeting of the Community Relations Subcommittee of the Arlington School Committee. She hinted she could roll out pilot programs without a vote of the full school committee, and she suggested that getting the support of non-experts may be overrated.

“While I think it is important that we have the community support to move forward with this, I worry about things like surveys precisely because they imply a vote of the community around something that is deeply entrenched in educational scholarship and that is something that the educators, quite honestly, have been educated on and have master’s degrees associated with,” Homan said.

School Committee member Jeff Theilman then pressed Homan if she was suggesting that she could green-light heterogeneous grouping without a vote from the elected school committee.

“I believe that it could, however I don’t know if that is what has been said publicly,” Homan answered.

Superintendent Homan, Principal Janger, and Professor Nurenberg all have master’s degrees. None could be reached for comment for this story.

As the February subcommittee meeting wrapped up, another committee member, Jane Morgan, took a jab at Homan’s comment about experts with master’s degrees.

“If that’s where we are setting the bar to participate, if that’s the ticket for entry, then I don’t think we should waste people’s time, frankly,” Morgan stated. 

Morgan added, referring first to the superintendent, Holman, and second to the principal, Janger:   “Liz, you’ve said that you maybe think this is a decision that is meant for people with master’s degrees in education, right? If that is how people feel, if that’s how he feels, then any kind of public forum is going to be disingenuous … because I don’t have a master’s degree in education!”

Morgan, who has a child at the high school, described the common reaction among high school parents to heterogeneous grouping proposal as “muddy.”

Liz Exton, vice chairman of the school committee, said that she sees “outrage” about heterogeneous education among some members of the community “as education.” A lot of the email messages about the proposal from parents have a common theme, she said – “very much ‘I’m worried about my child’.” 

Supporters of heterogeneous grouping say the coronavirus school shutdowns provided an experiment with it, because the honors-level and non-honors-level of certain core courses offered online to students instead of in person were combined as an emergency measure. Now some school officials want to make it permanent.

The school district’s ad-hoc committee studying heterogeneous grouping consists of the superintendent, the high school principal, special education coordinator Lynne Bennett, director of special education Alison Elmer, math department chairman Matthew Coleman, history department chairman Denny Conklin, science department chairman Sam Hoyo, and English department chairman Deborah Perry.

Supporters plan to make a presentation to an online meeting of the Arlington School Committee at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 14. Information to watch that meeting live can be found by clicking here.


New to NewBostonPost?  Conservative media is hard to find in Massachusetts.  But you’ve found it.  Now dip your toe in the water for two bucks — $2 for two months.  And join the real revolution.