Hoover Middle School sprawls over three stories on a hillside in the Inner Sunset. The children who arrive here for sixth grade come from as far away as the Richmond and the Bayview. Some need special education, while some are gifted. Some went to bilingual elementary schools, and some are still learning English.
But they all have one thing in common, says Principal Thomas Graven.
“Students who are ten or 11 years old are too young to have big decisions made about them,” Graven said. “There’s a lot of problems with taking test data and using it to put them in tracks that are going to determine the rest of their lives.”
Graven was explaining the philosophical underpinnings behind the school’s recent decision to end separate honors classes for sixth grade. Currently, incoming sixth-graders whose scores are in the top fifth on reading and math exams are placed in separate classes. Next year, Graven said, children of all abilities will be mixed in each class, with their teachers adapting lessons to fit their various needs and abilities.
The concept, called differentiated instruction, is on the minds of San Francisco Unified School District administrators as they mull over a district-wide plan to improve middle schools. But the talk of ending separate honors classes has many parents worried. As the district pursues its mission to help poorly performing students succeed, will the most advanced children be left behind?
“There doesn’t seem to be any sort of plan from the district about how they’re going to deal with children who need to be challenged” said Paula Rivers, whose children are in fourth and second grade at Miraloma Elementary. “With all the progress they’ve been making for kids who are struggling, they need to do that on the other end.”
Like many elementary school parents, Rivers is paying close attention to middle school issues, especially since the district began using a new “feeder” system to connect each elementary school with a particular middle school, effectively giving parents less choice in where their children attend sixth grade.
Jeannie Pon, the assistant superintendent in charge of middle schools, said there is no districtwide plan to do away with honors. However, in November she provided middle school principals a packet of research studies and magazine articles suggesting that differentiated instruction is superior to separate honors classes.
“Half of our middle schools currently have honors programs, the other half doesn’t.” Pon said. “We’re trying to be more consistent.”
Pon said she doesn’t favor one approach over another, although she said she is confident differentiated instruction could work. She added that avoiding separate classes for advanced students could be seen as an issue of social justice, because placing some students in honors classes stigmatizes students who are not on the honors track.
Deborah Gitin, whose son attends first grade, appreciates that intention, but said she worried how teachers will manage large classes of children whose reading or math skills might span several grade levels.
“I don’t think the world splits into honors kids and non-honors kids,” she said. “I think there are many children of all flavors whose needs cannot be adequately met in large classes with complete heterogeneity.”
At Hoover, where classes can have as many as 38 students, Graven said teachers will be trained this spring in how to deal with a wide range of children. And in math, teachers will use educational software that can tailor lessons to each child’s needs.
“Differentiation is probably the most difficult thing to do for any teacher, especially with big classes,” Graven said. “But we feel very confident that heterogeneous instruction is going to allow us to challenge every student.”
As San Francisco Unified School District rethinks its approach to middle school honors classes, school leaders are reviewing the available research about how children of different abilities learn best.
Most studies have found students who are struggling do better in classes that also include average students and high achievers. These students do less well when they are segregated, and the research suggests that this is due at least in part to lowered expectations on the part of their teachers.
“Lowered expectations result in curriculum and instruction that not only reflect the economic poverty of students who are overrepresented in low-level classes but are also likely to prepare students for a future of poverty,” said University of Virginia professor Carol Ann Tomlinson, in an essay distributed to SFUSD principals.
On the other hand, this approach might not benefit high-performing students.
“We know that children who are not provided proper support regress to the mean by third grade,” said Barbara Branch, with the California Association for the Gifted.
Branch was citing a 2011 student by the Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, that suggested the emphasis on struggling students under the national No Child Left Behind law was hurting gifted children.
Other research touted by advocates for the gifted shows that advanced children do better academically when they are grouped with their intellectual peers.
In diverse classes, teachers can adjust lessons to fit different children, whether they need enrichment or extra help with the basics. But this approach, called “differentiated instruction,” can be difficult when class-sizes are large and the range of abilities wide.
“Differentiation is good,” Branch said. “It’s just when you have 10 different groups with one teacher, it’s hard.”
The current approach to educating advanced students varies across San Francisco Unified School District’s 13 middle schools.
Honors classes: Aptos, Francisco, Hoover, Marina, Presidio, Roosevelt, A.P. Giannini
Differentiated instruction only: Everett, James Lick, Visitacion Valley, International Studies Academy, Martin Luther King Jr., James Denman