Why is/was HSD considering changing its course offerings?
About three years ago, coinciding with the shift to Common Core State Standards, teams of teachers started coming to agreement on "planned course statements” for every course we offer across high schools. They also began developing common assessments for each course.
As we became more familiar with the rigors of CCSS, we discovered our previous Advanced Course offerings were actually now aligned with our standard course expectations. As we started developing a common course catalogue last fall, we began to clarify what we were teaching in courses offered across the district for a consistent and viable curriculum. Additionally, with an increase in our offerings of Advanced Placement courses and dual articulated courses for college credit, we are offering more rigorous opportunities with a defined connection to college readiness.
However, after feedback from students, teachers, administrators and parents, we realized that not offering the advanced track option within certain subject areas felt rushed and made people very uncomfortable. We don’t want to move forward with any changes until we can ensure that our students who need challenging opportunities can access them in ways that meet their needs.
TAG Coordinators receive monthly professional development on strategies for engaging and challenging TAG students, and a Schoology course has been set up so that coordinators can easily communicate with one another and access important information to distribute to staff. Additional professional development is offered to staff throughout the school year.
How do we raise the level of rigor for everyone?
Our new standards really push us to help our students use and apply their knowledge of content. Through performance tasks, project-based learning and applying concepts and ideas to unknown settings, problems and situations, all of our students can be challenged to think at new levels. The tasks our teachers are developing and refining over time for our new standards will bring a new level of rigor into our classrooms for each student.
Who decides on curriculum materials and course changes?
Basic graduation requirements and instructional standards are set at the state level. Districts have the ability to set their own standards for more advanced diplomas (for example, Hillsboro School District has a Chancellor’s Diploma and recognizes students who both earn a Chancellor’s Diploma and maintain a GPA of 3.75 or higher as Honors Graduates).
Districts must also go through a process of adopting instructional materials for all different subject areas. The adopted materials must be in alignment with the state-adopted standards. The state provides lists of approved materials or districts may go through an independent adoption process (independent adoptions still need to be approved by the state). Typically, adoption processes are undertaken by teams of teachers and administrators with expertise in a particular area. They review available materials and make recommendations for adoption. In Hillsboro, we have a Citizens Curriculum Advisory Committee (CCAC), which is an appointed committee of the School Board. Not all districts have such a committee; in fact, it’s relatively unique in Oregon to have a citizen oversight committee specifically for curriculum. The CCAC is kept abreast of all curriculum adoption processes and is invited to review materials and share their thoughts. They make recommendations to the Board before the Board votes to approve.
Similarly, if a new course is proposed, the staff member(s) proposing the course will present to the CCAC first and secure their recommendation before going to the Board. Once approved by the Board, a new course is available to be picked up and taught by any of our schools.
Each year, our high school leadership teams (principal, assistant principals, counselors and perhaps teacher leaders) come together to discuss what courses they will offer for the following school year. This process is extensive and takes into account the overall Master Schedule (how, when and what to offer and what are the impacts of these decisions?), number and licensure of teaching staff, historical student interest in certain courses, new courses that may be taught and what might have to go away as a result, District expectations, etc. First and foremost, our high schools must offer sufficient courses for students to proceed toward graduation. Next, elective and other courses are considered for making students’ experience more enriching (e.g. AP/IB and dual credit courses, AVID, art, drafting, welding, etc.).
It is important to note that the process of determining annual course offerings does not need approval from the CCAC or the Board; however, principals do undertake this process in collaboration with each other and with district-level administrators to ensure their plans meet the needs of students for the coming year given the resources available and employing best practices.
Why heterogeneous (mixed-ability) instructional settings?
Research* has shown that ability grouping (high, medium, low) hurts low and middle level learners and provides minimal benefits for high level learners. There is, however, evidence that cluster grouping within a heterogenous class for specific purposes is good practice (e.g. TAG students do benefit by challenging each other at times and should be grouped together for activities intended to enrich and extend learning).
*See John Hattie’s meta-analysis of more than 300 research studies from around the world and over time on factors that influence student learning. Hattie, J.: Visible Learning, 2009, pp. 89-91.