Salem-Keizer will continue to push ahead with a deeply flawed “embedded honors” program while eliminating most advanced classes. This terrible idea springs from a flawed premise: That disparity equals discrimination. The result will be that high achieving students in Salem-Keizer, whatever their race, will be incredibly poorly served. The best students will be dragged down.

Here’s the rationale:

White students make up 62% of those taking Advanced Placement classes at McNary High School, while representing less than half the student body, 49.4%.

At South Salem High School, students of color represent 47.5% of the student population, but they comprise only 31.8% of International Baccalaureate classes.

For eight years, Salem-Keizer Public Schools has been working to address inequities in who takes these higher-level courses. Some strides have been made, especially at schools like North and McKay where the students taking IB and AP classes almost perfectly mirror the demographics of the student body.

Disparity does not equal discrimination. It is statistically normal that the racial composition of various cohorts not be identical to a larger population. In fact, it’s unusual if it is. For example, Blacks are overly represented in the NBA, but nobody thinks that’s because Whites or Asians are subject to racial discrimination. In the case of SK, from this poor understanding springs an entire policy structure that attempts, at virtually any cost, to square a circle.

The argument being made is that SK teachers, counselors, and administrators have been racial biased against minority students leading to these statistical outcomes. I think this highly unlikely. If SK would like to show proof, I’m open to seeing it. Again, disparity is not equal to discrimination, so we need better evidence than what’s been provided.

The district identified honors classes, typically taken by 9th and 10th graders in preparation for IB and AP, as a point where these disparate statistics originate.

So, during the pandemic, when Oregon Department of Education rules forced it to create cohorts not based on ability, the district rethought its approach to honors-level work by intermingling honors and general education students. When students returned to classrooms full time, honors remained embedded in general education classes.

Setting aside the horror show that is the Oregon Department of Education, embedded honors is a disaster for high achieving students and for those forced to teach these classes. It effectively combines low, middle, and high academic students in one class and forces a teacher to try to meet all levels simultaneously. This is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to do with the time allotted per class.

The result is that teaching happens at a lower middle level. It cannot happen at a high level because the majority of students in these classes are not capable of understanding or contributing to high level discussions or engaging with high level content. Those who can are robbed of this opportunity. For those who want “honors credit” for a class, there are a few extra assignments or lessons that they can do. Most do not, because even students capable of high level work need nurturing. Instead we’ve thrown them in with everybody else where most will do work well below anything that challenges them and get the “Easy A.” People strive to meet the expectations placed upon them. In SK the current expectations of students can’t get much lower.

Historically, students were placed on either the honors or general education track as they entered 9th grade. Many in honors classes would go on to take AP and IB classes — nationally standardized courses that can offer college credit — while some would drop back into general education classes.

The advanced classes were open to all students. Teachers would make recommendations as to who they thought should be in those classes, but any student could opt-in if they wanted. I again reject the argument that minority students were not encouraged to be in the those classes because of their race.

Teachers, administrators and staff disagree on how rigorous these new classes are.

[Tyler] Scialo-Lakeberg [Salem-Keizer Education Association president] said some teachers feel they can’t properly meet the needs of all students during one class, which “waters down” the quality of the classes for honors students.

“Any time you lower the bar in the name of equity, it’s close to racism,” Scialo-Lakeberg said. “Kids will rise to the lowest expectations you give them.”

[Zach] Brown-Silverstein [a social studies teacher at South] said the quality of education offered hasn’t significantly changed.

Brown-Silverstein is absolutely and utterly wrong. The quality of education for the best students is plummeting, and I see no signs that SK is going to arrest that fall any time soon.

One reason is that the metrics are wrong. SK now measures itself on how many students, particularly minority students, are enrolled in International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement classes. What SK should measure is how many students get an IB or pass an AP test. They won’t, and it’s for the same reason they generally now disparage reading and writing graduation requirements. The results would be comparatively dismal. Easier is to lower the bar until every possible student graduates and call that success.

It’s not.