This fall, Carrboro High School introduced heterogeneous grouping—combining standard and honors courses—into ninth grade English and World History classes. The initiative, intended to help incoming students make informed decisions about their enrollment, may also help reduce the achievement gap.
Within the first nine weeks of the school year, students are able to switch their enrollment between standard and honors. Teachers of these classes define what constitutes honors work and standard work, therefore allowing students to have a better understanding of the level of rigor they want. For example, in English 9, students received a sheet detailing what signified honors level work and how they would earn honors credit.
Within heterogeneous classes, students can help one another. English teacher Anthony Swaringen commented on the change in classroom culture.
“I’ve noticed that students are reinforcing positive behaviors in each other more than what I’ve ever seen in the past,” said Swaringen. “When you don’t have students who are modeling good student behavior—such as how to study, how to effectively read, or how to hold a class discussion—it’s hard to get that going in a classroom.”
World History and Psychology teacher Jacqueline Cerda-Smith added her perspective on blended classes.
“I really enjoy the class climate more this year,” said Smith. “I feel like everybody is more focused, and I’m seeing way less behavioral problems in class overall.”
Blended classes may also help close academic, social and other gaps between students.
“Everyone needs equal opportunities to be successful and not have their opportunities artificially limited by systems,” said Swaringen.
There are also students who want to take honors-level work but don’t see students that look like them and, as a result, find those classes less welcoming.
“A lot of students register for classes based on where their friends and family are registering,” said Swaringen. “I think that’s another place where we see those patterns of segregation, both racial and economic.”
The teachers involved in heterogeneous classes put careful thought into its implementation.
“You can have everybody together in a class and do a pretty terrible job of it,” said history teacher Matt Cone. “People have been pretty thoughtful about what are the different strategies we might use to have success.” He added that simply grouping students by enrollment would be ineffective.
Cameron Ferguson, a history teacher, added how he differentiates work for students.
“For me the difference is how independent students have to work,” said Ferguson. “I will give both students an honors level reading and the honors kids will be responsible for doing it on their own, and I will sit there and help the standard kid.”
Ferguson assured that all students are exposed to honors level instruction within heterogeneous classrooms.
Teachers of heterogeneous classes are also piloting Actively Learn, an online platform where teachers can give students the same reading with different questions or supports. Additionally, students can take separate tests in blended classes.
No concrete plan exists for implementing blended classes in other grades.
“Right now we have the hard research about the transition from eighth the ninth grade, but there’s not a lot of research about heterogenous grouping in upper grades,” said Swaringen. “We kind of have to produce our own case study to show this is something we think would work.”