Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Great Honors Debate

Once in a while I wake up with an idea and I have to work it through before my brain will let me sleep again. It can be frustrating at times, but I feel some of my best ideas are worked out this way. The latest issue that kept me up was the way the Honors program works in my school district. In the past, I have taught honors, traditional and remedial English classes. I’ve worked with the strongest and weakest of students. Over the past few years though, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the traditional classes. As more and more kids strive to take an AP class, which is great, many students that do not want to take that track stay in the traditional classes. The problem I, and other teachers, are encountering is a brain drain for the lack of a better term.

In years past, traditional classes would be filled with various levels of students that would engage in discussions and debate themes and ideas. The students with a passion for reading in writing would spur the thoughts of their classmates that might not normally care for English. Now, with all of those engaged students being herded into Honors and AP, students that are not excited about reading and writing are left to sit in a class with no spark. These are not “dumb” students or special needs students. These are bright students that just do not care to discuss or debate the ideas or they all share the same ideas because they all take the same classes because of the tracking that happens at an early age.

I like to think I’m a halfway decent teacher. I have tried every way possible to engage the students in my class this year. They are a very bright group of students. They do the reading, they do the assignments, but they don’t want to talk about literature. The class lacks a spark that a teacher cannot bring on their own. As I was racking my brain at night, the only solution I can think of that I haven’t tried is to get rid of the Honors track completely.

My idea is to keep the honors curriculum in place and combine traditional and honors students into mixed classes. We would be raising the bar for our students and providing them support in the classroom by having students model good discussion and writing skills. Taking the strongest students and separating them from others doesn’t truly help the top students, it really hurts the students in the middle. The ones that might be interested but do not have the spark to get them going. These are the kids that get lost in the shuffle.

As we strive to make all student proficient and college ready by a randomly designated time frame, I think it is time to start looking at the way we have designed our classes. Do Honors classes really prepare the top students for college? I think that the Honors tracks end up hurting the middle students more than they help the top.

I presented my idea to teachers in my department and they loved the idea. There are logistical issues that would need to be worked out, but people liked the idea. When presented to the Principal, he was very receptive to the idea as well. The next step is convincing parents in the community. Parents have been the driving force behind the honors track in our district and it is going to be tough to convince them that the honors track hurts more students than it helps. Sadly, the students that would benefit most from this change usually don’t have the parents that are the loudest at board meetings. That is something I’m confident we can overcome as we strive to provide the best education for all of our students.

What are your thoughts? Do you think an honors track is needed now that we want all of our students to go to college? I would love to hear from you.



  1. Both schools I have taught at (high school and now middle school) have been smaller private schools, with no honors track whatsoever (math being the "exception" -- students could place out of 8th grade math and go right into Algebra). This has worked pretty well.

    Because there is no honors English, all the students are expected to do rigorous course work and achieve at a high level. There was no way around this (unless there was a serious IEP need). There was a sense of community in this among the students -- they all had to do that intense project. They all had to read that difficult book. I'm not saying I fully agree with the way the class is taught, but there's something to be said for everyone going through that and helping each other out along the way.

    A really reluctant reader read Merchant of Venice for a presentation because it was short. When he got into it, he realized he had made a mistake. But because everyone in the class was going through and reading their books and giving their presentations, he stuck it out and did the work. Would he have done this without the high achievers in the room with him? I don't know, but I don't think the odds are in his favor.

  2. I agree with everything you say here. The tough sell will involve the so-called extra point kids get for honors classes. There will also be concerns about social segregation as that has become the real motivation behind the honor's track.

    I am at an IB school, and we only offer IB classes. Not everyone takes the exams (although most do), but everyone does the course work, although it might be assessed with different standards if the student is not seeking the diploma or certificate in that subject.

  3. I understand a lot of what you're saying here. It's just important that the gifted kids in your school still have some time to interact as a high ability group. Is there a gifted pullout program in your district? Are Honors/AP classes the only way your school differentiates for high ability students? To really differentiate, all kinds of grouping strategies need to be happening.

    I enjoy your blog... thanks for writing it! :)

  4. I would think it makes sense to have students who wish to be recognized for honors work have that option while participating in the regular English (or History, etc.) classes. You'd just add honors level work requirements to the syllabus then the students who complete the requirements earn the honors designation. To me it makes little educational sense to segregate groups of students.

  5. I'm so discouraged to hear this. It boggles my mind that a clearly thoughtful teacher would even consider taking away a wonderful, successful learning experience from some of his students to (possibly) benefit his other students. This experiment is more likely to make the whole situation mediocre for everyone.

    Why is it okay to put the burden of inspiring some of your students onto the other students who are inspired themselves? Why is it never okay for students who have that spark to just be allowed to have that spark? Do you make the varsity football players play on the junior varsity team to improve the JV game?

    Clearly you are an inspired teacher who thinks deeply about how best to teach. Please don't forget that gifted kids deserve the right to be challenged in school too. Please don't take this away from them.

  6. Wow, thanks for the wonderful comments everyone. I love when a good discussion can develop from post.

    I have a couple of more thoughts that might clear soem things up.

    First, these honors students are not "gifted". When I hear this term, I think of students that are above and beyond traditional students in their learning in thinking. We do not have a program for these students. Gifted students take whatever classes they want.

    Second, there are to pre-reqs in my district. A student could have failed Freshmen English and can still sign up for honor American Literature if they choose. I haven't been a fan of this process because I think having a minimum requirement to enter a class would encourage students to work harder to meet the high bar.

    Third, this is in response to towhee47. I do think that playing JV kids against Varisty would make them better. There is so much you can learn from more talented and stronger peers. By practicing with stronger peers, a student can see how and why others excel and hopefuly they will try to mimic that behavior.

    Lastly, I think change is important in education systems when needed. The current system in my school, to me, is only beneficial to the haves. Our goal is to help every student reach their potential. I thnk this step might be something that helps more students than it hurts.

    Thanks for reading.

    - Nick

  7. Hi Nick,

    I'm not sure where you are in the country. I'm a middle school gifted teacher in Iowa. I know middle school is different from high school, but I'm surprised that there are no offerings in your school for gifted students. I know different states have different requirements. My kids meet with me one period a day. That class takes the place of their regular reading class, so my class is pretty literature-based.

    One thing my kids tell me over and over when they leave to go to high school is how much they loved having one period a day where they weren't expected to be the leaders of the group or to be the one in the group who carried the weight. I think that's where the JV/Varsity analogy comes in. No one is denying that the JV kids can improve by playing with the Varsity... of course they can! But the kids at the top need to improve their skills too, and they need different instruction that the kids who are just developing their skills.

    I would hope that in any school with no honors/gifted classes, a wide variety of grouping strategies were used within each class, including ability grouping.

    Just my two cents. Thanks again for writing.

    P.S. I don't have the exact research in front of me, but at the Iowa Talented & Gifted Conference this fall, we heard new research that since No Child Left Behind, state testing scores are going up, but ACT/SAT scores are actually going down. I find that trend disturbing, and it makes me wonder if our high ability learners are being challenged enough across the country.

  8. I'm glad that T. Nelson is much more articulate than I am about all of this. I pretty much want to say, "Yeah, what *she* said!" I disagree with the fundamental premise that those "top" kids don't benefit from being separated, and I definitely disagree that it should be their responsibility to try to provide something that is missing in the other classes, to their own detriment. You say that those "middle" students get lost in the shuffle, and I say that if that is the case, why do the "top" students get punished for this? And as for my lame JV/varsity analogy, I would say to your response that your focus, again, is only in how the varsity players can benefit the JVers, not that the varsity players should also be allowed and encouraged to play to their best abilities as well.

    I also find it incredibly depressing that the honors track is seen by teachers as something that hurts more students than it helps. Oy. I think I need to spend some time on cuteoverload.com.

    Anyhow, thanks for the discussion.

  9. Nick,

    Semi-regular reader. Great blog, first of all and wonderful enthusiasm for your profession. I commend you.

    This is a very interesting topic that last showed its teeth in relation to the middle school Honors courses established there. These same arguments were made then - and those reflecyed here posted by the "other side of the aisle."

    I wonder if, almost by happenstance, the hypothesis you seek to test, already exists. In other words, might a class with a mix of students who might be deemed, by themselves or by others as "Honors worthy" and those who might not, already be in place where a fellow teacher could share their perspective?

    I think the risk is in the design is among the students who willfully choose to NOT take honors track courses knowing that they could have been challenged more. Not sure if I'm being clear, but they basically opt in to a less challenging course.

    This doesn't mean to say having honors is the answer. The question is does the course title influence behavior just on its own, irrelevant of the course content.

    Anyways, great topic and I will be interested to hear more,



  10. @Brendan

    I agree with you that some students might choose the challenging route simply because the class is titled Honors. If we remove the title but kept the curriculum, would students be more willing to attempt the work. Would they think it was "hard" if they thought it was non-honors? Those are good questions that are worth exploring.

    As we try to help all of our students to achieve, maybe setting the bar a bit higher for all of them is a way to show students their true potential.

    - Thanks for reading. - Nick

  11. I'm putting together a list of the top 100 high school/secondary school blogs and I was hoping I could interview you via e-mail to include more information in my article. I couldn't find your contact info on your site...could you please e-mail me at alexisbrett@gmail.com and include the title of your blog in the e-mail? Thanks so much!

  12. I think the trick is ensuring that if the honor's program is ended and students are all taught together that the teachers are intentional about customizing the learning enough that everyone is still getting what they need. If that can happen, I'm with you, there is no reason for a separation.

  13. Chiming in late here with a parent's perspective. In brief, I like the idea but question how well it can be implemented. My oldest son went through an excellent GATE program from 2nd through 6th grade. The teachers were all motivated and good at what they did. He rarely complained about the workload. He then moved on to a well-respected intermediate school that had combined classes in 7th grade, where students of all levels were grouped together and given the option to do additional "honors" work. The quotations indicate that it was really just extra work: More reading for the "reading counts" requirement, an extra essay here and there, a couple extra homework problems now and then, but nothing qualitatively different from the normal curriculum. Moreover, my impression was that the more advanced students were hesitant to speak out in class for fear of being labelled "nerdy." He now mostly resents the extra work and doesn't feel he's benefiting from it. If he didn't need the honors designation to progress to the AP track in High School, I would pull him out of the honors program so he could devote the time he spends doing the honors work to something more engaging and rewarding.


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