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.