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Honors Classes: A Need for More Diversity

I'm going to talk about a tough subject today, one that I'm sure might set off some folks. But it's a snapshot from a school site reality that is not ideal. I'm going to talk about race, culture, and educational opportunities. Scary topics, right?

I work in a middle school that many would call diverse, if you were looking at nationalities rather than race. The student body is 49 percent Latino and 49 percent Asian. The Asian demographic is, however, divided into many different countries, from China to Vietnam.

So it should go without saying that our honors classes, those classes helping to move students beyond simply meeting the standards and into more rigorous, pre-AP level discussions and material, should reflect that same break down, right? Wrong.

The Imbalance

Currently, our honors classes reflect a more 98 percent Asian and 2 percent Latino breakdown, and the adults in the school have been stymied. For despite the fact that students from every demographic are capable, the data forces us to reflect on the system overall in which we work. As a result, we found ourselves asking some very difficult questions:

  • Is the educational system set up to discriminate?
  • Is this discrimination being supported, if not encouraged, by many stakeholders, even the students themselves?

We complain that a business model is taking over education. But I would argue that we already function in a competitive system, a system that defines success in a very specific way, complete with winners and losers, and race seems to define one's place on the fence. The need for a bell curve seems very alive and well. Unfortunately, in many ways, it is dictated by the students themselves.

Case in point, I've heard it every year when I've asked certain achieving Latino kids why they aren't in honors: "I didn't try out. Those classes are for the Asian kids."

Case in point, I've heard it every year when I've suggested to certain struggling Asian kids that they apply for AVID classes: "No way! It's for Latinos."

The trodden paths created by many stakeholders as well as through students' misperceptions seem to start as early as third and fourth grades, and these pathways prove neigh impossible to leave. However, I would argue that in education, schools are not encouraged to be anything but competitive, and an alternative model is branded as progressive. In general, we work within a system where people expect to see a hierarchy in achievement because it's a familiar model to them. As a result, many districts' hands are tied in that they must offer honors classes, not just differentiate within the mainstream to both address an honor's student's needs while granting exposure of higher level work to mainstream students.

Then society complains when there is a gap.

But the fact is that many times these "gaps" are not about ability gaps. They start as morale gaps or gaps based on the misperception by the students or families that certain tracks are for certain kinds of students. It's why we seem to rarely see high-achieving Latino students applying to our honors classes while we often have even low-achieving Asian students applying without any expectation of acceptance. It's just what they feel is expected. And by demystifying the process of applying for honors classes, the Asian students have given themselves not only practice but the skill of persistence, and those prove most valuable to future tracking.

But I think this problem is reversible.

Taking Action

I would argue that our schools and families are not giving all students the same opportunities to excel by vehemently disallowing our children to perceive our system in such a segregated way.

I have written before about the equation of student success, and how each variable must be working for a student to achieve. But we are finding that there are certain cultures that somehow know how to succeed in our educational system better than others, and it isn't because these cultures are more capable than others.

So schools have a role to find ways to take back control of these huge societal stereotypes. We can't change society, but we can start by changing the perceptions of our own student clientele.

And as middle school teachers, inheriting students who have been locked into a particular track for years, we have a responsibility to even the playing field before students go to high school and beyond.

So what do we do? To answer this question, I set up the problem with this Edutopia post and cross-post with one on my Tweenteacher site where I share what my school is attempting as a first-step towards a solution. But it's a work in progress with great intention. My school has been trying to push down the walls of education's box, and we are experimenting with a change to our honors classes and application process.


How do we take stereotypes out of the honors tracking process? And, how do we, as middle school teachers, help to even the playing field for as many students as possible before sending our clientele off into their next educational chapter?

What are you observing are the subtle tracks in your school? Why do you believe they exist? Please share in the comment section below.

Comments (33)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

M. Holl's picture

In our district, students elect to be in Honors classes at the high school level, so while there are prerequisites (including, but not limited to grades, standardized test scores, teacher recommendation and a writing sample), my concern is more about finding qualified students who are underrepresented. It is about ensuring that EVERY capable student has an advocate and an opportunity.

Ted Skandy's picture

Sorry M. Holl for another question however I"m still not completely understanding your stance. As I mentioned in my response, I am aware that there are selection criteria for entry into the program, however here's where things get a bit "fuzzy" for me. What is it specifically that you're advocating on behalf of these students? Are they simply unaware of the program or its perceived value or are they just deciding not to apply?
I am curious if you have a distinct role in the Honors Program besides being a passionate educator?

Chemistry teacher's picture

I teach in a large high school in Indiana where our honors classes are filled with Asian and Caucasian students. The sports teams have NO Asian students, while academic teams are filled with them. In my opinion, much of the difference comes from family values. In our community, there are many options, and many children compete in sports from a very early age. Soccer starts at age 4 here. Many many kids start sports at an early age, but not the Asian kids. What do they do on weekends? They are going to Saturday school. That's right, they continue their academic learning while others are out playing sports. The emphasis in their families is solely on education. I am not saying that this is ideal, but it does help explain why so many of the honors classes at our high school are filled with Asian students - they are better prepared. Many of my Asian students tell me that it is unacceptable for them to get an A- in a class. They joke that the A- is the Asian F, and it is a very serious thing if they come home with an A-. Not one of my Caucasian or African American students has ever said this to me.

My point in all of this is that this type of discussion is never complete without looking at what is going on in the student's families. I have found that family influence is the major predictor of how a student will perform in school.

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert - Gawron
Middle school teacher by day, educational author/blogger by night

You are so right that families are HUGE in this discussion. However, as a teacher or a school site, there is not much we are going to be able to do to change cultural differences. Where we can start is with the students themselves. Where we can start is in our own school culture. Where we can start is in how we talk about these classes and how we, as professionals, pitch these classes, promote learning, and praise. The equation of student success has so many variables, but we just need to hone in on what we can actually control.

Thanks for your comment!

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
English teacher

Heather, thank you for a thoughtful analysis. I agree with you that it is a problem when students see themselves as "locked" into a track, either because of their ethnicity or their previous schooling experiences.

One point I would challenge, however, is the idea that we must accept the fact that schools produce winners and losers. I think any child who grows up to be capable of earning a living, supporting a family, participating in civic life, and contributing to his/her community is a "winner," whether he/she becomes a carpenter, nurse, police officer, small business owner, software developer, astrophysicist -- or teacher. There are many paths to a successful and meaningful life.

I do agree that we should help children keep their options open and see themselves as broadly capable of learning and mastering new skills. This is why I so admire High Tech High, which has been profiled on this site, and its founding principal, Larry Rosenstock, who says you don't have to segregate kids by class, race, or perceived ability in order to provide them all with a good education.

What do you think: are districts truly incapable of ending honors programs, or do they just lack the will to try?

Eileen Gale Kugler's picture
Eileen Gale Kugler
Global speaker, author, consultant strengthening diverse schools

Thanks for raising this critical issue. This highlights the difference between "equality" - honors classes are available to all students - and "equity" - educators must make a conscious effort to level the playing field so all students can access the honors classes. I worked with a very diverse large high school where there was a total commitment to increasing access to challenging classes. They were able to develop an International Baccalaureate (IB) program that reflected the diversity of the school. The IB Coordinator and I co-authored an article for Ed Leadership on Increasing Diversity in Challenging Classes http://www.embracediverseschools.com/resources/increasing-diversity-in-c... . The effort including early and continual student counseling, working with their families to empower them to help their children, and ongoing support of both. My coauthor Erin McVadon Albright currently works with the IB Americas office in Bethesda, Md., on increasing access for all students.

Eileen Gale Kugler's picture
Eileen Gale Kugler
Global speaker, author, consultant strengthening diverse schools

We don't need to end honors programs - in fact, I think that would be detrimental. But we need to work to increase the diversity in these classes by recognizing the roadblocks to participation and creatively breaking them down. If we assume that honors classes are only for the white kids from middle-class homes, then we are stereotyping rather than looking for ways to support students and families of diverse backgrounds. Poverty has nothing to do with intelligence, but it can put forth cruel obstacles in a student's path to rigorous classes and a successful career.

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert - Gawron
Middle school teacher by day, educational author/blogger by night

I agree with your definition of winner, but with our current system of grading and based on what they assess, the winners and losers aren't defined by your sensibilities. I think districts are open to ending honors programs, so long as differentiation and individualization are more pronounced. However, and teachers have some ownership here, many more are comfortable with standardization. Thus, these classes perform the task of differentiation when it might be lacking in the mainstream classrooms.

I also think the push-back from parents and society is far greater than many realize. Even with the best of intentions, a district can't do away with an honors program that is populated by many of the greatest or most, shall we say, vocal, advocates in a school. To them, the system works. And their knowledge of both the system and how to get things done many times trumps what's appropriate for all. Yet who can blame them? They are advocates for their own students, and to them, that is most important.

So to answer your question: some teachers may not want to see the system evolve. However, I think that parents and society can be even greater obstacles in education's evolution. It's well intended, but not always in the best interest of every learner. Nevertheless, nobody wants their kid to be involved in a great social experiment, so if it's working for a kid, their parent would not want to see things changed. Hard to disagree when we all want is best for our own kids.

As a teacher and a parent I can see where both sides are sometimes at odds. My mission as a teacher is to educate all. My mission as a parent is to advocate for my kid.

Thanks so much for your insight.


Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
English teacher

Heather, you're certainly right about vocal people. My daughter is in the accelerated reading & math classes at her middle school, finds them pretty easy, and I may be the only parent there who would willingly exchange these classes for an inclusive class with good differentiated instruction, and appropriate supports and challenges for each student. Perhaps most parents don't trust teachers to provide this (perhaps some teachers don't feel able to provide it, either). If we assume teachers will "teach to the middle," then of course we want ability-grouped classes where our own children are as close as possible to that middle.

But we may be giving up something, too, when we advocate for ability grouping. We may lose something of the democratic ideal of public school as a place where (to paraphrase Garrison Keillor) you go to find out about people who are not like you -- people who are different not only in race, culture, and class but ability, interests, and experiences.

Our society makes the impossible demand of schools that they provide both equity and hierarchy. Why do we do this? How should schools respond?

There may not be easy answers to these questions, but I appreciate your helping to raise them. Thanks! - Gloria

George F Bartan's picture

Excellent observations.I have been involved in my son education since kindergarten like participating at teacher-parent conferences,checking his homework, having fun with home science projects (see www.aviation-for-kids.com ),coaching a robotics team at his public school,etc.He was an honor roll student since his first grade and I think every parent can do the same things I did. Unfortunately,many parents expect that it`s only the school obligation to take care of their children education. I `ve heard so many things said about the education reforms but so few about the parents role in this process.

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