Honors Classes: A Need for More Diversity | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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

Ted Skandy's picture

Absolutely agree with your assessment. I' have grown tired of this same conversation resurfacing. Whether here or on the evening no-news.

Stacy Watkins's picture


When I say that human beings have control over themselves, I mean that in the most basic sense. Even with laws in place and government restrictions, you still have the choice whether you are going to follow those laws or not. You still have control over what you do. You are a human being.

As a human, you have the inherent right to make life what you want it to be. I understand what you are saying, which is why I'm in favor of less government control. However, in terms of what it means to teach children, I believe we should be empowering every student to achieve their best, regardless of whether they have any innate ability, because, in reality, the beautiful thing about being human is that we have control over ourselves. We can choose to pursue the life we want. We can choose to work harder, push further, think smarter in order to get where we want to be.

My beliefs in this area lead to a whole other realm of discussion, which I don't feel is appropriate to address in this venue. I hope I am making some sense. The single thought you quoted me on is based upon a philosophy completely contrary to that which most of society operates under, so its difficult for me to defend my statement concisely. haha

June Clarke's picture

With all due respect but did we forget to include the African American Student(s) who are also the "minority" (excuse the pun) when it comes to Honor Classes?

I agree with Ms. Wolpert-Gawron we have to break down the walls of stereotyping in not only K-12 but also in Higher Education.

Bruce Newcomer, M. Ed's picture
Bruce Newcomer, M. Ed
K-5 ELL Teacher

In your opening remarks, Heather, you state that your school's Asian population is very diverse. I bet that if you look at your Latino population, you will see that these students are very diverse as well. It is true that China is culturally diverse from Japan which is diverse from Vietnam which is culturally diverse in so many ways from Laos. When looking at Latin America, though, people often forget that the same is true for El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, and Nicaragua. These countries' cultures are not interchangeable. Most countries in Latin America have the same native language, but diversity does not begin and end with language. Mexico is as different from El Salvador as Thailand is dfferent from India or France is different from Spain.

Diverse instruction which reflects cultural awareness, empathy, and puts an end to steretypes and racisim needs to be part of all aspects of the school: general education classroom, honors classes, and enrichment classes, to name but a few.

However, before we use this approach wirh the students, teachers need to be aware of their own cultural perspectives and biases. Professional development, for instance a school study group discusing the works of James Banks, will help teachers open their eyes as to what they teach and how they deliver instruction to students so that all students will feel welcome and encouraged to give their best in everything they do.

Nadja Young's picture
Nadja Young

Great blog post highlighting a truly pervasive problem. I work at SAS Institute, which provides predictive analytics (EVAAS) to educators highlighting a student's probability of success on AP exams or other academic milestones. We work with one Middle School that looked at 8th grade algebra course placement. While not deemed honors, this is an accelerated track once reserved for the highest achieving students based solely on teacher recommendation. 50 students were recommended to take the course, however, EVAAS projected that 150 had an 80% probability of being proficient or advanced on the End-of-Course exam. The majority of those 100 not recommended were minority students. The principal took a leap of faith and trusted the data. She also shared it with all parents and students and placed the additional 100 students with a highly effective teacher. All 100 passed, proficient or advanced. This has since been scaled up and EVAAS is used as a key data point when placing students in 8th grade algebra in many NC school districts. The same could be done for AP or honors classes where there is a standardized assessment to project to. Read the full story: http://www.sas.com/success/wf_rolesville.html

Data lack the biases that humans cannot avoid. If the evidence shows that students have the academic potential to be successful, then I feel we have a responsibility to give students that opportunity and support them in enrolling in more rigorous coursework.

GRETTA's picture
Elementary and middle school Band and Orchestra teacher from Southern MD.

Teachers have a strong impact on the shaping of the child's academic spaces, hence the evolution of the child's academic sense of self. Clearly we have diversity in our teaching community, which brings an array of understandings and preconceptions into the classrooms around the country.

Families have a lasting and powerful impact on the nurturing of their student's drive and academic awareness. Families are responsible for the creation of home resources for the proper sleep, nourishment, and eventually, the study habits of these wonderful students we meet every day in our classrooms.

Teacher expectations can have a powerful effect on student learning, confidence, and aspiration to learn. There may be those students in my orchestra class who are not cognitively endowed to be able to master a beautiful vibrato. They are in the room when one or two string players acquire the skill, and the "aha" happens in their midst. They witness what it sounds and looks like, perhaps to connect with and produce that same vibrato minutes, days, or years later.

Everyone does not acquire the knowledge simultaneously in the orchestra class, nor, more broadly, in other subject areas. The regenerative aspect of teaching orchestra is seeing the ripple of mastery of a skill as it moves through the classroom on any given day.

Most certainly, all of us as teachers have some kind of effect on the children in our care. It is concerning to know that there are teachers who designate certain groups of learners as undeserving of the idea of acquisition of mastery, excellence, high achievement, as if these outward signs happen simply by our imparting of the information in the lesson. Over the years, I have come to embrace the idea that as the Middle School Orchestra teacher, I may provide the excitement about learning that might pay off in Orchestra, or remotely, in Calculus, Foreign Language, Literature, or Engineering class.

This academic excitement, once infused in each students' intellectual "backpack," ushers my students confidently onward to lifelong learning, and deepened satisfaction in the real journey which is real life.

Paul Rigmaiden PhD's picture
Paul Rigmaiden PhD
Sixth grade (multiple subjects) teacher from Modesto, California

This posting calls to mind the consequences of racial stereotyping, what essentially is racial profiling in education. I appreciate the commentary on this issue, but there is one dimension to the issue that looms large: many people have let themselves be manipulated by popular media into believing bogus race-based academic expectations with respect to our students' ability to succeed. Those so manipulated include students, parents, teachers, school administrators, and the public-- everybody. For example, the Latino kids cited in the post think the honors classes are for Asian kids at their school. The late Dr. John Ogbu showed that some African American kids disparagingly equate academic success with "acting white." Implicit in all this, academic expectations for Asian kids of all nationalities are high, often to that point where teachers and administrators will overlook academic shortcomings in order to make their expectations a self-fulfilling prophecy. I am not certain as to whether the educational system is inherently discriminatory or not, but certainly, the people involved with it often practice discrimination, racism, rankism, and all kinds of other frelled-up stuff. One way we can counter this is with all that good American stuff we claim we believe in: truth, justice, and equality. In this case, history can be both instructive and therapeutic. Everyone needs to know that brainpower is all over the earth. All over the world, earlier cultures managed to demonstrate their genius, because they left monuments for us to contemplate in the modern age. In Asia, there is the Great Wall, Mohenjo-Daro and Angkor Wat; in Mesoamerica, there is the Pyramid of the Sun and Chichen Itza; in Africa, the Pyramids that stretch from Egypt down into the Sudan; in Europe, there is Stonehenge and the many ruins of Greco-Roman society.

M. Holl's picture

I am so gratified to see this article. At my school, I have begun a campaign to create equity in our honors classes. Our school is roughly 25% African American, 25% Caucasian, 25% Latino, and 25% Asian, Pacific Islander and Filipino (Asian includes middle eastern, Indian, as well as Chinese, Vietnamese, Hmong, Japanese, etc.). I noticed that our Honors program, however was 75% Caucasian and Asian, and 65% female! As a result, I have been working to recruit students in under-represented demographics to join the classes. I believe this matters, not only because of the visual inequity, but when that African American or Latino boy walks into an Honors class and sees NO ONE who looks like him, that requires so much courage and self-assurance to remain in the class. Conversely, when the "regular" classes are disproportionately African American and Latino, that sends an even stronger message about what level of achievement is "appropriate" for each group of people. It is unacceptable, and it is something that every single educator, counselor, administrator and parent needs to be aware of. Every class should reflect the demographics of the school. Obviously, it's a bigger problem than just enrollment, but we can only control our own purview, and I believe that by changing things locally within one school or even classroom, we can initiate that global change that is so desperately needed. Also, don't forget that our Southeast Asian boys are not even recognized as being in equally dire straits as their Latino and African American counterparts.

Students know what they are told. Their parents know what they are told. If they're told their child is Honors material, they believe it, and vice-versa. We, as educators, MUST change the narrative and seek equity at any cost.

Ted Skandy's picture

M. Holl,
Isn't entry into the Honors Program based on GPA? Are you suggesting that the selection criteria for entry into the Program be changed to allow for more participants? Please tell me that is not what you are proposing?

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