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

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night

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.

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Stacy Watkins's picture

I work in elementary. While we don't have "honors" classes, per se, students are still segregated by ability level on occasion. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Students have different needs. We should be cognizant of those needs. However, as teachers we should never box our students into an ability level permanently. Students will pick up on this and they will get the message that their ability is predetermined and they have no power to change it. This is simply not true. The beautiful thing about being human is we have the ability to be in control of ourselves. It is within our power to push harder, or not. I need to keep this in mind as I work with kids every day.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

Heather: you are asking the wrong question as to why there is a disparity in performance between the two topic groups. Many of us already know the question and the answer, but it's deemed inappropriate to discuss it out in the open. This is part of the reason why nothing really changes. Billions of dollars are spent on iodine and band-aid-level remedies instead of cutting right to the heart of certain issues. But our politicians won't allow it and many of you keep voting for the same type of "leader" because they say what you want to hear.

Unfortunately, "leveling the playing field" as it has been applied rarely works, because you can't really improve society by elevating one group at the expense of another.

We read of examples over and over on this website. We read an endless stream of endorsements for educational curricula that typifies the idea of the "soft bigotry of lowered expectations." Using rap music to teach literacy to urban kids is just one example. I become the eventual steward of kids put through these curricula and what I find is that they still lack fundamental skills.

We'd be all better off simply acknowledging the idea that certain groups of people in general are by nature more adept at certain cognitive skills compared to others. However, you don't use that realization to polarize groups against one another, which is exactly what happens when one group is socially engineered to advance at the expense of another group.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

" The beautiful thing about being human is we have the ability to be in control of ourselves."

Stacy: There was a time in America when this was pretty much an accepted view. However, in the last decade, citizens are slowly having that "control" reduced to an illusion, because our leaders believe they know what's best for us, so more layers of rules and regulations are imposed as freedoms and liberty slowly erode. Just the fact that we have little say over what is to become of the money that's withdrawn from our paychecks lately.

How many of you felt good about that increase in the Social Security tax taken out of your paychecks last January 15?

We need to teach our kids how to be good citizens, but at the same time, teach them the constructive and lawful ways to express dissent against our leaders. This is the only way to improve lives and restore liberty and freedom as the Founders intended, for ALL Americans, regardless of the gender, race, ethnicity, or SES.

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