George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Honors Classes: A Need for More Diversity

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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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.

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Comments (33) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

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

George, I'm glad you had the background knowledge and skills to be so involved with your son, including coaching his robotics team. It's important to recognize that not every parent has those benefits. It doesn't mean they don't care about their child's education. Think about immigrants - many had arduous journeys coming to this country for the education for their children. I've worked with many immigrant parents who believe they must show respect to teachers by NOT getting involved. In their home countries, they weren't supposed to be involved with school. Schools need to consider how overwhelming traditional parent involvement can be for someone who doesn't really know the way schools work or for parents who weren't good students themselves. More about why parents don't come to school and what to do about it:

Michael Cwirka's picture

Part of the problem is the difference in cultures. Different cultures place different importance on education and the school won't be able to change that. The other point I'd like to raise is that the school should not be forcing students into the AP/Honors classes that don't belong there just to say their classes are diverse. While I agree the AP/Honors classes have a tendency to be the less diverse classes, once you start advocating for students who don't belong there, that will lower that standard of that class, lowering the standard of Honors. If students are choosing not to register for classes based on the "race" of the typical student in that class, that falls on the school for not instilling a sense of acceptance in their students. Once classes start being stereotyped by the race of the students in there, that's the schools fault, not the Honors class. Advocating for students to say your school is diverse is the wrong approach. Don't lower your standards; the point is to produce the most educated and qualified students possible.

Karin Lee's picture

I am not a school teacher but a parent. I found this article very interesting. I agree certain cultures put more emphasis on educations then others. That being said, I am surprised that the school's process for honors programs is having the children apply. Why not set up a merit system and if you meet certain academic standards you go into the honors programs. Not by applying but by earning it. This way it is fair for everyone no matter what ethnic background. I know when I was in school many years ago. You were placed in honors classes based on your grades and academics. I am saddened to think that children of certain ethnic groups will not apply because they think honors programs are others. What about the shy child how is afraid to apply. As educators I hope you strive to change the criteria and make it fair for all. I know I will fight as a parent for fairness for all children.

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

Hey Karin,
I really appreciate your comment. I know it sounds totally counterintuitive, but in a way, having students apply and go through the process of a cold write that is weighted heavily, is far more fair than going by grades and/or even by test scores. This has to do with bias and stereotyping. Unfortunately, as in any work place, there is some degree of tracking or assumption. Sometimes this can translate into seemingly lower acheivement.

Putting aside the issue of race, one cannot totally trust alignment between teachers. One teacher focuses on Project Based Learning. One teacher only uses worksheets. One teacher scores really hard and has more Fs than any other teacher in the school. Another recommends every kid as "highly recommended," and let's face it, how can all your students really be "highly recommended?" Some teachers must see certain skills that they have taught used in assessments that they assign while other teachers are more flexible and permit students to choose how to display their knowledge in the way that best suits them.

We use rubrics. We calibrate. Nevertheless, teachers are humans and there is some subjectivity.

In terms of using test scores like standardized tests, the fact is that the current tests stink. I mean they really stink. Sure, they might give an indication, but they are chronically biased and out of touch with today's kid. Having a student apply is a fairer option because they can show us that the number of their test score does not represent them.

I think if you look again, you'll see however, that we agree on much. There is a merit checklist of sorts that goes into the equation. Grades + test scores + teacher rec + writing test = a number. You fall above that number, you are in. I will be posting the end result of this experiment soon. The bottom line was, that since our goal was to get more diverse students to even apply, we achieved that goal. And, in the end, we didn't lower standards to accept different demographics, we only had to reach out in targeted ways. We have a more diverse honors cohort, all of whom deserved to be there AND went through the process of applying (a college and career ready skill, right?).

We didn't solve every problem, but we started with one and moved it ahead.

Thanks so much again for your comment.
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Timothy Wall's picture

I found your article to be very interesting. As a middle school educator, I see the imbalance with honors classes. My honors class generally consists of a population of white students, even though we have almost 50% Latino population. In our school we look at a majority or factors including test scores, grades, and teacher recommendations, and yet we seem to "miss" many students. Frequently you will find a student that is more than capable of handling honors work in a lower level tracking, but on the other hand I have seen kids that are over placed an struggle with the work. It is very easy to justify a student getting bumped up into an honors class, but I feel that many teachers/ schools are not willing to move a student that is over their head into a class that fits out of fear of parents complaining. It seems that there needs to be a system of some sort to help place students, but determining this system and who is responsible for choosing this system is a puzzle to me. Is there such thing as a fair way to evaluate a kid? What about the smart kids that refuse to work? Should they suffer through the lower levels when their potential is so high? Is it fair to let a kid that wants to succeed, struggle through the issues of a lower level classroom (mainly behavioral issues)? Is there a way to fix it?

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

...mere common sense? Frankly, what we encounter more often than not are a few students each year who don't get the As that they are used to once they enter the honors classes. They and their parents then campaign to be pulled out and into the mainstream again in order to maintain their GPAs. To me, that's also frustrating because these kids possibly bumped others from the program who may have been willing to be challenged regardless of the end grade.

One of the ways we are working around your issue of struggling students, however, is to issue a contract at the start of the year. It isn't a legal contract, and if a students wants out or if a student is in over his or her head, it's still up to the student and his or her parent to pull that student or not. However, the contract gives our rationale as a school. It's not a given, but it sets a tone. We expect that students who are on honors classes appreciate their seat in that class by doing the work necessary to keep up. We expect that students who are challenged in the class to reach out, work harder, and not give up even if they are experiencing a challenge for the first time. We are here to help them succeed.

In terms of the smart kids who don't work in the lower tracks and are bored. Well, that's another matter entirely. Students are a part of the equation of their own success. They have to pull their weight. However, what we have all seen, I'm sure, are teachers or systems that aren't engaging or rigorous (and I'm talking better work here, not more work just for work's sake) enough. We all have to do our part. I love what Bill Ferriter says: it's not the kid who is bored, it's that you are boring. We all have to step up our game and ensure that our lessons and curriculum really apply and are based in real skills. Will there always be a kid or two that is really bored regardless of what you are trying? A kid you've given choice to, permitted to show their knowledge in different ways, and reached out to find out more about them? Yep.

But remember, we're talking middle schoolers here. They are all, as we all are, Works in Progress. All we can do is try, try, try, then try again until they are no longer under our care. That's our job. We're teachers.

Thank for your comment.

-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Tiffany Jones's picture

Wow, it seems like there isn't diversity among the honor classes! I can't believe that the Latinos won't go for the honors class because they say "it's for the Asians" and for the Asians that are having trouble they won't go in the one class because "it's for the Latinos." I do sense some discrimination.

George F Bartan's picture

I agree with you Karin.My son was in honor classes from the first grade (he is now in the 8th grade) without applying.There were just his academic results that counted.This is the first time I hear that somebody can apply for an honor class.Race and ethnicity is a false problem.Every parent should know that education is a ticket for a better future for their kids.Check their homework,get involved in school activities,take responsibilities where necessary and your kids will qualify for honor classes.

Kaitlin's picture

@ Tiffany Jones, I agree that there are some issues with discrimination. I think that the administration is at fault for that, maybe even the school district. I think if they would try harder to promote these classes and made them more balanced, then they might see more diversity in the students who are in them.

finchletter's picture

As a parent of an African American/Mexican/Irish child I can see where the stereotyping can come in. My son is in all AP/Dual Credit classes with many Asian children, a couple of Hispanic, mostly Caucasian and one other African American kids. People are often very surprised to find how intelligent my son is and his proper English. My son the Asian children in his classes are over the top smart and do so without ease. Now my son is naturally intelligent so his classes from very easy for him. I know that the kids are broken down into "class" when it comes to race. I would like to see all races encouraged to try out for AP or Dual Credit classes. I do not believe that one culture or race is smarter than others.

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