On honors classes

dr20120709So let’s imagine that you’re in charge of a school.  Or, hell, an entire school district, since for the purposes of this conversation I’d prefer that there be some notion of a wider community that has to be served by your school.

Which is more important: serving the needs of each individual student, or serving the needs of your community as a whole?  And what happens if those needs conflict with one another?  What if you literally cannot serve the best needs of the individual student if you’re going to focus on serving the needs of your community?

Think about that while I provide some background and tell a couple of stories.  Also be aware that I still have an intense goddamn headache and probably should not be staring at a screen or trying to think straight right now, so if this seems incoherent I apologize in advance.  🙂

When I was in fifth and sixth grade my school corporation piloted a new honors program.  (Incidentally, I work for this district now.)  High achieving students from across the corporation were pulled out of their home schools and put into two classrooms in the same building.  That building, as it turned out, had previously featured some of the lowest, if not the lowest, test scores in the corporation.  A year later, having literally imported the fifty or sixty smartest fifth and sixth graders available to them (and, presumably, displaced some of their other students to make room for us, although we were stuck in a portable classroom in the parking lot for sixth grade) the corporation made much hay about how the building had been turned around.

The building hadn’t been turned around.  They’d just played with the numbers a bit.  The classes were supposed to be educationally innovative, piloting all sorts of new ways to teach.  I do not recall learning much in fifth and sixth grade.  I do recall my mother constantly struggling with the principal– who, incidentally, is one of my district-level supervisors now.  For whatever it’s worth, she appears to have positive memories of me.

This was an early lesson for me on 1) how to lie with statistics, and 2) the cynicism embedded into standardized tests.  Note that this was in the mid eighties and thus way predates our current obsession with standardized testing.

Note also that my parents enthusiastically registered me for this program when the opportunity became available and that I, furthermore, was super psyched about being in it, despite having just had what was probably the best year of my school career in a school I loved in fourth grade.  Nobody had to talk anybody into anything here.

Fast forward to now: my corporation has an honors academy at the middle school level.  This is the program I was in in fifth and sixth grade writ large.  Note also that the “honors academy” is the largest middle school in the corporation, with, I believe, nearly twice the students that my building has.  Note that again, since these kids are all at the honors academy, that means that they’re not in my building or any of the other schools.

I could complain about this building quite a lot, if I wanted to.  As an educator, I hate them.  They win virtually every corporation-level competition that exists; it turns out that if you pack a building with high-functioning kids with active, engaged, and generally wealthy parents, you get things like great sports programs as a side effect.  Nobody else can compete.  The entire rest of the corporation is basically competing for second place.

Now reflect upon the fact that my building (and every other building in the corporation) is still expected to pass the same number of kids on the ISTEP as every other school in Indiana, despite the fact that, give or take, 20% of my highest-functioning, highest-scoring kids are taken from my building and sent to this other school, and that furthermore we lose additional kids to this school every year.  Last year, for example, nineteen kids from my school with passing or high-passing ISTEP scores transferred to this other building.

We are, effectively, expected to achieve average results– but with the top 20% of our distribution sliced off and sent somewhere else.  And it happens every single year.  And they are expanding this other school, adding new classrooms every year for the next three or four years– so it’s only going to get worse.

Note that I cannot challenge the decisions of any of the individual kids or the individual parents.  My parents, and I, made the exact same decision when I was in fifth and sixth grade, and frankly would probably do so again.

Note that this individual decision, made enough times, basically means that achieving “average” results becomes mathematically impossible.

(One of the solutions to this is to work with a growth model rather than caring about pass rates.  I’ve talked about this before; I don’t think the ISTEP should even have a passing score.  But that’s not the world I live in at the moment.)

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve gotten both my ECA (End of Course Assessment) results and my ISTEP scores back.  I was initially a little depressed with my ECA scores– a high school graduation test that is given to my honors 8th graders– until I looked at previous scores for my building and realized that I’d managed the highest pass rate the school has ever had.  I literally passed three times as many kids as a couple of years ago.

My ECA scores, in other words, make me look like a genius.

I got my ISTEP scores back yesterday.  ISTEP scores are tricky; an essential part of the scores (the growth model part) don’t get released until a bit after the raw scores, and the raw scores can be a bit misleading if you’re not careful about how you look at them.

My honors kids– the same kids that had the record-setting ECA scores– did great, and were more or less in line with the improvement numbers I’ve seen in years past.  Keep in mind that in the last two years I had the best improvement numbers in the building one year and either took second definitively or tied for second, depending on the metric you’re using, in the second year.

My regular ed kids did terrible.  My seventh graders barely moved at all.  I have a couple of pockets of success here and there– I had four kids who I was really hoping for passing scores out of, who have never passed before– and I got two out of the four and the third kid held on to what was frankly a staggering score increase from last year, but still didn’t quite pass.  But on average my seventh graders were basically exactly where they were last year.  (This phenomenon doesn’t appear to be limited to me, by the way– everyone I’ve talked to is shocked by how the 7th graders did.)

So, I’m gonna be evaluated on these test results, right?  Do we look at the honors kids, and conclude that I’m a stellar educator?  Do we look at the seventh graders, and conclude that I’m terrible?  Or do we look at an average of both, and conclude that I’m merely mediocre?

Here’s the problem with honors classes:  by concentrating the kids who do best into individual classrooms, you by definition take them out of regular ed classrooms.  Which has the effect of concentrating special ed students, low-functioning but not quite special ed students, kids who could do well if they wanted but simply don’t give a shit, and– worst of all– behavior problems into all of your other classrooms.  Which means that the kids who either don’t care or are actively invested in being destructive have a much easier time of taking over and destroying your class for the kids who do care.

I had two different results with these two classes.  My first and second hour, while the kids are mostly bright (although some of them clearly don’t want to be) is overrun with behavior problems and has been all year.  My third and fourth hour kids are mostly– understand that this is not an exaggeration– either special education kids or criminals.  Fully 20% of third and fourth hour spent some time this year either expelled from school or wearing ankle monitors.  I have four different students in that class with sub-60 IQs.  My best students in that room wouldn’t even qualify as average in my other class.

It turns out that I’m a much better teacher when I get to, y’know, actually teach.  My third and fourth hour cratered on the ISTEP.  It turns out it’s really goddamn difficult to get math concepts through to kids when half of them don’t give a shit and the other half require individual attention.  That class had other adults in it for the entire school year but even with three people in the room there are simply too many kids who need help for us to be able to actually do our jobs adequately with all of the kids– particularly when there are three or four at any given time who will literally do nothing if an adult is not standing next to them monitoring them at all times.

Now, none of these kids change if I introduce our honors kids back into the classroom with them.  But you know what happens?  They actually see success.  I can ask questions of the classroom and have somebody who is going to answer.  The number of times I’ve asked 3rd and 4th hour simple shit this year and gotten nothing but blank stares because half of them don’t know, half of them don’t care, and 2/3 of them are waiting for someone else to answer beggars belief.  And, furthermore, it increases the resources available to the kids who need help– if you can ask TJ how to do a problem and expect to receive a coherent answer, rather than him just saying “it’s 3” (and honors kids generally want to be helpful to other students rather than just letting them copy) then you don’t have to ask me.  I can concentrate my efforts on fewer kids, which means that more of them actually get educated on any given day.  Which means that, overall, my building looks better and more of our kids are getting the educations they deserve.

What I can’t do as well in those circumstances– and maybe this means I’m just not good enough at differentiating my instruction; don’t get the idea that I’m trying to put all the blame on the kids here– is push the honors kids.  See the problem?  Getting rid of honors classes requires a collectivist mindset from both the parents of those honors kids and the students themselves.  If I don’t have that honors Algebra class, well, I can’t teach anybody honors Algebra, now, can I?  I can do individual enrichment but that’s not remotely the same as an entire directed class.

Which means that those parents and those kids have to decide that the education for everybody is more important than their own education.  And I cannot criticize anyone for not being willing to make that decision.

After all, I didn’t make it myself, did I?


Published by

Luther M. Siler

The author of SKYLIGHTS, THE BENEVOLENCE ARCHIVES and several other books.

11 thoughts on “On honors classes

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on this. It kinda speaks to the idea that maybe there needs to be systemic change on a deeper level than “put gifted kids together or not.”
    My husband and I have discussions like this regularly. We were both “gifted” kids, I think he resented that his own education suffered for the sake of the others in the class. I myself was in a only-gifted 6th grade program, which was probably the best year of education I had until I started taking AP courses in high school.
    It is a multi-faceted issue that obviously must continue to be discussed.


  2. A tough issue, but well worth discussing! Like Mei-Mei above, I was an honors student and am married to one. I truly benefited from a school district that paired with 12 others to open a magnet high school for students gifted in math and science. I was using an electron microscope at 13 and entering national science contests by 16. But did my “home” high school suffer from my absence? Probably – at least in terms of test scores.
    My husband (who I would argue is brighter than I am) got 2 AP classes junior and senior year and was generally ignored by the rest of the teachers because he didn’t need any extra help to complete the curriculum offered. He helped “keep the average up” – but I’m still appalled by the things he DIDN’T learn in high school. Good for the district, rotten for him.
    I don’t know the proper balance – but with 3 sickeningly bright kids in my household, I hope someone figures it out soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There is no right choice but the answer is choice itself. As a parent, don’t options sound like the best way to go? Unfortunately, education is stuck in the “pay to go somewhere else” and “take it or leave it” is not an option for many families.


  4. Coming from the UK where the wealthy can buy their kids extra tuition and then get them into expensive selective private boarding schools (known as Public Schools), I know how incredibly divisive this system is. My brothers, my husband and I went to such paid-for boarding schools. The education in these schools is mostly very high level and 99% of the kids IQs are well north of average. Most of the guys who run our country went to these schools they are also over-represented in the best universities. We chose to send our children to the local schools. We watched as half of the professional parents creamed their kids off after the primary years and sent them off to private schools. Our two girls and others stayed local, got a good education, passed all their exams and went to university achieving a First and a Two/one. More importantly they got to know all the different kinds of people in a real community, not just the privileged ones in a hot-house school.
    I could go on, but you can see where I’m heading.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I was in that pilot program too, at a different school in the district, for grades 4-6! I absolutely loved it and remember so much from those three years. Conversely, I barely remember learning anything in middle school because the administration didn’t appear to have a re-entry strategy for us. I was bored in school before the program (my only-childhood and intellectual curiosity kept me occupied), and bored right after (save for a social studies teacher willing to tolerate a bit of my academic precociousness). I was anything BUT bored in that gifted program. It stretched me in ways that a conventional classroom was simply ill-equipped to do.

    Anyhow, I have mixed opinions on the topic, from both sides of the classroom. On one hand, as a teacher, I loved having separate honors sections because it was much easier to differentiate for a group than for individuals. Before we split my courses into tracks, I totally sympathized with that look of boredom on the faces of my more advanced students. I had the same concern as you – how to adequately challenge them? I chose to track them. (My students were in their last or next-to-last HS science course, and their tracking in chemistry didn’t have prerequisite bearing on any of their other courses; my AP students came from both honors and regular classes. Middle school is certainly very different in that regard.) On the other hand, as a student, I remember my HS French teacher (no tracking in language courses) purposefully sat more advanced students next to struggling ones, with intention of fostering the kind of dynamic you mention. It didn’t go very well, because that sort of thing needs a catalyst. The net result, then, was that I just had a neighbor who constantly wanted to copy off my test papers.

    I definitely think that fostering that kind of classroom community, where the “honors” types help model success and act as classroom leaders is on-point. But it can’t happen in the microscale. It has to be a large-scale cultural shift, like you mention, with students/parents making choices to benefit everyone instead of just themselves/their child. I taught at a very different school from yours with hyper-competitive Type-A tiger-mom parents who want their kids accepted into every Ivy-League university to which they apply and however will that happen if they don’t have “honors” attached to everything they do?? That is a big ship to turn around. It also needs teachers who can actively foster that kind of interaction among students of varying ability so it doesn’t decay into the kind of thing I experienced in French. Ultimately, it requires long-term commitment. And an administration empowered to make decisions that won’t likely bear fruit for 5? 10? years. Some schools and districts follow the let’s-throw-this-educational-fad-to-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks plan in desperate attempt to raise test scores, right? But this kind of change wouldn’t likely produce measurable results by the end of Year 2, which would put it on the chopping block before it ever had a chance to make meaningful change.

    So, does the culture shift start with the classroom? Or does the classroom need a precursor movement in the community?

    Also, the expectation that you remove the top performers from schools and still expect those schools to maintain equivalent test scores is ridiculous. Someone downtown needs a statistics class.


  6. Education is a strange beast. Does a school educate, or simply warehouse kids ready for jobs that may not exist through globalisation as the job moved. Stem candidates versus h1b is another area you also might think about.


  7. I’m stuck in a similar situation. I teach English, twelfth grade specifically. This year my “honors” classes were a joke because the real “honors” kids jumped into a cohort program where they will graduate with and Associates’ before they graduate high school. Then there are the Governor’s School kids and the DE kids, both of which are not in my class. What I am left with is a handful of awesome and a class full of mediocre whose parents though “honors” would look good on their transcripts. (Their kids, however, don’t care!) My regular classes are also filled with a few “honors” level kids, SPED kids I love but who will never test well, and future/current felons. Complicate this with the fact that I learned yesterday that three of my kids won’t graduate next week because they failed to pass a standardized test. Who knows if they will keep testing next year and hopefully get their diploma or simply disappear. I came home and cried, but by Monday I’m expected to be in a sunshine mood and act like nothing is amiss. Good luck to us all!


  8. Luckily I went through K-12 before these kinds of experiments had gained much traction, although there were differences. I spent K-6 in a small local public school, one of several that served one of the towns in our township. By demographic good fortune, a lot of the kids in this school had educated parents, fathers in professions (and a few mothers in professions, although this is pre-women’s lib and most mothers were at home). We had a mix of aptitudes that skewed high. The best year of my public education was the 7th grade, which was the only year there was NO sorting. This junior high was the only one for my town, and so there were more kids from blue-collar families; there was a little more racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity (my town always was religion-diverse); there was a wider range of aptitude and interest. And my 7th-grade class was a real mix. What I learned in 7th grade: yes, I was a “smart kid” (I had always pretty much known that); no, I didn’t know it all; and wow: EVERYONE was interesting, and everyone could do SOMETHING well. I had never been in the midst of so many points of view. With eighth grade students began to be grouped loosely into probably-college-bound and probably-not, and this was determined to a great extent by which kids had chosen to take Latin as well as a modern foreign language. Since there was only one class of Latin, our schedules concentrated us in one group. I got to high school, the only high school in my townSHIP (notice the ever-larger population), and discovered “tracking,” which grouped students as high-achieving, average-achieving, and weak (R, S, and T…not much different from my first-grade reading groups, the Bluebirds, the Robins, and the Blackbirds). My graduating class was over a thousand kids, though, so there was still reasonable variety in each of these tracks. Classes in the R track were pretty challenging; the STUDENTS in the R track were even more challenging, mostly in our spare time. In fact spare time was where the enrichment came for all three tracks, by way of extracurricular classes (or, in the case of some, after-school jobs). Clubs and special projects, all with engaged faculty advisors, supplemented our regular education by making room for focused projects, a different kind of relationship with teachers, experiential learning, developing other skills or interests (athletics, band or orchestra, school publications, politics…), quasi-independent study; and the casual social interactions while waiting for these various activities to start was the richest and most self-directed of all. Now, this was in the days before one could take prep classes to do better on “aptitude” tests, and before most students were consciously groomed to be attractive to the hottest colleges and beyond. Very few kids from my town went to private schools. Nevertheless, kids from my high school graduating class WENT to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Barnard, Sarah Lawrence, Brown…and a lot of rigorous liberal-arts colleges, as well as state universities, teachers’ colleges, and any other variation of next-step school you can name. We became professors, scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs, physicians, clergy, engineers, teachers, musicians, restaurateurs, police, soldiers, assembly-line workers, artists, psychologists, social workers….
    This long reminiscence just to say there IS a way to serve both the individual student and the community, and I think it can be developed by taking a good careful look at older models as well as new schemes. Parental involvement in making kids better learners and making schools richer and more constructive (rather than parental involvement in choosing the “ideal” spot for Junior) is a key component, and this may be, today, the hardest thing to put in place, given the huge burden of earning a living that sits on every family’s shoulders in this changed economy, and the ambient anti-intellectualism that can create almost a hostility towards schools of any kind. Parental support at home for what the teachers are doing at school is essential (as opposed to a home atmosphere where the teachers are disparaged, their motives and competence questioned, while the child is encouraged to think of himself or herself as superior to all). I teach at the college level and have worked with the kids who’ve come out of both these types of home atmospheres.
    GREAT question.


  9. I see I referred to “extracurricular classes” in my comment. I meant “extracurricular activities,” of course. Some of them were pretty education-oriented, but classes they were not.


  10. This is a longstanding, extremely controversial and emotional topic. I have seen the most amiable of staffs get hot under the collar when discussing whether children who can work ahead of the pack should be given the opportunity to do so in a separate program.

    Your essay, above, refers to a “corporation”. The notion of education as a for-profit institution is one that makes my blood run cold, and is a separate discussion. Or maybe that’s not what you meant by “corporation”. ??

    Both as a parent of children who scored in the top 3% of IQ tests administered by the district, I know that they were bored and alienated by standard classrooms where the “work” was to read a book they’d read several years earlier and to do math they also had been capable of a long time ago. And studies show that gifted students are at risk for this very reason. As a teacher, I found that sometimes a student in my standard classroom who wasn’t turning in work or who was disruptive really belonged in the gifted classroom. If the kid’s parents would not or could not take the student into the district office for the test (and this was a high poverty school, so many parents either could not get off work, did not have a car, or were so disconnected from the educational process that it wasn’t a reasonable thing to expect them to do), I tried giving them the honors assignment, which was typically two grade levels advanced. Sometimes they snacked it down, and I went to my administrator and called the parent so we could move the student. And sometimes the kid would look at it blankly and say, “What is this? I can’t read this!” and I would realize I had been mistaken.

    Gifted students learn more and learn it faster when they can bounce their ideas off of peers with a similar instructional level to their own.

    So in the end, do we disband gifted ed. and spread these students out into classes that will not challenge them in the hope that they will perform as mini-tutors to students who often do not like them or regard them as show-offs? Or do we see them as students who need a different set of expectations, just as students with low IQs need individual educational plans? Do we meet their needs, or do we pretend that because they can already function at grade level, their needs have been met?

    The notion of spreading these students out so that their test scores can be redistributed is alarming. Like the whole notion of evaluating teachers based on the test scores of their students, it is the opposite of trying to meet human needs as they currently exist.

    It’s an exhausting discussion, and just seeing it crop up again makes me very glad to have retired.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. VERY quickly– because I’m on the way out the door– don’t worry too much about the word “corporation.” For whatever reason, lots of school districts in Indiana use that word to describe themselves. These are all not-for-profit public school districts and they do not behave like corporations in any meaningful way.

      This is not to say that the rest of your post doesn’t deserve some response, but that’s the bit that’s easily dealt with. 🙂


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