Honors classes for all

Some classes that offer college-level Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge classes are abolishing honors courses, forcing students who don’t want to load on another AP to take “regular” classes that are easy for them. Meanwhile, non-honors students are coasting along without a challenge. Jay Mathews of the Washington Post cites Jack Esformes, a Virginia government teacher who mixed AP and regular students in his courses.

The AP students got more homework than the regular students got, but in class the AP kids soon realized that the regular kids were full of insights derived from their different backgrounds, and the regular kids saw that the AP kids were not any smarter but just worked harder. Some of the regulars switched to AP.

My daughter’s ninth-grade English class was a mix of regular and honors students. The students who wanted honors credit had to read and write more than their classmates. It worked well for her. However, there wasn’t much diversity — academic, ethnic or socioeconomic — in the class.

Mathews suggests abolishing the regular, non-honors track.

Why should honors kids or regular kids have to be bored?

Slap that honors-class sticker on any course that is the alternative to AP, IB or Cambridge. The book-smart kids can keep their honors classes. The street-smart kids will be likely to be motivated, as Esformes’s regular students were, by trading ideas with the class brains and getting much better teaching. And more motivated students mean fewer discipline problems.

This assumes very good teachers and no D- students who can’t take any more challenge than they’ve already got.

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  1. It also assumes that honors students have access to some special realm of time that allows them to do a whole extra day of work in the evening trying to fulfill enrichment requirements that are not met during the day.

  2. aka differentiated education it works well, especially with skilled teachers — and an administration that backs up a no-slacking stance.

  3. “EVERYBODY has won! And all must have prizes!”

    –The Dodo, Alice in Wonderland

  4. Twill00 says:

    Mainstreaming honors students can be costly to the honors students. An honors English class where only three students some in knowing “the eight parts of speech” is a class where those three will learn little.

  5. Differentiating within a class is better than offering the exact same instruction to all, but not nearly as good as having flexible ability grouping.

    There’s no reason why it’s better for a teacher to try to teach five different levels in the same class rather than five different classes at one level each, as long as kids aren’t trapped in the same level class even when they are ready to move up.

    And there’s little doubt in my mind that more differentiation would come in the instruction, rather than the assignments, if teachers did have the kids at different times.

    Differentiation is one of the educrat and ed. school methods that causes all the burden to fall on the teacher and students to implement the pie-in-the-sky rhetoric they preach.

    (Here, Johnny, here’s an enrichment activity that you should complete to receive the exact same academic credit that Jamie is getting for doing half as much work. Sure, it’d be nice if I could actually spend time teaching you at the level that you are ready to learn, but I really need to spend my time on the special education and English language learner students while we’re actually in class.)

  6. NDC, a few answers
    – credit: if different credit for different levels of work, then would that satisfy your justifiable concern.
    – differentiation reduces having 5 different class preps and makes coordination across subjects easier
    – I think that it *is* harder for the teacher — but that it focuses the work on useful progress for all students, rather than dissipating in organization
    – it also enables mixing of levels in different subject: the advanced math student may (or may not) be the advanced history or English student. the slow math student may be gifted in language. When one tracks, one create creates ruts that run across many subjects. (bringing to mind the implicit tracks that used to form when the band students went en masse to the academic space in the master schedule for their enxt class, even in an untracked system.

    I disagree that you call all classes honors … but you do restore honor to standard classes, rather than having study halls with grades (for either the low end or the high end).

  7. NDC, I think you’re exactly correct in your analysis of ability grouping and the conditions that need apply. I teach in an immigrant community, where student ability ranges from pre-primer to far above grade level. My school had long been at the bottom of the county; all students at all levels began to achieve only when we stopped asking teachers to sprinkle differentiation dust on their students, and started grouping according to students’ academic and language needs. In a 6-8 school, we have 18 different starting points for ELA instruction, and roughly half that many for math.

    Chris wrote, “differentiation [within a homogenous setting] reduces having 5 different class preps and makes coordination across subjects easier…”

    Maybe, but our focus ought not be on what’s easy for the teacher, but what’s better for the kids. Scheduling ability grouping is harder for adults, but better for kids. Teaching five preps, or six, or seven, may be harder for adults, but better for kids. Too often we seek solutions that serve the needs of the adults, rather than those of the students.

    Chris again, “it also enables mixing of levels in different subject: the advanced math student may (or may not) be the advanced history or English student. the slow math student may be gifted in language. When one tracks, one create creates ruts that run across many subjects.”

    Tracking implies a no-exit approach with a pre-determined destination. Ability grouping is responsive to student readiness and need. Tracking, while still in existence, is not the automatic byproduct of every attempt to provide focused, systematic targeted instruction. Your example morever, is why you apply the principles across content areas. In any event, the students who most benefit from this scheduling approach — the highest performing and the most struggling — tend to not exhibit the hodge-podge of readiness you reference.

  8. SuperSub says:

    Chris wrote, “differentiation [within a homogenous setting] reduces having 5 different class preps and makes coordination across subjects easier…”

    Yes, but you’ll be spending 5 times as much time prepping for that one course. If you’re not, then you’re cheating the students.

    This does bring up one benefit of “differentiation” to a school district – all the schools that I have taught in (in NY) have contractual obligations to provide planning time based upon the number of preps a teacher has. By throwing everyone into the same class and demanding differentiation, the district can force teachers to spend more time in the classroom and therefore save money. This also eliminates any 1/2 capacity classes at the end of the ability spectrum.
    Heterogenous grouping also makes scheduling 10 times easier as students can be thrown into any class covering the subject they need, opening up schedules for all the electives that schools are bending over backwards to offer to students.

    I’m not saying that these are the main reasons that heterogenous grouping and differentiation became popular, but I have heard them mentioned as reasons why districts should not return to tracked/multi-level schedules.

  9. Supersub: “5x the time” no, there is some economy to scale … and the benefit is applied across multiple sections.

    TMAO: “tend to not exhibit the hodge-podge of readiness you reference” yet at the same time, equally untrue that the low perform shines nowhere and the high performer aces everything. Even more importantly, it applies a hammerblow to any bigotry of low expectations.

    scheduling is easier (10x perhaps not) but one breaks the chains of being slave to the master schedule. “no you can’t be allowed in that class”

    another advantages is accountability – especially if everyone has the same teacher (yes that implies a total grade size).

  10. Instead of ability grouping, I would like to see voluntary grouping…

    Have different levels of classes with firm standards, then test kids and give their parents recommendations on their placement. The parents can then choose which classes they want to put their kids into, but only under the condition that they meet pre-specified levels of achievement. If the student can’t keep up, after a few poor grade, the kid can be moved down a level.

    There will be a few kids who score well who decide to move down a notch, but there will probably be more hardworking students who achieve higher than their test scores would predict.

    The secret lies in having a firm syllabus, and set standards.

    It works for colleges… many an engineering/math student has changed their major to business.

  11. If the teacher is really differentiating, then there is no reduction in prep time just because the kids are in the same class. It seems silly to me that you even said that. Just because the school is not required to acknowledge that they’ve given the teacher five (or really any number of) preps doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened. There’s no economy of scale for the students who get short changed in terms of skill-and-knowledge-level-appropriate direct instruction from the teacher.

    There’s also no reason at most schools that because you were top level in one area, ability grouping would require you to be in the top group in another. Only the very smallest school is only going to offer one section of each level.

    But you kind of make my point: because ability grouping might require extra effort on the part of registrars or principals, it’s considered too complex and impractical, so everyone just lays it on the teachers and kids.

    I’m afraid you are completely kidding yourself if you think that mixed ability instruction usually means high level instruction. What it does is dumb down every level. With ability grouping the soft bigotry of low expectations MIGHT have affected the bottom group; with heterogeneous grouping, it creeps in to the whole group. What can you require all students to master? Almost nothing. What can be used to measure the progress of the top group? Almost nothing.

    And at what percentage of schools does everyone have the same teacher these days? Seriously, I think you are talking about such a small number that it’s not even worth considering the idea that somehow teachers are more accountable.

  12. Elizabeth says:

    TMAO and others — thanks for remembering it is all about what is best for the students, not the adults.


  13. the entire goal and payoff is to make it best for the students by improving the time and resources invested in the student-teacher setting.

    if it was to focus the prep time so that the day could be shorter, I would be first in line to denounce it. Likewise, if it wasn’t being implemented effectively in the classroom and short-changing the high, middle or low student, you would also have violent agreement.

    the “it’s only for the ease of adults” is a strawman argument.

  14. Chris, if it fails to deliver on its goals, which is what I see where I see it implemented, the only reason not to move to ability grouping does seem to be the “it’s only for the ease of adults.”

    It’s not a straw man. We are more enslaved to the master schedule than ever when we can’t elect to use a new system to group kids for purely instructional reasons. The main reason cited to avoid ability grouping is that it would be hard to schedule. Who does the scheduling?

    What aspect of the benefits of differentiation that you mentioned could not also be present in ability grouped classed? Even if previously having low level classes led to low expectations for those kids, in the age of test score accountability for everyone, it hardly seems that anyone would write off that whole class of kids. And with ability grouping, the teacher could actually focus instruction of the weakness of those kids instead of having his or her attention to those issues divided in that class by the needs of other learners.

    What exactly is your real world experience with it? Are you a teacher? Are you an administrator? Are you currently a student getting an education degree or a professor in a college of education?

    I understand what the rhetoric is about how it should work. But that doesn’t mean it’s actually working.

  15. SuperSub says:

    NDC – Bravo!

  16. the “mixed” classes can be fine IF most of the students in the classes have a good attitude about it.

    My brother went to a large public high school (in an affluent community). He took a mixture of Honors classes, AP classes, and “classes everyone has to take” (his designation).

    He complained about the “classes everyone has to take” – he said that a sizable minority of the students in the class didn’t seem to care about learning, and they often hijacked class discussion to topics that had nothing to do with the subject matter. Or they were disruptive. Or they made fun of the “smart kids” (like my brother).

    The “insights” about non-Honors students that Honors students gain shouldn’t have to be the ones my brother “gained” – he walked out of those classes believing that the non-college-bound students were all a bunch of stoners who weren’t going to amount to anything. Not exactly a tolerance-increasing exercise.

  17. to recap the argument:
    1) NDC has not seen differentiation working, thus ability grouping is being blocked for the convenience of adults and later differentiation is rhetoric that isn’t actually working anywhere.

    2) mixed ability instruction means a convey that moved at one speed: underchallenging some and overtaxing others or worse, going at the lowest common speed with the bigotry of low expectation for all, combined with a single set of skills to master to produce a grade at the end.

    3) ability groups will let kids rise to the level of challenge in a class at that level, but won’t create academic ghettos that reverberate through the day in other subjects: there will be enough number of classes that students can move among tracks in each subject

    4) no (or few) schools are small enough to let all students have the same teacher — so accountability can not be tracked

    5) couldn’t these benefits all be accomplished with ability grouping?

    Let’s start there.

    1) implemented successfully in a school which is among the top ranked in California. it pulls in a range of students high and low … and accelerates them all to higher levels. To address your query about street cred, I’m on the board; we work closely with the teachers (who have a tremendous level of decision-making at the school) to make the teachers highly effective.

    Results: well performing students moved higher, low students moved higher. measured in grades, in AP for independent calibration in college entrance: 100% entrance into 4 year colleges, more than 1/2 were 1st time college goers in their family

    2) if you believe that different grades and mastery levels would occur for ability groupings … then carry that out within the class, rather than just within the grade. Part of the approach can be project-based which is easier to see, but that can extend to papers, tests many items.

    3) and 4) perhaps we’re talking about different size schools. this was implemented with ~100 students per grade. It could be done (I think) with academies in larger schools — although I’ve not seen it yet.

    5) don’t think so if only from an expectations for students: you’re in the low ability grouping. You might earn your way out of jail, but you’re in with the other inmates. Moreover, understand the system implication: if you envision multiple parallel independent tracks (ability grouping) so that a good math student can bring English skills up to standards, then you’re talking about a huge environment with many other implications (eg impersonal) and team ownership (at best) of results for accountabiilty. Yes some big schools work and work well, especially if they’e more homogeneous … but research speaks out against that: kids simply fall through the cracks as campus size moves above 800 and teacher load moves above 100 students, even with best intentions.

  18. SuperSub says:

    Chris –
    You stated that the school you’re at is one of the top-ranked in California. Also, it is a small school. My guess is that your school’s success is due to a mixture of significant funding, good teachers, and a relatively homogenous community.

    Just about any learning model will be implemented successfully in a school that is already successful. I’d also like to bet that the ability gap in a grade with 300+ students will be huge compared to yours.

    The low expectations argument is false. A good teacher working with a low-level group of kids can push them just as well as they would be in a mixed ability class, it is probably easier for the teacher as well since he or she can design the whole class around the class profile.

    You criticize large student loads for teachers, but with regards to scheduling, large studentloads are more likely to happen with heterogenous mixed-ability classes – contractually, districts will be able to assign more classes to each teacher due to the lower number of preps.

  19. comments may not be seen since we’re off into the archives. but would love to take your bets, Supersub, not just because it would be easy money, but also because spreading successful practices is critical to large-scale improvement.

    in answer to your questions:
    no on significant funding: school runs on revenue limit numbers … and about 30% less than the surrounding basic aid district. This is by design since a gold-plated school offers little
    yes on good teachers: that is fundamental to success shouldn’t all teachers be good? In every other profession, poor performance is a serious responsibility of peers. Is there an equivalence of disbarring for teachers or administrators?
    no on homogeneous class and ability gap: very diverse on ethnic, socio-economic, parental education, and 7th grade academic record.

    on the other hand, not diverse in college success — local red-faced superintendent retracted an attack saying the lack of failing juniors was evidence of discrimination (as opposed to, say, evidence of a well-working school)

    on doing anything in a school that is already successful. True but in a different way than you think. There was no prior track record in that the school was newly opened. Culture is vital to grow among students *and* teachers … and that laid part of the foundation for success.

    on assigning more classes with lower number of preps: that is a serious governance flaw and should be fixed. Tongue out of check, the prep periods are also used for office hours, mentoring and class team and subject team meetings.