Why not honors courses for all?

Why not honors courses for all? asks WashPost columnist Jay Mathews.

High-scoring Fairfax County schools, which offer regular, honors and AP or International Baccalaureate classes in 11th and 12th grade plan to eliminate honors classes if AP or IB is available. Parents are protesting. They want an honors option — faster moving, more in depth but not college level — for their children.

Mathews suggests eliminating the regular track: Everyone would take honors or AP classes. He makes what’s now an old argument:

The qualities that make you ready for college—good reading comprehension, clear and persuasive writing, math through at least Algebra II, presentation and time management skills—are the same needed to get a good job or trade school slot upon high school graduation.

Detracking is a national trend, he notes.

When teachers “drag” average students into AP or IB classes, “the results are almost always good,” Mathews asserts.

What would happen if you added regular students to honors classes? Jack Esformes of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria mixed seven AP students with 21 regular students in each of the five government course sections he taught each year. Nothing was dumbed down for the AP students. The regular students received less homework, but once they discovered they were often as clever in class as the alleged smart kids, some of them switched to AP. Many of them told me they liked the challenge of being taught at such a high level.

Is Esformes an average teacher? Or a very good one in a school where the regular students aren’t way behind the AP students?

I went to an untracked elementary and middle school. Reading during class saved me from terminal boredom. Then we hit high school: Then there were three tracks in math, three in science, five in English. I loved it. Sophomore year, I dropped down to Level 2 geometry to avoid taking two Level 1 math classes at once, which was the only alternative. I got a lot of reading done in geometry class.

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  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Why not honors courses for all?
    Why not AP/IB for all?

    It’s the same reason, in the end: some students can’t hack it.

    A school should track their subjects to the limits of their budget and logistics. Limitless budget = 1:1 student:teacher ratio, right? And the ratio grows as the budget shrinks. The school in question has hit their limit — two tracks per subject (for most subjects) — and has decided, probably because the standards are externally enforced and the CI gives incentive now, to keep AP/IB.

    OK, so you’ll have AP/IB and a bottom track.

    Here’s the secret: it doesn’t matter what they call the bottom track — it’s going to be defined by the students in the end. The teachers can aim where they want, but pressure from parents and the administration about grades is going to decide where they direct the level of difficulty at the end of the day.

  2. Why support the proposition that all students are going to college? Perhaps if we offered more General ed classes (my district insists that the lowest level be college prep) we could graduate more than 60% of our incoming Freshmen.

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    Jay Mathews has it 180 degrees backwards. When students are put into classes that they don’t have the motivation, preparation, or native smarts for, they get resentful and, yes, bored because they aren’t really following. Many then get lousy grades or fail–if standards are strictly adhered to.

    The results are almost always bad.

    On the Gates thread a few days ago a number of commenters complained that Gates was pushing ideas that hadn’t been proven. That is, of course, true and he has dropped at least one idea because he found out it didn’t work (small schools).

    However, unproven ideas that don’t work are hardly unique to him. This is yet another one.

    And, yes, Esformes is an exceptional teacher.

  4. I do have some reservations about that idea. For math and science classes, prior preparation is critical. Students coming in without skills start out at a deficit. If you get, for example, a student who hasn’t grasped the idea that mathematical relationships depend on a predictable response to a change (and can calculate AND graph that relationship), they might well be lost in that class. In Chemistry, how can you analyze the compounds if you don’t “get” atomic theory? Or have the math skills to perform multi-step problems (from a word description)?

    In a Government class, I would suspect that the content isn’t all that different. Where the Honors or Regular might differ from the AP is the expected quality of the written output, the depth of the analysis, and the level of constructing cause-and-effect models.

  5. Jill Bell says:

    This is a BIG controversy. In the southwest, we offer “Pre-AP courses” in lieu of honors courses, to better prepare kids for the AP courses they will take later. I present Pre-AP Math workshops to teachers across the southwest every summer, to give strategies to help better prepare kids for AP Calculus and Statistics.

    The College Board’s philosophy is that all students should be taught Pre-AP, and I understand their reasoning. The problem is that the “open door policy” allows any student to sign up for Pre-AP without any recommendations. Then the kids get in and can’t hack the material, and the parents complain, “Why aren’t you doing more to help my student be successful?” The problem is, the kid doesn’t have the skills to be in the class in the first place! LindaF said that for math and science, prior preparation is critical. I wholeheartedly agree. I did teach at a school where kids were excluded for entering Pre-AP if they didn’t have a 95 average or higher in the regular course. One little girl wanted to get in, but she had a 94 and they wouldn’t let her. Really?

    Not all kids are honors material, but there are teaching strategies that can be used on all students to help better prepare them for college and the workplace. Dumping them all into honors will not fix that problem.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    Does this guy see AP courses as a kind of hydraulic pump?

  7. I recently talked to a FCPS English teacher. Her regular freshmen could not reliably write in complete sentences and many could not identify the subject of a sentence that had only one noun or pronoun. They are also unwilling to do any homework, including assigned reading. In what universe does it make sense to put these kids in honors classes?

    As far as open access to pre-AP or AP classes, I have never heard anyone suggest moving kids directly from Spanish I to Spanish 3 or from geometry to pre-calc. Why should it be any different in history or English? (unless there is significant out-of-school preparation, which could be evaluated with a pretest) Everyone should have similar preparation in the subject, so all are ready to move ahead.

    That being said, requiring a 95 to get into pre-AP seems unduly restrictive; I would think a B or B+ should be sufficient. That statement assumes the grading is a reasonable measure of subject knowledge. I know two students in the same algebra 2 class; one received a B+, the other and A. The B+ student had nothing less than a 95 on all quizzes and tests, but had not done all the homework. The A student had one C on a test and the rest were Ds and Fs, but she had done all the homework. I gather that situation is not uncommon, but I consider it fundamentally dishonest; the pedagogical equivalent of malpractice.

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    It’s well known that grades are often about making the teacher happy, not about learning. People who didn’t learn this lesson in high school (or weren’t moved by its imperative) had lower grades.

    That said, a 95 seems like a reasonable cut-off, because the grade you’re talking about is, apparently, the grade in a non-honors track, general-level class.

    But even if you lower it to say, 89, that still means saying no to the person with the 88. I don’t find the one-point “so close” arguments convincing when my students make them, and I don’t find them convincing when adults make them.

    I know some people who grade based on gaps. They take the scores their students have, and look for the six largest gaps between scores. They draw the A-B+-B-B–C+-C-C- lines between those gaps so that they don’t have to deal with the complaints. Of course, this results in strange grading distributions…

    I still say it doesn’t matter what you call the course: it’s going to be what it’s going to be based on the students and the parent/administrative demands.

  9. Cranberry says:

    I would not object to a system of regular or AP/IB tracks in high school, as long as the grading had starch, i.e., a student who had earned a C would receive a C. I would object to “honors for all,” i.e. only AP courses. No teacher could teach such a class at a “true” AP level. It would leave too many students behind.

    Our local high school’s “no honors/AP courses in the humanities” was a deciding factor in our enrolling our children in private schools. In my opinion, it is impossible to expect every teacher in every class to differentiate instruction when the students range from “marginally literate” to “reading at college level.”

  10. Cranberry says:

    I don’t find the one-point “so close” arguments convincing when my students make them, and I don’t find them convincing when adults make them.

    Having seen grading systems which vary wildly from teacher to teacher, I’m willing to support the “so close” argument. Journal decorations can easily make a 5 point difference in the final grade. Is the ability to draw a straight line, and fill it with glitter, really the quality which should decide which student is admitted to the honors track?

    Admit anyone who wants to try the honors track to the honors track. Move them down if they can’t hack it. Yes, that would require administrators to grow a spine, and meet with angry parents. In my opinion, that’s better than setting some sort of faux-zero-tolerance grade threshold.