The Dishonor of Honors Courses

Honors classes should be rigorous enough for their high ability students

Many high schools across the country offer what they term to be honors courses. For example, a school might offer Algebra but also have an Honors Algebra course. As a gifted services coordinator, the idea of honors classes is one I’m completely on board with. Offering more challenging courses to students who are able to handle such rigor is just another form of differentiation and gives students who are gifted another option for meeting their needs. But much like communism and the balk rule, it looks good on paper, but actually successfully executing it is something else entirely. There are three fundamental questions many schools are not answering which makes it difficult to have an honorable honors class.

  1. How are students chosen for this honors course?
  2. How is it determined who teaches the honors classes?
  3. What is the difference between the honors class and the regular one?

The first question is how are students selected for this honors course? Some schools might have criteria such as you had to have a certain grade in the previous course, or it might be based on teacher recommendation. Unfortunately, many of these criteria can be subjective. Teachers might hold being compliant as a higher quality than having high-level thinking skills. If teachers are not well trained on what qualities high ability students have, they might misinterpret a natural curiosity as being a troublemaker. Grades are also subjective in that one teacher’s A might be a B in another teacher’s class. Because there is no uniformity to grading, there is a lot of gray areas.   

Many times, the students who are in the honors classes comes down to whoever signs up. Students who maybe want a little more of a challenge or who want to have their transcript look good to colleges might sign up for the honors, while someone just wishing to get the credit out of the way might take the regular course. What can happen is a highly skilled student who wants to take the easy way out might not sign up while a kid who would benefit from going a little slower might be pressured by a parent or friends to take an honors course. There are even parents who want their child to take the honors class because that is where the good kids will be and they do not want their child with “those” kids. What can happen sometimes is students who traditionally do not take honors classes such as minorities or economically disadvantaged children, do not sign up for the classes even though they have the ability to handle them.

Students should be taking honors classes for one reason and one reason only; to challenge themselves to reach their potential. The difficulty is determining what that potential is. Ideally, there would be a counselor at the high school who focuses on making sure high ability students get into classes that are going to challenge them such as honors. Unfortunately, with testing, college planning, and scheduling, school counselors do not have enough time in the day to be able to focus on students who are going to be fine but just need to be pushed a little. They have much bigger issues to deal with at school such as bullying, drugs and alcohol, and suicide.

The second question is how is it determined which teachers teach the honors classes? When a teacher is assigned an AP or College Credit Plus class, they have to meet certain requirements and training in order to keep the integrity of those programs. Unfortunately, there is usually no special or additional training for teachers that teach honors. The only requirement is to be certified to teach the content area, not the level of the student. What ends up happening a lot of the time is that they just partition out the honors classes evenly amongst the teachers. If there are five ELA teachers and five honors courses, each teacher gets one honors course.

Why this is a problem is that as much as it would be nice to say that all teachers are really good at working with all students, reality says otherwise. There are certain teachers who are extremely good at working with at-risk students, but if you put them in a class where students need to be challenged to think at a higher level more, it might not be the best fit. Conversely, those who are good at moving higher ability children might not have the skillset to work with students who take more time to process, or who need it broken down more. In my years in gifted education, I have found there is a certain type of teacher who is really good at working with high ability children.

What the school should be doing is identifying who these individuals are, either through test scores, student feedback, or observations and giving them the bulk of the honors classes. That way you have in place a teacher who is capable of challenging students and raising the rigor to meet their high abilities. Not only that, but you have narrowed down the number of teachers that you have to offer professional development that would help them in working with the high ability kids. It is much easier to send one or two teachers to a conference, workshop, or professional development than the entire department.

The pushback by teachers often times comes down to a perception of unfairness. They do not think it is fair that one teacher should get all of the “good” students while they are stuck with students who they believe lack the motivation and work ethic. This, of course, is a perception. There are lots of high ability children who do not have a strong work ethic and there are students who might struggle with content but have grit and perseverance. Besides, what is more unfair is putting a high ability student in a classroom with a teacher who is not going to challenge them.

The third and final question is what is the difference between the classes? The ultimate litmus test for the integrity of your honors classes is to go to the teacher and ask them point blank, what is the difference between the honors class and the regular class? I have done this throughout my career and usually get anemic answers such as “I give the honors kids essays instead of multiple choice,” or “we have a few more discussions than the regular class,” or “students in the honors class have an additional project that the others do not.” I kid you not; my high school daughter has taken a lot of honors courses and the only noticeable difference I have seen in the classes is the honors classes have an earlier due date for assignments. Other than that, the content is the exact same, the lessons, the assessments, and whatever else that could have been differentiated.

The worst answer I have received when asking a teacher what the major difference between the honors and regular classes is when he told me “the kids.” The kids should not be the major difference in the classes.

What should these teachers be doing differently? You could differentiate content, levels of books read, types of assessments, and expectations. It should not, however, be the amount of work. The answer is not more work. The answer should be different work. Work that is designed to challenge a student able to handle it. When you walk into an honors class as compared to its regular counterpart, it should look, sound, and feel different. These two classes might be at very different places, doing very different things, and that is ideally how it should be. Do not make the honors class wait for the regular class to catch up just because the teacher does not want to have them at different places. Let the ability of the student dictate the pace and depth of the class.

Here is the challenge I give to high schools across the country. Ask the three questions I have provided you with here. See if the answers are satisfactory. If they are not, there should be some changes made. Schools are literally on the honor system. They have to decide for themselves whether their honors classes are going to be rigorous enough for their high ability students or whether it is just going to be like all the other classes. Schools should be making these classes as “honorable” as possible.

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