By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Writers Group
Published on: 07/23/07
Washington —- The honors course was once a vital part of American high schools, respected by all. That is changing fast, and many students and their parents are upset about it.
School districts are replacing honors studies with more strenuous, college-level Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge courses. Ambitious students who have already signed up for several of these demanding courses and hope to take the less terrifying honors option in some subjects find they must choose between other AP courses or rudimentary regular courses. Their parents are filling PTA e-mail lists with complaints. The situation is tough, but are honors courses really worth saving?
Some suburban Washington counties have decreed that if they provide a college-level course in, say, American history, the less challenging honors version is not necessary, leaving as the only alternative the regular course —- seen by many students and their families as a refuge for slackers and malcontents.
One parent told me that when her son —- with a full load of science and math AP courses —- was stuck taking the regular U.S. history course, he was bored. Regular U.S. history, she said, “was so easy that he did his calculus homework in class.” Many parents and students tell similar stories, a reflection of the class divide —- as in middle class vs. working class —- that has been a staple of American high school culture since getting a diploma became everybody’s goal.
In the hands of determined and talented teachers, honors classes can be as challenging as AP courses. But I have often found courses with the honors label deteriorating into little more than free periods for middle-class students.
Is there a solution? There is, and it starts with the remarkable work of Jack Esformes, a teacher of government who retired in 1999 from T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va.
Esformes did not believe in the separation of regular and AP students. He tossed both into his government classes. Each of his five 28-student sections each year had seven AP students, who were delighted to be taught by someone with such a great AP track record, and 21 frequently resentful regular students, many from low-income families, who were taking government only because Virginia would not let them graduate without it.
Mixing regular and AP students is generally thought to make no more sense than recruiting Latin club members for the ice hockey team. But Esformes made it work. He broke each class into small groups of AP and regular students. Together, they analyzed intriguing constitutional cases.
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.
So my question to those schools cutting honors courses is: Why not cut the regular courses instead? Esformes’ regular students were getting, in effect, an honors-class education and liking it. 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’ regular students were, by trading ideas with the class brains and getting much better teaching. And more motivated students mean fewer discipline problems.
Q: Why not cut the regular courses instead?
A: Parents. Schools with “regular” courses have parents who do not want their children to work very hard. Their kids are there to fulfill the state mandate of compulsory education. It sucks, but that is the reality. Parents who want their kids to do well invest in their child’s education far more than the school to either push the child into advanced classes or put them in schools where advanced is the only level.
Oh… I was the kid who took Honors classes and was so lazy in them I tried to get back into Average classes so I would not have to work so hard. Once back in the Average classes I was with kids who didn’t have their parents on their backs about going to college. The kids working all night at the grocery store stocking shelves or other jobs was more important (and what the kids are still doing today). I’m the only one from my Average classes to get into college.