Instruction & Curriculum

The Danger of Honors Classes in Our Schools

When it was time to receive teaching assignments for the 2021-2022 school year, our department gathered around our principal in the hallway. The six of us stared back and forth, wondering why she was so excited. Then she said it; she turned to our history teacher and announced that he would teach honors next year. 
He erupted with excitement, pumping his hand in the air while his eyes thinned, which meant his mask hid a wide smile. “I always wanted to teach those kids,” he said as he looked around the crowd. It seemed as if he won a lottery of sorts. Another teacher asked if they, too, would teach an honors class next year. He was dejected to learn he would not. 
Then, as the principal began to walk away, she teased that one surprise remained. She turned to me and said, “Mr. Dean will teach one section of honors as well!” Everyone looked at me, expecting a reaction similar to the previous teacher. 
I am not one to fake emotion or hide it, even with a mask on my face. I left the business field because being transparent left me defeated in many political skirmishes. I was able to muster, “oh, that’s so cool!” I could see the principal was a bit disappointed by my response. 
I have a love-hate relationship with honors and gifted programs. Click To Tweet
Well, the issue is this: I have a love-hate relationship with honors and gifted programs. On the one hand, they seem to engage students who might otherwise become bored and exhibit problematic behaviors in classes that don’t stimulate them. On the other hand, those programs create a rift in the school culture where students feel that “I may be smart but not nearly smart enough for honors.”
Teachers feel this rift as well, whether they admit it or not. How else do you explain the teacher’s overwhelming joy to teach “those kids.” How are students enrolled in honors any different from kids in traditional classrooms? When I taught French at an IB school, many teachers said that I had the best kids in the school. Best is a superlative, which suggests that some kids must be inferior to the accelerated kids? 
One day, a teacher stopped by to greet the accelerated class but came during the wrong period. She peered in, her smile slumping to a frown. “Oh, you got the hood kids now, huh?” She was referring to one of the two general education classes I taught. A student who was notorious for voicing her mind entered the class just as the teacher began to gripe.  
She turned back, staring in disbelief. After coaxing her, she went to her desk. When the class began, she said, “Mr. Dean, I almost cussed that lady out.” She had every right to feel offended, as her reality and fate were decided in a matter of seconds. She was not in the advanced class; thus, she was categorically hood. 
What scares me most about gifted programs is not how students become divided, but how teachers deem certain students as more capable and deserving of an education Click To Tweet
What scares me most about gifted programs is not how students become divided, but how teachers deem certain students as more capable and deserving of an education. I won’t deny that gifted programs have their benefits: engaged parents, engaged students, smaller class size, I get it. 
At the same time, I wonder how we can construct a positive school culture where traditional classes could co-exist with honor classes. I wonder how we can demonstrate the value of needing different academic rigor and varying behavioral supports without demonizing students who don’t live up to the expectation of an honor student. 
All students need us, even those who struggle academically and behaviorally. We can dignify students by acknowledging that where they are in terms of academics and behavioral performance is ok, but where they are heading is far greater. 

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