A Schoolteacher's Musings · Current Events

Cutting Honors Programs Will Not Lead to Greater Equity

I recently read an article in the paper about some high schools in California (and elsewhere around the United States) who are cutting their Honors programs in English and Social Studies in order to promote greater equity. There weren’t enough black or brown kids taking the classes, so those in charge assumed that simply having the program was inequitable. Thus, they disbanded it and integrated all the higher-achieving kids back into standard-level classes. As you can imagine, quite a few parents were unhappy with this.

As an adult who clearly remembers her own schooling history and as a teacher who has taught hundreds of kids of varying abilities, I, too, am concerned by this move. I’m concerned about students being deprived of opportunities to excel in subjects they love, which may lead them to dislike those subjects. I’m concerned about us educators not giving every student what they need. I’m concerned that those in charge will end up looking only at percentages of races on paper instead of the faces of very real teenagers who hunger for more.

And what does this remind us of? The cultural revolution in the 1960s in China where they did away with testing students to go into more advanced schools. The goal? To make everyone more “equal.” It’s not fair, they said, to have competition, to notice people’s differences, to reward hard work and bright intellect. How dare we presume that some people might want (and need) more of a challenge and other people might struggle more with certain subjects?

Let’s therefore hold back those who could go further ahead for the sake of those who need to go slower. Let’s make them bored and frustrated, by all means, because we must keep up this myth that we are all equal in our interests, abilities, and drive.

How is this fair? How is this “raising the standard” when in fact we’re lowering it? I have seen from firsthand experience how students thrive when they’re in the right environment with like-minded peers—and how they are held back when put into mixed-ability groups with an outstanding ability gap. My heart has ached as I watched my highly capable kids sit and be bored as I had to give more intervention to my struggling readers and writers. And I’ve seen those same kids light up and accomplish so much when they’ve been put into a class that allowed them to go faster and deeper.

It would be inequitable if we said that only kids with a certain skin color or background could get into those classes. Or that no one else, once “tracked,” could move in or out of those higher-level classes. But that’s not the case in most instances. There should always be equal opportunity—and encouragement to kids who might be on the bubble and need a little more confidence to achieve more than they thought they could. But trying to guarantee equal outcomes for all students is impossible and simply not fair to those students who want to go further in certain subjects than others.

I remember when I started at public high school as a sophomore and was asked by the counselor if I wanted to do Honors English. Having never done anything like that, I thought it would be too difficult for me, so I started the year off in standard English. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was in the wrong class. So, at semester, I made the switch into Honors English and followed up with AP English the next two years. English was my passion, and I needed to be more challenged—and surrounded by other kids who cared about the subject (and who weren’t dealing drugs in the back row).

Now when it came to Math, I faced more struggles to understand the material. It took me longer to get things done, I didn’t particularly enjoy it, and an AP Calculus class would never have been the right fit for me. But the math classes I did take were at the right pacing and structure for my ability level, and thus helped me to advance.

As a teacher, I’ve also worked with students who have disabilities in reading and writing and are several grade levels behind. Asking these students to “challenge” themselves at the same level of students who are a few grade levels ahead just isn’t right.

For some kids, they struggle all around, and academics just aren’t their thing. They’d much rather be building or fixing things, working outdoors, being creative in the arts, or doing something with their hands like electrician work. And we should be okay with that and support kids in all their different abilities and desires.

Thomas Sowell, in his book, Discrimination and Disparities, says this,

Most notable achievements involve multiple factors—beginning with a desire to succeed in the particular endeavor, and a willingness to do what it takes, without which all the native ability in an individual and all the opportunity in a society mean nothing, just as the desire and the opportunity mean nothing without the ability.

There are some high school students who have a greater ability in English and Social Studies—and a greater desire to succeed and a willingness to work hard at it. Why are we then punishing those students by taking away opportunities for them to excel? These students could be future authors, professors, politicians, and we are stifling their growth in order to meet a racial quota.

If we’re encouraging students to take advanced math and science classes because of our STEM emphasis, why are we discouraging them from advanced English and history classes? Once again, the arts and humanities suffer—and maybe it’s because in these very subjects, they’ll come to learn how wrong this kind of thinking is. Why didn’t we see it before? Keep them from 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Communist Mao and Lenin, and we’ll keep them safely in the throes of impending cultural Marxism.

And so we come full circle.

Can we instead continue supporting the democratic ideals of the country we live in—those of hard work, free choice, and rewards for those who want to go further ahead? Can we make sure that every student is appropriately challenged at their ability level and given the support they need? Can we make sure that if a student happens to love getting lost in language and novels and writing what they’re passionate about, that they’re given the tools to love it even more? Can we honor students’ hunger for studying the rise and fall of nations, government types, economic policies, and geopolitical strategies? Can we invest in these students instead of letting them fall by the wayside?

My hope and prayer is that we do.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash.

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