Should honors classes be open to all?

At least on political grounds, it’s tempting to argue that honors and AP classes ought to be open to all who wish to enroll in them. It’s also tempting to argue it on educational grounds. We believe in giving everyone a chance; we believe that advanced math courses should be “a pump, not a filter”; we believe that all students should be encouraged to excel to the limit of their ability and interest.

Those are all legitimate beliefs. When I say “we,” I include myself. But it’s only one side of the picture — one that’s overwhelmed by the other side.

First, let’s look at how Weston does it, since that’s what I know best. Every spring (well, winter actually, but that’s another story), teachers make a course recommendation for each student. Sometimes these recommendations are made in consultation with the student, sometimes not. Occasionally a teacher who is on the fence will equivocate; he’ll say, ““I am recommending you for Math 5, but if you really want to take AP Statistics you can do that as well (or instead of Math 5).”

The student, of course, might disagree with the teacher’s recommendation. Suppose she wants to get into an honors or AP course but the teacher has recommended college-prep. If she is proactive, she will approach the teacher and attempt to change his mind. If that is unsuccessful, there is a complex override procedure through which she can get into her desired course without the teacher’s recommendation. The procedure requires a sequence of meetings involving parents, department heads, guidance counselors, etc. — all to ensure that the override is going through with everyone’s eyes open. Then, if there is room in the desired class, the student can enroll in it. This means, of course, that overrides are processed after recommended students are placed in sections.

Why have all these hurdles to jump over and hoops to jump through? Why not have open enrollment? Wouldn’t that give maximum opportunity to everyone?

No, it definitely wouldn’t. Here’s what would happen. My honors class would be overloaded with students who don’t belong there, either because they are unprepared or because they won’t succeed in it for other reasons. This would result in one of two things: classes of 40 or the creation of extra sections. The class ambiance would suffer from the (legitimate) complaints of students who want the teacher to “slow down” and make things easier. Students who belong there wouldn’t get the attention they deserve. As we moved through the first semester, more and more students would be miserable in their math classes and would drop out and move into the ever-more-crowded college-prep sections. By December we would have tiny honors classes and huge regular ones. And don’t say that sections could then be reconfigured; there’s no way that a high-school schedule would permit that, because courses in other subjects would get in the way.

You can find fascinating discussions of this issue on the Web. For example, an entire debate in the Lexington High School Student-Faculty Senate includes this interesting exchange:

Kieft: This is the latest revision of a bill that has popped up in Senate various times, in different forms. This version is simplified, and gets to the point with out a lot of fluff. What you have in front of you is actually two bills. The first gives teacher the right to recommend students without taking into account any requests of the students or their parents. It is not intended to cut off communication between teachers and students, and suggests that a teacher include a written rationale with his or her recommendation, if it may raise any questions. The second bill says that students should have the right to chose disregard the recommendation made for them and move up or down in one course. This limits the number of overrides a student may make — if a student wants to override in many of his classes, he should consider why he is giving many of his teachers the impression that he is not ready for higher level work.

Enders: Although this version improves the bill, I still don’t agree with its original intent. Limiting the flexibility of the process is not the answer — think the better the communication between students and teachers, the more likely the student will be placed correctly.

Burson: What is the current policy? Can teachers currently disregard demands made by students or parents?

Kieft: I don’t think there is anything specifically written down. Mr. Simon described to me the math department’s policy, which entailed students and parents asking for the override on one side of a form, and the teacher filling out the other side as to why the child was recommended for the lower level. At first, this worked well, but with many students asking for overrides, teachers often ask if they plan to override, before making their recommendations, so as to avoid the paperwork. This creates a situation where many students are put in classes above their ability. Also, parents have been known to try to intimidate teachers into recommending their child for a higher level class.

Walsh: The role of department heads in the course selection process is not mentioned in the bill. Once an override is requested, the situation is generally taken out of the hands of the teacher, other than when an explanation of the recommendation is required. As further discussion most often takes place between the students/parents and the department heads, perhaps department heads should be empowered, here.

Kafrissen: A few weeks ago, the faculty was presented with the findings of the Stress Survey. Students said two things: that they had too much work, and that the work was too hard. I can only infer from this that students are taking classes that are too difficult for them, which is likely partially a result of overrides. The Senate tried limiting the number of honors a student may carry, but the proposal was voted down. As students, you have to chose: Do you want the challenge, or do you complain about your course load being too challenging?

David: According to Mr. Pappadonis, the trend in overrides is to take the process out of the hands of teachers and students, in the possible form of a test that a student must pass in order to prove that they have earned the right to be in a higher class. Also, there seems to be a disparity as to what qualifies for an honors class. I think there are too many “honors” classes here in general.

Jehle: The results of the survey also showed that students identified teachers as contributors to their stress. It is irrational not to take the teachers’ opinions into account in the selection process.

The answer to the objections raised in my first paragraph is not to permit open enrollment. It’s to work hard to ensure that all students have the opportunity to succeed at their highest level, so that those who want AP or honors will truly be prepared and will be appropriately recommended. It’s not doing anyone a service to place students in classes that are over their head.

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Weston