While some people may be uncomfortable talking about race, culture and educational opportunities, they are topics that must be discussed particularly in reference to accelerated curriculum and honors classes. Heather Wolpert-Gawron tackles these issues head-on in this post from her blog and addresses one of our school system’s most critical problems: the need for more diversity in our schools’ honors programs.
Accelerated or honors classes offer a number of benefits to students including more rigorous curriculum that prepares students for advanced education, educational challenges that expand their thinking and learning abilities and the confidence required to solve real-world problems. Unfortunately, these benefits aren’t enjoyed equally across the student population. Honors classes often lack the diversity enjoyed throughout the overall school environment, leaving just certain populations to benefit.
Heather Wolpert-GawronI works in a middle school that many would call diverse, if you were looking at nationalities rather than race. The student body is 49 percent Latino and 49 percent Asian. The Asian demographic is, however, divided into many different countries, from China to Vietnam.
So it should go without saying that our honors classes, those classes helping to move students beyond simply meeting the standards and into more rigorous, pre-AP level discussions and material, should reflect that same break down, right? Wrong.
Currently, our honors classes reflect a more 98 percent Asian and 2 percent Latino breakdown, and the adults in the school have been stymied. For despite the fact that students from every demographic are capable, the data forces us to reflect on the system overall in which we work. As a result, we found ourselves asking some very difficult questions:
- Is the educational system set up to discriminate?
- Is this discrimination being supported, if not encouraged, by many stakeholders, even the students themselves?
We complain that a business model is taking over education. But I would argue that we already function in a competitive system, a system that defines success in a very specific way, complete with winners and losers, and race seems to define one’s place on the fence. The need for a bell curve seems very alive and well. Unfortunately, in many ways, it is dictated by the students themselves.
Case in point, I’ve heard it every year when I’ve asked certain achieving Latino kids why they aren’t in honors: “I didn’t try out. Those classes are for the Asian kids.”
Case in point, I’ve heard it every year when I’ve suggested to certain struggling Asian kids that they apply for AVID classes: “No way! It’s for Latinos.”
The trodden paths created by many stakeholders as well as through students’ misperceptions seem to start as early as third and fourth grades, and these pathways prove neigh impossible to leave. However, I would argue that in education, schools are not encouraged to be anything but competitive, and an alternative model is branded as progressive. In general, we work within a system where people expect to see a hierarchy in achievement because it’s a familiar model to them. As a result, many districts’ hands are tied in that they must offer honors classes, not just differentiate within the mainstream to both address an honor’s student’s needs while granting exposure of higher level work to mainstream students.
Then society complains when there is a gap.
But the fact is that many times these “gaps” are not about ability gaps. They start as morale gaps or gaps based on the misperception by the students or families that certain tracks are for certain kinds of students. It’s why we seem to rarely see high-achieving Latino students applying to our honors classes while we often have even low-achieving Asian students applying without any expectation of acceptance. It’s just what they feel is expected. And by demystifying the process of applying for honors classes, the Asian students have given themselves not only practice but the skill of persistence, and those prove most valuable to future tracking.
But I think this problem is reversible.