Are Honors Classes Elitist?

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A plan to eliminate ninth-grade honors classes at Harwood Union High School next year is reigniting the old question: Are honors classes elitist?

The debate at the school just outside of Waterbury is familiar. It echoes controversies in many communities about the benefits and drawbacks of tracking, that is the practice of sorting students into classes by achievement and ability.

Now this longstanding debate is heating up with a new twist as Vermont contemplates a wave of high school reform designed to customize education and help all students succeed.

Why Some People Oppose Tracking

Opponents of tracking view it as punishing struggling students by consigning them to less rigorous courses. It’s no wonder under-achievement often continues until students on lower tracks drop out or graduate with sub par skills, the critics say.

Supporters of tracking at the high school level defend it as necessary to push more successful students to the level of preparation they need for college, especially selective colleges.

Most Vermont public schools avoid or limit tracking in elementary and middle school. It’s more common at the high school level, with honors classes in ninth and tenth grade often designed to set the stage for Advanced Placement courses in 11th and 12th.

Harwood students and alumni are jumping into the debate about how the rural school, which is surrounded by humble houses along with upscale country residences, should be structured.

Ally Bataille of Waterbury graduated from Harwood in 2009 and is now a senior at Johnson State College. The 22-year-old hopes to be a physical education teacher one day.

It’s time to do away with the honors track in ninth grade and possibly other grades at Harwood, she believes. With the exception of sophomore honors English, Bataille did not take honors classes and remembers the feeling of being separated academically and socially from classmates who did.

A better environment would not have so much tracking, Bataille suggested.

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Are Honors Classes Elitist?

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