I’ll begin by clarifying my intentions for this blog post. My hope is that what I have written will help educators reflect on how Honors courses are set up and which children have the opportunities to take them. I am definitely not attempting to imply that I have this all figured out or that I know the best path forward. I am trying to be transparent and get everyone talking so that we can collectively work towards improvements.

Consider this thought experiment from a colleague of mine, Michael Butler:

What if we eliminated separate Honors and regular math classes? For example, instead of there being an Honors Geometry course and a regular Geometry course, we mixed all students together so there was just one type of Geometry course that every Geometry student took.

There’s a catch though: any of these Geometry students may earn Honors credit for the course, as long as the student does X, Y, and Z. What would X, Y, and Z need to be for this to be fair?

We’ll come back to that question later on.

Here’s a different and perhaps scarier question to answer: what are the differences between Honors and regular math classes in your district? Can you answer that question? If you can’t, you’re not alone. If you can, are you absolutely certain that what you said holds true in all classrooms in your district?

I’ve asked many teachers about what makes an Honors class different from a regular class and here are some of the answers I’ve heard. Honors classes…

- … cover the material at a faster pace so they can include content standards from the beginning of the next course.
- … are given less time to complete a test.
- … use a different book than regular classes.
- … cover some of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) plus standards (defined in the last paragraph of pg 147)
- … require students to do more homework/classwork/projects/quizzes.
- … do additional higher Depth of Knowledge (DOK) problems and problem-based lessons.
- … cover almost the same content as regular classes but just have the “better” students.

Your feelings on these answers may vary from shock to agreement to being appalled. This also makes you think about how a child even becomes an Honors student. We’ve all taught students in a regular course that would have been successful in an Honors course. The reverse is also true as I’ve taught Honors courses and wondered how some students ended up in that class. How can we talk about valuing equity yet allow this to happen?

I’ll end by coming back to the question I asked about in the initial thought experiment. If every student could potentially earn Honors credit by doing enough to justify that distinction, what would they have to do? Imagine having this conversation with colleagues in your district and making a combined list!

Once we have that list, two questions remain for me:

- Why don’t we start doing those things in all of our Honors courses?
- Why don’t we stop having separate Honors and regular courses and give all students opportunities to demonstrate that they deserve the distinction?

Thanks for allowing me to stand on my soapbox and let this off my chest. What do you think I’m right about? Where am I mistaken? Are there other differences between Honors and regular courses I should add to my list? Do you have suggestions for what “X, Y, and Z” should be? Please let me know in the comments.

Robert, I find the descriptions you were given about criteria for advanced classes alarming. And if that is all you’re going to do for an accelerated or advanced class, you probably should *not* be separating students.

But leaving aside the completely lame curricular goals & strategies being described (which are, on their face, self-disqualifying, in my view), there are two major holes in the one-size-fits-all approach. The first gap is that most teachers have no clue about—and are not fluent in— differentiation. Period. Full stop. We have all cringed at anecdotes about claims of reciprocal and peer teaching when in reality, what is happening is that the teacher is having strong students carry some of the load of differentiation by having **them** teach their peers. In addition, most of the so-called “rich task-based” curricular are simply NOT THAT RICH. They are extremely accessible (low floor) but talented and eager students quickly hit the ceiling and either feel trapped or bored or they act out. This is why such a huge percentage of gifted students (and especially students of color) tend to get identified as behavior problems when the truth is, they are simply not challenged and are being bored senseless.

The other thing that I have seen, in teaching at a STEM magnet school that targets underrepresented and underserved urban populations, is that if you want to have a class that you call accelerated or advanced or give additional credit for (I hate the term “honors,” but it persists), then its curriculum and expectations need to be QUALITATIVELY different and should be targeted at the different levels of readiness and commitment and challenge that many of these students are hungry to take on. And yet even in this huge school in a very large city, there remains a huge range of learners who have very great differences in readiness and interest in diving deep and staying submerged for long periods.

Having taught this population as well as the huge range of students in other schools and populations, I have found that cultivating success is qualitatively different. As Lani Horn has said when we’ve discussed this more than once, there truly are limits—and breaking points—to heterogeneity.

To restrict poor urban public school kids to vague, poorly written curricula that are delivered and differentiated badly in the name of social justice is no justice at all. I am deeply committed to the goals of social justice and inclusion through math education, but I believe that this argument is not grounded in reality.

Just my two cents.

– Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

Thanks Elizabeth. It’s clear that this is a very important point to you. Much of what you cover would be the topic of many other blog posts, so I’ll try to focus on the part that’s more specific to this post. You stated, “if you want to have a class that you call accelerated or advanced or give additional credit for (I hate the term “honors,” but it persists), then its curriculum and expectations need to be QUALITATIVELY different and should be targeted at the different levels of readiness and commitment and challenge that many of these students are hungry to take on.”

Can you articulate what that would be?

Robert, I don’t believe that “motivation” is a valuable way to think about this because it’s a slippery slope and hard to define. This is more about readiness and interest level and willingness. It’s the difference between students who want to snorkel and students who want to scuba dive. Neither is better or worse: they are just fundamentally different experiences.

Teaching at a HUGE school with a substantial population of learners who want to scuba dive rather than snorkel in math raises big issues of access and equity. If you are eager to take the second-level AP Science classes, then you need to complete the prerequisites or be in the co-enrollment math course. Forcing a one-size-fits-all policy is causing our poor students to face obstacles that are not faced by students with means (we’re over 40% FARPL). Students with the means can either go to private school or gain access through other for-pay means. Poor students are stuck with the one-size-fits-all policy. For gifted students of color, this is even more unfair.

If we had fantastic options available for a one-size-fits-all Algebra 1 class, that would be one thing. But we don’t. The implementations of CCSS Math 8 are still proving quite limited. Even strong students are arriving in 9th grade without basic standards-based skills. And the limits of heterogeneity are causing huge new systemic inequities. We now have students at different developmental levels as well as different levels of readiness and interest who are being even more poorly served than ever.

We are finding workarounds for students who want to scuba dive, but that seems to me like its own problem. We should not HAVE to waste time searching for workarounds. Workarounds are a symptom that the system is not doing what’s healthy and right for kids.

That’s my bottom line. One-size-fits-all courses are neither good for kids nor what the Common Core was meant for (see Appendix A, which gives sane, thoughtful recommendations for empowering students who want to scuba dive).

Hi Elizabeth. I’m feeling like we’re talking about different things. Let me ask you a specific question:

What are things you would value or expect from a student who wanted to demonstrate that he or she merits honors credit?

Robert, I’ve been trying to answer this question, even though it might not seem like it. 🙂 There are two pieces to my answer: the first is an accelerated mastery of the standards that are about-to-be-covered AS WELL AS a willingness/readiness to do qualitatively different work that is at a profoundly different level of depth, complexity, and challenge.

We have found that students who aren’t at the standards-based level of readiness are not well-suited to these courses. However, sometimes we find that students who ARE at this level of standards-based readiness don’t have the PERSONAL INTEREST or WILLINGNESS to do the qualitatively different work that is being asked in the “accelerated” or advanced course.

What I’m trying to say is that the distinction should not be based on “a little something extra.” I think that is wrong and discriminatory. However students who are both interested AND ready to scuba dive should be allowed to pursue this pathway.

It is frustrating to witness that students who wish to pursue these pathways are being forced to leave the public school system because they are being blocked from access to these pathways. I believe this is wrong and it’s not just a matter of giving students a few extra projects or challenges along the way.

I’m sorry I’m not able to answer this question in the way I perceive you want me to be able to answer it.

E.

I see that you are saying Elizabeth. My goal is to start a conversation about this. There are certainly many things in education to be frustrated about. I know this is not leading down the path of your ideal solution, but perhaps we can agree that whatever results from a conversation about this will be better than from not having that conversation at all.

I whole heartedly agree with Elizabeth. Often, children like my daughter do not get enough challenging opportunities through typical differentiation. I actually had a 5th grade teacher in tears because she had never taught someone as smart as my daughter. I told her that she wouldn’t be her last & she needs to come up with a plan. It is unfair to not provide students at the top with the same challenges & opportunities as those at the bottom receive regularly. Too often, teachers can’t meet the needs of exceptional children while still covering assigned academic standards despite all of their efforts.

I had an Assistant Principal ask me why I was trying to have my daughter test out of Algebra II. I asked her if she had met my daughter, as I was just trying to feed the monster. All I did was order a test. The administrator reluctantly put her in Pre-Cal as a Freshman & my daughter still was able to demonstrate mastery. Exceptional children require exceptions.

Well said. Superb!

I am doing this exact experiment right now!! Exactly! Imagine the surprise of a student in the regular Geo who passed a difficult Honor s Geo test! I did not tell my regular class that I was teaching them honors work. About the third week I had to tell them. I was so very proud of them.

You want to know the difference? It’s not intelligence. It’s work ethic. My reg class needed modeling of what an honors math lab looks like. They needed reminding to plan to study. One week they actually told me to remind them daily over the weekend to study, and I did!

We have accepted the growth mindset. They know not doing homework or practice short changes their journey to the math connection. I tell them they are standing in their own way.

Exhausting? Definitely!! Rewarding? Oh yes!

I’m keeping notes as the years goes on.

Thank you!

Hi Diana. This is indeed very interesting. Can you tell us more about the differences between what a regular math class and an Honors math class is? It sounds like one difference is that you are giving them a different test. What aspects of the test are different? For example, are there more questions? Are there harder questions? Are they expected to do more writing? Can you break this down?

Also, is that the only difference? Are there any other differences between Honors and regular classes in your school or district?

Interestingly enough our district just purchased a new math curriculum (sigh) – Among other things, there is a 7th grade Math text, and an “Accelerated” 7th grade Math text. When I was covering a teacher’s room (extended leave of absence), I discovered that the pages in the 7th grade text for multiple topics were EXACTLY the same as those in the “Accelerated” 7th grade Math text. The ONLY difference I found was that the “Accelerated” 7th grade Math text was that it’s contained one topic that was IDENTICAL to a topic in the 8th grade text. Makes you wonder what the publishers was thinking!

What an interesting observation. I’m guessing the publisher was just trying to meet a perceived request from schools.

Hi Robert! I’m a student in secondary math aspiring to be a high school teacher. My biggest thing in moving forward into that career is finding my teaching style through discovering and shaping my philosophies on education. Before reading your blog, I felt like I had a clear distinction in my mind about what makes an accelerated class different from the regular ones. Yet, when I really thought about it, I couldn’t come up with a clear argument that I actually like. It was always something along the lines of how accelerated classes move at faster pace and have students do more homework/quizzes/projects, and that was not a reason I felt was good enough to make the distinction. For if that were absolutely true, then it would bring out some really good changes in relationships between students. If we think of students processes as unique and complex, then students will benefit from hearing each other out. But if others believe a students’ mathematical thinking ability as more of a linear concept, then it would make more sense to keep the accelerated classes.

I appreciate the effort you put into bringing this question out. It’s a good read!

-Ricardo

Thanks Ricardo. I think you articulate the complexities well. The idea of what an honors class consists of is something that everyone assumes they know, but those assumptions don’t always hold up well upon further inspection. Personally, I have come to prefer going deeper than going broader (faster). That’s not as easy for the teacher though and it doesn’t seem to happen enough. Hopefully this thought experiment will be useful for groups of teachers to ponder.

In my school, we don’t have separate classes for honors. As teachers, we create the requirements for a student to receive honors credit, and any student may choose to do the honors, or not. The honors distinction is added at the end of the semester for all students who have met the requirements.

I have an honors section for my Pre-Calculus classes this year, and there are two main differences between honors and non-honors, along with some minor differences as well.

The first is that I have a more substantial rubric that I use for grading. My rubric is a 6 point scale, where the first four points are for non-honors, and the honors students are expected to score between a 3 and a 6. (Non-honors students may also score 5’s and 6’s, which will give them extra credit, but it happens regularly, I’ll push them to do the class as an honors class). The requirements for getting a 5 or a 6 involve more extensive justification, proving and deriving formulas, and getting at the “why?” questions. Students need to show they understand why their work gets them the answer. Just getting the answer, but without intentionally communicating their justification, will get them a 4.

The second difference is that honors students are required to do an extra project for each unit. For our unit on functions and function transformations, they had to demonstrate, with their own examples, six transformations on four different parent functions. They needed to communicate their reasoning in writing, graphs, numerically, and algebraically. For the unit on logarithms, they created their own slide rules using log scales, measured as accurately as possible, and then created videos to demonstrate how to use the slide rules to perform various calculations, as they described why the log scale made it possible.

This is my first year offering honors for Pre-Calculus, and so far the only part I don’t like is that some students who I really feel should be taking advantage of the honors level are not doing so. Maybe there’s something I can do for next year to explain the benefits, and how much fun the “extra work” can be. Still, I do like that it’s available to every student, and I try to encourage all students to give it a try. The worst case scenario is that they push themselves more in the non-honors class, which will lead to better understanding (and subsequently better grades).

Thanks Ethan. This is great to see that the thought experiment is actually happening in some places. Does your school have a process for determining whether a requirement for Honors is a good fit? I wonder whether having it be the decision of each individual teacher, is a good or bad thing, as one teacher’s requirements could be much more lax than another’s.

It’s done by individual teachers (because we have an unprecedented amount of autonomy at my school), but it’s reviewed by our Academic Director, and submitted/certified by UC/a-g requirements. Not sure exactly how rigorous their approval is, but it’s something. We are such a small school that in most cases, each class is only taught by one teacher. I’m the only Pre-Calculus teacher, and Pre-Calculus is the only honors class we have in math. There’s an Honors English III and Honors English IV I believe, along with Honors US History. As a school, we are very focused on a low stress environment, so implementing an honors program that honored those values is something that we do very carefully, and largely where there are requests from students/parents that are focused more on increased content/rigor rather than improved grades/getting into better schools.

This is very cool. It will be interesting to see how your method compares to what others are doing. Thanks Ethan.

Hi Robert,

My child is now in 6th grade. In 5th grade she was a first honor and did well in state test in NY.

Entering 6th grade she was NOT placed in the honors class. About 2 months later, the teacher and principal called me that she is too smart to be in the class where she is now, and that she should be transferred to the honor class where she really fits. She is really good in math with clear understanding and application of all the concepts. She was sad with this news because she has already developed some close friendships with other classmates. But I want her to be in the honor class as I know that this is where she belongs and she could be more challenged. What are your thoughts about this and please advise. Also, I want to know what do you think is the reason why this catholic school did not put her right away to the honors class upon entering grade 6 despite her qualifications? Maybe discrimination or favoritism? Time is of the essence, We need to decide in 5 days whether or not she should transfer to the honor class, and I need advise on how she will catch up fast with whatever that she has missed. thanks!

Jenny

Hi Jenny. Sorry if I responded too late. Honestly, I have no way to comment on this particular situation. I really don’t know the particulars. I’d want someone to explain to me how the two classes are different though. The questions you are asking would be good to ask them.

My experience is that many students not identified as “honors” can be motivated to put in “honors” quality effort and product when they are convinced of the importance. When students fully wrap their minds around the compelling nature of a task, they get onto it. I do think there are limits as Elizabeth mentioned, but I think many of the limitations are rooted in our ability to paint the picture of importance.

Thanks Lane. I do have concerns, as do you and Elizabeth, about the perception of motivation. For example, I’ve never been motivated to do extra mundane busy work. However, I have endless motivation for an interesting problem. So, I could simultaneously be an unmotivated and motivated Honors student.

Do you have suggestions as to what products should be required to be completed to receive Honors credit?

We know that goal setting is a good motivator. I find when students can see themselves enjoying a particular career context, they tend to be more motivated than others. So I’m thinking my honors credit would be earned through a capstone PBL involving a career exploration. Students would study the thought processes used in that career through video or job shadowing and relate the thought processes to similar thought processes used in the classroom. From there they would explore a related modeling problem (as described by the CCSS modeling progressions). I write about the connected thought processes here: https://lanewalker2013.wordpress.com/category/stem-in-algebra/

Thanks Lane. So am I correctly restating what you’re saying by saying that aside from doing a capstone project based lesson involving career exploration that would take place during the year, other areas like in-class instruction and assessments would be the same as all other students experience?

“The same” isn’t quite there because the learning experience is felt differently by different students. I’m finding when the instruction addresses the needs of the low performer (entering with many holes in basic skills) concurrently with moving forward creatively, my students are seldom bored. I seat my highest performers in power groups with lower performers; and the groups tend to spiral up together: https://lanewalker2013.wordpress.com/2015/07/29/power-groupings/ My unit assessments are the same for all but formatives can be retaken by those who take extra time to master concepts. Ultimately the high end students do not have to work as hard as the low end, but low end has been at grade level and the high end advanced by the end of the year. Offering those high end students honors credit for a capstone project is an idea I like thinking about (thank you for that!)

I’m actually the Open Honors coordinator at my school. Students can choose to take any class for Honors credit, which shows up on their transcript and factors into their GPA. In math, students need to complete harder problems that build more connections between concepts on every major assignment. They also need to participate in peer tutoring.

Hi Julia. Thanks for chiming in to the conversation. Can you tell us more about what “harder problems that build more connections between concepts on every major assignment” look like? I don’t want to make any assumptions and would love it if you had one or more examples to share.

I have recently been reading Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown’s book “Multipliers” and wondered how one of the underlying premises, how “people are often overworked and underutilized” applies to your questions of how honors students are taught relative to mainstream students. When working with middle schoolers, I find it is not always about what the students’ know (their expertise if you will) but how much access a teacher can direct students to pull from other students. Sort of a multiplier effect instead of an additive effect on the classroom experience. As the diversity of experiences and perspectives are collected, reacted to, and harnessed to solve problems, the learning in that classroom can feel exponential. One would think that this experience would be easier to create in a compliant honors classroom instead of a mainstream classroom. Honors classes come with a majority of students willing to do the work consistently and are comfortable with self-expression within an academic environment making it easy for a teacher to accelerate the ideas covered. Acceleration seems the be the pragmatic driver to honors classes. Acceleration is easy to measure relative to other classes, use a different textbook, and you have lots of superficial evidence that those honors kids are doing something different. Yet, because of the pacing you create a need to cheat and/or specialize early in their learning careers, or burn-out altogether. On the other hand, if these compliant, knowledgeable, academically comfortable honors students are embedded into mainstream classes, they could rectify the brain-drain, model positive academic behavior, tutor, or carry weaker students in collaborative learning structures. Yet some would argue that a great deal of the honors student’s time would be spent providing classroom management reinforcement. I wonder if that view of honors students is an additive view. After all, in my case, these students are just 11-13 year olds.

There has to be questions that a teacher could ask that do not provide the honors students any particular advantage. They would have to explore or research the same pathways, learn to communicate the same ideas, and make the same connections. In some cases the honors students would move faster but not always. And this speed of learning changes its expression from one honors group to another. Could this still lead to a “one size fits all” model where no one’s learning is anything but mediocre? Yeah. But what if, this heterogeneous class is reconstituted based on student goals. Differentiated in such a way that honors levels can be achieved when desired and honors designation is an accumulation of efforts over the course of the semester.

Honors efforts could be measured by identifying and communicating the main or significant connections between ideas more reliably, creatively connecting and/or applying an idea to a novel situation, extending an idea or identifying how an idea is utilized in a real setting, or occasionally taking on leadership roles in the problem solving process. There are icons of depth and complexity in GATE instruction that could offer structures and guide student responses. After all, are we not providing honors level study to create leaders and address ambition. Yet, I can still hear the critics. Students will have differing developmental levels, different levels of readiness, different levels of ambition (interest). But I have never experienced a job where that was not true. Are there honors Barnes & Nobles or Stater Bros? Are employees grouped into highly effective easy to manage Nordstroms and mainstream Nordstroms? Only in academia are students regularly sub-grouped? Maybe we have trapped ourselves in our need to understand through classifying, categorizing, decomposing, and identifying. We have created an artificial binary system by placing too much value to the grades we give. What if we set an effort standard and when it is reliably meet, we offer the next level or an alternate application. Time then would be the only constraint. Grades would be set aside for lists of targets meet. Passing would be a matter of accumulating enough of those targets. Honors would be defined as collecting enough targets of a certain type. You could even offer different types of honors targets – leadership honor, artistic honor, subject specific honor, community honor. Instead of over-working the student body in the hope we have covered enough ideas that they cannot possibly fail and betray the GPA we collectively gave them, we utilize student interest and exploration to create a portfolio of achievement or lack thereof.

Wow Tim. There’s a lot to take in here. What first steps would you suggest to make it actionable? I think that many of your points seem worthwhile, but I am trying to find the space between important yet achievable and something actionable that we can build from.

Yes, actionable – pragmatic. What could we build from to create an honors level of achievement instead of an honors class? I am working with a middle school that has, on it own, become enthusiastic about standards-based grading. There are a few math teachers that have read “Rethinking Grading – Meaningful Assessment for Standards-based Learning” by Cathy Vatterott. One of the central tenets of this work is that students need to be provided with tasks on a cyclical basis that they can complete to prove they are capable of a particular standard or group of standards. They along with their teachers can track their progress toward a standard and can earn recognition of achieving a goal whenever it occurs. This, at a grassroots level, can reorder the traditional assumptions that many teachers have about working with their students instead of for their students. It can move their assessment practices away from work ethic and habit to what is actually learned. It can pave a new path to honors as a level of achievement instead of a special group in a special room with a select group of teachers. It directs educational judgement at what is being learned instead of how it is learned or who is doing the learning. Standards-based grading does not have to be a dramatic (“all -in”) structrual change. It probably shouldn’t be. Teachers need to learn how to provide multiple opportunities to prove competence throughout a course of study. Teachers will need to learn to notice which tasks catch the attention of many students or which students respond to which learning challenges. They may see that ambition is not as easily and clearly a consequence of compliance as it is a consequence of interest and opportunity.

I wonder if the levels of achievement as described by the IB criterion would help distinguish “honors” level work. (Caveat – I’m currently anti-“honors” as a descriptor for math courses or levels of achievement/mastery; still, I want to engage around the broader philosophies and implementations thereof.) If you look at the criterion based assessment of IB tasks, you’ll notice that performance on particular kinds of tasks dictate the level of achievement. For example, being able to earn 90% on computational tasks that are simple and familiar is not the same as earning 90% accuracy on tasks that are challenging and unfamiliar. The former indicates mastery of the mundane – a VERY important level of achievement and adequate for moving on to topics that hinge on those skills. However, the latter indicates that the student can apply these skills outside of familiar contexts. This too is highly valued by teachers, but not achievable by all students all the time. I’ve been able to write assessments (graded and not) with questions in these four levels: 1) Simple and familiar, 2) Challenging and familiar, 3) Simple and unfamiliar, 4) Challenging and Unfamiliar. (I go back and forth between the middle levels and which represents a higher level of mastery.) Students know which questions fall into each category and they can still earn around 90-95% without getting any of the tasks in category 4.

One sentence in your post strikes me first “How can we talk about valuing equity yet allow this to happen?”

Some of the comments address this; some not. I think it is the most important question raised by your post.

One thing we math teachers could easily do is quantify the demographics (specifically race) of our Honors classes and Mainstream classes. I predict our Honors numbers would be wildly skewed toward majority students.

I understand your stated aim “If every student could potentially earn Honors credit by doing enough to justify that distinction, what would they have to do?”

Perhaps you could start a side project collecting the racial composition of Honors classes. That data might enrich this conversation.

Thanks Seth. I definitely see your perspective and I hadn’t considered demographics as intentionally as you did. I appreciate you bringing this to my attention and I will make sure I consider this going forward.

I just saw a link to this post from @robertqberry (NCTM President-Elect) on Twitter. My own experience with Honors high school math as a parent is disquieting. My older son was top of his grade in math in 5th grade, placed in a very fast math course for 6th grade (top 10% by state standardized testing), then put in supposedly fast-track Common Core math for 7th & 8th grade, which repeated a lot of the same content, especially in 7th. By 8th he was bored with math and school and also pretty depressed. He got a B because of spotty homework completion and some careless mistakes on tests, which put him in the non-Honors class for Geometry in 9th grade (though a year ahead of the standard track). He excelled in Geometry with ease and got an A. But he wouldn’t have been put in Honors second-year Algebra except that I asked an administrator (nicely!) about it during registration. Somewhat to my surprise, she took my word for it that he was suited for it and switched him to Honors on the spot. To this day he thinks his Geometry teacher recommended him for it (I didn’t lie about it, but I didn’t correct the assumption, either, because it gave him more faith in HS math and it was true his Geometry teacher would have supported the move).

It was the right placement for him based on math knowledge, and he did fine (good learning, & A), which didn’t surprise me. But I still feel kind of guilty because I know damn well that if I didn’t have the sense of privilege to ask for that placement, it wouldn’t have happened. I wonder how many other Honors placements are more due to the parents than the teachers and kids.

Thanks for sharing this story, Julie. Being a parent sure can be filled with challenging decisions. I’m glad you found a way to navigate this tricky situation.

The difference between my regular and honors level geo classes is the expectation in honors to recall/use higher level algebra skills without warning (i.e. solving system of equations, quadratic formulas, simplifying radicals, and even factoring when working with angle of elevation/depression problems. We also move at a slightly faster pace.

Thanks. What are your feelings about these differences?

The catch phrases and buzz words are infuriating. We need less talk, more real thought in our schools. I encounter too many teachers that believe that honors equals more work. Or, that believe that honors students should self-teach (mislabeled as self-guide). They use the phrase “same material in greater depth and with faster pace.” But cannot explain the depth (one said “It’s a rigorous class and I require them to think” as an explanation).

So, what follows are my thoughts.

A key for “Honors” math students- this is not about a kids who are more motivated, it is about kids who are intrinsically more apt at learning and implementing math. Being more apt tends to make the student more interested, especially working out problems that they have been properly guided on. Many honors students reject busy work: mundane, repetitive, flat work. They strive to grasp and execute. Pace can be increased for them because they usually grasp new concepts quickly. The instruction needed may be different than a typical student since they tend to need less repetition and attention to mundane instructional details. Gifted math instruction should not skip the key step of introducing a new concept by explaining the process in full and working through example problems.

Now, depth is the trickier part. How to add depth without repetition and monotony. Maybe more practical applications? The deeper connection of real life applications is lacking in math, it should not be limited to honors but maybe that is where the push should begin. But the real life applications must be interesting and actual, physical problems to solve. Play a game of pool, use tools and take notes, but actually play the game. Build a box, mulch a garden, etc. How to actually implement this? Table pool, model houses, etc. Ask parents to be involved, see if kids can come up with things from around their house that might relate that could be shared. Physical connections are true depth, something that cannot be achieved by working out more problems on paper.

These thoughts are a work in progress and I appreciate any input on where I may be off. I know that my thoughts in no way address a deep issue in our current educational system that some have stated – the huge socioeconomic inequality in educational opportunities. Real life implementation of math problems is unlikely in a school that can barely afford enough desks for pupils.

Maybe I should have worded it more like:

“Being more apt tends to make the student more interested, especially working out problems that they have been properly guided on. They strive to grasp and execute. Many honors students reject busy work: mundane, repetitive, flat work. The instruction needed may be different than a typical student since they tend to need less repetition and attention to mundane instructional details. Pace can be increased for them because they usually grasp new concepts quickly. But gifted math instruction should not skip the key step of introducing a new concept by explaining the process in full and working through example problems. ”

I don’t know. Most of this really does overlap with how everyone should be taught. But, if we are to have honors classes then I just do not want to see any more non teaching, busy work heavy, buzz word filled junk.

Hi Shana. Thanks for sharing this. I appreciate your comment about this being a work in progress. Shoot. If this was easy to figure out, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.

In general, the thought that I think merits reflection is this: “The deeper connection of real life applications is lacking in math, it should not be limited to honors but maybe that is where the push should begin.” I truly do believe that context should be a part of ALL learning for ALL learners. In fact, learning based primarily in abstraction is challenging for everyone. Imagine trying to learn how to drive a car when you’ve never seen a car?!

Again, I don’t have the answers either, but we have to challenge our assumptions like you are doing bravely, by example.

My lord, reading your info and watching some of your videos, I can see that my thoughts are more just reactionary to encountered teaching deficits on a basic level. Some people have a more natural ability to explain and teach math and can see the possibilities as you do, can teachers that do not come naturally to basic math instruction adjust?

Additionally, looking at our approach to education, do you think that our division of learning by subject matter could be creating a less than optimal potential for deeper knowledge? Math is such an intrinsic part of every aspect of our perceived reality yet we teach it as separate. If we stopped planting and tending individual subjects hoping for equal sized vines of knowledge and instead taught more as the world really is, an intertwined, cohesive living body with math as its vital organs and blood then maybe we could more easily obtain depth and connection of our learning to the world we live in.

You raise some good points. First, don’t be tricked into thinking I’m any sort of expert. Here’s my math story if you want a long read: robertkaplinsky.com/my-math-story/

The short version is that nothing has come naturally to me. I am motivated by the reality that I never understood math as a student. I got a C in Algebra and repeated a math class in college. Now that I know that math can make sense, I vow to spend the rest of my life having others not feel that way.

Regarding our approach to education, that reminds me of this blog post: http://robertkaplinsky.com/food-for-thought/. Keeping things separated can be bad. Of course that is balanced by the reality that it’s hard enough to be knowledgeable in one subject, let alone many. Elementary teachers have (BY FAR!) the hardest job in K-12 education.

So, not a lot of solutions for you, but we need to be having these conversations in our schools, districts, and communities.

I’m a parent who came across this. My daughter’s high school is now “all honors” every class -including health- is honors and all students in 9th and 10th grade have been put into honors level classes. The PTSA is trying to get a handle on it and I wondered what you make of it? Both the parents and the teachers seem unhappy to have it sprung on them and the school administrators are being a bit evasive about what prep they did for this change. Its a big suburban school in the Northwest. The teachers who have no background in teaching honors were not given additional training. All teachers got training on how to handle “issues” that come up when you have below to above grade level students in your class over the summer.

At first they said everyone was getting an honors curriculum and being graded the same. Now they are saying for some classes kids there may be a choice of different levels of activities (eg. an books that are different difficulty levels) for students to read but everyone’s grade will depend on the quality of the paper based on the activity.

Some students say that they are finishing after 20 minutes classwork and told just to sit there doing nothing for the rest of the class period while the teacher works with other students and some teachers seem to be very stressed and disorganized (e.g. not telling students there is a science test until the day before the test). Any thoughts?

It sounds like you are asking the right questions. Obviously I don’t know the specifics of this situation, but based on what you’re saying, it seems like a dialogue with the goal of getting everyone on the same page would be beneficial. Good luck.

At my school, the honors classes are called compression. The curriculum is compressed to move faster through the topics which results in shallower understanding in my opinion. The students are expected to do more homework and to work more quickly which in my opinion means they learn more simply because they are spending more time interacting with the concepts and material.

Thanks for adding your school’s situation, Karen. That doesn’t sound particularly ideal either.

I teach both a CP and Pre AP Math 1 9th grade class. Other than a computer based Math program for a few (about 50 kids) low performing students (9th only), these are the only two options for students. In my CP classes I have students who are borderline Pre AP students, EL’s, resource students who have 5th and 6th grade math ability and then everything in – between. The move lately has been to stop tracking kids, because by not giving access to CP classes ( in other words placing them in basic classes) students will not be able to complete the A – G requirements for college. But I don’t know how one can effectively teach a class of 35 – 38 students with such a wide range of ability levels. To say we need to differentiate instruction sounds good on paper, but isn’t based in reality…..not with class sizes of 35+. What ends up happening is teachers find themselves teaching to the middle. Trying to keep the more capable math students interested while at the same time pulling the lower kids along, We do a tremendous disservice to the “True CP ” student when this happens.

I understand the need to give all kids access to CP and AP classes. But to have a one size fits all approach isn’t the way to go in my opinion. There are so many other factors that we as teachers can’t control that are in play. Motivation, perseverance, parental involvement, etc. I teach in a school that is about 60% low SES.

I teach the same curriculum to both classes, with “Honors Tasks” added to some of the Pre AP modules. I am able to move at a faster pace because most of those students have the pre-requisite skills needed prior to coming into the class. Some review here and there is needed, but for the most part we can focus on new concepts. My CP class has about 1/3 of the kids with the necessary skills as they come in and 2/3 do not. Nearly 50% of incoming 9th graders come to us with a D or F in their 8th grade math class. And yet they are all supposed to be in the same class?

Many say we shouldn’t track and yet all would agree that there should be AP classes. They admit there is need for a different level in that regard…..but everyone else fits into the CP option? I just can’t believe that can be the best way to serve all of our kids.

I hope this response doesn’t read like a rant. It’s not meant to be. But it’s something I, and many others, struggle with year in and year out. I’m curious how many others do as well? How many feel a one size fits all is the way to go?

Thanks.

I can appreciate the struggle you describe, Jim. This post isn’t meant to be about a one size fits all approach. It is meant to be a thoughtful discussion about the ways we support our students who need more of a challenge. I find that the methods vary greatly, and without strong rationale to support it.

I think the thought experiment of “if every student could potentially earn Honors credit by doing enough to justify that distinction, what would they have to do?” helps make that discovery easier to frame.

So, that’s my main concern.

Hi Robert, I can’t believe I’m still thinking about this! I’m piloting CPM this year, and it took me awhile to figure out how it works. It would be easy to have honors CPM classes inside regular because the lessons are all low-floor, high-ceiling. Strategic grouping enables slower processors to have the time they want to reflect and faster processors to be able to blast through to difficult questions together. Slower processors see the products from faster processors and may be motivated to think through the night before so they could team up with faster processors and add their creative reflections. Whether or not a student achieves the honors grade could be whatever the standard for that is.

Thanks Lane. This sounds like a potentially very promising approach. I hope you and your students find it to be successful.

I found this blog while researching “honors math”, which my son is currently testing to qualify for. I think the main concept here is misrepresented, or I’m not understanding it fully. From your post I would assume that anyone who performs well can “get into” honors math, please correct me if I’m wrong. It’s more like a description of accelerated math programs (elementary thru JHS) or AP (advanced placement) for HS students, or am I misunderstanding it? In our district to qualify for HM student needs to pass following state tests:

1. score over 90 on the performance tests,

2. all students who scored over 90 can be tested through CogAT test,

3. students who pass CogAT test qualify for IOWA test,

4. Students who pass performance tests, CogAT and IOWA test and get qualifying feedback from primary math teacher will be placed in the Honors Math.

As hard as it sounds, I think it is pretty fair. It is elusive club and not everyone belong there, and none should be offended by not getting in. Personally I have a hard time deciding if I want my son to be in HM or not. He’s in multiple sports and right now he’s happy with his school/activities balance, I’m afraid that he may get overwhelmed with additional work or discouraged. I don’t want him to drop in the performance in other classes if he will start getting more homework and more assignments in HM. I would love for him to be successful, but I even more want for him to be happy.

From the comments I could gather that more people have the same understanding of the HM concept as you, does it mean that some of the school district have “easier” way into honors math (not easy, just easier than state tests that I described above)? That would be actually better for the students and more accurate. I know that in our SD honors math programs end with junior high, starting in HS they have Advanced Placement classes that they get into by teacher recommendation rather than testing.

Robert Kaplinsky, thank you for inviting us to think about the difference between ‘honors’ and ‘regular’ math classes. As I understand (if I understand) it, the question to consider is “Is there a difference?” and “If so, what is it?” Or, “If there is a difference between honors and regular, is it a meaningful difference?”

I hope to engage productively in this thought experiment, so I want to make sure I understand the fundamental question you pose. Please do correct my misconceptions.

Kate Rizz

Instructional Coach

Education Facilitator

In a way, both of those are valid possibilities. Many schools/districts do not have a consistent difference between honors and regular classes (as it varies from teacher to teacher). Even when it’s consistent from teacher to teacher, it’s not clear that it is always a meaningful difference.

It will also take people to a place where they realize that they have different definitions of what “meaningful” means. Is having different tests meaningful? Is covering topics from the next year meaningful? Is using different problems meaningful?

It’s a complex conversation.

I think the real difference is application to a new problem… Very DOK 4… but the only way to make this happen is to differentiate within the classroom: whether it is grade-level, enhanced/honors, or the hybrid-mixed; in a way that provides every student with the opportunity to show what they know on a higher level… holding high expectations for ALL student success… this means that teachers need to truly get what grade-level, meeting the standards, looks like; and what exceeding looks like… And this distinction needs to be clearly, and transparently communicated to students and parents. Helping teachers experience the distinction with professional development which models lessons with differentiation in order for ALL students to meet the grade level standards and then provides choice for a true DOK 4 application to earn the “honors” or exceeds grade/bump, etc.

In an effort to help you think about this deeply, does this imply that students who are not in honors classes will not have access to DOK 4 problems? To me, DOK 4 problems in math class tend to be mathematical modeling problems. I certainly hope that these are being used in ALL math classes.

Equity is a huge issue. Success-oriented parents (college graduates, higher socio-economic status) think all of their children are honors material and complain if their children are put in with “regular” kids, so the ability groupings are always suspect anyway. Students of color and lower socio-economic backgrounds are always under-represented, regardless of ability, which exacerbates the divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

This is certainly part of the problem. It’s such a complex issue and we (educators) have set up structures that make it challenging for all students to reach their potential.

How do your thoughts change when it comes to accelerated/honors at the middle school level? In my opinion, I can see true differences in those. The 6th and 7th grade honors courses accelerate the material to allow students adequate content exposure (the fidelity of this is debateable) to be successful at Algebra 1 prior to high school. Not all students should be placed into these courses, as most students need the full middle school math course progression experience to be prepared for success in Algebra 1. Wondering your thoughts around this area.

While every situation is different, in general I think that there is PLENTY of content in 6th grade and 7th grade to take a whole year. I think the murky part is around what it looks like when students have mastery of a topic. For example, I could “teach” 6th grade multiple ways. There are so many rich problems teachers could do with more time. Sometimes it feels like accelerating students feels like running on water: fast but not deep. Personally, I’d love to spend a whole year on one grade level and go even deeper with students who need more challenge.