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.



  1. 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.


          • 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!


    • 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.

  4. 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!


        • 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.