Honors Classes and the Common Core

Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards for Math, does not include a  pathway for “honors classes.”  The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) recently released a book, Catalyzing Change, which describes the inequity of segregating students  such that some have access to higher order thinking in honors classes, while others do not. Once students are segregated, it is very difficult for them to ever bridge that gap as they proceed through the grades.  Robert Berry, President of the NCTM, recently published a letter to the editor in Education Week  reinterating these concerns. Robert Kaplinsky’s blog post on this topic received feedback for 18 months.  There is a growing consensus to consider more equitable options.

When Robert Kaplinsky published his blog post about honors classes, I was just getting my feet wet with an inquiry learning algebra textbook and didn’t really understand how that book I was piloting was building knowledge.  Now that I get it, I see a huge potential to increase equity for students who don’t seem like “honors students.”

While there are definitely students who can master higher levels and volumes of certain material within a finite period of time, we would not want to impede students from taking an honors class because of their current track.  Once a student is tracked, though, they are disadvantaged in terms of opportunities to experience honors depth of challenge and information.  Generally speaking, to leap from one track to another is more difficult than chugging along the same path.  Besides, homogeneous groups tend to reinforce homogeneous behavior. Yet students’ minds grow. Students can change their work ethics.

One powerful strategy to move students towards challenging classes is to offer support classes.  For example, the district where I work offers an advanced placement (AP) support class so that students taking their first AP class have an extra hour each day to sort out the path to success.  Most recently, I have discovered another path I have yet to see discussed thoroughly in public media:  inquiry-based work teams with low-floor, high-ceiling tasks every day.  Classes organized with inquiry-based work teams have the potential for wiping out the need for tracks altogether, as well as a host of other advantages.

With a well-written inquiry resource, students who process quickly extend their learning to increasingly more difficult material as they proceed through problems within the same lesson. With a resource like I’m using*, I see no need for honors classes.  Any student in the class could earn the honors point by reaching the deeper problems at the end of each lesson, for example, 50 percent of the time; and/or earn the point by assessment performance.

Strategic grouping for work teams enables slower processors to have the time they want to reflect together; and enables faster processors to get to richer questions further into the lesson. Slower processors see the products from groups of faster processors in the same class and could potentially be motivated to preview the night before so they could team up with faster processors.  Slower reflectors often develop unique approaches; and given time to think ahead, they could add their creative insights to a faster-paced group.  I am wondering if the opportunity to join a friend in a faster group could help motivate such previews, but I haven’t seen that happen yet.  The down side of being so careful not to label groups as slow or fast is that students may not see the path to depth (faster groups).  One of my goals for this year is to solve that puzzle.

Having assigned roles within teams adds another layer of potential.  As students practice leadership roles, they sense themselves as powerful.  They see the effect they are having on other students who need a little extra support (and we all need extra support sometimes).  A few of my students will be jumping tracks next year because, by explaining to and coaching others, they have enriched their own understanding to honors quality. As they pushed others, they learned to push themselves.

Considering such resources have been available for decades, one can only wonder why it is taking us math teachers so long to figure this out.  How many students could have delved much deeper into mathematics to see the beauty while they were young? In the age of NCTM, #MTBoS, and #iteachmath, why are these ideas so slow to proliferate?  Is it because of the concerns expressed by direction instruction advocates?  I think we all need to be talking to each other more.

*I’m using CPM, but I’ve also read good things about Illustrative Mathematics and Exeter. One must consider reading levels of their students when choosing an inquiry resource.



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