When "Honors" is a Bad Word

By Jane Weinkrantz

               I have been teaching honors classes nearly every year since I started in Plainview Old- Bethpage and, as I celebrate my 15th year in this profession, I am more confused than ever about what that word is supposed to mean. I suspect the same confusion exists among many of my colleagues and the administrators who are our supervisors.

            The most commonly understood model of an honors class is one in which the students are more intelligent than their peers.  Therefore, an honors curriculum is more challenging and is intended for a student who can grasp abstract and complex ideas and respond to them intellectually. Additionally, the teacher of an honors class might assign more work , making the assumption that honors students read faster, write better, compute more accurately and, in general, perform their academic tasks more effectively than non-honors students.

            Teachers of honors students also seem to take the word “honors” literally. Often when a teacher encounters a student hitting a new low in the area of dishonesty or plagiarism, disruptive behavior, lack of responsibility or a less than satisfactory work ethic, that teacher will say to a colleague, “And this child is an honors student? Can you imagine?” as though placement in an honors course guaranteed, if not, motivation, then at least maturity. Or maybe even  some sort of …well… honor.

            Then, there are those who believe that the word honors is synonymous with interest not  aptitude i.e., if a student really, really likes a discipline and enjoys it, that student should be placed in an honors class. In this case, it would seem more appropriate to teach  a class called  not English Honors but, English Enthusiasts.

           Finally, there are those, often parents, who believe an honors student is one who is not permitted to get a bad or even average grade. Stamped with the school’s imprimatur of “honors,” such students can’t earn less than a 90. Ever. If they do, it must be the teacher’s failure to recognize the student’s potential  and implicit membership in the elite.  Those who ascribe to this model are usually cynics who will tell you that honors kids are all competing against each other for admission to the same super-selective colleges and that they must “play the game.”  Some even excuse cheating with the same logic. Therefore, a teacher who gives only honest, not spectacular, grades must be a spoilsport who is not invested in a child’s success.

            With all these different definitions, is it any wonder that the district’s policy of encouraging students to “self-select” honors classes is causing confusion and disappointment. Self –selection means that if a student wants to be in an honors class, he or she is. In the past, test scores, past performance and teacher recommendations were the determining factors in admittance to an honors class. Now wishing makes it so. Students are encouraged to register for as many honors classes as possible in order to increase their chances of admission to a prestigious college. While some students may get a chance to push themselves, for others this may prove damaging if their hopes were raised only to fail at something they had never evidenced the ability for in the first place. For teachers of regular track classes, self-selection means that students and parents look at their work with a certain disdain as though the only real learning goes on in an honors class. For average kids in a regular track class, there are fewer class sections as more honors sections are created, so the remaining regular classes are filled to the brim. For collaborative students, there are fewer good role models for them to emulate and their class sizes are on the rise as well.

 To sweeten the pot, honors and advanced placement grades are weighted on final transcripts in order to boost a student’s average for taking the course. Just as the true meaning of honors eludes me, the weighting of these grades confuses me. Is it like a favor from a wedding or bar mitzvah? As a souvenir, are students essentially given transcripts with extra points that say, “I was willing to sit through Beowulf?” If you presume that honors students are brighter than the rest, it makes no sense to give them extra points for doing what they are naturally capable of. If you presume that honors students are more virtuous and honorable  than other students, should character be rewarded with points? If you presume that the students are more motivated and enthusiastic about the discipline than non-honors students, shouldn’t learning be its own reward?

            Only if you recognize the final possible profile of an honors student  as “one who can’t get a low grade because he or she is very ambitious ,” do these bonus points make sense. And if that’s the case, should we really call knuckling under pressure and inflated expectations honor? I don’t think so.        


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