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Who Needs Honors Courses? Try Everyone.

By Jay Mathews
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The honors course was once a vital part of American high schools, respected by all. That is changing fast, both in the Washington area and around the country, and many students and their parents are upset about it.

School districts are replacing honors studies with more strenuous, college-level Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge courses. Ambitious students who have already signed up for several of these demanding courses and are hoping to take the less terrifying honors option in some subjects find they must choose between other AP courses or rudimentary regular courses. Their parents are filling PTA e-mail lists with complaints. The situation is tough, but are honors courses really worth saving?

Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Rappahannock counties have decreed that if they provide a college-level course in, say, American history, the less-challenging honors version is not necessary, leaving as the only alternative the regular course -- seen by many students and their families as a refuge for slackers and malcontents.

One Fairfax County parent told me that when her son -- with a full load of science and math AP courses -- was stuck taking the regular U.S. history course, he was bored. Regular U.S. history, she said, "was so easy that he did his calculus homework in class."

Many parents and students tell similar stories, a reflection of the class divide -- as in middle class vs. working class -- that has been a staple of American high school culture since getting a diploma became everybody's goal. This has inspired cinematic portrayals of tumultuous teenage intercaste romances such as the John Hughes-written "Pretty in Pink." Some parents still fear that if their college-bound kids mix with students from the lower social strata in regular classes, they risk being robbed of their lunch money or developing an unhealthy interest in auto mechanics as a career option.

In the hands of determined and talented teachers, honors classes can be as challenging as AP courses. But in many schools, I have found courses with the honors label deteriorating into little more than free periods for middle-class students.

Is there a solution? There is, and it starts with the remarkable work of Jack Esformes, a teacher of government who retired in 1999 from T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. The Esformes approach would not only save the honors course but help U.S. high schools break out of a record slump in which no significant average reading or math gains have been achieved in more than 30 years.

Esformes did not believe in the separation of regular and AP students. He tossed both into his government classes. Each of his five 28-student sections each year had seven AP students, who were delighted to be taught by someone with such a great AP track record, and 21 frequently resentful regular students, many from low-income families, who were taking government only because Virginia would not let them graduate without it.

In 25 years of hanging around high schools, I have never seen another teacher do this. Mixing regular and AP students is generally thought to make no more sense than recruiting Latin club members for the ice hockey team. But Esformes made it work. He broke each class into small groups of AP and regular students. Together, they analyzed intriguing constitutional cases, such as what the mayor of a small town should do if the Ku Klux Klan asked to march in the town's Fourth of July parade. The AP students got more homework than the regular students got, but in class the AP kids soon realized that the regular kids were full of insights derived from their different backgrounds, and the regular kids saw that the AP kids were not any smarter but just worked harder. Some of the regulars switched to AP. Esformes's room hummed with intense discussions of freedom of assembly, the filibuster and reserved powers.

Esformes insisted he was not a genius. He just did not believe in segregating students by class or race. So my question to those schools cutting honors courses is: Why not cut the regular courses instead? Esformes's regular students were getting, in effect, an honors-class education and liking it. Why should honors kids or regular kids have to be bored?

Slap that honors-class sticker on any course that is the alternative to AP, IB or Cambridge. The book-smart kids can keep their honors classes. The street-smart kids will be likely to be motivated, as Esformes's regular students were, by trading ideas with the class brains and getting much better teaching. And more motivated students mean fewer discipline problems.

There are more than enough talented honors-class teachers to bring this off. Assume, as Esformes did, that students from every part of the demographic curve have the intellectual ability to handle a challenging and vibrant class, and maybe our high schools will finally rise out of their long slumber and show us what every kid can do.

The writer covers schools for The Post. His e-mail address ismathewsj@washpost.com.

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