Recently, my community began the process of eliminating high school honors classes. Most of this post is my letter on the subject to the board of education, lightly edited, divided by topic, and provided with illustrations. I thought about including additional research, but I think what I included initially is probably enough to get my point across.
Before I get into the subject, I’ll offer a few words about myself since none of you know who I am, and my experience is relevant to the point I’m going to make.
I am a product of Culver City schools (CCHS class of 1974). The school system prepared me well for UCLA, where I was an English major and also where I earned my teaching credentials (single subject credentials in English and Social Studies). My career spanned thirty-six years in three districts. I started at John Muir Junior High in LAUSD teaching English, US History, and ASB (one semester). For the next year and a half, I worked in CCUSD (some day-to-day subbing and two long term assignments, one in US government, economics, and ASB, and one in English). I also restarted the forensics (competitive speaking) program. I would have stayed in Culver City, but it didn’t have a permanent assignment for me at that point. Beverly Hills did, and that’s where I ended up for the next thirty-four years.
After a brief stint as Director of Forensics (teaching competitive speaking and public speaking, as well as English), I moved to a full-time English position. During my time at Beverly Hills High School, I taught classes at all four grade levels and geared to a wide variety of different ability abilities. I also served in a wide variety of capacities outside the classroom, including Coordinator of Honors and AP English as well as English Department Chair.
These roles gave me access to data far beyond my own classroom. I received an even broader exposure to the school and the district from my participation on Secondary Education Council (advising the principal), the Superintendent’s Advisory Council, and the Superintendent’s Academic Advisory Group (same kind of thing, but under two different superintendents), as well as my work with the teacher’s union, including a stint as Director-at-Large for the high school.
In other words, I have a fair amount of experience and have seen a lot of data, predominately related to high school English but with a good amount of information from other disciplines and levels as well.
As a result of my experience, I have some concerns about the elimination of honors English and the proposed elimination of other honors classes going forward.
Controversy Regarding Ability Grouping
I am well aware that some people are skeptical about classes grouped by ability, and there are certainly studies that oppose the practice. On that subject, I’d recommend the article at here, a 2021 piece from the Brookings Institution that outlines some of the problems involved in that kind of analysis.
Basically, the issue has been debated for over a century, hundreds of studies have been done–and the evidence on the effects of ability grouping is still unclear. Why is that? As with all educational research, it’s very hard to exclude all confounding variables (other factors that could influence the results). Every student is different. Every teacher is different. Every school community is different.
Back in 1992, Kulik and Kulik performed a meta analysis of the data on ability grouping available at that time. I’ve quoted the abstract from their analysis in full below (emphasis added).
Meta-analytic reviews have focused on five distinct instructional programs that separate students by ability: multilevel classes, cross-grade programs, within-class grouping, enriched classes for the gifted and talented, and accelerated classes. The reviews show that effects are a function of program type. Multilevel classes, which entail only minor adjustment of course content for ability groups, usually have little or no effect on student achievement. Programs that entail more substantial adjustment of curriculum to ability, such as cross-grade and within-class programs, produce clear positive effects. Programs of enrichment and acceleration, which usually involve the greatest amount of curricular adjustment, have the largest effects on student learning. These results do not support recent claims that no one benefits from grouping or that students in the lower groups are harmed academically and emotionally by grouping.
I can’t find other material I used to have from the same analysis, but I recall that Kulik and Kulik, lamenting the limitations of most studies, called for more comprehensive studies. (Larger studies might conceivably produce more conclusive data by allowing comparison of a wider variety of different schools and situations.) To the best of my knowledge, no such study has yet occurred, partially because it would be more expensive, but also because some researchers have mistakenly concluded that the subject is already settled.
The Brookings articles provide two interesting examples of how confounding variables can reduce the value of a study: Burris, Heubter, and Levin (2006), and Boaler and Staples (2008).
In the former case, the use of Nassau, an atypically wealthy community with an atypically low number of struggling students, raises some question about whether the reform (detracking middle school math) would lead to the same result (increasing enrollment in higher level math courses in high school, especially for students of color and disadvantaged students) in other settings. It’s easier to remediate a small number of students (6%) in a regular class environment than it would be to remediate the more typical 39% that way—particularly in a district that probably has smaller than average class sizes to begin with. (Average secondary class size in California is about 29, tied for the highest in the nation; in New York, it’s 21. Let that sink in for a minute.)
In the case of Boaler and Staples, the school that had the best results of the three studied implemented heterogeneous classes but also implemented several other reforms (everything from block scheduling to significant revisions in curriculum). How much of the improvement was caused by heterogeneous grouping? It’s impossible to tell.
Data May Be Relevant in Some Situations but Not Others
What do we learn from these examples? That one reason for getting divergent results from educational research is not that the results are invalid per se, but that they are situational in nature. In other words, what works well in one school may not get the same result in another. That’s why it’s important to tailor programs to the specific needs of the district. I’ve seen this pattern over and over again with data derived from different schools—it produces inconsistent results because different schools are, well, different. I’ve also seen programs that worked really well in one school fail miserably in another.
Given what I’ve just said, you might be inclined to discount my other arguments because most of my background was at Beverly Hills High School. That’s a legitimate concern. But it’s important to recognize that Beverly Hills is far different from its stereotypes. Though BHHS officially is 70% white, as opposed to 24% at CCHS, at least half of that 70% is composed of groups that often don’t identify as white, Persians being the largest (over 30% of the total, though I’m not sure what the exact figure is now.) As a consequence, BHHS is the only school I know of that has what amounts to a student holiday on Nowruz (Persian New Year).
Also, BHHS has historically had a fairly large percentage of students not born in the US, though I believe this has diminished somewhat in recent years. When I left, over fifty home languages were represented at the high school. Historically, BHHS had a larger EL population than any other comparably affluent community, though the percentage of EL students has also declined in recent years. Many of these families came to the US as refugees originally, and some of them came with almost nothing and essentially had to restart their lives. This isn’t exactly the way people visualize the student population at BHHS.
Nor is the school as economically homogeneous as the stereotypes would suggest. Although the average household income is substantially higher than that of other communities in LA County, there are enough disadvantaged students to make both the high school and one of the elementary schools Title I schools, and the middle school (which didn’t exist as a separate entity at the time I left) is probably one as well.
In academic terms, the district has problems with relatively high student turnover rates. When I worked there, 20% of the incoming freshman class was typically new to district. An additional 20% was added sophomore year. Many of these students were appropriately proficient for their age levels, but a lot were not. For example, some students came in with third grade reading levels, and a significant number were reading below grade level. Similar discrepancies occurred in writing skills (and I would presume in math as well, though I’m more familiar with the patterns in English).
As you can see, though located in an affluent community, BHHS is more racially, culturally, economically, and academically diverse than you might think. The only statistic that separates it from schools with comparable diversity is per pupil spending. In 2020-2021, BHUSD was spending $22,396 per student. CCUSD was spending $12,465. (For context, in August, 2022, US News reported that the California average was $13,029, putting California about 20th in the nation.
It would be legitimate to question whether my experience in BHHS is relevant, based on the financial discrepancies involved. However, if CCUSD is choosing between an ability-based classes model or a differentiated instruction model, I’d argue that the latter is actually more expensive to sustain effectively. I’ll say more about that a little later. It’s also worth noting that the discrepancy wasn’t as big when I worked at BHHS. The gap widened significantly following BHUSD’s shift from ADA funding to one based on local property tax revenues (whose exact name I forget). Since that change occurred concurrently with a fairly rapid drop in enrollment, BHUSD and CCUSD were significantly closer together in per-pupil spending when I was working at BHHS.
In any case, my experiences at BHHS would lead me to question the ability-grouping-is-always-bad theory.
Students of Color Aren’t Necessarily Underrepresented in Honors Classes
One of the criticisms often made of ability grouping is that students of color are underrepresented in advanced classes. Even looking at students of color as traditionally defined (not counting Persians and other groups classified as white but not identified as white) students of color were neither over-represented in lower-level classes nor underrepresented in advanced classes. Instead, such advanced classes were reflective of the makeup of the student population as a whole. I don’t have accurate statistics on the representation of disadvantaged students, though I am aware that some of the students in my AP classes were involved in the free lunch program.
Ability Grouping Need Not Lock Students into a Track
Another criticism is that grouping by ability locks students into a track from which they cannot escape. Again, my experience says otherwise. For example, BHHS’s English honors program doubled in size between freshman and sophomore years. Clearly, students in regular English were not locked in but able to move to a higher level. Similarly, 87% of the students who entered BHHS reading two or more levels below grade level and were placed in an English designed specifically to develop reading skills were able to move to regular English by senior year. (Considering how slowly reading improvement is typically achieved at that age level, even under ideal conditions, those results are saying something.) In the same way, EL students in ELD classes raised their skills faster than those not in the program, with many qualifying for honors or AP soon after their exit from ELD.
Some of the available studies are equally positive about ability grouping. For instance, Card and Guiliano (2015) found, according to the Brookings article, (emphasis mine) “large, positive effects for the high achievers in the tracked classes, particularly students of color or students from disadvantaged households, and no negative spillover effects for students in other classes.” The last statement is particularly telling. If the existence of advanced classes doesn’t negatively impact the students in other classes, then what reason could there possibly be to deny advanced courses to students who can benefit from them?
Culver City’s Motivation for Eliminating Honors Classes
That brings us to a consideration of what motivated the elimination of honors classes at CCHS. For purposes of discussion, I’ll assume that the unnamed district office who spoke to Fox News Digital and was afterwards quoted in the New York Post is accurate. (Again, the emphasis is mine.)
“This is an issue of both academic rigor and equity. The transition from a two-tier system of ‘Honors and Non-Honors’ to ‘College Prep’ classes-for-all was led by our English teachers. We put our trust in our educators who are closest to our students, the teachers who are with them in the classroom day in and day out.
We want to emphasize that the College Prep curriculum is an Honors curriculum, serving all students with the same level of rigor as the Honors curriculum, and one that prepares students to enroll in advanced classes in their final years of high school. Our teachers expect the same high-level outcomes for all students. CCUSD fully supports this well-researched pedagogical approach. We are fully committed to giving the teachers the resources needed to support all students at all levels.”
Critique of the Stated Rationale
All of that sounds wonderful. But having been in education so long, I’ve learned that a lot of things sound wonderful on paper but don’t necessarily work well in reality. And the statement raises a number of questions it doesn’t answer. Frankly, parts of it sound more like the statement of a politician than that of an educator.
First, it would be nice to know what the decision-making process was. What I’m about to say is not intended to be disrespectful to either board members or administrators in this district, none of whom I know. But in the past, I have noticed a tendency for administrators to present their handiwork as teacher initiated. I’ve served on committees in which administrators basically told us what we were going to recommend. I’ve seen attempts to suppress recommendations from teachers, as well as local studies that didn’t fit the administrative narrative. I’ve heard teachers misquoted, and I’ve even heard supposed quotes from teachers about which no teachers had been consulted. (Yes, I’m a little cynical in this area, but it’s earned cynicism.)
Consequently, I’d feel more confident about that statement if more detail were available about the way in which the teacher recommendation was developed and then subsequently expanded. (Surely, the decision to move forward with the removal of other honors classes wasn’t based solely on English teacher recommendations.)
Second, I’ve already mentioned the situational nature of education research. I understand that many people have asked about local data regarding how the new class is performing. Such data, particularly with a comparison to student performance data from earlier years, is crucial in determining the impact of the change.
Third, the statement about College Prep English being Honors English is confusing. If this is the case, why wasn’t the combined class called Honors English? And if the class is honors level, why are so many parents complaining that it is too easy for their sons and daughters? Based on these responses, I’d have to conclude that the current courses are not as rigorous as the former honors courses.
Also, wasn’t the regular English program prior to the change already college prep? (When I was a student in CCHS, virtually every regular class was college prep.) Although I know that some career paths don’t require college, I would certainly advocate doing our best to prepare all students for college, just in case. So having universal college prep coursework isn’t a bad thing, by any means. But why that would preclude a higher level honors course is beyond me.
Alternative Ways To Address the Issue
It appears the change was motivated by under-representation of students of color in the former honors classes. But I’ve also heard that CCHS has open access to honors and AP classes. If both of those statements are, wouldn’t a more sensible course of action have been to find ways to encourage more students of color to enroll in honors classes than to deny everyone the benefit of such classes?
At BHHS, when counselors were giving a reading test to incoming students and then encouraging those who scored well to consider honors English, we had many incoming students decide to try the program. When time constraints prevented counselors from having those kinds of interactions, the numbers dropped substantially. (Interestingly, Card and Guiliano found that increased screening located a lot of unidentified gifted students of color, who were then placed successfully in advanced classes. A little data and personal interaction go a long way.)
Whether or not you have open access, more academic support might help students feel ready for honors and AP. I suggest this knowing that budgetary realities might not allow for it at this time. But it is something that could definitely make a difference. And frankly, taking away an honors tier is not going to make it more likely that students of color will enroll in an AP class, if, as I understand, you’re still keeping those. The transition just gets harder that way, at least based on my experience. Students entering an AP class from a related honors class tend to do better than those who don’t. And academic readiness for AP makes it much more likely that AP will result in positive effects for students. On that last point, I recommend close examination of the book, AP: A Critical Analysis of the Advanced Placement Program, edited by Sadler, Sonnert, Tai, and Klopfenstein. One of the critical findings in that analysis is that AP students perform better in college only if they are adequately prepared for the course. Those entering with weak skills, particularly if they don’t pass the AP exam, perform no differently in college than those who didn’t take AP at all, at least according to the studies cited in the book.
Differentiated Instruction Is Not the Answer
That brings us back to the question of ability grouping vs. heterogeneous grouping supported by differentiated instruction. Honors classes are obviously part of the former and the system CCHS seems to be moving toward part of the latter. We’ve already talked a little about expense, but here’s the key takeaway I’ve gotten over the years from some of the literature on differentiated instruction, from my own classroom experience, and from talking to colleagues: differentiated instruction is resource-intensive. In particular, many of its advocates recommend small class sizes. Twenty is a number frequently given as a maximum, though I’ve seen estimates as high as twenty-five. In a lot of states, that’s doable, But in California, with its abysmal class sizes, it’s probably not.
We probably all agree that small classes are good to have in general, but why are they important in this context? Because differentiation in a heterogeneous class with a wide enough range of abilities requires a lot more teacher preparation. Though some publishers have moved in the direction of provided differentiated teacher materials, the ones I’ve seen still require some adaptation to specific circumstances, and they may not be available in all subjects. Preparation of one set of materials is less labor-intensive than preparation of four sets, or in some cases even more. With much more of the learning being done in small groups, differentiated instruction also presents more classroom management challenges and potentially reduces direct face time with the teacher.
In simple ways, teachers have been differentiating for many years before the term was first used. Things like giving choices on assignments to appeal to particular student interests or abilities, and finding different ways to explain concepts to different students, has been around for a long time. But when the differences become wide enough to essentially require the teacher to teach four separate classes meeting concurrently, that becomes a different level of challenge, one that is more adversely affected by class size than other instructional patterns.
From what I’ve seen, differentiation is a valuable tool, but it’s easy to do differentiation badly. For example, some years ago, I attended an inservice training on differentiated instruction being conducted by an ed services assistant superintendent from another district. Her presentation was so shocking that the school board, which had planned a series of trainings with her, cancelled all the subsequent ones.
What was the problem? Differentiation is supposed to be about finding different ways to help students get to their learning goals. But differentiation as the presenter was teaching it was more like “dumbferentiation” (selective dumbing down). For instance, she gave an example how how to structure group projects. The more advanced students were analyzing the symbolism in a short story while the less advanced ones were looking up unfamiliar words in the dictionary. While both activities have value, the first is far more intellectually stimulating, while the second is much less so and doesn’t logically lead to the first. How someone who starts with the looking-up-words group makes it to the analyzing-literature group she couldn’t really explain.
The question of what to do with a really struggling student (for example, one who didn’t know English at all) was raised, and her response was, “Well, you may just have to spend all your time with that student.” Yes, that is exactly what she said. So that one student is the only one who gets face time with the teacher. That would certainly make for some interesting conversations with parents, wouldn’t it?
I’m not suggesting that differentiation, even in severe circumstances, can’t be done better than that. Obviously, it can. But it takes class sizes small enough for all students to have face time with the teacher, as well as a support system for outliers like the non-English speaker in the example.
To be fair, homogeneous grouping can also be done very badly, but for most students, it doesn’t require class sizes as small as those required by true differentiation to function effectively. (Classes for struggling students, if a school has such classes, should definitely be smaller than the norm, but that’s not going to be most classes.)
The Question of Stigma
What about the social implications? It’s often said that students not in the highest level classes are stigmatized by others and, even if not, have problems with self-image. While that can happen, what we sometimes miss is the fact that, at least at the high school level, the same thing happens in classes requiring extreme differentiation. Those kind of modifications can’t be performed invisibly. Students will quickly pick up on who is in the analyzing-symbolism group and who is in the lookup-words group, and they’ll understand the implications pretty quickly. Additionally, ability groups can develop resentment of each other, with more advanced students feeling held back and less advanced students feeling looked down upon by the more advanced ones.
There are also certain problems associated with advanced students that can only be solved easily in classes designed for them. As one of my former colleagues once said, “Honors and AP classes are places it’s cool to be smart.” We sometimes forget that intellectually advanced students aren’t necessarily at the top of the high school social hierarchy and may even be bullied. (I can attest to that, though much more at the middle school level than in high school.) In rare cases, such situations can lead to social alienation and even suicide. (I lost one of my best friends from middle school that way, though it was a few years after the fact.) Anyway, that’s one problem I’ve never seen a differentiated answer to, though it would be lessened in a very small class because a teacher would be more able to keep track of even subtle dynamics that might lean in that direction.
At the very least, the decision to eliminate honors English needs to be revisited. Is it really the best move under the existing circumstances? There seems to be a good chance that it’s not.
(The featured image was copyrighted by Monkey Business Images and licensed from Shutterstock.)