Friday, July 1, 2011

Honors Classes: Yes or No?

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

Every January, my 8th graders need some extra special TLC from me. This is because January is the month for applying to honors classes in high school. There is always a great deal of angst among the students and their parents about honors classes. The most common question I receive is whether or not a student should apply for honors classes. The answer to this question is not cut and dried. If you have a child who might be considering honors classes for high school, I offer the following things to consider.

First, think about why you want your child in an honors level class. As a teacher of gifted 7th and 8th graders, I see parents divided into two camps in response to this question, although few will admit to being in one of the camps. One group of parents wants their children to be challenged, and they appreciate the advanced curriculum I strive to offer. I try to teach my class on par with a high school class in terms of curriculum, activities, work load, and student responsibility. As a result of this, my class isn’t really an “easy A” class. Sometimes these highly intelligent kids with great work ethics don’t get all A’s in my class. The parents who appreciate the challenge are okay with this. The other camp includes parents who like the prestige of being able to say that their child is in an accelerated class. These parents often like being able to brag about their children earning all A’s, too; there is a great deal of prestige in a child being able to accomplish this. Sometimes, these parents get very upset with the curriculum because of the level of complexity. However, I feel it is imperative to offer a challenging curriculum to these advanced learners and sometimes they don’t earn an A right away. Most high school honors classes are going to be very challenging, so be honest with yourself and don’t strive for your child to enter an honors program if you want it only for the prestige factor.

Next, realize that it takes a lot of work to get into an honors program in high school. I fear that some of the parents I work with like having their child in a gifted class because they think it gives them an advantage when it comes time to apply for honors. In the high school that we feed to, it does not. If your child isn’t willing to put in work during the school year, or into the application process, or into the high school class itself, then honors might not be right. Be honest about your child’s work ethic and study habits. Both are going to be very important once he or she is enrolled in a class with high academic standards.

Now think about college and how high school honors classes will impact your child’s college experience. It is commonly believed that colleges will take on students who have been in honors classes over those who have not. This is not always true; it varies from school to school. However, all colleges do like to see that students are taking challenging coursework, so having honors level classes on a transcript can reflect well. As far as how those accelerated classes will impact what college coursework will be taken, that also depends on the individual school. As an honors student in high school, I took four years of math, which I enjoyed but was not my forte. When I got to college, I was essentially “forced” into taking trigonometry instead of college algebra because of all the math I had in high school. In my eyes, my honors math classes worked to my disadvantage. I scratched and clawed my way through trig but see no benefit to it now that I am an English teacher. Discussing with an admissions counselor the kinds of coursework that will need to be taken in college after honors coursework in high school is a good idea.

Finally, please take into consideration what your child wants. Too often I talk with students who want to take some honors classes but not others, but their parents are “forcing” them to apply for all the classes. My biggest fear when I see this happening is that whatever subject the student is being coerced into taking at an honors level in high school will become that student’s most hated subject and/or the subject he/she does the most poorly in, which then sabotages the student’s academic record. Yes, sometimes saying, “Try it; you’ll like it!” yields positive results. But it’s a gamble; it may end up being an albatross around the student’s neck.

Here is a good Q and A about the advantages and disadvantages of enrolling your child in honors level classes. In addition, you can peruse a Yahoo! Answers discussion about the benefits and challenges of honors classes. Also, the website CollegeData (sponsored by 1st Financial Bank) offers up some reasons to take honors classes as well as some things to consider here.

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