To Increase Equity, School Districts Eliminate Honors Classes
Sara Randazzo, Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2023
A group of parents stepped to the lectern Tuesday night at a school board meeting in this middle-class, Los Angeles-area city to push back against a racial-equity initiative. The high school, they argued, should reinstate honors English classes that were eliminated because they didn’t enroll enough Black and Latino students.
The district earlier this school year replaced the honors classes at Culver City High School with uniform courses that officials say will ensure students of all races receive an equal, rigorous education.
These parents disagreed.
“We really feel equity means offering opportunities to students of diverse backgrounds, not taking away opportunities for advanced education and study,” Joanna Schaenman, a Culver City parent who helped spearhead the effort, said in the run-up to the meeting.
The parental pushback in Culver City mirrors resistance that has taken place in Wisconsin, Rhode Island and elsewhere in California over the last year in response to schools stripping away the honors designation on some high school classes.
School districts doing away with honors classes argue students who don’t take those classes from a young age start to see themselves in a different tier, and come to think they aren’t capable of enrolling in Advanced Placement classes that help with college admissions. Black and Latino students are underrepresented in AP enrollment in the majority of states, according to the Education Trust, a nonprofit that studies equity in education.
Since the start of this school year, freshmen and sophomores in Culver City have only been able to select one level of English class, known as College Prep, rather than the previous system in which anyone could opt into the honors class. School officials say the goal is to teach everyone with an equal level of rigor, one that encourages them to enroll in advanced classes in their final years of high school.
“Parents say academic excellence should not be experimented with for the sake of social justice,” said Quoc Tran, the superintendent of 6,900-student Culver City Unified School District. But, he said, “it was very jarring when teachers looked at their AP enrollment and realized Black and brown kids were not there. They felt obligated to do something.”
Culver City English teachers presented data at a board meeting last year showing Latino students made up 13% of those in 12th-grade Advanced Placement English, compared with 37% of the student body. Asian students were 34% of the advanced class, compared with 10% of students. Black students represented 14% of AP English, versus 15% of the student body.
The board saw anonymous quotes from students not enrolled in honors classes saying they felt less motivated or successful. One described students feeling “unable to break out of the molds that they established when they were 11.”
In Santa Monica, Calif., high school English teachers said last year they had “a moral imperative” to eliminate honors English classes that they viewed as perpetuating inequality. The teachers studied the issue for a year and a half, a district representative said.