Honors vs. non-honors classes

Here’s the latest student column by Fremont Unified’s student board member Jennifer Siew. It was to run last month, but due to e-mail problems and computer glitches, followed by (dare I admit) oversight on my part, it’s just now coming to you.

The next column, by Newark Unified’s student board member Evangel Penumaka, will be posted later this month.

 Editor’s note: Since the initial school board discussion, trustees have decided not to have honors social studies classes at junior high schools.


By Jennifer SiewJennifer Siew

Fremont Unified student board member

“I have a dream.” Martin Luther King Jr. spoke these famous words in 1963, calling for the day when blacks and whites in America could live in harmony, without prejudice or segregation, without the differentiation of children and adults based on skin color and ancestral background.

As a country, we’ve broken down the barriers between “us” and “them,” overcoming immovable obstacles of hate and ignorance of one another. Our country continually progresses toward complete tolerance and integration, being the leading figure and role model for other countries. Yet, as racial tensions are split and removed, a new kind of segregation not only has manifested itself in our society, but it’s being bred in our schools, nurtured alongside the growth of our youth and finding shelter in our acceptance and tolerance of its existence.

About two months ago, the Fremont Unified School District’s director of secondary education, Kathy Ashford, and Assistant Superintendent Parvin Ahmadi gave a presentation dealing with our junior high schools’ honors and non-honors system. The main goals of the new proposition were to give students who don’t score well on standardized tests better opportunities to enter the honors program. This included lowering the minimum STAR test scores for entrance into honors classes. Discussions on the issue resulted in one basic statement: We shouldn’t let kids who aren’t “up to par” in the same classes as our “honors” kids; if they can’t make the requirements, they should remain in non-honors classes.

Think about this statement for a moment. Honors vs. non-honors. Blacks vs. whites. See the parallel?

Once, our students were foolishly separated by race, and it was believed that African-American students weren’t worthy of being educated with white students. Now, we separate our students – honors and non-honors.

Don’t get me wrong; as a student of the honors system, I believe in its purpose and effectiveness, but this labeling of students – honors and non-honors – provides the same sense of shame, alienation, and segregation as did “white” and “black” in the early 1900s. Perhaps this division was created in the best interest of the entire student population, but instead, it has glorified a small population of students and suppressed the rest. Our education system has become two separate circles, each functioning in parallel, but rarely intersecting.

The ideal solution would be to raise the standards and quality of college prep classes, and to narrow the discrepancy between the two types of classes (though to reverse this system endorsed by decades any time soon is highly unlikely). Therefore, we must encourage our students to achieve the standards of honors classes, allowing a wider range of students to enter and offering the support they need to be successful. Instead of closing off these classes and allowing a majority of the student population to be left behind, we should be opening the doors and asking for higher achievements for all.

During the board meeting, one proposal was to get rid of honors classes for eighth-grade history It was the best idea all night. History is a class in which you should be learning about our country’s roots, why we now live the way we do, and how we’re all connected. Every student should receive the level of intensity, depth, and knowledge in this class to begin disintegrating that line between “us” and “them” and to feel closer to his or her own classmates. It allows not only the non-honors students to be brought up to a higher level of standard by their peers, but it prevents the belief of being superior and “elite” from honors students, who have almost been trained by the system to believe this.

Even teachers inadvertently allow these labels – honors and non-honors – to color their perceptions of students. There is an inherent belief that students who don’t take honors classes are simply not capable of keeping up with the honors students. Is this what our advanced classes were created for? Are we purposefully breeding this “higher and lower classes” of students? Of course not, but it’s time that something was done to change it.

The successes of our honors system do not override its failures. We allow one group of students to excel while another one falls behind. The discrepancy between students of the honors programs and those not part of it is creating a system where we label each student, and we use these labels to determine their capabilities and intelligence. It’s time to dismantle this new institution of segregation and separation – before we find ourselves back in the 1950s.

Linh Tat


  1. “Now, we separate our students – honors and non-honors.”

    Student writers are sometimes so annoying. They just dont get it. Life is not fair. Things are not equal. Honor students are honor students because they scored higher grades in class. They deserve it period. If there was no distinction / appreciation / incentive for hard work, then people will just stop working hard. Justifying bad scores with a social connection is fine as long it is limited to remedying the problem, as opposed to grouping all students as equally good.

  2. Oh, to be 17 and know everything again.

    I appreciate Jennifer’s sentiments, but quite frankly, she’s just very naive.

    I am a product of FUSD and was in honors classes all through high school.

    And you know what? 15 years later, most of the college prep kids are doing just as well as most of the honors kids.

    Unfortunately, out there in the cold cruel world, no one cares if you feel bad or excluded or left out. You either hack it or you don’t.

  3. The real issue is that there are some kids who just don’t want to work as hard, but we expect them to all do the same things.

    I teach 12th grade AP English and college prep senior English at Washington. There are always a handful of CP English students who dropped out of the honors track, even though they’re plenty smart, because they don’t want to do the work required to succeed at the honors/AP level. They want the “easy A” in English so they can concentrate on physics or calculus.

    And while it’s not a reason I personally subscribe to, I can respect their choices. I dropped out of the honors math and science track in high school (yes, in Fremont, too) while remaining in the high English track because I loved it. I wanted to focus my energy on the subject I loved, that’s all. It turned out well for me, no regrets.

    Contrary to the previous commenters, I don’t think Ms. Siew’s inability to understand the problem is that she’s young or naive…that’s a condescending and unhelpful accusation. I suspect it’s because Ms. Siew has diverse interests so she can’t understand why someone else may not want to take a slew of honors classes in every subject. She may not understand that most people have to prioritize and make choices about where to focus their energy.

    That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, knowing what you love and want to spend your life doing while in high school can be very liberating.

  4. Finland is typically the leading country in education and they don’t have any honor classes. I don’t think our school system and our American views on competition would allow us to get rid of honor classes. I think that if a student wants to take honor classes, then they should be required to spend just a couple hours a week after school helping the students that are struggling.

  5. Andy: Student writers are sometimes so annoying.
    Rain: Well said, Andy!
    Jen: Oh, to be 17 and know everything again.
    Teri: … she can’t understand why someone else may not want to take a slew of honors classes in every subject.

    Ms. Siew, I’m really sorry that Matt posted this. You are our FUSD student rep and probably would have preferred an exchange of ideas and a useful debate, not insults followed by some pretty condescending explanations of why you’re wrong.

    Too bad, as a middle school debate club teacher, I love it when students take a risk and say what they think. And, I HATE it when people don’t treat them politely and respectfully.

    I’m done reading this blog.

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