The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations: Why eliminating AS English 1 is the wrong move

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My freshman year, I participated in a new experiment designed to increase integration in our vastly diverse but equally segregated community. Rather than having a separate AS Biology and grade-level Biology class, the school decided to combine the two, with students who wanted the honors distinction having to take on a harder grading scale and do more projects. It was thought that by combining classes, there would be less pressure to track students on either an honors or regular science path and there would be more of a community among freshmen who came from different–and vastly unequal–middle schools. Yet, come sophomore year, most of my friends and I took AS Chemistry, while those who chose to do regular Biology continued on to regular Chemistry. At least to me, it was clear that combining classes had done nothing tangible to close the gap between kids from different middle schools and instead simply pushed the problem back another year. Now the English department wants to do the same thing with AS English I, getting rid of the honors class and replacing it with regular English. In many ways, this decision will simply push back and ignore the problem of the achievement gap rather than address the reasons why it is present.

When one reads the mission statement and goals of both the Sequoia Union High School District or that of any other school or district, it is littered with phrases such as obtaining “equity” and closing the “achievement gap.” While these ambitions are undoubtedly well-intentioned, such tunnel vision takes away focus from allowing every individual to succeed, regardless of their race. In 2019, less than 35% of all 8th graders in the US, achieved a proficient score on the National Assessment of Progress. The same test found that among white and asian students, statistically the ”most academically successful” demographics in America, little more than half the students tested were deemed proficient. Closing the racial equity gap does not mean bringing everyone to the same level of mediocrity, rather we must find out why individuals, regardless of race, are not succeeding and identify solutions to help them. 

In getting rid of AS English I, it is crucial to ask what expectations we are setting for our kids, especially those who are underrepresented in honors classes. Are we implying that certain minority students simply aren’t smart enough to succeed in challenging classes? Or that the fault lies amongst the presence of honors classes rather than certain public middle schools that for numerous other reasons fail to prepare kids? The unintended consequences of actions such as this are simply playing into the narrative of the soft bigotry of low expectations for minority students.

AS English I is a tough class that for almost all people is a jarring transition from the lackadaisical nature of middle school. I struggled immensely until I developed the right study habits and found my groove. It is also not the right fit for everyone, people who are simply not interested in a particularly challenging English class would be much better suited taking the regular English class and challenging courses in other subjects. Yet when a clear problem such as the inequity in who is signing up for AS English exists, why is the solution to simply get rid of the class? If it is right that, according to the English Department, the ELA level of kids from Ravenswood and Hillview/La Entrada is similar, why is it that we need to get rid of AS English I rather than encouraging kids who are able to take it to do so and letting those who aren’t pursue regular English?  How are we, as one English teacher said in defending the move, “honoring the complexity of [student’s] intellect” when we say that regardless of an individual student’s capabilities everyone takes the same regular English class? 

The problem of underrepresented minorities not taking honors classes is not something unique to the English department or even our school for that regard. But if we continue to simply eliminate honors classes rather than address the root of the issue we are doing a disservice to all students. Yes there are inequities in the education of students from those that live East of 101 versus those who live West of 101, but more worryingly, there is a culture that sees AS and AP classes as only for white and asians students. Look at any AP Chemistry, AP European History, AP Calculus, or AP Physics class, and you will see a demographic no different than that of AS English 1 (if anything it’s worse). When dealing with the achievement gap, we can simply eliminate all honors and AP classes that prepare people for the rigorous expectations of college and put everyone on the same monolithic standardized curriculum, but doing so ignores the innate individual ability of every student to succeed and challenge themselves academically in subjects they are interested in. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing bad about taking college prep classes, yet it is clear that there is a problem of qualified minorities, for whatever reason, choosing not to take advanced classes. On one hand we can be “satisfied” that they are getting a good enough education in these regular classes, but we also could be doing more to push people to take advanced classes, many of which help greatly in preparing one for pursuing higher education.  We as a community should not rest until every single person, regardless of race, feels comfortable taking challenging honors and AP courses in subjects they are passionate about. This is not an easy endeavor — it is definitely more challenging than simply getting rid of a class — but working with and encouraging  the many qualified students from EPA who are capable of honors-level work but for whatever reason chose not to do so will have a much more rewarding outcome. It is also not an impossible task, schools such as Success Academy in New York City have demographics that are 94%  students of color and 74% of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch. Yet, rather than simply accepting the struggles facing their students, Success worked to ensure that they had the support to take challenging courses. Their results are astounding, 100% of students will take at least 3 AP classes before they graduate, most of whom go on to receive scores of 3, 4, or 5.

Educational equity should not be diminished expectations for everyone; rather it should be the belief that every student, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or economic status, should have the resources and abilities to succeed. Getting rid of AS English I simply reinforces the idea that certain groups of students are just incapable of taking honors classes. The subtle bigotry of low expectations continues to harm minority students and just getting rid of honors classes does nothing more than put a band-aid on a bullet wound. Rather than taking a path that simply hides the problem, the English department should figure out what changes and resources/support systems are necessary for the rate of students taking honors English from East Palo Alto to mirror that of more affluent feeder schools. 

Sathvik Nori is a senior and one of the Editors-in-Chief of the M-A Chronicle. He enjoys writing stories about sports, the M-A community and youth issues in general. In his free time, he loves to debate, read, and spend time with friends. He is also the Student Trustee for the Sequoia Union High School District

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