# The Race to Nowhere: Why Students Take Classes They Don’t Like and What We Can Do About It

*[Epistemic Status: Wrote this as an ‘argument paper’ for English class. If I was doing an actual report, I would look way more into the truth of the matter and spend more time researching. Don’t take too much away from this. Putting it up here because I feel parts are relevant and might contain interesting insights.]*

In a survey, more than a quarter of students said that they are taking at least one class that they would not have taken if not for some outside pressure. The majority of students also said that the main pressure driving them to take classes that they did not want to take was the thought of college. Just ask any high schooler and they will tell you that college is always in the back of their mind whenever they make a decision.

A 2020 study of a Catholic high school found that “[a]n overwhelming majority (90.4%) of students identified school and academic pressures as one of their main stressors,” with a “high degree of student ownership in choosing to participate in advanced/honors classes” (Uitermarkt 25). One student even said grades are “life or death … Grades determine future” (26). Clearly, when given the option, students will choose to take Honors and AP classes, even at the expense of their own mental health and stress levels. Why is this?

If schools offer harder classes, students will take them to look competitive. Colleges like to see that students took harder, more rigorous classes. The problem is that the students will take these classes, even if they don’t find them intrinsically interesting. There is a negative feedback loop of a hard class getting introduced, students taking it to look competitive, then other students taking it because they don’t want to be perceived as less competitive than the first students, and then the cycle repeats. This feedback loop only ends because there’s a limit to how many advanced classes it is physically possible to take (due to scheduling issues for example).

Some students get really close. Just go onto the College Confidential forum (a website filled with students asking what they should do to get into “good” colleges) and you’ll see students asking if seven APs is too much. They justify it by saying that “I want to move up to at least position #2 of my class, and it should be possible if I pass all my 7 AP classes next year” (studentstudent265). It’s quite clear that in this case, and lots more, the student does not care about learning the content in the class at all; they just want to look good for college. You can find (less extreme) versions of this problem anywhere in the education system you look.

In fact, this issue is so common that it’s named an ‘Inadequate Equilibria’ by decision theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky. It describes a situation where everyone suffers due to prevailing conditions, yet individual actions alone cannot alter the status quo. (Yudkowsky 32). If one student just decided to not take any AP classes, they would be worse off because other students would have better-looking transcripts. Even if many students tried to coordinate to not take as many AP classes as possible, one student could just break the equilibria and choose to take advanced classes, thus putting themself ahead of everyone else. To fully break out of an Inadequate Equilibria, there must be some sort of unanimous coordination to shift to a new one. In this case, some sort of outside institution that would not allow students to take advanced classes could work. A school perfectly encompasses this definition.

Coincidentally, [redacted place name] High School already does a form of this: students are not allowed to take AP classes until Junior Year. When I first heard of it, this seemed like a silly rule to me. I thought that the school was stunting my intellectual progress for no good reason. Yet after learning about Inadequate Equilibria, I suddenly realized its wisdom. If everyone were able to take AP classes in 9th grade, as some schools allow, there would be a race to the bottom, and everyone would stress themselves out trying to take as many AP classes as possible. But since the school limits this, students have less stress.

An even more extreme example of this restriction on honors classes recently occurred in California for a slightly different reason. The state wanted to prevent students from being able to take Algebra I in 8th grade, which would subsequently prevent them from taking Calculus during high school (CA Dept of Education). In [redacted place name], we call this track “Single Accelerated” and allow any student who passes a test in 7th grade to take Algebra I in 8th grade instead of 9th. The CA Dept of Education’s justification for removing it was to increase equity and level the playing field, but it was going to inadvertently have the effect of holding capable students back. The policy only got canceled after prominent mathematicians and computer scientists, totaling 1786 people including seven Nobel laureates, created a petition arguing to allow students on an accelerated track. They argued that “[w]hile it is possible to succeed in STEM at college without taking advanced courses in high school, it is more challenging … Far from being deliberately held back, all students should have the opportunity to be nurtured and challenged to fulfill their potential” (Barak et al.). So this camp clearly takes the view that students should be allowed to accelerate or take honors classes if they are up to it.

Coming back to [redacted place name], we have a microcosm of this debate with honors classes and double-acceleration. Students are allowed to take a test at the end of 6th grade (although this is not very well-known) to place into taking Algebra I in 7th grade, which is known as double acceleration and allows students to skip two years of math instruction. For honors classes, although teachers recommend at year-end whether students should enroll in honors classes, the final decision rests with the students and their parents, which is exactly the kind of solution that Barak et al. want. While it gives students more freedom, some teachers think this choice is ultimately unnecessary and, in many cases, harmful. I asked Ms. [redacted], our Geometry Honors and Algebra II Honors teacher for her thoughts on this the issue. She mainly criticized the practice of overriding teacher recommendation in the context of our policy of open enrollment: “we have a lot of students that ignore the teacher’s recommendation and sign up for courses that they’re not recommended for. And we are finding that there’s a really big problem with people enrolled in honors and having trouble.” But besides the students just struggling in a class that is too hard for them, it also creates issues for students in non-honors classes. Since many students drop honors classes once they realize the classes are too hard, it means that they must go into the non-honors sections, which makes the “honors [sections] teeny tiny … there should have only been two [but there were three].” Once students leave the honors classes, they overload the regular sections which makes them much bigger and harder to teach, increasing the burden on the teacher while also making it harder for an individual student to learn than if the classes were correctly allocated.

When asked how this sort of behavior has changed over the years, she said that “it’s a lot worse now than it used to be.” What has mainly changed is that it is much harder to get into college nowadays due to more people applying and policies such as yield protection and active waitlists; thus everyone is much more competitive (Papallo-Wall). Ms. [redacted] knows that “there’s a college for you. It’s not like, you’re not going to get into college. Are you going to get into Harvard? No, but you’re probably not going to get into Harvard anyway.” According to her, the pressure to look good for college has created this meaningless race to the bottom, and the solution is to have less students take honors classes while still leaving the option open for the students who can handle it.

Some people oppose efforts to remove honors classes, make them recommendation only, or keep them open but allow less privileged students to struggle. They think that with the right strategies, an open enrollment policy can work, and all students can learn in honors. In an article titled “Effective Teaching Strategies for Open Enrollment Honors and AP Classes,” Susan Winebrenner, a long time consultant on the topic of teaching gifted kids, acknowledges that open enrollment is motivated by a want to “empower students from minority groups and students of poverty to have access to courses that often lead to higher success rates in college,” the exact reasoning that Barak et al. use to argue for allowing acceleration in California. She then argues that there is a third alternative to removing or limiting honors classes to capable students who have already shown competence in a subject. With accommodations for global learners, students “who learn best from the whole back to the parts and respond favorably to the use of visual organizers and hands-on learning experiences,” honors classes can maintain their “high standards and academic rigor” (159). She proposes teaching strategies that are concrete methods for increasing engagement and understanding with these different types of learners.

According to Winebrenner, the most effective method is called the “Name Card Method.” It involves asking a question, having students discuss the answer, and then calling on a student randomly from a stack of name cards. The randomness of the name cards removes any racial, economic, gender, or other bias that the teacher may have, which equalizes the learning experience for students who might come from underrepresented groups. In fact, our own Spanish teacher, Señor [redacted], uses this technique in his Spanish Honors classes to a great extent. Every class, we discuss in Spanish with our partners and then share (by random choice of name) what we talked about. Besides being fun, it ensures that everyone is participating and that no one is falling behind.

This practice of making honors classes more accessible to everyone might make them slightly easier and would definitely allow more students do well, but it would not eliminate the Inadequate Equilibria that causes students to overwhelm themselves by taking as many honors classes as possible. If we look deeper, we can decompose the problem with honors into two distinct problems: the problem with the difficulty of classes — what Ms. [redacted] describes as many students failing and having to drop, but also the pressure to take honors classes. Clearly, they are connected, and it seems that there is a causal relationship where the pressure to take honors classes leads to students not doing well in those classes. From this perspective, the techniques Winebrenner suggests would only fix the first problem — difficulty of honors classes for diverse learners — not the problem of pressure to take the classes in the first place. To combat this, we should propose a solution similar to the one [redacted place name] already has for AP classes (none until 11th grade) to limit the number of honors classes a student can take.

If this seems too restricting, schools should consider explicitly telling students not to take as many honors classes as possible. This is especially important because right now, they tell students to take honors classes to get into a good college. According to Ms. [redacted], “[students are] told by guidance counselors that like, they should take honors classes for college.” In fact, my guidance counselor told me that taking a class I didn’t want to take would look better for college, and it was very hard to resist that pressure, especially since she also told my parents. Even as simple a change of instructing guidance counselors not to say this could help.

With all the different perspectives on regulating advanced classes, we need to remember that unlike college acceptances or rankings, learning is not a zero-sum game. If one student learns more, that does not mean that another must learn less to balance out. Learning is a positive-sum game where teachers, if they believe in it, can bring everyone who wants to learn to a level where they are satisfied with their own learning. Honors classes do not have to be something that only a select group of students who have proved themselves can be in (contra Ms. [redacted]’s perspective). Nor do should we accept that the only way to make learning equitable is to remove honors classes altogether (the California perspective). We can keep honors classes without throwing students from less privileged backgrounds in the deep end by using teaching strategies that accommodate a more diverse set of students. Yet we should still encourage students to not take as many honors classes as possible to prevent the race to nowhere — enforcing this with rules if necessary.

Instead of encouraging students to drop a class when it becomes challenging, as I’ve seen many honors teachers do, teachers should be encouraging and use the strategies that Winebrenner proposes to help struggling students. If we reject the false dichotomy that honors classes are stressful but necessary and non-honors are the opposite and instead focus on every student learning what they need to know in a lower pressure environment, we will end up with outcomes that take the best parts from all proposed solutions.