I’m Right… Get Over It

Also in yesterday’s Post, Jay Mathews informed a group of parents here in the overly-large school district that he’s right, they’re wrong, end of story.

They want schools to preserve choices for their kids by maintaining the “the three-track system—basic, honors and AP/IB— in the county’s high schools” while Mathews proclaims “honors courses for all”.

However, as always, he is working from several flawed assumptions.

One is that it is a “well-researched fact that these days every student needs at least a college-prep curriculum” – with his “well-researched” link going to another of his columns about one report from Education Week backing his side of the discussion.

Certainly almost every high school graduate needs some kind of post-K12 education, but for many students there are better options than traditional four-year college program, and they need to understand those alternatives and the best way to prepare for them.

Another of Mathews beliefs is that every student will benefit from simply taking AP (or other college-level courses) in high school.  Never mind how they actually do in the class.  Just disregard whether they have the background, capability, or interest in the subject.

But does the talented writer really need Calculus, when a good understanding of basic mathematical concepts, including statistics, would serve them better? Would some students be better served with practical classes in mechanical engineering, rather than four years of laboratory sciences?

Finally, Mathews continues to assume that the AP program, an inflexible and unrelated set of courses designed to fit the traditional college model, offers the only possible solution to provide students with a good high school education.

And there’s no possibility that he could be wrong.

This Index Just Won’t Die

When the Post company sold Newsweek for a buck last year, I was hoping it was the last we’d see of their annual cover story proclaiming the “best” high schools in the US based, a statistical exercise based on Jay Mathews’ “challenge” index. And that I could drop this as a topic to rant about.

Unfortunately, that was wishful thinking as I found the 2011 edition of this incredibly simplistic and misleading list stuck in the middle of my Sunday paper. For those who don’t get the Post, here’s the web version.

Other than the fact that the Post has rebranded the package since inheriting it from Newsweek, now calling it The High School Challenge, nothing here is new.

As always, the index is based on a simple ratio of the number of AP (and other college-level programs) tests taken to the number of graduating seniors and Mathews’ still believes this is a mechanism to improve high schools, by guilting them into challenging their students (which means pushing more kids into AP classes).

Doesn’t matter if the students are prepared or if such courses are appropriate for their needs. And how they score on the tests certainly doesn’t matter, only that they were taken.

Beyond the shaky conceptual and mathematical foundation for the index, is how the listing is interpreted. Although Mathews’ says he doesn’t intend this to be a measure of school quality, that is exactly how readers interpret it.

The simple numbers will be splashed uncritically across local papers and school web sites, ignoring the many other factors that go into a making a good high school experience.

And, in order to boost their numbers next year, even more schools will narrow the educational options of their students to only those prescribed by the AP people at the College Board.

However, one thing is different this year: Mathews finally has someone in the Post organization who is willing to challenge the validity of his index.

It would just be nice if Strauss’ pushback was given even half the exposure of Mathews’ high profile sloppy love letter to the AP program.

Coming Soon: Super School!

A new charter school is applying to open in DC and Jay Mathews is all excited because it combines two of his favorite education reform concepts: charters and AP.

According to Mathews, the original version of this model in Tucson, Arizona “has become by one measure the sixth most challenging high school in the country”.

What is that “one measure”?

Why it’s Mathews’ own creation, the “challenge” index, by which he compiles an annual list of “best” high schools based solely on a ratio of number of AP tests (and other college-level exams) taken to graduates.”

It’s one reason why he loves the DC area.

This region has the highest concentration of AP and International Baccalaureate courses and tests in the country. Some local schools, like Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, do almost nothing but AP and IB testing every May.

Can’t imagine a better way for kids to spend one month out of the year than doing “almost nothing” but testing.

Anyway, the point of Mathews’ column, beyond taking yet another opportunity to express his adoration for charter schools and AP tests (a two-fer!), is to speculate on whether a charter high school based on the AP program will succeed in Washington, DC.

I’m pretty sure it will.  In the same way that KIPP and other high profile charter programs have succeeded in the city.

By attracting a relatively small, highly select community of students with very motivated parents and siphoning off money from the public schools, while supplementing those funds with large pots of corporate donations and grants (which in this case they’ll need to pay actual living wages for AP-trained teachers).

It’s how all charters demonstrate that they can do a better job than public schools for the same cost.

Except that most don’t.

For Love of Textbooks

Jay Mathews is waxing nostalgic over textbooks and tries to make the case that, not only are they important to a good education, but that they are making a comeback.

To support the argument, he brings in an expert (meaning someone who wrote a book Mathews has read and agrees with) who says “the educational community was quick to respond to the (legitimate) criticism of textbooks, but quicker still to adopt their horrific replacements: excessive use of lecture, worksheets, movies, poster making, and pointless group work.”

Which, of course, ignores the fact that all of those “replacements” have been staples of most high school classrooms for half a century or more, right along side classic textbooks.

But it gets worse.

Reading experts Timothy Shanahan and Cynthia Shanahan of the Univerity of Illinois at Chicago did a study of textbook use, cited by Schmoker [Mathews’ “expert”]. “They discovered that textbook reading, though critical to learning in the content areas, was grossly ignored and that students must be taught how to read textbooks, at increasing levels of sophistication in all content areas and at every grade level.”

This is not as hard as it sounds, Schmoker argues. “There are simple but seldom-clarified ‘moves’ that we must model for students to acquire the essential knowledge in each discipline,” he says. “These moves aren’t complicated. In all content areas, they require teachers to repeatedly teach and model slow, often methodical kinds of reading for their students—the kind that the teachers themselves do when they read such texts.”

I can only imagine how most students would react to that instructional approach, but just reading that statement is putting me to sleep.

What neither Mathews or his expert address in this column is why the textbooks used for most high school classes are so important when the same or similar material is commonly available from other sources, often with many more options for students to actually interact with and use the information.  And without the exorbitant prices.

Certainly students need more experience with reading non-fiction materials, and there may be a place for some textbooks in the K12 education process.

But we need to get passed the assumption, held so dear by Mathews and others, that college must be the one and only goal for every student.

And that slogging through the “dense writings” of booster seat-sized textbooks in any way helps kids learn how to manage and understand non-fiction information in their hyper-connected world.

Repeating History

Jay Mathews offers an extemely weak defense of NCLB and other recent “reform” efforts based on his interpretation of the recent annual report on American education from the Brookings Institution.

This is not exactly good news, but context is important. If we have managed to be the world’s most powerful country, politically, economically and militarily, for the last 47 years despite our less than impressive math and science scores, maybe that flaw is not as important as film documentaries and political party platforms claim. And if, after so many decades of being shown up by much of the rest of the developed world, we are improving, it might be time to be more supportive of what we already doing to fix our schools. [my emphasis, not his]


The fact that test scores of American students are “flat to slightly up” on one international test and have “improved” since 1995 on another is hardly validation for converting most schools in this country into test prep academies.

Those small increases in scores on international assessments relative to other countries are more likely due to kids learning to be better test takers over the past fifteen years rather than from a better understanding of math and science.

The bottom line is that the efforts Mathews wants us to support are doing nothing to “fix” schools.

If “the data show that we have been mediocre all along, as far back as 1964″, and we still organize our schools, instructional methods, and curriculum pretty much as we did in 1964 (which we do), maybe it’s finally time to consider changes to the fundamental structure of our education system.

Everyone Agrees… It Must Be Right

In today’s post on his Class Struggle blog, Jay Mathews disagrees with a recent column by Dana Milbank that spotlights many of the negatives to our all-testing-all-the-time educational system.

Hardly a surprise since Mathews never met a standardized test (or a charter school) he didn’t like.

So, why is Milbank wrong?

As near as I can figure Mathews’ side of the argument all boils down to politics since “…Milbank already knows that campaigning against standardized tests is a loser”.


Since at least the late 1980s, the majority of Democratic and Republican legislators and executives have been reconciled to creating systems in which all children take tests and changes are made in schools that do not score well.

Still, liberals and conservatives in Congress appear to agree that test scores will remain important in any revision of the law.

So, the consensus among our politicians, most of whom have little understanding of K12 education beyond sitting in class for thirteen years, is that wrapping schools in a culture of test prep is the best policy to improve student learning and prepare them for a constantly changing world that never gives standardized tests.

Yeah, that sounds right.

A Very Weak Challenge Defense

In his Class Struggle column today, Jay Mathews is promoting Newsweek’s annual ranking of “best” high schools and also attempts to defend his “challenge” index that was used to compile the bogus list.

Many people prefer rating schools by average test scores, but I consider that a measure of the student family incomes, not the quality of the schools,…

So, instead of using one narrow, inadequate measure of school quality, use mine.

… I get many messages from principals, teachers and parents who like this way of assessing schools.

My index is popular so the results must be valid.

The list gets about 7 million page views a year.

And we all know popularity on the web equals quality information.

An extremely weak defense for this simplistic, misleading system.

Challenging Credibility

I guess I didn’t stay away long enough to avoid Newsweek’s annual cover story defining America’s “Best” High Schools.

That “best” ranking, of course, is based on the tenuous (and that’s being generous) assessment tool known as the “challenge” index, which assigns each school a number based solely on the ratio between numbers of AP/IB/Cambridge tests taken and the numbers of graduating seniors.

No factoring in how well students actually did on those tests (or any other academic criteria). Ignore the quality of arts programs. Dropout rates are irrelevant. And forget completely about students in vocational or any other programs that don’t involve college prep.

Schools rise to the top of this pile if they get kids to take tests.  Lots and lots of tests.

Which results in totally meaningless scores that often produce headlines in local papers, sometimes for very strange (and somewhat amusing) reasons.  Such as this dichotomy in Houston:

Newsweek has come out with its latest ranking of the nation’s best high schools, and the Houston school district is crowing that a record number of HISD highs made it.

The usual suspects are there — DeBakey, Carnegie, Bellaire and Lamar — but joining the list this year are 11 others, including Waltrip, Chavez, Sharpstown, Milby and — WTF? Sharpstown?

The same Sharpstown that is on quite another list — HISD superintendent Terry Grier’s “Apollo 20″ list of failing schools? (Lee HS, too!)

Newsweek says Sharpstown HS is among the best in the country while the superintendent says it’s one of the worst in his district.

Who’s right?

And I wonder how many other schools racked up enough tests given to make this farcical “best” list while still failing to educate the majority of their students.

Aiming For a Higher Level

In his Monday morning Post education column, Jay Mathews relates the story of a disagreement between a teacher and his principal over the issue of student cheating.

The teacher, an instructor of AP US History in DC, during his evaluation conference explained the steps he took to discourage copying during tests, which included creating multiple versions of the exam and printing the pages in a smaller font.

His principal was not especially impressed.

“You are creating an expectation that students will cheat,” Martel [the teacher] recalls Cahall [the principal] saying. “By creating that expectation, they will rise to your expectation.”

When I asked Cahall about it, he did not deny that he said it. His intention, he said, was not to prohibit Martel’s methods but to urge him to consider another perspective.

“I am not opposed to multiple versions of a test or quiz; it is standard operating procedure for every type of testing program,” the principal said in an e-mail to me. “Instead, I would prefer that teachers use more rigorous assessments when possible, that require written responses and higher levels of thinking. In addition to being more challenging and requiring a sophisticated skill set, these types of assessments are also more difficult for students to copy.”

Mathews sides with the teacher in the dispute since “questioning a teacher’s approach to cheating may be going too far”.

Especially when dealing with an AP classroom, since, of course, that program is the golden salvation of high school education.

However, in this case the principal makes the better point.

We should be asking more of students than just copying back material they’ve been given or making rudimentary connections between the facts, stuff that’s easy to rip off without detection since it doesn’t ask for any value-add from the individual.

In the larger context, we should consider that if a test, or any other assignment, is easy to cheat on, it’s likely a poor or invalid assessment of their learning.

I Guess I Must Be Crazy

In his discussion of Diane Ravitch’s new book, Jay Mathews inserts several declarative statements of what he believes to be truth, including the assertion that I must be nuts.

And by his definition, I am.

Many education reforms have gone badly in the last 20 years, but there never has been a golden age of school improvement. No Child Left Behind had many flaws, but it left us better off than than we were before, with more attention to low-income and learning disabled children, and some gains in lower grades, particularly in math. We bumble along, doing our best, hoping that our next idea will produce big gains but knowing that all we can expect is to be a bit better than before.

If the best that billions of dollars and the establishment of a test-score-obsessive, standardized education system can produce is “more attention” and “some gains” (as measured by those same tests, of course), that is not “better off”.

Narrowing the curriculum studied by almost all students in public schools to little more than reading and math drills is more than a “flaw”.

Forcing schools to treat all students exactly the same by expecting them to learn at exactly the same rate is not “doing our best”.

There are some crazies out there who disagree with this and say an education revolution is possible. They know who they are. They don’t include the weary legislators and White House aides who put together No Child Left Behind, making the compromises that are necessary in the democratic society that Ravitch celebrates throughout her book.

I guess I must be one of those crazies, because when I take a good look around it’s not difficult to understand that not only is an education revolution possible, it’s happening.

Just not in schools.

In fact, a revolution in the way people learn and develop and communicate and collaborate and grow is happening almost everywhere else EXCEPT in our schools.

However, the reason that those legislators and aides who put together NCLB didn’t think a revolution was possible is because they didn’t want one in the first place.

NCLB and those other school reform efforts of the last 20 years Mathews declares to have “gone badly” were all designed to craft a better status quo (often in the form of charters and voucher farms) instead of taking an honest look at how and why teaching and learning needed to change and then creating schools that work for the kids, not the adults running them.

So, yes, call me crazy if you like. I do believe there needs to be an education revolution.

And it needs to happen in less than another 20 years of bumbling along.

New Decade, Same Lame Challenge

Front page of this morning’s Post, above the masthead, in space normally reserved for major, earth shattering events, comes the news…


The 2010 “challenge” index for DC-area schools has been unleashed on the unsuspecting, and largely statistically clueless, public!

The method for computing this highly-publicized ranking of high schools hasn’t changed.

Divide the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or other college-level tests a school gave in 2009 by the number of graduating seniors. Tests taken by all students, not just seniors, are counted.

Also not changed is the glorification of the taking of tests, while factoring in nothing about how student actually score on them.

As with the 2009 release, the list includes something called the Equity and Excellence rate, defined as “the percentage of all seniors who have had at least one score on an AP, IB or Cambridge test that would qualify them for college credit”.

Which is also not an entirely accurate number since colleges make their own decisions as to what score on an AP test will earn credit. Or whether the student will get a pass on taking a similar level prerequisite course instead of credit.

So, what exactly is the purpose of the assembling the “challenge” index in the first place?

The rating is not a measure of the overall quality of the school but illuminates the one quantifiable factor that seems to reveal best the level of a high school’s commitment to preparing average students for college. [my emphasis]

The ONE quantifiable factor. Love to see the study supporting that contention, much less the concept that college is the best goal for every student.

While the Post seems to be avoid a “best” tag, it remains to be seen if Newsweek (owned by the Post), when they likely publish the the national version of the index in May, will refrain from billing Mathews’ list as the “nation’s best high schools” as they have in the past.

Ok, I know it’s probably a hopeless cause to continue ranting about this incredibly shallow assessment of high school quality year, after year.

Especially since both politicians and the press seem to be obsessed with reducing everything done in school to simple, headline-friendly numbers, something for which the “challenge” index is tailor made.

However, it would be great if more people would take a critical look at this and other hyper-simple schemes for assessing the complex process of teaching and learning.

By the way, I thought you added the possessive to a name ending in ‘s’ by simply adding an apostrophe. Or am I wrong that the proper punctuation is supposed to be Mathews’ list not Mathews’s list? I’m sure I make plenty of grammatical errors around this place, but I have an excuse. There are no highly trained and paid copy editors around here.

Just Ignore Those Silly, Hysterical Parents

In a recent Class Struggle post, Jay Mathews declares that the concerns about budget cuts expressed by parents in our overly-large school district (he calls it hysteria) are “silly”.

The source for his conclusion comes from the comments of parents quoted in another Post column about our economic problems.

They are hysterically concerned about things like increased class sizes, cuts in kindergarten time, major reductions in elementary school music programs, elimination of most summer school program, and more, and in doing so are “so divorced from reality as to be comical”.

So, why is none of this important to the quality of education in our schools?

Well, because our high schools still score well in his “challenge” index, the 2010 edition of which will be unleashed in a couple of weeks (you have been warned).

Beyond the fact that his index is one of the most fraudulent measures of school quality ever devised*, it should be clear to anyone paying attention that our budget problems will most severely impact the elementary schools.

Which will then impact the high schools a few years from now.

Anyway, after making a pitch for his index, Mathews goes on to make several unsupported claims about how the quality of our schools will be maintained, in spite of major, multi-year declines in revenue, all during a time when the numbers of students continues to increase.

He partially attributes this to the fact that the county is one of the richest in the country, with many involved parents like the ones who are quoted, adults who, according to Mathews, “don’t have a true perspective”.

Among other factors he also ignores the large and growing low income neighborhoods of our county, where schools must cope with increasing numbers of non-English speaking and special education students, all of who require additional services that will also be impacted by cuts.

Areas where parents are not the vocal kind that make hysterical and silly comments and who, for the most part, can’t or don’t provide the instructional support to make up for what their kids no long receive at school.

Of course, in the end, Mathews is right that our district is far better than many in this country and will likely continue to be even after the budget is sliced (although I don’t buy his confidence that we won’t lose a lot of great teachers in the process).

However, as we often tell students, the better measure of quality is not found in comparing ourselves with others but comparing ourselves now with where we should be in the future.

*Search this site for many posts explaining why.

Debating AP

The Room for Debate section* of the New York Times web site notes that Advanced Placement programs in US high schools have “grown enormously in the past decade” and ask a couple of good questions.

Does the growth in Advanced Placement courses serve students or schools well?

Are there downsides to pushing many more students into taking these rigorous courses?

They post responses on the topic from six education “experts”, including, amazingly enough, an actual teacher.


Actually, it’s not much of a debate, but there are some good points made on both sides. And the whole thing is worth a few minutes to read.

However, the idea repeated here that needs the greatest emphasis is that there is nothing magic about AP.

Just putting kids into the classes and having them take the tests will not improve American education, no matter how many schools bow down before the “challenge” index.

From Patrick Welsh, an English teacher at a high school a few non-rush-hour minutes up the road from here:

In part, the explosion in advanced placement test takers has been fueled by Newsweek’s annual cover story on America’s 100 Best High Schools, a listing arrived at by dividing the number of tests given at a school — regardless of the test results — by the number of students in the senior class.

Given the pressure of those rankings, maybe school administrators can be forgiven for beating the bushes to find students to take A.P. exams even if those kids do not have the remotest chance of getting the kind of score that will give them college credit. (A.P. tests are graded on a 1 to 5 scale. The most selective colleges only give credit for scores of 5, while almost no college gives credit for a 2 or a 1.)

And from Saul Geiser, a research associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley:

Yet mere enrollment in AP classes (unlike A.P. exam scores) is not a good indicator of how students will perform in college. In extensive studies at the University of California, we have found that while A.P. exam scores are strongly related to student success, the number of A.P. classes that students take in high school bears almost no relationship to college performance. The key is not simply taking A.P., but mastering the material.

That last sentence pretty much says it all.

* I suppose I should mention that the Times includes this little rantfest in the education section of the Room for Debate blogroll. Still don’t understand that decision. :-)