I wish I understood why The Washington Post continues to provide print space for Jay Mathews.

Mathews was a long-time education reporter for The Washington Post and is now a weekly columnist. But then as now, his focus is extremely narrow. Most of his writing involves cheerleading for the Advanced Placement program1 and making excuses for charter schools.

The former seems to be the topic of his column in today’s paper, although it’s difficult to find a point.

In the title he asks why “average” students2 are stuck in the dullest high school courses, meaning, of course, classes that don’t have an AP label. Which I find rather amusing since some of the most regimented teaching I’ve ever observed occurs in AP classes. The curriculum and assessment for those courses is strictly controlled by the College Board, with a primary goal almost always teaching to the test.

But Mathews doesn’t really bother with why non-AP courses must be dull. Instead he jumps into his correspondence with an associate at the Great School Partnership who is critical of the program of studies used in many high schools and their method of placing students in courses. Or something like that.

Then they both head off into criticism of grading practices.

Unguided grading practices pave the way for mindless sorting. “School systems do a far better job of codifying dress codes, class-rank procedures and disciplinary ladders than they do in guiding and unifying teachers’ grading practices,” he said. Grades influence how students think about themselves and their futures, yet teachers often give grades as they like without much thought about the effect. There is little evidence that bad grades inspire improvement, while instruction that is challenging has been shown to work.

There is certainly much to discuss about the way students at all levels are assessed, but putting almost every student into AP classes doesn’t even approach fixing that issue. Or any of the other problems that concern Mathews and his guest.

However, there’s another very related issue that isn’t addressed in the multiple targets of Mathews’ pinball column, and something he almost never writes about.

Let’s look at how classes in most schools are rigidly segregated into subject area silos. Math is here, science in that box, social studies over there, and we can’t possibly mix them.

School might be less dull for those “average” students if they were working on real-world problems, where subject areas streams get crossed and learning gets messy. And interesting.


A nice photo of silos that serve a purpose out there in the real world of Ralls, Texas. It’s from the Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Some years back he grudgingly added the International Baccalaureate program to his boosterism, even though it was designed as an interdisciplinary curriculum rather than a collection of unreleased, independent courses, which is the AP.

2. I hate that designation. And I’m betting that Mathews would determine the averageness of a student by their scores on standardized tests.