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.

Bringing Back the Isolation Booth

Well, this one slipped by me.

It seems that the AP World History teachers at one of the high schools here in our overly-large school district have banned students from using anything they find on the internet in their work.

Along with thoughts and ideas from pretty much any living source.

“You are only allowed to use your OWN knowledge, your OWN class notes, class handouts, your OWN class homework, or The Earth and Its Peoples textbook to complete assignments and assessments UNLESS specifically informed otherwise by your instructor.”

That was not all. Students could not use anything they found on the Internet. They were not permitted even to discuss their assignments with friends, classmates, neighbors, parents, relatives or siblings.

What about complete strangers? The teachers had thought of that. “You may not discuss/mention/chat/hand signal/smoke signal/Facebook/IM/text/email to a complete stranger ANY answers/ideas/questions/thoughts/opinions/hints/instructions.” The words were playful, but the teachers were serious. Any violations, they said, would mean a zero on the assignment and an honor code referral.

Our school board says that our students will learn to “Effectively use technology to access, communicate, and apply knowledge and to foster creativity.” Not to mention all that stuff about learning to work collaboratively.

In these classes access is limited to what’s delivered on paper and any communication or collaboration at all will get you the academic equivalent of the death penalty.

This attitude takes the traditional role of teacher-as-sole-arbiter-of-knowledge and injects it with steroids.

None of this, however, is at all surprising considering the intense paranoia over plagiarism in our schools.

But these days is there any value in an assignment that requires students to work completely in isolation? Was there ever?

Thanks to @jonbecker for tweeting this to my attention.

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.