Low Ceiling

In his increasingly worthless opinion column this week, Jay Mathews wants everyone to join hands and sing Kumbaya. And says he is confused: “The current debate over schools puzzles me”.

Speaking for “most parents” (as he so frequently does), he says they are not interested in politics and the “alleged lessons on race and sex” headlined in the news. Instead “mothers and fathers”1 want their children to “acquire skills that will pay their bills and develop resourcefulness to handle tough times in their lives”.

Which is probably very true. However, the convoluted point of his column is not at all about what parents want from schools.

This piece is another dose of Mathews’ standard propaganda about the academic glories of KIPP and other charter schools, and the AP program. All of which, he claims, shows that we already have a great deal of “parental involvement and parental choice in schools”.

Basically, Mathews is declaring that the debate over schools is done. Just send every kid to a charter school, have them take lots of AP classes when they get to high school, and send them to a four-year college when they graduate. Problem solved. Kumbaya.

Except, like always, he ignores some key facts about kids and schools.

First, not every student needs the kind of curriculum and standardized testing program that is the AP. College is not the best post-high school path for many kids. This is where that informed choice should kick in. And the children should be at the center of that decision, not teachers, counselors or even parents.

Next, there is no magic in charter schools, especially those run by the KIPP organization. He praises them as “academically successful” (along with the “high-scoring IDEA” network of charter schools when a long history of research shows those claims as just not valid.

Especially when you take into account that most charters have a very narrow process to select their students and often very broad authority to eject kids who don’t fit their goals. They are also very lax about hiring qualified teachers.

Then there’s the fact that choice – in anything – only works if you have enough information about all the options.

The information provided by most schools (public, private, charter, doesn’t matter) is mostly marketing materials, highlighting the positive aspects of their programs and hiding, as much as the law will allow, anything negative. The AP curriculum, designed by colleges more to meet their needs, is also very good at pushing propaganda over data.

Finally, Mathews ends his column with this little bit of blandness.

Our parents care more about what is happening in our schools than campaign slogan writers do. We should thank parents for that and listen carefully whenever they, not ambitious politicians, tell us something they know would make our schools even better.

Again, he’s correct that we should ask parents want they want. However, it’s far more important to hear from kids about what they want and need from their education.

And we should also pay far less attention to clueless education columnists like Jay Mathews.


The photo is from a recent visit to Endless Caverns in Central Virginia (photo post coming soon). There could be some connection to the topic of this rant but I’ll leave it to others to determine what that might be.

1. I found that “mothers and fathers” construct, which Mathews uses throughout this piece, a rather odd use of language. I don’t remember him using it in past columns.