Great teacher and school beat dumb ideas


Pat Welsh, a 43-year veteran of the TC Williams teaching staff, retired in June of this year. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
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Nothing I have read in The Washington Post lately has been more lucid and bracing than Patrick Welsh’s assault on catch-phrase school reforms in the Sept. 29 edition of the Outlook section. It was vintage Welsh — detailed, angry, literate. It’s what you expect from one of our best education writers and high school teachers. He added a dash of melancholy for fans like me as we learned he had just retired after 43 years at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.

My only complaint about the piece is that it did not celebrate Welsh or his school enough. It would be out of character for him to mention his own accomplishments. He did say how superb several of his colleagues on T.C. Williams’s faculty have been, but someone reading his piece too fast might think that dumb programs such as Effective Schools, SPONGE and Standard-Based Education had turned T.C. Williams into a bad school. The truth is that they failed to diminish a great school.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

As Welsh explained in his piece, T.C. Williams became an 11th- and 12th-grade high school in 1971, “to achieve full integration of black and white students while avoiding the inflammatory issue of who got bussed where.” The film “Remember the Titans” recalled that year’s football championship, but it did not mention one reason it won: Huge schools have an advantage in sports.

The same is true of T.C. Williams’s strong academic program. Big schools can be scary, but they can also afford more courses, more activities and more new equipment, which in turn attract good teachers. That helped persuade a significant number of middle-class Alexandria families of all ethnicities to stay there, even as neighbors left town for fear that a school where most of the kids were poor could not maintain high standards.

The wrong-headed educational fads that Welsh details are not unique to T.C. Williams, although that school suffered more than most because of the false labels that come with high poverty. The worst was its 2010 designation as one of 128 “persistently lowest achieving schools” in Virginia. The label was helpful in getting more federal money, but it obscured the fact that, despite having mostly low-income students, T.C. Williams had an
82 percent passing rate in reading and a 79 percent passing rate in math, only five percentage points below the state passing rates.

In the Outlook section in 2005, Welsh and I debated his school’s decision to welcome any student who wanted to work hard into Advanced Placement courses, including his own.

“The stronger students aren’t getting the challenge they should be getting and the weaker students, instead of learning basic things they need for college, are being overwhelmed,” he said.

He may have changed his mind about that. He didn’t include the AP expansion in his list of bad programs, and he declined my invitation to debate the issue again after test results showed AP at T.C. Williams was stronger, not weaker, in 2012 than it was in 2005. The school in 2012 gave twice as many AP tests as it did in 2005, yet saw its passing rate on those exams climb from
39 to 56 percent. More students got the motivating thrill of being taught AP English by Welsh.

Bless Welsh’s bosses. They were ripped for years in his Outlook essays. His insightful analyses of bad ideas in public schools were published in the region’s most powerful newspaper and collected in Welsh’s terrific 1988 book, “Tales Out of School.” Yet I never heard of any aggrieved administrators trying to egg him into leaving, as sometimes happens.

That is another sign of a great school and a great school district. The people in charge realized that, as irritating as Pat Welsh could be, he was a great writer and a great educator, someone everybody, including me, would want teaching our kids.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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