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Homeroom: Karin Chenoweth

Column May be Ending, but Push to Improve Schools Will Go On

Thursday, August 26, 2004; Page GZ17

For five years, the back-to-school edition of Montgomery Extra has signaled the resumption of Homeroom, a forum in which readers and I have discussed all kinds of issues related to education, from heavy backpacks to reading research.

Today, however, marks not a resumption but an end. I have taken a job with the Education Trust, an advocacy organization based in the District that works to improve the academic achievement of all children, particularly poor children and children of color. So this is my last Homeroom column.

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Karin Chenoweth can be reached by e-mail at homeroom@washpost.com.

Like a parent sending her first child off to college (which I also am), I've thought of all kinds of things to tell you before we part company.

The most important is that parents, students, teachers and other members of the public should never feel intimidated about asking questions about what schools do and why they do it. Public schools are public institutions, and the people running them have an obligation to explain what they do and why. The conversation should be civil and respectful -- as befits small-d democrats (none of that desk-pounding, "I-can-buy-and-sell-you" stuff) -- but continual.

As a parent, I know it is not always easy to have those conversations. People who run schools often are not accustomed to explaining their decisions to parents and sometimes fend off questions with bland assertions about how they know best because of their experience and expertise or because "research" says so.

But real experts -- and in 25 years in journalism I have been privileged to speak with quite a number of them -- don't hide behind their expertise. They explain what they do, citing specific research with a clear explanation of why that research is reliable and relevant, and then they study their results and make necessary changes.

That's the kind of plain speaking we should expect from people who run schools.

For example, an elementary school student who is assigned to the lowest reading group should get a clear explanation of the kind of help he will get and what he and his parents need to do to propel him into the highest reading group. A middle or high school student who is assigned to non-honors classes should be told what help she will be given and what standards she will need to meet to be ready for honors and Advanced Placement classes and, eventually, college.

And, by the way, we need to acknowledge that every child is headed for college. Our society has simply become too complex to be able to successfully negotiate without more education than is possible in the 13 years between kindergarten and high school graduation.

This has become painfully clear to me as I've spoken with many students at Montgomery College who are essentially repeating high school in college remedial classes. Some always wanted to go to college but were never helped to get ready by their teachers or guidance counselors. Some ignored help by teachers and guidance counselors, only to be stunned by the realities of the marketplace into returning for more education. These kids are going to college the hard way, but they are still going.

It would be a lot easier for everyone if we just assumed all kids are going to college and then made sure they are prepared.

Parents need to be alert to signs that their children are struggling. Most important, they need to be aware of how well their children read. Parents whose children are not on track to read well by the middle of first grade or the beginning of second grade should ask their schools for targeted intervention. Parents of older children who are not reading well -- particularly if they are in high school -- might have to be persistent in their requests for help, but they shouldn't stop.

Parents can help their children by taking the televisions out of kids' bedrooms and reading to them from an early age. Don't stop when kids get older; choose books that are a little harder than they can read on their own, exposing them to sophisticated vocabulary, syntax and content in a way they can absorb. Parents who don't feel confident in their own reading ability should borrow books-on-tape from the library.

Another thing parents should do -- particularly those whose children are struggling in school -- is to ask for the credentials and qualifications of each of their children's teachers. A child who is struggling needs an experienced, knowledgeable, skillful teacher. If, instead, she is assigned to a brand-new teacher for the third year in a row, her parents need to request a change. This request should be made civilly and politely, with the full knowledge that a new teacher may someday be a great teacher, but it should be made.

Children who are successful in school can survive an indifferent teacher, but those who are struggling are at severe risk of failure if they do not get teachers who have track records of getting kids to learn.

What I have advised might seem like common sense, but it is also revolutionary. Many schools and school systems have not organized themselves so that their neediest kids get their most expert teachers. In fact, for a variety of reasons, expert teachers tend to drift toward the easiest-to-teach kids, leaving the struggling kids to inexperienced or inexpert teachers.

This is true even in Montgomery County, where salaries are high enough to attract a high-quality teaching force. Even here, 8.8 percent of teachers are conditionally certified, which means, at the least, that they are new to teaching in Maryland and often means they are new to teaching altogether.

Those new teachers are not evenly distributed among the schools but, rather, concentrated in the highest-poverty, highest-need schools and classrooms. For example, the high schools in the county with the highest percentage of uncertified teachers are Gaithersburg High School, with 20.2 percent; Northwest, with 18.6; Einstein, with 14.4; Kennedy, with 13.5; and Blair, with 12.1. All of those schools have significant numbers of poor kids and children of color, and they all have significant numbers of kids who are struggling. Except for Northwest, more than a third of the 10th-graders at each of those schools failed to read proficiently on state tests last year.

These schools should have the fewest uncertified teachers in the county. The fact that they don't have their fair share of experienced teachers is a mark of how much Superintendent Jerry D. Weast and the county school board have neglected fundamental issues involved in making sure Montgomery County has a uniformly high-quality school system.

For those who are interested in that kind of information about the schools, a wealth of information is available. The first stop is www.mdreportcard.org, and I advise anyone interested in this stuff to wander around the Web site of the state Department of Education, www.marylandpublicschools.org/MSDE.

The information there should lead to good, serious discussions between parents and school leaders at PTA meetings, civic association meetings and anywhere else people who care about our county gather centered on such questions as: What does our school system need to do to attract experienced and expert teachers? What is the school system doing to make sure its new teachers get the help and support they need to become expert? What training are teachers getting to help their students be better readers?

These discussions should get much more pointed with the new data known as AYP. AYP is an artifact of the federal law known as No Child Left Behind, which says that each state must set standards for all kids and then make Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, toward making sure that all students meet those standards by 2014.

There has been a lot of hooey lately about how unfair it is to expect schools to make sure that all kids meet "one-size-fits-all" state standards. Right now, a Maryland school is considered to have met AYP if fewer than half the kids in a school or in a subgroup (such as poor kids and kids with limited English), pass the tests. Passing means answering only about a third to a half of the questions correctly, depending on the test. The kicker is that the exam questions really aren't that hard. (To see samples of the tests, go to www.mdk12.org.)

In other words, Maryland's standards are quite low, and if a school can't get just about all of its children to meet them by 2014, it shouldn't call itself a school but a baby-sitting service.

In closing this farewell column, I want to say that I will miss all of you. Over the years I have received thousands of letters from readers. Some of you agreed with me, some disagreed, but all impressed me with your collective passion. We need passionate debate about schools and education, and I salute all who engage in it. Aside from ensuring our physical survival, our nation has no more important job than making sure young people have the knowledge, skills and values that will propel our democracy into the future, and it is up to all of us to make sure that our schools do exactly that.

It's a big job, but somebody has to do it. Might as well be you.

Karin Chenoweth can be reached at homeroom@washpost.comuntil Sept. 7.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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