There are dozens of ways to rank secondary schools. Here's a way of assessing which ones are pushing students to excel.
Much to their astonishment, Kevin and Duc, two basketball-crazed students at Fairfax County's Mount Vernon High School, found themselves agreeing to take Bernie Glaze's International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge class. After just a few days, they told her all that talk of Kant and Aristotle and other white guys with no jump shot made their brains hurt.
Glaze has been teaching a long time. She had encountered the likes of Kevin and Duc, who either enjoyed pretending they were not smart or actually believed they were intellectually deprived because many of the people in their neighborhoods did not do well in school. She knew them better than they knew themselves-and one day she caught them. The two were talking about an NBA playoff game, analyzing, judging, synthesizing, what-if-ing. "Listen to yourselves!" she said. "Your brains know what to do. Just treat Plato as though he were Michael Jordan!"
And so they did, still complaining, but jumping into discussions as if they were scrambling for the ball, exploring the big ideas-and proving that high school could be more than an effort to keep easily distractable adolescents quiet and comfortable until graduation day.
That was four years ago. Today Glaze is in the midst of committing the entire Fairfax school system, one of the largest in the country, to engaging the interests and subverting the doubts of students like Kevin and Duc. In Fairfax's high schools, the gifted and talented, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses that other school systems reserve for "A" students are being opened to anyone. The county school board is paying nearly $1.3 million a year in fees for college-level AP and IB tests so no student has a reason not to take them. And Glaze, as the county specialist for advanced academic programs, is training AP and IB teachers in the whys and hows of involving even ill-prepared students in academic challenges.
The idea is this: Students motivated to take demanding courses will go very far even if they start well behind their peers. Glaze tells skeptical instructors, "If the kid cannot read the textbook, you teach the kid to read the textbook."
This is a controversial approach. Rick Nelson, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said the result will be overworked teachers and undereducated students. "The answer is NOT to shove kids into classes where they are not prepared," he said. "The answer is to use tested, proven curriculum in the lower grades, so they can not only take higher-level courses, they can succeed in them." A quick, informal survey found some Fairfax educators pleased with using AP and IB as a "reality check" for students headed to college, while others said some teenagers were being pushed in "way over their heads."
What Glaze and many other Fairfax educators are doing, inspired by the democratic notions of administrators like Fairfax School Superintendent Daniel Domenech and U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, is dropping the some-are-smart-and-some-are-not model that has ruled most American schools for a century. They insist that motivation, not IQ or GPA or race or income, is the most important consideration in learning.
It is, in many ways, an Asian approach. Chinese, Japanese and Korean teachers assume academic success comes from hard work, not heredity. But many American educators like Glaze, who early in her career found capable children from impoverished neighborhoods while teaching in the District, learned this on their own with no help from the Discovery Channel.
As a result of Fairfax's change in philosophy, its high schools have soared to the top of my third annual Challenge Index assessment of area schools, taking 21 of the 35 top spots. The number of AP and IB tests, college-level examinations given to high schoolers, jumped 71 percent from 1997 to 1999 in Fairfax County. This was an unprecedented increase for a large American school district. With 160,000 students total, Fairfax is one of the few districts in the country to require that all students in AP courses take the AP tests (this has long been the rule for IB) and one of the few to open the college-level AP and IB courses to all who want them.
Rating schools is a troublesome exercise. It can hurt feelings and leave distorted impressions. There are dozens of ways to look at schools and rank them. The Challenge Index will not tell you which school gets the most kids into Ivy League colleges or which on average has the highest SAT scores. It will tell you something about which schools are pushing students to challenge themselves, offering them an opportunity to excel. The Challenge Index has the additional benefit of being easy to figure out. Anyone can calculate a school's rating with one telephone call to the school guidance office and a single act of arithmetic-take the number of AP or IB tests given at a school in any year and divide by the number of students in that year's graduating class.
A study of 13,000 students by Education Department researcher Clifford Adelman shows that taking college-level courses in high school is a better predictor of college success than high grades or SAT scores. Even students who get bad scores on AP or IB tests are better off because, experts say, they are better prepared for the shock of their first college examination.
And the chance to stretch beyond the usual limits intrigues many adolescents. Annie Tsang, a junior at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Fairfax, discovered last winter that she no longer had to show her report card and recommendations to register for gifted and talented classes. A counselor told her the school board felt the old rules "were holding good kids back." Tsang, energetic and ambitious, had previously been kept out of some courses because her grades did not quite meet the standard. "This is a great change," she said. The portion of AP tests with passing scores dropped from 75 percent to 62 percent when Fairfax began to require that all AP students take the relevant AP tests last year. The 2000 passing rate was 63 percent, only a percentage point below the national average, and more minorities are taking the tests and doing well. Glaze, echoing the advice of college recruiters, says, "It is better to get a C in a course that challenges you than an A in a course that doesn't challenge you."
Many other Washington-area schools are spreading this message. Marlene Tarr, principal of Catoctin High School in Frederick County, nearly tripled the number of AP tests in two years by, among other things, having students sign a contract promising to take the tests. At High Point High School in Prince George's County, principal William Ryan and his advanced courses coordinator John Sibert increased AP test taking 60 percent from 1997 to 1999 by strengthening the ninth- and 10th-grade preparatory courses. Most local school districts had significant growth in AP and IB test taking in that same period.
What will come of it remains unclear. Cathy Colglazier, who teaches AP English at McLean High School in Fairfax County, supports more access to AP and IB but fears that students will stretch themselves thin by taking too many hard courses. And what of the other classes? "If everyone with any motivation is taking AP classes, who is taking the regular ones?" she said. "How do we create classes that avoid being remedial, that avoid a Sweat Hog label?"
Glaze says the solution is to help and challenge all children, no matter what their previous level of achievement. In 1994 she moved from Thomas Jefferson, which has the highest-achieving student body in the country by almost any measure, to Mount Vernon, which has struggled with large numbers of low-income and limited-English-speaking students. Such voluntary transfers are unusual, but Glaze says the blossoming of Mount Vernon's IB program-one of the area's strongest-proved she could make great progress with disadvantaged students.
"A" students are fun to teach. But most educators know that motivated teenagers, even those who don't get the idea right away, have their own gifts. "Possessing an intellectual curiosity and a willingness to learn even when the task at hand isn't easy are important qualities," says Lisa Green, an IB English teacher at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax. "Sometimes it's the kids who are not as innately bright who bring up the new idea or the divergent question, and that enriches everybody."
Jay Mathews covers education for The Post. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.