My Sixth Grade Surprise

Jay Mathews, class photo
Jay Mathews, class photo

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 20, 2005; 12:24 PM

Next to this column is a photograph of my sixth grade class at Laurel Elementary School in San Mateo, Calif. It was taken sometime in 1956 or 1957. I had a significant birthday recently, and a classmate who came to the party gave me the picture as a gift.

There is something startling about the photo. (Try to guess what it is -- extra points if you figure out which one of those scruffy urchins is me.) I will tell you at the end of this column and why I think it is good news for those of us who fret over the deep flaws and slow progress in America's schools. I am an optimist, almost a Pollyanna. My wife finds this extremely annoying. (I am sure she will get over it.) Even in bad times, I like to tell good news. That picture of me and the other 35 members of Mrs. Powers' class reminds me of recent reports on encouraging developments in American education.

One is a report by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, "Do You Know . . . The Latest Good News About American Education," and the other is a new book by Manhattan Institute senior fellow Jay P. Greene, "Education Myths: What Special Interest Groups Want You to Believe about Our Schools --and Why It Isn't So." (Rowman & Littlefield, 267 pages, $24.95.) Both are in the tradition of "The Manufactured Crisis," the 1995 book by David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle that debunked some of the hysteria about public schools and gave the education debate needed balance.

Optimism about public education is always risky, and Greene's arguments in particular are very provocative. But I think it is useful to consider that we may be doing some things right, so we don't surrender to despair and start ripping up programs that are working.

The Center on Education Policy report cites several overlooked facts that appear to me to be uncontested:

* More Americans are completing high school or college. The percentage of Americans 25 or older who completed high school increased from 74 percent in 1985 to 84 percent in 2002. The portion of people in that age group who completed college rose from 19 to 27 percent in the same period. Much attention has been paid recently to the fact that other developed countries have caught up with the United States in college completion, but we should not begrudge them their own good news. At least we have improved.

* More children are getting more hours of early education. Full-day kindergarten, for instance, is serving more than 60 percent of children of kindergarten age, compared to less than a third in 1983.

* Broadly speaking, the achievement gap is narrowing. "On long-term NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] trend assessments in math and reading, test score gaps between white and minority students have narrowed to the smallest margins in three decades," said the center's summary of the report.

* Average SAT scores are going up, even as more students take the test. The math average of 518 for members of the class of 2004 is 14 points higher than 1994 and 21 points higher than 1984. That class's verbal score of 508 is 9 points higher than 1994 and 4 points higher than 1984, after a decline in scores that inspired much of the public school restructuring of the 1980s and 1990s.

Greene's book uses some of the same data to needle his adversaries. He is on the side of the pro-choice, free-market, No Child Left Behind crowd. They think tests are important and parents should have access to charter schools or vouchers if their local public schools are not measuring up. Here are some of the often-heard and decidedly pessimistic assertions Greene thinks are wrong:

*The Push-Out Myth -- "Exit exams cause more students to drop out of high school." He says a study by Berliner and Audrey Amrein supporting this statement has no controls for race or poverty, as well as other flaws. Other studies, including one Greene did with Marcus Winters, show no significant differences in graduation rates between states that require students to pass a standardized test to get a diploma, and those that don't. He suggests such tests may have little effect because, among other things, they are relatively easy and students have many chances to take them.

*The College Access Myth -- "Nonacademic barriers prevent a lot of minority students from attending college." Greene criticizes a 2002 report by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance (ACSFA), a part of the U.S. Education Department, that concludes 48 percent of low-income and 43 percent of middle-income students are prevented from attending four-year college by financial barriers. The problem, Greene says, is the ACSFA definition of college readiness. It asserts that students with a 2.7 grade point average in high school -- a high C -- are qualified for college, even if they have SAT scores that indicate they did not learn much while acquiring those grades. "The study blames financial barriers for keeping out of college many thousands of students who could not enroll in four-year colleges no matter how much money they had," Greene says.

*The Draining Myth -- "School choice harms public schools." We will be having a national argument over this issue for several more years. I would almost accuse Greene of creating a straw man in this case, except that many public school advocates still say that vouchers and charter schools draw needed resources away from regular public schools. The data suggest that whatever school choice is doing, it is not hurting achievement at traditional schools. Greene argues that it is helping those schools by inspiring them to improve, a conclusion that will need a good deal more time and research to prove itself.

And what about my sixth grade photo? Both of these reports mention class size, which is what caught my eye in that black-and-white glossy print. My class had 36 students. No Laurel principal today would dare have that many kids in one classroom, but in the 1950s, it was common, something I had completely forgotten. My mother, who taught at Laurel for awhile, said she thinks teachers then had to overlook significant issues, such as emotional problems, to handle those large classes, but nobody made much of it at the time. That benign attitude grew from the fact that school districts and newspapers did not publish standardized test results until the 1970s. "There was no pressure to raise class averages," my mother said.

Today, the largest class at Laurel has only 30 students, with no more than 20 in the lower grades. That is a significant improvement, to my way of thinking.

The classmate who gave me the picture is Carol Fenema Perry. I am in the front row, second from the left. She is next to me, third from the left and towering over me as most people did, then and now. Carol trounced me in Laurel's student body president election, eventually married our high school classmate Dan Perry and became a very successful teacher at Taylor Elementary School in Arlington County. Her fifth grade class this year has only 21 students. That allows her, she says, to provide individualized instruction that was impossible for Mrs. Powers.

One teacher survey cited by Greene indicates the national average class size for elementary schools dropped from 29 students in 1961 to 24 in 1996. There will continue to be interesting arguments over how important class size is to learning, but optimists like me prefer smaller classes. As much as I liked Mrs. Powers and my many classmates, I think Laurel Elementary is better off now.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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