Race Can Be Another Hurdle to Quality Education

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

I really enjoyed your Feb. 28 column ["Sorry For the Bickering; Let's Pick a Good School"]. As a parent of three children, I employed the methods you listed in picking a school for my children more than 10 years ago. I selected the school before I found a house. However, in districts that are very "vertical," elementary schools do matter. They are the gateway to the more selective high schools and high school programs.

I have also found that for African American parents, there should be an 11th criterion. The teacher expectations for black students are sometimes different. I have had teachers tell me that I am very articulate for an "African American parent." (I have degrees from two top-tier universities. All of my peers are "articulate.")

It has been a fight I had not had until my children reached high school. I have found that most of the highly educated black parents at my children's high school walk around with a list of unacceptable teachers, simply because their expectations are not there for the black students in the classroom.

My son, with an IQ of 129, was deemed unable to do high-school-level work by one health teacher. He has been reading at a 12th-grade level since the fifth grade. Asked about this, she could not point to one assignment or classroom discussion that supported the comment.

These types of comment are often made to other teachers in break rooms. It is very ugly. Few school districts do anything to address the problem. Most parents don't acknowledge it. A school with a small concentrated population of black students living in one community/neighborhood is quite ripe for it. The leadership of the school's administration will tell whether the behavior is accepted or actively discouraged.

Stephanie Segue

Montgomery County

This is a terribly corrosive and widespread problem that many parents have told me about, and that my own reporting in high school has confirmed again and again. I have often asked educators why bright and ambitious students I have interviewed -- often minorities or children from low-income homes -- have not been placed in more challenging courses. Often the educator will say the student or parent didn't make the request, or a teacher or counselor didn't make a recommendation, or it just didn't seem to be the kind of thing in which the student was interested.

Teachers, counselors and principals in this area have become much more sensitive to this issue. Many high schools encourage as many students as possible -- particularly minorities and low-income students -- to try a more demanding schedule. But in some instances, the parent still has to be very watchful, as you were. I would like to hear from other parents on how they handled these situations.

Dear Extra Credit:

In your Dec. 20 column ["Inclusion Doesn't Inhibit the Best Students"], you said that you knew of "no counselors anywhere who try to get students to take six or more AP courses a year," and that including all students who want to try Advanced Placement does not hurt the best students because "the course must follow an external high standard, which the teacher can't dumb down without being caught."

No counselor pressures a student to take six or more APs in Charles County, but the competition for valedictorian and other advantages drives the AP course load. With grades from AP classes weighted an extra point on the grade-point average, students are taking the AP classes to raise their GPAs and get the recognition on their class standings. Whether the counselor pressures them or not, the pressure is there.

Inclusion does hurt the best AP students. My children's experience in AP U.S. history exemplifies this. No one in the class received a score higher than 3, with the gifted missing out on the discussions and the insights into history that would have helped prepare them to obtain the higher scores with better written essays.

I am not convinced that all AP teachers are the same. Two of my children had the same AP physics teacher, a chemist by training. My first, now a college sophomore, had to get his sister, a college junior, to help him in college physics because of the lack of training in high school AP physics, despite getting an A in the class, and canceled his test score because he thought there was no way he passed. His younger sister, now a high school senior, has the same teacher for AP physics. She has come to me several times with very basic physics problems. When I have showed her the way to work them, she told me that her teacher didn't do them that way. She also told me that the regular physics class was having the same problem and couldn't get the answers in the book.

It's not always the course but the teacher, as well.

Pat Hebert


Your point is an excellent one. Good teaching is crucial. But AP helps you to identify bad teachers in a way few other courses do, because students take an exam their teachers do not control. A class with gifted children that produces no AP scores above a 3 is a glaring indicator that the teacher needs to be retrained or replaced. Same thing with a physics teacher who gives an A to a student who later struggles in college. If you have doubts about the teacher, check the previous year's AP scores before your child enrolls.

Dear Extra Credit:

I found it ironic that the subject of your Feb. 28 column ["Sorry For the Bickering; Let's Pick a Good School"] appeared on the very day the School Board voted to redistrict in western Fairfax County. Many of us have done much of what you said, and yet we may not get to go to the school of our choice. So I guess No. 11 on your list should be: Pick a house within a half-mile of the school of your choice or risk being rezoned into a school that you didn't want to go to.

Annette Anderson

Oak Hill

Such redistricting does not happen very often, except in fast-growing areas such as yours. But you are right. It really messes up a conscientious parent's planning.

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