When Achievement Push Comes to Shove

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, September 11, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

We have some of the top schools in the country in Arlington County. Is there some point with our children at which we could back off and not continue to push for rising achievement, an official goal of the county schools? Is there a way we can say, good enough is good enough?

My oldest son is in middle school. He is a talented but not gifted math student. Midway through this past school year, it was clear that he was not ready for algebraic thinking, and his seventh-grade math teacher compassionately helped us help him decide to move back to a more appropriate math level. Because I teach human development, I was able to help him understand that this wasn't about being dumb, but a developmental marker he had not yet hit. He moved back to repeat the math class he took last year.

Now I have a boy who is not enthusiastic about math. He doesn't believe he is good at it and doesn't think math is fun, all because we want rising achievement for all students.

This wasn't a case of parents pushing their son. We talked to teachers all along the way. We were in no rush to move him forward. In fact, although we want him stimulated at appropriate levels, we don't need him to be doing homework all night. We need him to feel confident and competent. We need him to feel balanced. We want him to do well and we believe in effort, but we want him to not feel lost or deficient.

This need to ensure that we raise achievement for all students is outrageous in a county such as Arlington. We need to ensure that all students are stimulated and excited about learning, but at some point, enough is enough.

Kate McCauley

Arlington County

I suspect many Washington area parents share your feelings about the push for achievement, because the students around here are, by my rough calculation, the highest-performing in the country. I invite them to send me their views on this subject, which I am eager to publish.

Dear Extra Credit:

FairfaxCAPS (Coalition of Advocates for Public Schools) has documented a strong correlation between Fairfax County high schools with the International Baccalaureate program and poorer performance on Virginia Standards of Learning exams compared with schools with Advanced Placement programs. In its reports, FairfaxCAPS was clear that it was not challenging the rigor of the IB program, but believes that the correlation between Fairfax's implementation of IB and lower test scores needs to be examined and understood by policymakers, administrators and parents in Fairfax.

You are a frequent and forceful advocate for the IB program, so it was not surprising that you ignored the FairfaxCAPS research. What is surprising is the deception you perpetrated on your readers in your column of June 12. In that column, you "reprinted" (your word) a letter by Bernie Nakamura, a retired teacher from South Lakes High School who had firsthand experience with the IB program in Europe and at South Lakes. You did not inform your readers that you deleted all of Ms. Nakamura's criticisms of IB that appeared in her original letter in the Fairfax Extra on May 1.

The thrust of Ms. Nakamura's letter concerns the lack of resources dedicated to general education students in Fairfax high schools, a point with which you agreed. FairfaxCAPS contends that the IB program contributes to this problem. Schools with IB programs prioritize the needs of IB diploma candidates. This requirement benefits the elite students pursuing the IB diploma but pulls resources from the general education students. Evidence to support Ms. Nakamura's assertion can be found in South Lakes course offerings. In this school year, South Lakes will be adding three IB classes for its elite students and concurrently cutting eight classes and 16.5 academic credits from its general education and academy programs.

So why do Fairfax County public schools implement the IB program at poorer performing schools? Ms. Nakamura identified a reason, which you deleted from your column. Here it is: "When the principal told us during a faculty meeting that he would be talking with real estate agents that afternoon to explain IB to them, I realized that this was as much an effort to keep the wealthy, highly educated families in our community as it was an educational asset."

By the way, your own Mathews Challenge Index shows a similar correlation, also documented by FairfaxCAPS, between Fairfax high schools with the IB program and lower rankings in the Mathews Index compared to schools with AP programs. As you have ignored this research, FairfaxCAPS invites readers of your column to read it for themselves at http://www.fairfaxcaps.org.

Michael Herd


This column is all about e-mails and letters. I receive many intriguing messages and questions from readers and try to make space for as many of them as I can. That means I often have to edit them, as I did with Nakamura's. I always show the result to the writers before publication to make sure nothing important has been left out, as I did with Nakamura and with you. Leaving in her comments about IB would have required more space for her words and mine, and I thought her IB point was not as well made as her other ideas. I have run your letter in full, even though we both know I have not ignored your research, but devoted a column to it. Your analysis ignores the schools' socioeconomic differences and wrongly says IB is only for an elite.

I have written a book, "Supertest," the most detailed account of how IB operates in Fairfax schools. I hope readers will look at it after they read your Web site and make up their own minds.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mailextracredit@washpost.com.

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