Student Trying to Get Ahead Gets Left Behind

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dear Extra Credit:

My son, a rising seventh-grader at Takoma Park Middle School, took Math B, often a fifth-grade course, as a fourth-grader at Pine Crest Elementary School. He was the only one to do so. In fifth grade, he was told that he would have to attend Eastern Middle School for the next-level course, Investigations in Mathematics, known as IM, during that school's first period. Since Eastern was on a block schedule, this meant that he missed part of his elementary-school morning every other day. Moreover, the fifth-graders took their math class in the middle of the day, so it was necessary for my son to sit through Math B again, in addition to taking IM at the middle school.

We were forced into this arrangement against our will, and it felt like punishment. His Math B teacher offered to give him an independent study in advanced topics, but the principal would not allow the teacher to do so. I suggested other possibilities, such as having him sign up for a Johns Hopkins online course or directing him in an independent study myself. All of these options were rejected by the principal, who told us that we had to send our son to the middle school. I don't think an elementary student should ever be forced to attend a middle school against his or her will.

Leslie Hall

Silver Spring

Thanks so much for responding to my request for stories of the difficulties placed in the way of students ready for acceleration. Pine Crest Principal Meredith Casper said peer-group instruction is important for IM, and the nearest place your son could get it was Eastern. As for online or home study, Casper said, those options were open to you, but on school time, the district had to stick to its core curriculum. Casper and you agreed that the Math B teacher was terrific, and found some special projects for your son, who also engaged in some Math B classroom give-and-take. I have space here for more accounts of fast kids encountering a slow lane.

Dear Extra Credit:

Your column ["There's a Place for Cut-and-Paste Learning, and It's Not Fourth Grade," June 6] really hit home for me. I have a son in a Loudoun County high school whose U.S. History teachers still insisted on using "cut-and-paste" learning in the 11th grade! My son resisted this method of learning in middle school and outright rebelled against it in high school. High school students should not be made to employ fourth-grade methods of learning, not if high schools want students to take their classes seriously.

Whatever happened to students taking notes in class or learning the material by reading the textbook? My son really enjoys history, often watches the History Channel on TV and does well on standardized history tests. But when it comes to coloring maps and pasting them into notebooks, he's simply checked out. It's unfortunate that a student who enjoys the subject of history cannot pass if he won't paste papers into a spiral notebook.

Donna Stubin

Loudoun County

I have received a great deal of mail on this. Parents at every grade level wonder why manipulating paper, scissors and paste is so popular in their schools. Bill Brazier, Loudoun's social sciences supervisor, said, "Teachers need to be encouraged to use whatever method works for kids . . . in any grade." It depends on each student, he said, and if that notebook exercise was not working for your son, the teacher should have found something better for him. But, he noted, "Just because a student is poring over a dense textbook or listening to a teacher talk for 45 minutes, that does not automatically mean that a student is learning."

Dear Extra Credit:

Once again, school will not begin until Sept. 8, because of the absurd Virginia law. With just a little research, I have found many attempts at overturning this, but the travel and entertainment industries have too much influence. Is there any sense in making another effort to repeal this law, or do I just accept it and go on since my youngest graduates from high school in 10 years anyway?

Julie Keller


The Virginia law still exists, a monument to the power of the tourism industry, but is crumbling as more than half of the state's school districts (including those in Alexandria and Fauquier and Spotsylvania counties) have gotten exemptions because of anticipated winter snow closings or innovative practices that need an early start. The data we have do not suggest that states that start school after Labor Day do significantly worse than states that start earlier. If I were you, I would use that late-August vacation to take your children to the library and maybe a museum or a battlefield.

Dear Extra Credit:

In response to your misleading Aug. 10 article ["Here's a Wise Investment: Help Students Who Need Money to Finish College"], there is a program to help any young woman or man attend college free. All they have to do is to serve one enlistment in one of our military services, and they will have tuition paid through the new GI Bill. Plus, they will have served their country.

The military service is not just for the poor but for all our young people to do national service and earn an education, sparing future debt for them, their parents and grandparents. Most of our World War II and Korean War veterans got their college educations from previous GI bills. Do I get the message that military service is no longer an honorable way to earn an education in the eyes of The Washington Post, or has it been an oversight on the part of Washington Post writers?

Bob Mason

U.S. Marine Corps, retired


That was entirely my fault. Post colleagues have written excellent stories about the new G.I. Bill, but I failed to mention it in that column. For a Vietnam veteran like me who used the G.I. Bill to attend graduate school, it is particularly shameful. Please forgive me.

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