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Toxic Tendencies in the Rush to the Top

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dear Extra Credit:

The letter from Ann Harrington on her son's progress through middle school math ["Do Schools Push High-Performing Kids Too Hard?" May 7] and your comment that kids are not challenged enough disturbed me greatly. First, this whole mythology about the importance of taking Algebra 1 in eighth grade is just that, mythology. There is a correlation between taking Algebra 1 in eighth grade and college attendance, but it is not causation. This is a common error that people make, thinking that there is a cause-and-effect relationship. Taking Algebra 1 in eighth grade will not cause you to go to college.

In Montgomery County, particularly in the affluent Bethesda-Potomac area, the drive for academic achievement is absolutely toxic. Twelve-year-olds should not be worrying about whether they are going to get into the right college, and their parents and teachers are doing them a grave disservice by continually reinforcing the message that they have value only as it relates to test scores of every imaginable stripe.

The tragedy of this educational system is that a lot of joy and real achievement does not occur because we have lost our understanding of what real learning and growth is about and how it happens. It happens in an atmosphere of engagement -- where students are supported, nurtured and respected. It does not happen when they are told that everything is about the grade, the test score, the rapidity with which they reach certain milestones (status symbols for their parents).

Kathy O'Neill

Bethesda

You and I live in Bethesda. I suspect many of our neighbors are cheering this well-written critique. Your point about pressure is a good one, but you go too far. As I said in my answer to Ms. Harrington: "I am willing to let parents like you and me, middle-class folk in Montgomery County, have our kids take it easy. The research says they will do fine no matter what kind of elementary school they attend." Bethesda represents -- this is a conservative estimate -- the top 5 percent of average incomes and the top 5 percent of public school quality in this country.

You say the link between taking algebra in eighth grade and college attendance is just correlation, not causation. Fine. In our community, you are probably right. But what do you say about the research that shows that low-income children given a chance to learn algebra in eighth grade are much more likely to attend college than those whose schools do not encourage that choice? Do you really want to take a chance with those kids' lives and say it is just correlation, and they will be fine if they get to algebra later than our kids?

You express yourself well, but I think we Bethesdans should be careful, when we offer educational insights, to make clear we are talking about just our blessed enclave.

Dear Extra Credit:

My favorite part of the Thursday Washington Post is Extra Credit. I enjoy gaining insight into the Montgomery and Fairfax county school systems, as both seem to be swarming with helicopter parents.

I, too, am a (proud) helicopter parent. Like many parents in Fairfax County, I expect (and, to some extent, will demand) the best for my children. Our elementary school, Mosby Woods, delivers. Mosby Woods has an excellent teaching staff, a supportive and knowledgeable administration, very friendly and courteous administrative staff and wonderful support staff all around.

Their teachers are some of the best. For instance, there is Lindsay Ritter. For her first-graders, she had Redskins Math, U-Va. Math and Wizards Math. The children would talk about the game scores and use cubes to count by tens and ones and tally marks to count by fives. The children would use coins to see how much money the teams would have made if the scores reflected their pay. Ms. Ritter urges her students to make healthy lifestyle choices. She encourages them to choose white milk instead of chocolate milk. She reminds parents to read to their children every night and not to cheat them out of this wonderful pastime.

Many of your readers write to voice their concerns about the school systems. I, too, may one day voice a concern. However, at this time, I wish to show appreciation to Mosby Woods. Go Mustangs!

Colleen M. Al Mukhtar

Fairfax County

This column is primarily for questions and complaints, but an occasional cheer for a fine school can't hurt.

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-mail extracredit@washpost.com.

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