Let each high school decide how to motivate students

By Jay Mathews
WashingtonPost Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 8:16 PM

Two demographically similar and academically impressive local high schools - Northwood in Montgomery County and West Potomac in Fairfax County - have been debating grades. Both schools have been accused of letting too many students pass their courses without learning the material.

This is in line with what millions of Americans say about schools in general. But they disagree over whom to blame. Unmotivated students? Lazy teachers? Cowardly administrators? Short-sighted parents?

I wonder if there isn't a way for all of these people to resolve the dispute by offering school choices that would approach grading and teaching in different ways. I know it sounds chaotic, but bear with me.

Last week in this column, Northwood math teacher Dan Stephens said he can't motivate his students if his school district lets them pass his course even when they flunk the final exam, written by the county to set a standard for all schools. Contradictory county rules say the test may count as only 25 percent of the final grade.

West Potomac became an issue when my Post colleague Donna St. George revealed it was giving students an I for incomplete, rather than the traditional F, if they were flunking a course. For a while, the school gave the kids extra time to turn in missing assignments and master the material. But late last week, the school said it was going back to the traditional F because of widespread criticism.

On a national scale, these are both successful schools, with relatively high test scores and college-going rates. About one-third of their students are low income, but their percentages of graduating seniors who passed Advanced Placement courses last year were more than twice the national average.

Nonetheless, like most schools, they have plenty of failing students. Lots of readers chimed in about that last week in e-mails and comment posts. Some demanded that the elementary and middle schools feeding into them get tough so all students are ready for high school. Some said parents should stop coddling kids. Many recommended that students be required to retake courses they did not master, even if that delays their graduation.

(Montgomery officials didn't know what percentage of students flunk countywide final exams yet still pass the courses. But they said the number is likely to be small because passing rates on those finals are 67 percent or higher.)

Creative educators also have ideas. Stephens wants to deny students a passing grade if they don't get at least 50 percent on the final exam (still 10 percentage points below the passing mark). West Potomac Principal Cliff Hardison wants to give struggling students many chances to save themselves, even if caught cheating. Montgomery school experts told me that the solution is great teachers who present content in an engaging and relevant way.

They're right. A parent said on my blog that her son hated math until he got a math teacher "who encourages the kids to call her at home with questions, prepares great reviews of the material and communicates with parents."

I predict neither school will stray far from the standard American approach: Let slackers slide through. Many will eventually grow up and realize they must apply themselves in college or job training if they want a decent life. But there is another way to deal with them.

Some schools - usually with many more low-performing kids than Northwood or West Potomac - are letting their teachers band together to experiment with required after-school tutoring, regular teacher visits to homes, more imaginative teaching, longer school days and whatever else works for their communities. Would the Washington suburbs ever tolerate a system in which families could choose schools with radical approaches, such as insisting students pass the final exam or retake the course? Would any parents expose their child to such experiments?

I think yes. Parents are demanding more choices as they worry about our economic future. Their children might also do better if we gave them fewer choices than we do now.

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