Friday, Dec. 15, 11 a.m. ET

Challenge Index -- Education Coverage

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Tara Bahrampour, Valerie Strauss, Ian Shapira, Nelson Hernandez, Daniel de Vise and Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 15, 2006; 11:00 AM

Post education writers Tara Bahrampour, Valerie Strauss, Ian Shapira, Nelson Hernandez, Dion Haynes and Daniel de Vise discuss the joys and struggles of covering area schools. Have a general question or comment about how The Post covers education? They were online Friday, Dec. 15 at 11 a.m. to offer their insights.

A transcript follows.

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Eds. Note: Daniel de Vise and Valerie Strauss were unable to join the discussion.

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Fort Washington, Md.: Can you explain why African-American students test lower than other ethnic groups? Currently, I have a child attending a private school in Northern Virginia. However, to offset expenses, my family is planning to relocate to Northern Virginia. After studying several schools in the area, it saddens me to see that our public schools are very much segregated. Have you studied the effects of African-American children in predominantly white schools, with predominantly white teachers.

Dion Haynes: That is a very good question -- one without an easy answer. In the District, there are a number of African-American students in poverty -- and that is a main factor. Many of these children come from homes where parents did not read to them at an early age. Many of those parents were poorly educated. Many of those children live in communities where education is not valued.

Some experts and activists point to "test bias" that they say favors white students over minority students. Meanwhile, some black students who make good grades complain that the standardized exams do not reflect their achievement; they attribute their low test scores to "test anxiety."

Maybe my colleagues have insights on the achievement gap outside the District.

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Dion Haynes: Hello everyone. Good to be here with you.

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Washington, D.C.: I rarely see much discussion about the lack of racial diversity in the city schools. It seems most schools don't have any kids other than African Americans. I know race is not supposed to mean much, but it strikes me as very weird. These are schools in communities that seem racially diverse -- so what is going on? What effect, whether positive or negative, does it have on the kids in these non-diverse schools? I'd like to hear stories of those kids who attend school as the only white kid or the only Asian kid -- and from the African-American kids attending the non-diverse schools, do they think it's a problem, or do they prefer to attend an all-black school. And how do the parents feel?

Dion Haynes: That is a good suggestion. You're right, race is rarely discussed since the school system is mostly African American. I suppose the racial issue is couched in terms of class -- the east of the river, west of the park debate. That is a good idea, to explore what if feels like to be the only white or one of a few white students in a school.

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NW, D.C.: Dion Hayes, great article today. Without a doubt our education system needs to be adjusted, tweaked or changed somehow. I am not a fan of the privatization of any aspect of public schools. However, in your coverage of DCPS, you have to see the failure or the over complexity that bureaucracy leads. What would prevent DCPS or any other school system from implementing the same models a private firm would? I have worked public and private sector. In many ways the talent is not really that different. The mechanisms to carrying out the goal is.

Dion Haynes: You're right, I don't think there is a lack of talent or good ideas. I think what's really missing is the will to overcome the obstacles to implementing the good ideas. DCPS is not a huge school system -- there are only about 140 schools and 58,000 students. Several much larger school systems have been able to move forward. It's not an impossible task.

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Catholic School Mom:: Do you ever look at and report on the Catholic elementary and high schools in the D.C. Metro area? What can be done better, what is working, and what lessons can public and private schools learn from each other? Can you list the Catholic high schools in the Challenge Index?

Tara Bahrampour: Hello, Catholic school mom. Your timing is perfect; my editor and I were just talking about how we'd like to do more stories on Catholic and private schools. I have met with some principals and talked with some representatives from Catholic schools, and gotten some good general pictures of schools, but have found it harder to find story ideas. I often get calls from public schools or from public school parents alerting me to a possible story idea, but that happens much less with private schools. Also, if I am trying to get information on a story I'm pursuing, I've found that private schools tend to be much less likely to talk to me or give me information, much more protective of their privacy (this is sometimes true even if the parents have talked to me already). Still, I'd like to change this, and add more coverage of these schools, and I'd welcome any story ideas from parents, teachers, or administrators at these schools.

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Olney, Md.: Newspapers need to fully appreciate the importance and complexity of education issues. Presumably, The Post enables reporters covering foreign affairs to learn the background of the issues before they are required to report on those issues so that they can be as accurate as possible in their reporting. The same must be done with respect to public education, so that reporters can accurately report what is at stake and what is happening as the public schools deal with respect to issues of significance. Fortunately, my limited experience is that The Post's reporters are very aware of this.

Many public school issues can be seen from the outside as simply involving the clash of "special interest groups," when, in fact, they either (a) are struggles to find the best way to accommodate everyone's needs or (b) are efforts by extremist groups to impose their ideology on the community.

For example, in Montgomery County, there are concerns that the process of identifying "gifted and talented" students creates self-fulfilling prophecies of lower achievement among those not so identified. Such concerns run parallel to concerns that highly able students may be held back by teaching approaches that simply "teach to the middle" or focus on those at "the bottom." How to, in Superintendent Weast's phrase, "raise the bar and lower the gap," is not always easy, and most people want to find ways to do both simultaneously. Without having such a context, there is a danger that stories will be reported simply as clashes between parents with different priorities.

In contrast, in the area of health education, efforts by MCPS to include basic information on sexual orientation as understood by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychological Association have been resisted by a small number of people who reject the mainstream medical/mental health view that homosexuality is not a disease and not a choice and not something that can or should be changed by "therapies""premised on the assumption that homosexuality is a disease and should be "cured." The only "success" achieved by this small group was an ambush lawsuit brought by Jerry Falwell's Liberty Counsel, which resulted in MCPS starting the curriculum revision process anew. Students may not take units on human sexuality with their parents' permission, so this is not an issue of usurping parental rights. Rather, unlike the knotty problem of how to "raise the bar and lower the gap," this story is simply one of whether MCPS will follow the medical consensus in its health education curriculum, or whether it will succumb to right-wing efforts to intimidate by threat of lawsuit.

Ian Shapira: Welcome education-reporter media critics! Bring it on. Give us your complaints. Tell us what we can we do better.

As for you, Olney Md, I think we try hard to do as much as research as possible for stories and incorporate that into our stories without weighting them down too much. I think one of our primary goals is to get the voices and perspectives of parents and students in our stories.

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Va.: Hello. I e-mailed some of you to look into whether members of the school board in your area have kids in private schools or public schools. Since some of the board members voted against school vouchers, school charters, it is relevant to know what their kids' backgrounds are. Thanks. Keep up the good work.

Tara Bahrampour: Good question. As far as I know, the school board members in the areas I cover, Arlington and Alexandria, have had kids in the public schools, although some have long since graduated. I suggest you contact the school board office to ask, or check the Web site for your district. Often the members' bios (including information about children) are listed.

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East End, D.C.: Why is it that someone hasn't figured out that if you turn schools into armed camps that students will develop a prison mentality?

And why is it that the District of Columbia is woefully out of Title IX compliance, which only creates more pregnant minority teenagers and more abortions?

Dion Haynes: Yes, you're right. School officials have to do more than protect the perimeter of the buildings -- they have to focus on what goes on inside them. If they were able to make the schools more engaging -- with sports, after-school activities, lively academics -- they likely would see a reduction in many social problems.

In all fairness to school leaders, the administration is attempting to address those issues with several ideas, including renovating schools, linking recreation and community programs with schools and implementing higher academic standards.

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Baileys Crossroads, Va.: Here's a Catholic school idea ... what are the Catholic schools doing to attract or retain those students who qualify for the the gifted and talented programs in public school?

Tara Bahrampour: Good question. I imagine that Catholic schools' ability to attract students depends very much on the area they are in. In my education reporting, here and in New York, I have come across Catholic schools that are stellar, rivaling the best private or public schools, and I have come across others that are academically mediocre and stuck in traditions that seemed to hinder inspired teaching and learning. Obviously the better ones will have an easier time attracting talented and gifted kids. But there is also the question of context. If a Catholic school is located in a place where the public schools are subpar academically, or dangerous, it's going to be a lot easier to attract students, including the talented and gifted ones (and often including non-Catholic students who are there for the educational opportunities). If, on the other hand, they are located in a place with excellent public schools, it will be harder to find people who will pay money for services that sometimes can't compete (public schools can often spend a lot more per student than Catholic schools). In that situation it's going to be harder to attract the best students, unless they come from families to whom the religious component is of very high importance. I haven't studied any numbers, but my guess would be that in this academically competitive era (with parents deeply involved in the details of their kids' education), Catholic schools need to be ever more competitive to attract the best students -- i.e. for many families, it's not enough anymore that the schools simply be Catholic.

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NW, D.C.: DCPS had to be proud of its school scores on the Challenge Index. For those that placed Top 50 and Banneker, 13th, they are the schools with a more academic focus. Are folks touting those school?

Dion Haynes: Yes, DCPS considers Banneker a jewel of its system.

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Washington, D.C.: There are many universities in D.C. The coverage seems to be almost exclusively over high-level controversies -- AU ousting Ben Ladner, or Gallaudet students protesting their new president. However, students are doing amazing things all the time, from organizing conferences on refugee issues to holding student referendums to decide if the university will be run by wind energy. Why do you think this is? Is there something students in these universities could do to prompt coverage of their activities?

Dion Haynes: You might want to contact The Post's higher education writer Susan Kinzie at kinzies@washpost.com.

Tara Bahrampour: Also a good question. Contacting Susan is certainly the first step. But also keep in mind (and this is true for k-12 as well as college) that it is hard to sell a newspaper a story for "amazing things" that happen "all the time." Every day each of us gets a pile of e-mails touting interesting conferences, great programs, awards ceremonies, etc. that for each given school is a big deal, but for us to cover every one of them would be impossible. And for us to choose one over all the others wouldn't be feasible. So the bar is really high for these things. In general, they've got to be new and innovative and different enough from what everyone else is doing to even get an editor to consider the idea. Let's take the two examples you put out: organizing conferences on refugee issues is no doubt a great learning opportunity for students, but it is something many universities do, and have done since the ice age, when I was a university student. On the other hand, I bet a referendum to decide whether the university should be run by wind energy could be a story -- if A) it is really a possibility that it might happen and B) other universities in the area haven't already done it. So you see it's a lot harder to get a story about this kind of thing in the paper vs. a story like Gallaudet, where students were camping out on the lawn, which was clearly unusual and newsworthy.

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Washington, D.C.: I agree that students from low-income households do poorly because they were not read to on a regular basis as infants, toddlers and beyond.

What are the costs/benefits of ensuring that this reading takes place? Even sending in government paid "helpers" to read to infants and show parents how to read so they can take on this vital activity? Finally, what would you expect the achievement level of children from low-income and broken homes to be if, at a minimum, they were read to everyday from birth on?

Dion Haynes: Early childhood education has been getting lots of attention lately.

Incoming D.C. school board President Robert C. Bobb has touted that as a key issue. He wants the local government and schools to make health care and education top priorities for pregnant mothers and for children from birth to age 5.

Also an independent national panel called the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce issued a study yesterday saying that states should mandate universal pre-kindergarten for 4year olds and for low-income 3- and 4-year olds.

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NE, D.C.: I think the D.C. School System's Web site needs a major overhaul. It provides virtually no information on the schools. I can't even figure out where my future children will go to school if we remain living where we are right now. I should be able to put in my address and have the school -- and that school's statistics -- come up.

The system makes it where the parents have to do all the legwork and research. Which I think most parents would be happy to do ... IF they had the time!!

Dion Haynes: Yes, that Web site is hard to navigate and sometimes has outdated information.

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Alexandria, Va.: How about doing a series on how children with disabilities are being educated in the various school systems? How we educate our most vulnerable citizens is a reflection of how we are as a society and too often children with disabilities are not being provided with an appropriate, let alone a quality education.

Tara Bahrampour: Another good idea. The story would need a focus, though -- otherwise it would have to be a dissertation. So if there were a school system that was doing something new and effective for students with disabilities; or if there were a school system that was doing particularly badly and parents were protesting -- either of those could be a start-off point from which we could expand a story and look at the general state of affairs for students with disabilities. The immediate and specific story is what provides a "hook" -- a timely reason to do a story -- that's one difference between what we do and what academics do. Once we get the hook, then we can go to the academics, superintendents, etc. and broaden the story to look at the general state of affairs.

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Bowie, Md.: Do these school systems get it, particularly PG, that the American public or its residents are more educated now and the result is more parents know what their kids need to excel academically and expect the system to furnish those opportunities? I recall PG residents wanting a new school to be a math and science focused school and the system balked at the idea. When you look at the Challenge Index, that is what I see from Fairfax and the Western Montgomery County schools. Systems providing academic opportunities that the public calls for.

Tara Bahrampour: I don't know of the specific case you are talking about, so I can't comment on it. In general, parents are a lot more involved with and aware of what is going on in their kids' schools. It is good to be involved, both for the kids and for the schools -- especially in areas that have sorely lacked parental input. Parents can often effect great improvements. But involvement is only good up to a certain point. Over involvement can be bad for kids -- experts are talking more about this, saying this generation of parents can be so involved that they do not allow their kids to develop coping skills on their own. Sometimes a parent can hear about a program and insist on it even if it is not appropriate for the school or the kid. Again, I don't know about the case you are talking about, but I just wanted to make the point that parents and schools need to be sure that the programs they are pushing for are actually appropriate for the context they are operating in.

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Tara Bahrampour: Thank you all for your thought-provoking questions -- this was great. I hope we can keep up the dialogue and you'll feel free to contact us any time on education issues. Tara.

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Greensboro, N.C.: In response to why African-American students do not do well in school, I agree that poverty/economic status, education level of parents, and segregated schools, and a general culture of thinking that education and being smart is not cool contribute sometimes. In homes where you find college educated parents with decent salaries, a child will more likely have access to useful knowledge and know-how when it comes to enhancing or knowing where to go to enhance his/her learning skills. Plus, the money will be able to support the more costly ways of enhancing the child's education (i.e., learning workshops, special tutoring, etc.). Reading to a child is extremely important as well.

Exposing children to different cultural places and other stimulating things (i.e., cultural festivals, art, books, etc) also helps a lot in opening their mind to think, analyze, and appreciate learning.

Our public schools are failing our children horribly, especially those with a predominately African-American student body.

Last, we live in a culture where our entertainers are valued, and being smart is just not all that cool. I see it more among young African Americans. Just to set the record straight, I am an African-American female.

Nelson Hernandez: Hi there. I cover Prince George's County schools, where this is a huge issue. The paradox of the county is that you have people, many of them African Americans, who are quite well-off and often college-educated, yet the public school system has had a lot of problems with achievement.

I think the new superintendent, John E. Deasy, is trying to turn this around by doing just what you suggested -- by exposing students to more Advanced Placement classes and even the challenging International Baccalaureate program. He's also talked about paying teachers more to teach at underperforming schools, which in theory should put the best educators at the schools that need them the most.

In any case, the web of academic and cultural issues at play here won't resolve itself in a day.

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Aberdeen, Md.: I am for teacher pay increases, but $110K for a 10-month job with two- week breaks? I will leave my $100K for that in a second. Reality is, all my skill and professionalism may not lead to being a good teacher. A good teacher is not necessarily the 4.0 graduate, but the person with compassion, understanding and patience. An ability to connect is not a skill learned or necessarily trained. I used to work for a public school system, my wife was a teacher. When I talked to them about the Teach for America kids, and some of the principals love the program but think the kids are a waste because they cannot deal with the kids and are not equipped for the urban or poverty challenge. What are the approaches to educate our underclass, urban or Appalachian?

Nelson Hernandez: This is a point people often make: That teachers may have great resumes, an MA or PhD, the works, but they don't have that ability to connect with students that makes for a truly great teacher.

In Prince George's, they're trying to improve training for their incoming teachers. Another idea I've heard about is that they're going to establish a special position, called a "master teacher," who will be paid as much as an administrator. This is to keep skilled teachers in the classroom, rather than the central office.

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D.C.: Why isn't there more coverage provided for middle schools in Virginia and Maryland? Enrolling in a challenging middle school is key, because by the time you get to HS, your future success is pretty much predetermined if you weren't properly prepared in middle school. When I was in junior high, I took algebra in the 7th grade. Now, algebra is considered a HS class.

Nelson Hernandez: Your point on our coverage of middle schools is well taken and I'll be thinking of that.

But I'm pretty sure that algebra is offered in most places at the 8th-grade level. I know many students are now taking Maryland's High School Assessment test in algebra while they are still in middle school.

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Montgomery County: Here's a possible story idea: the alarming hostility and outbreaks of violence between Hispanic and black gangs in MoCo high schools, particularly at Montgomery Blair. It's an issue that principals and administrators are totally ignoring.

Nelson Hernandez: I can't speak to the violence in Montgomery County, but this has been a periodic problem in Prince George's County, where the Hispanic population is quickly growing.

Central High School in Capitol Heights had a brawl last month which appeared to involve some of this racial and ethnic tension, but officials acted quickly to calm the situation down. There was also a problem in Bladensburg High last year, but a new anti-violence initiative has reduced violence sharply there. These kinds of incidents are a major concern of administrators all over the region, I think.

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Dayton, Ohio: I grew up in PG County as one of a handful of white faces in a sea of black faces. My education was good enough for me to gain entrance to Harvard College, where I graduated about six years ago.

The white students in PG County had average SAT scores comparable to Fairfax and Montgomery white students. Those counties just had more white students, so their averages were higher.

Nelson Hernandez: I think in any system it's possible for some talented students to make it into Harvard, or even a top-tier school like my alma mater, St. John's College in Annapolis.

But here's one thing I would raise about what you just said. The idea that districts with more white students will always perform average better scores than students with more black students is one of those things that a lot of people privately think but are afraid to say in public, so props to you for saying it.

The problem is that it isn't really borne out by the facts. Within Prince George's County, there are a lot of schools that have nearly no white students, such as Flowers HS, which are outperforming schools with a lot of white students, such as Bowie HS. (All this is in terms of test scores.) And the idea that white students are doing just as well in Prince George's as they are in Montgomery or Howard also isn't really shown in the statistics.

For example, of white 6th-graders in Prince George's, 21.2 percent earned the lowest rating on their Maryland State Assessment reading test; in Montgomery, that number was only 8.2 percent. In Howard, it was only 7.5 percent. The achievement gap between the two counties points to differences in funding, teacher quality, steadiness of the administration and parental involvement -- all major factors that often get overlooked because people are fixated on race and class.

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Nelson Hernandez: Thanks to everyone for the great questions. It's always a pleasure to chat with our readers like this, and I hope we can do this again soon. See you in the pages of the Post!

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