Back to School

Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 31, 2009; 10:00 AM

Washington Post Staff Writer Valerie Strauss was online Monday, Aug. 31 at 10:00 a.m. ET to discuss her new blog The Answer Sheet, The Post's revamped education page and the upcoming school year.

A transcript follows.

The Answer Sheet is a new blog that aims to help parents navigate the formal education of their children.


Valerie Strauss: Hello everyone. Thanks for joining me on the inaugural day of The Post's new education page and the start of my new blog, The Answer Sheet. The new page is designed to give you all the news you will need to understand the world of education--and then some. We will have a question every day that allows you to exercise your brain, interviews, blogs, reading lists and much more. Jay Mathews will continue providing his wonderful insights into education in his blog, Class Struggle, and I will be writing a survival guide for parents and everybody else involved in schools. Let's get started with this chat.


Seattle: What percentage of the newshole is devoted to stories on education?

(This is a great idea. We need more on education throughout the U.S.)

Valerie Strauss: There is no set amount of newshole in the newspaper that is devoted to education stories--or any other kind of stories, for that matter. The Post doesn't work that way. When there is a big story developing in education, we will devote more space than when there isn't. The website, of course, has no limit on space, and today we are launching a new more robust Education Page that covers far more territory than we did in the past.

Along with daily stories in the paper, The Post has had a weekly Education Page in the Metro section (which we have been publishing since 2000) and we have a team of education reporters that constantly produces stories on different topics.

In these difficult times for mainstream journalism, a number of newspapers have eliminated their original education coveraqe. The Post, I am pleased to report,(since I've been covering education for more than 15 years), still recognizes education as an important issue and a key concern of its readers.

And I agree with you: We do need more on education. How generations of kids are educated is as important to the health of this country as anything else. People need to know what is going on in our schools.


Bethesda, Md.: Valerie,

I'm thrilled that you will be online, but does that mean that you will not be in the paper? I have greatly enjoyed your reporting, and I hope you continue.

Valerie Strauss: Thanks. You must be a relative of mine. I will still be in the paper but my work will be different than in the past. My blogposts will be "reverse published" in the paper. It used to be that my stories would be in the paper and then put on the web. The order is now different. So, please read my blog, and please ALSO still get a subscription to the paper Post.


Arlington, Va.: Valerie, I am not from this country, so there are some things I do not understand. Why are parents eager to have their children engage in internships? In my country, we worked to earn money. I need my children to have jobs and not work for free. Will they be penalized?

Valerie Strauss: This is a really interesting question. It may seem a little nutty to ask people to do work for free, but young people get valuable work experience through internships. Rather than being penalized, it helps them get a job that does pay. You do want to make sure, though, that your child is not stuck in an internship where the only job is getting coffee for the higher-ups. A number of colleges and universities--and even some high schools--actually require internships as part of a bachelor's degree.


Washington, D.C.: Valerie, I have appreciated your fine writing on education for years. Is this new format only going to deal with local issues, or will it extend to areas of national concern?

Valerie Strauss: Thanks. You must be another relative. The Post's education reporters will cover education of local concern AND of national and international concern. The Answer Sheet will too. The kinds of concerns I will write about will, for the most part, transcend jurisdiction


Potomac, Md.: I can't believe it's 5:00 a.m. wake up again. I know high schools must begin early because of the buses, but can't we think our way around this lunacy? Do high schools begin later in other parts of the country?

Valerie Strauss: Actually, yes, I do believe there is a way out of the lunacy. And lunacy it is. Some kids have to get up at 4 in the morning, or earlier, to catch a bus that gets them to school on time. Changing the current system is obviously complicated, involving union contracts, afterschool sports, etc. I still believe there is a way to do. We'll discuss this on The Answer Sheet.


The Rubber Room: Hi Valerie, and thanks for doing this chat.

If you'll forgive the mention of the competition, the New York Times had a fascinating article on "Rubber Rooms" where teachers who aren't allowed in the classroom wallow in despair at full pay.

Does DC have one of these Rubber Rooms and if so how much are we paying to keep it? Where Teachers Sit, Awaiting Their Fates (New York Times, October 10, 2007)

Valerie Strauss: Good question. I don't know the answer, but I'll find out and let you know.


Reston, Va.: I hear many complaints about "No Child Left Behind". What is so wrong with teaching "to the test"? It means that the child can read well enough to take the test. That is the most important thing. So what if there is time for creativity and music if my child cannot read?

Valerie Strauss: A big problem with "teaching to the test" is the test. The results of many standardized tests don't actually mean anything in terms of a student's abilities. When teachers spend a lot of time in class having kids practice to take a test that doesn't mean much, a lot of things that should be going on in class don't get done. This is an interesting issue, and it is complicated. I do think that teaching and learning is not so much a science but an art, and that demands creativity. Rote teaching to a test takes away from that.


Washington, D.C.: It's the same old question. My son is a straight "A" Spanish student. This year he is enrolled in AP Spanish at his independent school. But when we spent our summer vacation in Costa Rica, he could not understand nor speak the language. How can this be?

Valerie Strauss: Good question. To make a long answer short, many schools don't really know how to teach foreign languages. They don't require kids to actually talk in the language very much, and, so, as you can imagine, they don't develop the facility. I wonder if your son couldn't understand the spoken language or also the written language in Costa Rica. If he couldn't do either, I have no idea why he gets A's. It is no uncommon for someone to be able to understand written Spanish but have trouble understanding it when it is spoken. I have to say I worry a little about your son in AP Spanish if Costa Rica was so difficult.


Mays Landing, N.J.: Will the The Answer Sheet host a twitter account?

Valerie Strauss: Hmmm. My editors want me to. Tell me what value you think a Twitter account would be for The Answer Sheet. Talk me into it.


Philadelphia: Times are changing. I remember taking notes in class with pen and paper. Now I see students using computers in college classes. Do any high schools permit note taking with computers? Wouldn't teachers be worried that students are busy doing other things on the computers than taking notes?

Valerie Strauss: A lot of schools allow kids to take notes with computers--and not just high schools. You can find elementary school students doing this. It is, actually, extremely helpful for kids who have trouble with their handwriting (there are more of them than you might think) and even for kids who don't have trouble but find it faster to type. Are teachers worried about kids doing other things? Some are. But teachers should be able to control who does what and when in their class.


Parents who dread the opening of school: Do you find that the parents who dread the opening of schools are more involved in their children's education and schooling? I hear parents who can't wait for school to open and I wonder.

I don't need a calendar from Jan. to Dec. Just give me the Sept - June calendar.

Starting in Sept., 3 night meetings for parents, 3 night events for student. This doesn't include volunteering, sports, or scouts events.

I miss summer already!!!

Looking forward to your coverage!!!

Valerie Strauss: I don't think there is a direct link between dread and involvement. I understand both those parents who can't wait for school to start. Summer can be a nightmare scheduling time for parents and the routine of school can be easier to handle. Then there are people like me, who, at once dread and love summer AND the school year.


Anonymous: I'd like to comment on the Twitter account idea. I think tweets would only subtract from the quality of the blog. Many people have difficulties with Twitter and therefore would stop following your blog.

Valerie Strauss: This is interesting. I didn't realize people had trouble with Twitter (not being a Twitterer, or a Tweeter. I think if I tell this to my editors, they will ask me why people would stop following the blog if I Twitter. Tell me, so I can tell them.


Charlottesville, Va.: Valerie,

What are your thoughts on the new DCPS Teaching and Learning framework and do you think it will promote better evaluation of teachers?

Also, will you be covering higher education news and, if so, what issues do you think are the big ones?

Valerie Strauss: Funny you should ask about the framework. I intend to post a blog on this tomorrow. There are almost 200 pages of material to read, and I am almost done forming my opinions. Check The Answer Sheet tomorrow.

Yes, I will be writing about higher ed, as will some of my guest bloggers. The Answer Sheet will host a number of guests who will inform and opine on subjects across the education world. Among the big higher ed issues: cost, access, what should students be learning and how schools teach.


Spanish speaking:: As a person who speaks 4 languages (some native, some learned), I can tell you that it's much easier to read a language than to understand it when it's spoken to you or to speak it w/o being prepared. In school, the student probably can prepare for the day's subject and everyone probably has the same accent. Perhaps the student couldn't make out the Costa Rican accent, but wouldn't have any trouble understanding a Mexican accent depending on what accent he learned. As a native Spanish speaker, even I have trouble understanding Spanish from certain countries.

Valerie Strauss: Thanks for writing.


Bethesda, Md.: Tried to email you but that function of the blog is not working. Where is the Drill Down section of the blog?

Valerie Strauss: Well, I just checked The Answer Sheet, clicked on EMAIL me right under the banner, and I was linked to The Answer Sheet's email account. So I don't know what isn't working. But DRILL DOWN is on the new Education Page, not on The Answer Sheet. You can get to Drill Down at

Or go to, Click on News and then Click on Education.


Alexandria, Va.: I'm curious (based on your reporting experience) how difficult it is to fully cover a particular education story based on privacy/legal rules of various school districts. While I understand the need for these kinds of rules, I am sometimes frustrated by a lack of data. It sometimes feels like school districts and school boards are using them as a way to get out of answering tough questions from the press or the public.

Some examples that come to mind are the recent articles talking about disputes between parents and schools over Individual Education Plans (for special ed students) or the dismissal of Rebecca Perry from Alexandria City Public Schools. I say this with no vested interest pro or con on these two stories. Indeed, lack of information makes it impossible for me to form an opinion!

I'm really excited about this new blog and about the redesigned webpage. I've already added a bookmark, and will be checking back frequently. Thanks! Abrupt End To Tenure of Alexandria Schools Chief (Post, January 19, 2008)

Age-Old Problem, Perpetually Absent Solution: Fitting Special Education to Students' Needs (Post, August 17, 2009)

Valerie Strauss: Thanks very much for writing. You've hit upon something that has long hindered education reporters: A reluctance by the folks in schools to talk to us and share information. In many systems teachers and even principals will not answer the simplest of questions from a reporter without permission from the media office of the school system. It can take days just to set up an interview with a science teacher about how cockroaches can survive without their heads.


Anonymous: Speaking of what schools teach, I continue to lament the lack of emphasis on geography. What is the current thinking on how to teach this very important subject?

Valerie Strauss: I don't believe there is any monolithic "current thinking" on teaching geography. Some schools teach it more than others and some don't teach much of it at all. It is one of the subjects that, over time, has become de-emphasized as others have received more attention.


Mays Landing, N.J. : Valerie Strauss: Hmmm. My editors want me to. Tell me what value you think a Twitter account would be for The Answer Sheet. Talk me into it.

First, to alert readers to new blog entries/articles & upcoming Q&A's.


"JGadFly WashingtonPost's Valerie Strauss will be online Monday, Aug. 31 now! to discuss her new blog The Answer Sheet; etc. 34 minutes ago from"

Two, to test "the waters" for story idea's & skim for potential developments; more professional conferences are being tweeted, to allow for participation, by those unable to travel. Last, but not least.. broaden scope of readership.

Valerie Strauss: It is hard for me to argue against that.


Rockville, Md.: "As a native Spanish speaker, even I have trouble understanding Spanish from certain countries."

And as a native English speaker born and raised in the DC area, I have trouble understanding English from certain parts of this country. Accents can really make a difference.

Valerie Strauss: Good point.


Hyattsville, Md.: Hi Valerie, would urge you to cover adult illiteracy/poor literacy as 1) a problem unto itself and 2) a problem for children. I just learned that 1 in 5 adults (age 16+) in DC has poor literacy skills. I don't know how we can expect these adults to help their kids with their homework, be engaged in their children's education the way we "want" them to, etc.

Keep up the terrific work!

Valerie Strauss: You are exactly right. I agree that the issue of literacy among the adult population is a huge problem. I used to teach reading to adults who could not read, even though they had graduated from high school. The problem is acute, not just in D.C. I will shine a light on this issue, as will other Post reporters.


Haymarket, Va.: One of my frustrations with the local schools systems is their inability to think/act as local schools. For example, there have been times when my kids have had school canceled due to weather when there is no snow/ice around our school or neighborhood. When I question the school, they advise that schools at the other end of the county had bad roads so all county school were canceled. Why not make that decision on a school-by-school basis? Have there been any discussions to change this to keep the kids in school?

Valerie Strauss: When to close a school for weather is one of those issues that comes up every year. You are correct that when the superintendent decides to close, all the schools in the district usually close. One of the reasons a school may close when you don't think it should is because the teachers and administrators needed to run the school live in areas that are affected by the weather. The place can't run without the adults. That said, though, some systems are working to give more leeway. We may see a lot more school closings this fall with the swine flu epidemic. In this case, it will be done school by school.


Arlington, Va.: Do you think schools devote adequate time to PE?

Valerie Strauss: No. Most don't. Physical education should be a daily class. In some schools kids get one hour every week. Exercise is vital to a kid's health. And it has the added bonus for helping them stay more focused in class. Now, there is PE and there is PE. The old PE that I had in school, where I was forced to compete in games in which I was awful, is giving way to a new PE, which is about personal challenge. That makes sense.


Washington, D.C.: Valerie, The school year is beginning and I am dreading the homework battles with my middle school son. What do you think is the best way to help a child organize his homework so he completes assignments on time and not last minute and it doesn't become a parent/child battleground at home? Can you provide me some helpful tips?

Valerie Strauss: This is a longer conversation, one that we will have on The Answer Sheet. I'll take this up on the blog very soon. Stay tuned.


Gaithersburg, Md.: How much homework is too much? My child comes home straight after school and does about 8 hours of homework. She stays up well into the night completing her assignments only to wake up early the next morning. She has become a ghost of her former self. Do you think the workload is too intense for students to handle?

Valerie Strauss: If you child is doing 8 hours of homework, something is terribly wrong, with the school and at home. So I will assume that was somewhat of an exaggeration to make a point. Yes, I think too many kids have too big a workload for no good reason. (I also think some kids don't read enough.) How much is too much depends on age, grade and class. I don't think much of what is given for homework does a whole lot of good. This is a big, complicated issue. More of this on The Answer Sheet


PE: Whats wrong with the old PE??? Competition is good. At my child's school they play death dodgeball and the kids have lots of fun.

Valerie Strauss: Yes, competition can be good. I'm sure death dodgeball is fun for kids, although I guess I'm not crazy about the name... But I think the overall emphasis of a PE class should not be competition but individual fitness.


Las Cruces, N.M.: One of the worst elements of the Post's coverage of education - especially, Matthews, is the tendency to refer to new "studies" as if they mean anything. In Education, studies are done without many of the elements of scientific rigor that usually allow us to draw conclusions (for instance, control groups). If I hear another journo refer to a study showing that "a well-qualified teacher" means this or that, I'm going to scream! The only statistically relevant impact on student success is whether mom also went to college. Please don't blindly accept research in Education without adequately examining the quality of the study! Thanks so much!

Valerie Strauss: Jay Mathews, it should be said, is the most knowledgeable education writer on the planet.

As for studies, I agree with you. My blog, in fact, will be deconstructing some of these "studies." Tomorrow, for example. Let me know when you see a "study" that really isn't one.


Homework: I guarantee you this is no exaggeration. My child takes very rigorous classes. I do think much of it is busy work and therefore not productive. Given the situation what can I do to relieve her of this great burden?

Valerie Strauss: Wow. Then that is a huge problem. I'd like to hear what's going on. Email me at


Washington, D.C.: Valerie: It is so great that you are now on-line! I look forward to reading your opinions regularly. Can you tell us your thoughts on DCPS's leadership and whether they are on track to improve the schools?

Valerie Strauss: Read The Answer Sheet. I'll talk about this over time. Thanks.


Bronx, N.Y.: So many elite colleges are slashing their budgets right now - Harvard and Cornell have imposed hiring freezes, for example, and other wealthy schools are cutting back on faculty growth - but are they really so strapped for cash? Is it possible some of these schools are using the economic crisis as an excuse to cut back in less-valued areas of spending?

Valerie Strauss: Good question. It does seem crazy that schools with multi-billion endowments are strapped for cash. Most of the money is actually tied up and can't be used for daily operations. I do, however, wonder how much cutting is really necessary at some of these very very wealthy schools.


Annapolis, Md.: This new education page, and your new blog in particular, are very exciting. Will you cover pre-K as well as K-12? So many studies now show that kids, especially those from low-income families, who don't pick up early literacy skills, are already behind when they enter kindergarten and the gap only grows.

Valerie Strauss: Yes, we will cover PK-K-12, and graduate school. Any issue that involves school is open.

Thanks very much for writing in. PLEASE keep writing in and checking in to The Answer Sheet. The blog is intended to be a discussion with all of you--not a vehicle for me to opine all the time. Let's talk.. THANKS!


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company