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The Washington Post Magazine Online

Jay Mathews
Jay Mathews
Today's Topic: Evaluating a Public School
with Jay Mathews

Monday, April 10, 2000
1 p.m. EDT

Many people find the ethnic diversity and immigrant vibrancy of, say, Silver Spring, or Dupont Circle, or South Arlington, or Temple Hills, or Capitol Hill, or Hybla Valley, or any of dozens of local neighborhoods irresistible . . . until they begin to wonder if the local public school is right for their college-bound kindergartner.

As Jay Mathews wrote yesterday in the Education Review of The Washington Post Magazine, there are many ways to tell if such a public school is right for you and your child.

Mathews says, "I have seen many children thrive in schools like Mount Vernon. Given competent teachers - still prevalent even in the poorest schools - children like Maggie can succeed in classrooms with many low-income and low-achieving students."

Jay Mathews is an education reporter and columnist for the Washington Post, where he has been a local, national, foreign and business correspondent for 29 years.

Please read Jay Mathews' article, Elementary Choice and then submit your questions and comments in advance and during the Live Online hour.

Here is a transcript of today's discussion.


Temple Hills Maryland: As a resident of Temple Hills Maryland my 3rd grade dauqhter attends a school with a 100% population of African American students. Prior to last year, the school had poor test scores -MSPAP-. The test schores came-up last year due to the assitance of much needed additional staff.

My daughter needs extra support with reading and math, but the school doesn't have any programs in place to assist her. I am having to pay Sylvan Learning Center for assistance.

Also, the PTA has very low membership. The parents just aren't interested.

Do you have any advice on how I may help my daughter's school with getting after school educational assistance; and please provide information on how to build-up the PTA.
Thank you.

Jay Mathews: Yours is, sadly, a common predicament. I can tell you what other parents have done, with some effect, in similar circumstances. First, you have to build up that parents organization with one strong membership drive---flyers to all homes promising, say, a nice picnic someplace where people like to go anyway, along with a note laying out the concerns you have and why you think getting parents together in larger numbers will help. Then you gather together all the energetic parents who responded---if the number is small, don't lose heart---and meet with the principal to see what suggestions she has on how you can help. If the principal is not supportive, you have two choices: get your kid out of that school, or go to your school board member to see how to have the principal removed. Nothing works without a good principal. Lots of things are possible with one. The fact that you have seen some improvement is a good sign, so just put your shoulder to the wheel, and good luck.

Fairfax VA: Dear Jay Mathews,
I agree with your point that given a competent teacher, a middle class kid will thrive in a low income neighborhood public school as well as in a middle class public school. Our kids had some of their best years in Kindergarten and First Grade at such a school, Patrick Henry Elementary in Alexandria. Their teachers were not only great, they actually believed in social justice and communal sharing! They modeled to our kids how to reach out to kids who are less fortunate than they and how to help them find their niche... Dr Lopez, by the way, happened to be principal of Patrick Henry during this time; I remember her as low key and supportive of her teachers.
The next year, though, everything changed. First, one of our kids was assigned to a new teacher who had a temper and who would frequently punish the whole class for the misbehavior of a few. This went on for a whole year despite my efforts at reaching out to the teacher. Second, the SOL started: recess, lunch, field days and trips were suddenly cut short to accomodate longer class times. The whole atmosphere at the school changed; Dr Lopez and all the teachers were more often on edge, high- strung and stressed out. Discipline and punishments for the slightest infractions -such as talking during lunch- became the norm. Third: for some reasons, many Special Education kids started being mainstreamed full time into the regular classroom. The disruptions intensified, adding to the overall stress. Parents went to Dr Lopez about this and were told this was a decision of the central office...
Needless to say, there were crisis after crisis at the school that year as the kids picked up on the stress of the adults. The last crisis resulted in a teacher being told to take time off. At year's end, a number of people blamed Dr Lopez and wanted her out. I didn't think one person deserved the blame for ALL of this. However, we had promised our kids they will not have to live through another year like this one. We packed up and left Alexandria for Fairfax County where the schools are more "middle class". I was heart-broken by this move but my kids seem happier at their new schools... Looking back, though, I'm proud of our kids' 3 years experience of the Alexandria public school system. I think they learned something very important there, something about the real world beyond the middle class american suburb.

Jay Mathews: I was saddened by your story, but you did what you had to do. I don't think it is necessary to mess up a good program in reaction to the SOLs, but the kind of stress you describe is there in many schools. Do you find it in Fairfax too?

Clinton, MD: We have two children who are 7 and 4. The elementary school in our neighborhood boasts a peace program on the marquis in the front yard of the school which changes almost weekly - "63 Days of Peace" "74 Days of Peace" and so on. I've tried to enroll the our oldest several times but there's always something that stops me. Last year, I noticed the school motto hanging in the lobby which read, among other things "to help students set realistic goals". What is that supposed to mean? I feel the school should boast a reading or math program that has a sign that reads "63 Days of Discovery in Reading" or "74 Days - Math is Fun Under the Sun". This school has very poor MSPAP scores. I'm sure that there are other ways to evaluate a school's performance, but when I called the school to ask for samples of work the 2nd graders are currenly working on, I was told that the principal probably would not allow it. When I inquired about plans to improve the MSPAP scores, I was told that the 4th graders went the creek in the back of the school and that they will follow it all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. Sounds like a great Science project, one that my children and I would enjoy, but what about the basics? The private school tuition for our two children is very high, but we feel that we don't have a choice. Do you think we are being too critical of the school? Do you have any other methods to determine the performance of a school?

Jay Mathews:
Try to make an appointment with the principal. Ask for a half hour of her or his time. If you get the appointment, that is a good sign. At the end of 30 minutes, you should know if this is a place where you want your child. If I liked the principal, I would try the school for at least a year before I packed up my parachute.

Tallahassee, Fl: I will be relocating to the D.C. area and wish to find a rating system for the elementary schools in Fairfax County. Any suggestions?

Jay Mathews: This website has ratings of all elementary schools in Fairfax. They are the average passing rates on the new state SOL tests, compared to state averages. As I said in my article, many schools with bad SOL scores still produce very bright kids, so you can use them to make you more comfortable, but if you like a school with low scores, look inside.

Waldorf, Maryland: What do you know about the public schools in the Waldorf area? Most people I know send their children to private schools? In particular-my child would go to J.C. Parks Elementary

Jay Mathews: That is one of the parts of Maryland where there are disagreements about the quality of the schools. I dont know a great deal about Parks Elementary. Again, a chat with the principal and a few parents will tell you much. I find the Charles County high schools, unfortunately, way behind in raising the level of challenge, as reflected by the emphasis they place on Advanced Placement courses. If I were living there, I would be asking the superintendent a lot of harsh questions about the standard being set.

Silver Spring, MD (vibrant area, schools may not be suitable for boomer parents): It could be because I grew up in a plains state where everyone went to public schools but I am very discouraged with the willingness of seemingly liberal folks to ditch public schools. Even here in progressive Montgomery County. We live in the Einstien cluster. On our street the kids go to Sidwell Friends, Hebrew Academy, St. Johns' catholic - it seems like anywhere but the public schools. AND there isn't anything wrong with the public schools. If you read the disaggregated data for our race -yes we are white- the kids are scoring and doing just fine. If we were black or hispanic I might think twice about attending public schools but ironically that doesn't seem to be where the issue is. I think white 'yuppie' parents of a certain type opt out of public schools for much the same reasons they buy Chevy Subrubans instead of Ford Escorts - peer status. Then you hear the safety whine - yet in my experience -with two boys- all the peer problems we've had have been with kids of our race who live within a mile of our home. What ever happened to the notion that it's a civic duty to support the public schools, not just with your taxes, but with your presence. It just makes me sick to death of the hypocritical snobs in this area. When the pedal meets to metal then the liberals look private.

Jay Mathews: I agree with nearly everything you say. But this is hard for American parents. We tremble at the thought of not doing right by our kids in their schooling, and so we tend, for reasons I understand, to try to go for the sure thing.

Columbia, South Carolina: Hi Jay,

We have a 2 year old, and we're moving to the DC area, so we have the freedom to live anywhere.

I'm brimming with questions, but I'll keep it to a few:

There was an article in the WP Sunday about how many of the outer suburb schools are overcrowded. Does this mean that the inner suburb schools are less so? I would expect that schools in the more established suburbs would be less overcrowded.

I have spoken with highly involved parents about how to learn the most about schools. Mainly, they said you should be involved as much as possible with PTA, and you should speak with the teachers and with other parents, since you can best learn who the great teachers are. My question is how can I plug into a network of highly involved parents? Item 3 in your list of 12 things to look for in a school said you should talk to at least two parents and a PTA officer, if possible. I can find the PTA info on the web, but can a particular PTA direct me to motivated parents? I'm interested in this since for me, finding the great teachers takes priority over racial makeup or <slight> overcrowding.

Jay Mathews: All schools everywhere, except in the worst inner cities, are becoming more crowded these days, but the growth in the inner suburbs is not as extreme. A good PTA president can put you in touch with lots of other good parents, and many schools have lists of the names, numbers and email addresses of many PTA officers also.

Charlotte, NC: I am relocating to the DC area, Its very hard for me to make a decision on where to live. I have a child in the 10th grade and a child in the 7th grade. I have only heard negative things about the DC-MD- and some Va public school. I can't afford a private school. Some people have even told me to leave my kids down south with a family member.Are the schools really that bad?

Jay Mathews: I laughed when I read your message. North Carolina is doing better these days, but if you compare the quality of DC area schools to the rest of the country, which I have done, there are few others that come close to this in overall quality. If you live in Fairfax, Falls Church, Arlington, Montgomery County or DC west of Rock Creek Park, you can be assured of an excellent education at all levels. The other districts in this area also have many good schools, although you have to check to make sure you are moving close to one of those.

Alexandria, VA: My child has attended a school in Alexandria Va -Jefferson Houston- that is very diverse. Since our son has been in attendance, he has been in special education labeled developmentally delayed because of short term memory. We have seen progression for him to get out of special education but the teacher have not felt the same. We have had several meeting, IEP evaulation and the list just continues. My question is, if a child does not learn the same way, they why is that child scrutinized or label with a learning disability because he registers information differently? Or is it the fact that once a child is in special education they never get out?

Jay Mathews: The child can get out---some parents complain ejection is sometimes too soon. But this is a very individual matter. Have you spoken to the school board's special education advisory committee members? If you have reached an impasse, that is where I would go. You should be able to get the right number by calling 824-6635.

Silver Spring, MD: My 5 1-2 year old son currently attends private school in Washington, DC - at an exhorbitant cost! We are in the process of
buying our first home - in PG County - mainly due to the cost of housing in this area; and are very concerned about the public schools. Where does a parent trade-off? The cost of
housing, quality of life, etc. or financing
a private school education at a cost of college tuition?

Please give some advice on your view of the public schools in PG County. Thanks.

Jay Mathews: I gather you share my view that quality of schooling should have first priority. PG has many fine schools, but also many that are not so fine. You have to do some investigating. Again, a conversation with a few parents and the principal at the school you have in mind will tell you a lot. Also, check out my Challenge Index on the education page of this website. That will tell you something useful about the local high school.

Wheaton MD: If you want to know how ethnically diverse neighborhood schools fare in Montgomery County,you need only look at the Wheaton Cluster as an example. Or, better yet,ask the parents who are now homeschooling or spending thousands of dollars to send their children to parochial schools. One of the most diverse clusters, it has some of the lowest test scores, yet the county refuses to give Wheaton priority in either programs or capital improvements. While the slightest need at Blair is met immediately, Wheaton cluster students have no magnet or signature program at the high school. When we suggested Wheaton be included in the Southeast consortium, we were met with a resounding no from the BOE and the other schools, being told it would “ghettoize” the consortium and turn it into a “nightmare”.
Middle school students are bused out of the neighborhood to Parkland, an overcrowded, outdated facility in Rockville. While the long closed Belt Jr. High School could be renovated to accommodate the 1250 Parkland students, it is being sold to a private religious school of 160 girls, at a loss to taxpayers of $8 million. Students at Bethesda Elementary have private homes razed to make way for a new ball field, but our kids at Weller Road Elementary get trailers and more trailers. The county loves to talk about diversity, they just don’t actually DO anything for non-white students.

Jay Mathews: From what I have heard, much of what you say is true. I assume someone as well informed as you has been beating on doors, and I hope you continue to do so. Some areas, we all know, have more clout than others, and that requires raised voices.

Cleveland, OH: I'm a product of the Montgomery County schools, and I was wondering about one of the points made on your list for picking school systems... I'll quote:
8. High Expectations. Are there accelerated classes? Gifted student services? Are these available for all students who want them, not just for those who have high grades?

Is it really right to expect that a student with poor grades should have access to accelerated classes? Or is it just damaging to the student in the long run to expect him to be able to work far above his expectations? Personal example: A friend of mine was getting C's in an honors algebra 2 class, thus not being eligible for the honors precalc class... His parents pushed really hard... he took it, and continued to do miserably. Maybe you're really trying to say something along the lines of another personal example, this one from my time in the Eastern IS magnet: non-magnet students could take the media productions class, and some of those who took the class got to come on the magnet trip to NYC, benefitting greatly. Can you clarify what you were trying to point out for including all students in accelerated classes?

Jay Mathews: This is an issue I have written two books about. My experiences with successful schools in low-income areas over the past 18 years convinces me that the end all and be all of placing students should be motivation. If the kid is motivated to succeed, or even if just the parent is motivated that the kid succeed, all barriers to the most challenging courses and programs should be removed. The child may struggle, but invariably that means he is learning, and will be much better off in the future. We have weakened our entire educational system significantly by letting our fear of failure rule our placement decisions.

McLean, VA: How do I found out what the SOL scores are for the schools in my McLean district?

Jay Mathews: On this website's education page, you will find a prompt for Washington Post profiles of all schools in the area. These profiles include recent SOL scores and state averages.

Bethesda, Maryland: I am a former teacher -16 years experience- and a mother of two young children. Your article did not discuss how children are treated in schools. My children go to the local public school and I am upset at the lack of respect teachers have for our children. I am not saying our children should not be held accountable for their behaviors, but teachers must respect children and realize that the things they say and even their body language is internalized in our children.

Can you address this issue, please?

Jay Mathews: If you have encountered a teacher who is not showing respect for you child, it is time to have a conversation with the teacher. Before that, however, I might take a couple of days off work and just sit in the back of that teacher's class and get a sense of what is going on. If the school doesn't permit this, it is a school you should consider abandoning. Talk to teachers these days, and they will tell you the respect problem is all on the other side. You need to get a sense of the reality before you make your next move.

Rockville MD: I struggle daily with leaving my child in Beall Elementary for some of the reasons you site as positives. He is above avergae but I feel like he won't be challenged. He is kindergarten and already takes advanced math. His life at home is very different form his friends at school, when he notice that he has a charmed life while soem of these kids don't eat breakfast?

Jay Mathews: If the child likes the class and is doing well--advanced math in kindergarten sounds terrific---why worry? Middle class American parents move to middle class neighborhoods because human beings are most comfortable being around people like themselves. If that is a comfort you need, move. My articles emphasizes the need for you to feel right about the school. But given your child's good start, I would let it go for awhile and see if your feelings change.

Mt. Rainier: Jay, I think we would tremble less if we would stop to realize that the biggest effect on kids and what will stay with them through life is their parents' teaching and EXAMPLE. Even bad situations can become positive if the parents show their children how to handle adversity and difficult people. Well, maybe we should tremble more...

Jay Mathews: I envy your children.

Fairfax, VA: I have decided not to allow my 3rd-grader to participate in the SOL tests next month. I can see no value in them that will benefit my child, his teacher, or his mother and me. Are you aware of others who feel the same way? Are there any organized efforts to boycott the SOL tests as there have been in other states?

Jay Mathews: The organized efforts against statewide high stakes tests are growing in Virginia and elsewhere, but they are still very small and have little support. When I attended hearings last fall called by the state school board seeking criticism of the SOLs, there were almost no parents there, unhappy or otherwise. But before you decide not to participate, I would love to hear you explain what you would like as an alternative. I think there is general agreement that many schools have not been doing their jobs. This is particularly true in areas that do not have Fairfax's advantages. What kind of system would you prefer that would make politicians pay attention to the lack of good teaching in those schools, and get them the resources they need? That failing was what motivated the SOLs in the first place.

MiniVan Land, Maryland: Any suggestions for how parents can motivate a principal who seems to be coasting along? Our test scores are well below the county standard, which is unusual given that our demographics are representative of the county as a whole. Parents are ready, eager & willing to pitch in, but the principal is more focused on the administration and less on the kids. I am in the classroom regularly and I see what the kids are capable of, but a lack of enthusiasm and innovation coming from the top deflates the teachers, kids and parents.

Jay Mathews: That is a problem that has to be addressed immediately at all possible levels above the principal. First, talk to him or her. Maybe there is some good explanation for what you are seeing. If not, go to the superintendent and the local school board member. If they dont appreciate the problem, then I would consider abandoning the school. There is NOTHING, absolutely nothing, worse than a principal who has taken his eye off the ball. Maybe your complaints at a higher level will provide some motivation.

Upper Marlboro, Maryland: I recently visited my 7th graders Guidance Counselor, inquiring about summer enrichment programs. She was very unhelpful. She handed me a booklet and told me to check-it out over the weekend and return it via my daughter. Why isn't this stuff available through the schools? Shouldn't the Counselor send things to that nature home?

Jay Mathews: If you are sure they haven't sent it home (some days I forget to rifle my daughter's bookbag), then you are absolutely right. They have dropped the ball. Suggest gently to the principal that this would be a good thing to do.

Alexandria, VA: When I saw the title of your article on the magazine cover this weekend, I jumped for joy. It's as if you were writing it just for us. Our son is four years old and we are grappling with the whole public vs. private schooling issue. We live in Del Ray and Mount Vernon is our local elementary school. Your article has given us a lot to think about and we thank you for that. You mentioned class size once in your article -19 kids in K at Mount Vernon-. Class size is one of the factors that private schools point to as an important indicator of performance. Do you agree? Are there other indicators we should be paying careful attention to?

Jay Mathews: There is one important study in Tennessee that shows that if you get class sizes below 17, achievement improves. It is an important factor, but every study I have seen, and all my experience in schools, tell me the number one factor is the quality of the teacher. Sadly, the weathier districts get the better teachers as a rule, but there are many great teachers who want to help kids who need them and gravitate to neighborhoods without two-car garages. You have to plug into the grapevine and coax the principal to put your kid with the teacher who will do him the most good. A lot of Alexandria principals are smart about that, just so you do it quietly. Good luck.

McLean VA: I have two questions: How best to compare the perfomance between local public and private schools? What are the benefits of hiring an educational consultant, i.e. private testing etc for your child? Why would one hire one? Here in LaLa Land of McLean, where there is lots of money, it is even difficult to enroll your child in preschool let alone elementary school. With a two year old I feel I am already behind in getting together the resources just to make a decision on where and when she should go to school -i.e., is preschool

Jay Mathews: If I lived in McLean, I would thank all the relevant dieties and stop worrying. You are in what is probably the best public school district in the country. If your kid does not have any very special needs that might demand private schooling, you should send him off to those public schools with joy in your heart. McLean and Langley Highs, I know for a fact, will provide at least as good an education as any private school you can name. In terms of challenging students on my scale, they are in the top one percent in the country.

gainesville, virginia: What do you think of the quality of schools in new areas such as Haymarket and Gainesville?

Jay Mathews: You've taken me beyond my area of competence. Do your own investigation based on the questions in my article. Check out my Challenge Index piece on this website, and then do the numbers for the local high school. I was very pleasantly surprised to find one of the strongest high schools in the country in Berryville, Va., of all places, so do not stereotype until you take a close look.

Wash, DC: Can I get the names of the top two public elementary schools in the DC area -in your opinion-? I have a four year old, and I have been looking only at private schools for her -I am a product of the private school system in DC-. I would be interested though in compraring my private school choices with some of the top public schools. I am noting how expensive some of these prvate institutions are. Thanks.

Jay Mathews: I would put dozens of local elementary schools on the top of such a list. Here are two samples---Jamestown Elem in Arlington and Canterbury Woods in Fairfax. But there are many many more as good or better.

Vienna, VA: I visited our local elementary school today -part of the Fairfax County system-. The principal mentioned that his school always performs very well in the physical fitness exams but that those results are not published the way the SOL scores are. Any reason why this is? It seems like useful information that could be presented along with the academic achievements.

Jay Mathews: He is right, but nobody cares about PE anymore. If the society changes so that Princeton admits and Microsoft hires on the basis of pushups, this will change.

Alexandria, VA: Alexandria Public Schools are clearly trying to lure more "middle class" families to the system, with its two new focus schools, in addition to its magnet school. The applications for the lotteries for the focus schools were numerous, indicating that parents may be considering these new options. When a school system makes major changes like Alexandria is undertaking, how long would you estimate it takes to see if the changes are an improvement or not? I'm betting that most private school parents won't be giving up their children's spots at the area's private schools until they see that there's been an improvement in the public schools.

Jay Mathews: I think you have to give such experiments at least two years. But the two principals conducting them are very good, and so they have at least the chance of a good start.

Columbia, Maryland: I have a first-grader son, whose birthday is late in the year -so he is one of the youngest in class-. In the past two years, my husband and I went through the classic debate if he should go to the elementary school or he should be given an extra year. We decided to let him go on because he was reading already and he has always been tall in his age-group. Now more than half way through the first grade, he is doing well academically -he is reading at above 2nd grade level and his math is good too-, but he constantly gets into trouble for talking too much in class, despite our stern talks or "reward program" at home or notes to remind him of self control. His "problem" is after the teachers reminded him, he still went on doing whatever he was doing, especially in music or art classes. I guess he still doesn't fully understand the expectations of a school student. What else can we do?

Jay Mathews: I think the simple answer is just wait for him to grow up a bit. Or, you may have a child who just likes to speak out, and will be a talkshow host someday. If the problem is minor, I would let it ride. If it is making HIM significantly unhappy, you need to think about it. Keeping him back a year strikes me as a bad idea. I wonder if the principal has better ones. A different teacher?

Fairfax County, VA: Do you know anything about the foreign language partial-immersion programs that Fairfax County has for elementary school students? I find the idea very appealing....

Jay Mathews: They are quite wonderful, and are now becoming nationally hot, with the sec of ed praising them. I would go for it if I were you and your child.

Bethesda, Maryland: -former teacher again-

I have spent time in the school. I have seen an art teacher "belittle" an 8 year old in front of her classmates. This child has ADHD and has difficulty with self-image in the first place. I saw this same child PUSHED out of that class by the teacher.

I have an appointment with teacher, principal and social worker this week.

The reality is, these are children we are talking about. Respect does need to go both ways, but the teachers are the adults in the situation. If teachers don't show common respect, then the children lose one important role model.

I did enjoy your article. And I agree that schools with low test results could turn out fantastic students.

Jay Mathews: Your child is lucky to have a pro for a parent. good luck.

Vienna, VA: What are your thoughts about "mainstreaming" children who are mentally handicapped? There will be such a child in our school's kindergarten class next year, accompanied by an instructional aide of some sort. I gather that the kindergarten teacher has no special training in this area and is concerned about this plan. I do feel that the other children will learn about diversity and compassion, but I wonder if this is the right thing for anybody.

Jay Mathews: I know a lot of classes where it has worked fine. And again, you are in one of the best school systems in the country, so if anyone is going to do it right, Fairfax will.

Alexandria, VA: Hello Jay,
My three children have attended,k-12, the schools in the Mt.Vernon High School pyamid, Fairfax County. Our schools have a high number of low scoring students. However, we also have high scoring students. I am pleased and grateful to the wonderful teachers who have helped us encourage a love of learning in our children.
I agree with your suggestion of publishing the scores of the high scoring students. North Carolina publishes alot of data on the schools and how they are performing.
Mostly, I wish to THANK YOU for the open, matter of fact way in which you have promoted discussion of this important issue!

Jay Mathews:
Thank you very much. Mt. Vernon High is one of my favorite schools, with that super IB program.

Reston, VA: Mr. Mathews

Quick comments; I am really glad you mentioned Ben W's story at the end of your article to make a point that it is possible to get good education in Va public schools.
I am a recent graduate of the University of Virginia. While at Uva as a Resident Advisor-Student leader I had chance to work with many entering first-years from various backgrounds. In my dorm I had guys from St. Alban's, Gonzaga, Detrioit Country Day and St. Paul's-NH-, however guys from TC Williams, Jeb Stuart, Edison, Annandale-local h.s schools with heavey minority population- did as well-academically and socially- as those kids prep school. As you menioned in your article, non prep school kids adjust easier to a new diverse colleg setting.

Jay Mathews: I could not agree more. I was very happy to see your message.

Wheaton Md: Wheaton Cluster here again. Yes, we do raise our voices, and have been for some time. But they have been silenced by the County Council's Michael Subin, who with County Executive Douglas Duncan feels that it makes more sense to deny the more than 1,000 public school children an adequate facility in favor of 160 private school children who will utilize less than 15% of Belt Jr. High School. Just proves that the good ole boy political system still works the best of anything. We keep trying....

Jay Mathews: illegitium non carborumdum, i think.

Fairfax, VA: This is a follow-up to our exchange about boycotting the 3rd-grade SOL tests.

I have no need for an alternative to the SOL tests as far as my son is concerned. The Stanfords do just fine. They give me a view of how he's doing compared to other children, which the SOL tests do not. The SOL tests are so highly correlated with the Stanfords that they're redundant.

I take issue with your contention that people believe that the quality of teaching is poor. The Kappan's annual poll has shown for years that people think OTHER schools are poor, but that their OWN schools are pretty good. And in a system like Fairfax's, where students and schools have scores to die for, it's hard to understand why the State Board of Education needs the hammer of SOL tests.

I think the "politicians" who you seem to think need to whip the schools into shape are the members of local school boards. Now that we're finally able to elect them in Virginia, they do appear to qualify as politicians.

Jay Mathews: If you don't think the quality of teaching in some areas is poor, and doesn't need a tough state test to be exposed, visit a few schools in Norfolk and Richmond, and then get back to me. If we are talking about my kids, I am much happier with a criterion referenced test like the SOL, since I know it applies directly to what he is learning in school. It is essentially the test the teacher should be giving, but cannot be corrupted by teacher who do not want his failings exposed. The Stanford is fine, but is too general for my taste.

State College, PA: Jay,

I just wanted to put in a couple of words about the Charles County school system. I graduated from LaPlata a few years ago. What you said about not pushing AP courses is dead on. However, if you do sign up for them, the teachers are excellent. I ended up starting college as a 2nd semester Freshman because of them.
I would tell the Waldorf parent that the elementary schools are really pretty good. However, it isn't until late Middle and High school that the problems become apparent. The standards are very low. Kids that don't feel like working or studying are still passed along with the ones who work hard. Maybe by the time your children get to High School things will have changed.


Jay Mathews: An excellent comment. And I think if a Charles County parent knows how to push the right buttons, their child can get a fine education. But the schools should reach out more to the great middle of their student bodies.

Arlington, VA: We moved last year from the District to Arlington for the middle school years. We were happy in the lower grades at John Eaton Elementary, but lack of continuity in the curriculum and some real gaps showed up when my straight-A student hit Arlington schools in 6th grade. My 8 year old is now at Jamestown, which you mentioned in your article. For very bright kids with an internal engine, the school makes much less difference. My 8 year old will continue to score well on standaradized tests because that is who he is. My 11 year old needs to be taught and a school system with better organization and better morale seems to do a better job - Williamsburg Middle School team teaches, which has made all the difference for an uneven achiever. The HIghest test scores say more about demographics and genetics than the quality of the school.

Jay Mathews: You are absolutely right on all counts.

Laurie: The SOL's may have shown the white hot spotlight on what the schools are NOT doing, but it is not making the learning process any easier. Instead of learning how to diagram sentences, add fractions or recite the Gettysburg address, they are learning how to relax and take a test. I think it is time to get back to teaching, pure teaching -- let these kids learn the stuff that might get them through life, a good job and make them better people.

Jay Mathews: That is what I would like too, in the best of all possible worlds. But, sadly, that was the approach we said we were taking before, and it left too many kids far behind. So the question is, if not the SOLs, what?

Mt. Rainier: Having gone to McLean High -class of 70-, I do not think that its reputation adequately represents the reality. The advanced level history-English course I took, for instance, was a crock. The teachers sky-dived into modern poetry & vers libre, Russian & African histories, with no background at all. Further, I was able to skate through with minimal effort by parroting. My girl friend wasn't 'bright' enough for this class, so took standard English - and pre-empted out of a year's college English...Ego and fad definitely took place of substance.

Jay Mathews: Time to revisit the school, oldtimer. The Advanced Placement revolution has altered the nature of such courses severely. Now, all kids must take the AP tests at the end of the course, and the test cannot be corrupted since it is written and scored by experts far away. A teacher who is phoning it in gets exposed very quickly.
There is still a lot of wasted time and so-so teaching, even at McLean, but it is much rarer than it used to be, mostly because of AP.

Jay Mathews: Thanks very much to all participants, who asked just the sort of pointed and astute questions that make me a better reporter. I apologize for not introducing myself at the beginning of this enterprise, as the wise Website managers asked me to do. This was my first time trying this sort of on-line Q and A, and my 55-year-old stomach had butterflies. It is encouraging to know there are so many conscientious parents out there. If anyone has any more questions, feel free to email me at mathewsj@washpost.com any time. --Jay

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