The Washington Post

Bias against rigor in urban schools

Former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee was often denounced as a hard case who used her maniacal emphasis on rigor to beat up D.C. teachers and students. I think that was a misreading of what she actually did.

Often the principals she hired were more concerned with creating an atmosphere where teachers connected with kids. Making students work hard was not a priority. Instead, the idea was to convince them to love learning and get those who were way behind up to grade level. Rhee and the principals and teachers she brought into the system talked about raising the ceiling on achievement and bringing more Advanced Placement and other college-level programs into D.C. high schools, but they didn’t do much. My records of AP test participation in the city show no significant gains after Rhee arrived.

I think this is because there is a reluctance, even among the most energetic and reform-minded educators, to push low-income kids too hard. I think many well-meaning and hard-working people in the D.C. school system are biased against rigor. A glaring example of this was unearthed by my colleague Bill Turque in his article about the D.C. Public Charter School Board’s decision to approve the opening of BASIS DC, designed to be the most demanding school ever seen in the District.

I wrote a column recently warning the city about this secondary school model, which requires students to take at least eight AP courses and pass at least six of the 3-hour, independently written and graded exams. I praised the BASIS founders, whose schools in Arizona I have written about, but wondered whether D.C. was ready for them. I said “no one has ever planned for D.C. students to work this hard and do this well.”

I thought the model might cause unease among educators in the regular D.C. schools. I was stunned to read in Turque’s story that the BASIS plan was opposed by four consultants and the staff of the public charter school board, people I thought would be most friendly to a bracing innovation welcomed by many families here.

“The founding group could not satisfactorily explain how the school would meet the needs of low-performing, special education and English Learner students effectively, and seems not to grasp these challenges fully,” Turque quoted the consultants as saying in their report.

My translation: This school is too smart and too tough for D.C.

I have spent the past three decades writing about teachers who have dedicated their lives to the needs of low-performing students. Many of them would argue that what BASIS is doing was just what many of their students could use — a school day that was not boring, not easy, not pitched beneath them. Special education and English Learner students are a different issue. But researchers Richard Rothstein and Karen Hawley Miles discovered that the key reason we have spent so much more on education in the past few decades, without much discernible impact on achievement in regular classrooms, was that the money was often spent — particularly in the District — to help special education and English Learner students.

Couldn’t we have something for those students whose only educational problem is that the standard curriculum is too slow and dumb for them? Thankfully, the board overruled its advisers, but the staff’s negative feelings about BASIS could in the long run keep it out of the city.

I sometimes think parents of gifted children are too whiny and too focused on their own issues, ignoring the greater needs of public education. But the reaction to BASIS proves they are right about one thing: Public educators, even the most reform-minded, are uncomfortable with any program that seems to move too fast and require too much student effort. I am hoping that attitude will not kill BASIS DC, but the rarity of such schools suggests this one will have a hard fight to survive.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.


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