(Montgomery County Public Schools)

Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland is one of the most successful districts in the country. On its website you will find a page listing the “Seven Keys to College Readiness,” which are said to be “a pathway for students to follow that will increase their chances of being ready for and successful in college.” Here is a piece questioning whether the keys are a reasonable path for students to aspire to follow. It was written by David Bernstein, a nonprofit executive who lives in Gaithersburg, Md., and has two sons, ages 7 and 15. He has previously written about how even great schools fail students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

By David Bernstein

I have been told that Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr is a real reformer, and so I asked a local education innovator what he thinks about he superintendent. His response: “I’ll believe he’s for real when he removes the preposterous ‘Seven Keys to College Readiness‘ plastered on every school wall in the county, courtesy of his predecessor, Jerry Weast.”

The “Seven Keys” are as follows:

1.       Advanced Reading in Grades K-2

2.       Advanced Reading on state assessments in Grades 3-8

3.       Advanced Math in Grade 5

4.       Algebra I by Grade 8 with  “C” or higher

5.       Algebra II by Grade 11 with a “C” or higher

6.       Score of 3 on an AP exam, Score of 4 on an IB exam

7.        SAT score of 1650, ACT score of 24

We all know people who don’t follow this well-worn path to college admissions and untold riches. They lose their keys somewhere along the way. But somehow many manage to get into college and do well in life. Does shoving the Seven Keys down their throats really make sense?

It’s not hard to see the faulty “logic” behind the Seven Keys. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner and author of the best seller, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” writes that “statistics produce many observations that appear to beg for causal explanations but do not lend themselves to such explanations.”

We see it in education policy all the time. Researchers look at a sample of kids who went to college, and discovered that a high percentage of them met certain milestones on the way there. They found that most of them could read at an advanced level by second grade. So far so good. Then they commit an unthinkable logical fallacy by jumping from a statistical observation — kids who can read at a high level in second grade are more likely to go to college — to a prescriptive diktat: everyone would benefit from reading at a high level in second grade. 

Let’s say that a diet workshop found that the majority of its clients were inspired by hearing stories of women who lost 100 pounds or more. The workshop leaders then decide that they will make such stories a mainstay of their workshop. It turns out, however, that the 25 percent of their clients who are men were so turned off by the stories that they stopped coming to the workshop. What worked for a majority of people didn’t work for a minority and actually caused the diet workshop to lose customers.

Doing something that works for the majority but not for a significant minority might be a rational decision for a diet workshop, but not for a school system that’s trying to get more kids, especially the learning outliers, into college.  The underlying theory is that every kid should be more or less on the same schedule and can be placed in the fast lane with the proper curriculum, teaching prowess, parental support, tutoring and the always-at-your-service medication.

There are, however, a significant number of children who learn differently and start reading later but would nevertheless go on to great things in college with patience and the proper encouragement and approach. By creating reading mandates that are unrealistic for these children, schools are paradoxically lowering the chance that these kids will be turned on to learning.  Maybe kids who don’t read well in second grade would be more likely to go to college if we didn’t force them to read well in second grade!

All the research, of course, shows that kids learn to read at all different ages. Very few have the kind of monumental learning hurdles that would prevent them from eventually becoming good readers.

My second-grade son is still struggling with reading. Recently, he was sitting with my 10-year-old niece while she read out loud from a book for her fifth-grade class called “The City of Ember.” He had no problem at all following the complex story-line and found it fascinating. But he’s just not ready to read. It’s absurd to think that such a “handicap” will preclude him from going to college. The question for the school system should not be how do we get him to read now, but how do we instill a love of learning that capitalizes on his strengths and helps him become a reader when he’s ready. 

I recognize that Montgomery County is not unusual in this regard and that the Seven Keys merely reflect the bankrupt logic of the current educational orthodoxy. But it’s an orthodoxy that desperately needs to be challenged and overturned.

Dr. Starr, tear down those Seven Keys!