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How to Survive Our Worst Schools

I was intrigued by a story on the front page of the Post Aug. 9 Written by my colleague Robin Givhan, it focused on a White House internship program for D.C. students that included a recent high school graduate named Clayton Armstrong. Despite his background, he had won the prestigious summer job and a place in the freshman class at the University of Arizona.

The article was so good I wanted to know more. I wondered how Armstrong acquired his obvious academic skills, given that he had graduated from Ballou High School. D.C. has some fine public high schools, but most are bad, and Ballou in my view is the worst. It is part of what is the worst, or next to worst (Detroit is in the running) urban school district in the country.

This year, only 23 percent of Ballou students reached proficiency or above on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests. As far as I can tell, no Ballou student has ever passed an Advanced Placement test.

I called Armstrong to ask how he survived such low standards and gained admission to a good school like Arizona. He was at his dorm in Tucson, the day before classes. He was exactly as Givhan described him--polite, articulate, thoughtful and determined. He patiently explained how he managed to get an education out of a bad D.C. high school---actually, three D.C. high schools.

One fact makes Armstrong very different from most of his classmates. He grew up in a two-parent household. Like 90 percent of Ballou students, Armstrong’s parents are low-income. His father Milton is a church janitor and his mother is unemployed. But they were both there, helping each other encourage his hard work, and that made a difference.

Armstrong acknowledged that many of his high school classes were not very good, but in whatever he was asked to do he did his best. In his four high school years, he received 15 A’s, six B’s and one C. Some of his teachers were dedicated. Others made clear, he said, “that they did not want to be there.”

Armstrong had lost interest in his studies for a while in middle school, but by 9th grade he had decided that “school was what I wanted to do.” He was extraordinarily conscientious. For instance, if a teacher in one of his classes was unhelpful, he would seek out other teachers to answer his questions.

By the time he graduated last spring, it was clear to him he still had a way to go. I often complain about the SAT test as an out-of-date measure of college readiness, but it does shed light on our worst high schools. It is very rare to find a D.C. student who scores better than 1500 on the 2400-point test. Armstrong’s score was 1380, only about the 33rd percentile nationally for male test takers.

“I know my school didn’t prepare me enough for it,” he said. Just trying to focus on an exam for 3 hours and 45 minutes was something he wasn’t used to.

The costs of low school standards are often hidden. Armstrong’s course selections look fine, as good as the ones in any suburban school. In ninth grade, Armstrong earned A’s in Algebra 1, Geography and Physical Education. He had a B in English 1 and a C in Environmental Science. In 10th grade he had A’s in English 2, Biology, Spanish 1, U.S. History, Problems of Urban Society and P.E., plus a B in Geometry. In 11th grade he earned A’s in Algebra 2, World History, Chemistry, and U.S. Government, plus B’s in English 3 and Spanish 2. In 12th grade his A’s were in AP U.S. History and Computer Science, and his B’s were in AP English Lit (a B-plus, to be precise) and Pre-calculus.

The best of those classes, he said, were AP English and AP U.S. History, taught as a combined double course. Many suburban schools have similar systems. The combined courses help students understand how the events of American history are reflected in its literature, giving both courses a dose of intriguing reality.

Armstrong said he liked the AP English teacher, Tom Bishop, and the AP history teacher, Matthew Kostecka. They demanded frequent writing assignments, and made sure all students in the class took the AP exams. When I spoke to Armstrong, he had not gotten his AP test results. He assumed he did not pass either one, because his teachers did not call him. A passing grade of three or above on a five-point AP exam would have been such an astounding result for a Ballou graduate that they would have wanted to tell him right away.

Bishop and Kostecka, as well as AP teachers in other D.C. schools, are trying to improve that situation. School Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is emphasizing AP. The 2009 results were the best ever, although passing rates were still very low. Kostecka told me all his students received 1’s this year except Armstrong and another student, Kaya Lowery, who earned the first 2’s at Ballou on the AP U.S. history test since at least 2005. There was one 2 this year on the AP English test, Kostecka said. Everyone else, including Armstrong, got a 1. Ballou principal Rahman Branch told me he is determined to build student skills for better results and change his school’s academic reputation.

In only one way did Armstrong, in my view, fail to concentrate enough on his studies. It has to do with football, the reason why he attended three D.C. high schools. He spent his sophomore year at Woodson and half his junior year at Dunbar before he went back to Ballou. An aspiring football running back, he left the impression that each transfer was motivated by what he saw as a chance for more playing time. But he declined to be specific.

He did not say if anyone warned him that the moves might interfere with his classroom work. He admitted he missed a chance to take AP Biology because of one transfer. I suspect no one had the heart to get in the way of the football dreams of a student whose classroom dedication was so exceptional, regardless of which school he attended.

When it came time to apply to college, Armstrong said, he knew he was not going to be recruited for his football skills. But his grade point average was good, and his recommendations from teachers and counselors were strong. He applied to nine colleges. He was rejected by USC, UCLA and the University of Central Florida. Florida State said it would take him, but only after he spent a year in a community college. He was accepted by Arizona, Morehouse, Hampton, Morgan State and Florida A&M.

At Arizona|, he has been placed in English 101 Plus, an enhanced version of freshman English that provides extra instruction in a small group setting for students whose high schools did not give them all the writing skills they need. He said he may major in political science, and perhaps go to law school.

College is a lot to absorb, he told me. But his persistence and devotion to learning, the character strengths that helped him get as much as possible out of his high school education, should bring faster progress for him now, because he is in the hands of educators whose expectations are so much higher than the demands placed on him earlier.

By Washington Post editors  | September 11, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
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The only problem I see in articles that focus on individual students from bad schools is that we are in one moment understanding the grim statistics (...only 23 percent of Ballou students reached proficiency or above...)and in another moment examining one student out of that 23%. It's no mystery that anyone of those students is likely to be less prepared for college than their peers from suburban high schools who have similar standardized test scores.

The mystery is why question one student's potential success if he is willing to work hard in his freshman year to improve his skills? If the college has such classes to improve his skills, why shouldn't he be one of the students to take advantage of the classes? I grant you his classmates in English 101 Plus are not all from our great nation's "bad" schools. Some are from the bottom percent at the "good" schools. Some started college more than a couple of months after high school ended--maybe years. Some are just slow in English, be it English is their second language, they have a learning disability, or they weren't properly prepared.

Some colleges have very little patience for English 101 Plus;we call them selective colleges. We have over 2,000 colleges in this country, certainly less than 23% of them DON'T have the equivalent of English 101 Plus. Not to spur another debate, but didn't the President just encourage all students to do their best, despite their hurdles to cross?

I don't mind the Washington Post's numerous articles on the need to improve schools in our area. However, do it without questioning an individual kid's acceptance to a college that was willing to work with him. Your title is "How to Survive Our Worst Schools." I still don't know, at least not from reading your column. I do know that some people will only grumble that he shouldn't have gotten in or use it to support their stereotypes of students in DC schools.

Now, to be fair, you have to write a column about the backgrounds of Mr. Armstrong's classmates in English 101 Plus.

Posted by: doglover6 | September 11, 2009 9:04 AM | Report abuse

Others made clear, he said, “that they did not want to be there.”

I will do what I always do, if you're a DCPS teacher and you're angry at the chancellor, the mayor or the administration and your students have lost respect for you over it, please just resign and start your own company that you can be proud to manage. Stop taking your middle aged frustrations out on the students. They know. The parents know. And worst of all, you're wasting your life doing something you don't like.

Posted by: bbcrock | September 11, 2009 10:08 AM | Report abuse

I really loved this article. I'm rooting for Clayton Armstrong. Well, he had both of his parents, his dad is a church janitor, and his mom stays at home. That's the ideal family situation even without the money. No wonder he has so much character.

Posted by: forgetthis | September 11, 2009 11:07 AM | Report abuse

"Armstrong’s score was 1380, only about the 33rd percentile nationally for male test takers.' I know my school didn’t prepare me enough for it,' he said"

Matthews, cut it out. As I have posted several times before,


The kid is conscientous enough to get decent grades. Good for him. Whether that gift is best put to use by going to a 4-year college where success demands a high IQ is a question you don't much seem to care about.

Posted by: qaz1231 | September 11, 2009 11:13 AM | Report abuse

For doglover6---I would be very grateful if you would tell me which words in the column left with you the impression that I was "questioning an individual kid's acceptance to a college." I thought I was doing the opposite, showing that great character and family support can lead to useful learning even in bad schools, and give a student a chance to get into, and succeed, at a good college. ALSO, let me apologize again about that ad popping up in our comments section. I will go inquire again about this.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 11, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

"But they were both there, helping each other encourage his hard work, and that made a difference."

The first and biggest reason for his success was his parents.

Posted by: edlharris | September 11, 2009 11:24 AM | Report abuse

I'm not that impressed with a school system that lets children tranfer schools mid-year so they can get more playing time. Maybe this is common?

I will say that his willingness to do what he felt he needed to do to achieve his goals -more playing time- says to me that this is a young man who wants to suceed. It may not have been optimal, but it's motivation.

Posted by: RedBird27 | September 11, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

To qaz1231:

Respectfully, how long has it been since you took the SAT test as a high school student? While some of the questions require only logic, others require a good education, and achieving a truly high score requires test-specific preparation.

I will give you my own experience as an example.

I attended a decent set of public schools through seventh grade. In seventh grade I took the SAT test as part of a gifted and talented group program. At the time, the highest possible score on the test was a 1600; I scored a little bit over 1000.

In eighth grade, I was lucky enough to transfer to a private school that prepared us extensively for the SAT. One of the main foci was vocabulary; we spent an entire year studying a book called Word Smart to learn the necessary extended definitions for words we might encounter. At the time, we complained it was like memorizing a dictionary. We were also coached on how to test well. After these preparations, my score on my final test was 1450 out of 1600. I received a perfect score on the verbal part of the test, which I know would have been impossible without the vocabulary preparation my school gave me. Despite being an avid reader, I would not have known at least a third of the words I encountered on the test without Word Smart.

If the SAT test were a simple IQ test, my score should not have changed so dramatically over a few short years. While I and other students can and have figured out many of the questions in the SAT test on our own, specific coaching and teaching for the test makes a huge difference on what SAT score you receive, no matter what IQ the student holds.

Posted by: muddiboots | September 11, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Mathews says that the SAT identifies or "worst" schools. Actually, the very best predictor of SAT score is family low SAT scores identify high-poverty schools.

In this column, Mathews says that Micheele Rhee has been pushing AP courses and tests in the District. AP has become, to use Mathews' term, the "gold standard" for student achievement (more on this shortly as it relates to national board certification).
But AP has been vastly oversold (and Mathews and the Post/Newsweek have done their fair share of the overselling.....of course, nearly 60% of the Post's revenues now come from Kaplan, a test prep [SAT, PSAT, AP] company).

From an earlier Mathews column on a "gifted teacher":

I don't know whether or not Jonathan Keiler is a good teacher. What I do know is that Jay Mathews overstates the "problems" with education schools and their courses. Having bad teachers is not particular to education courses. Can anyone think of a bad Math teacher they had (I had a terrible calculus professor in college....I'm sure she knew math, but she was incompetent at communicating her knowledge to others). Think any psychology majors had any bad teachers in college? Accounting?

The critical flaw in Mathews' reasoning in this particular column is to claim that Keiler is a good teacher because he is nationally board certified. Mathews claims that there is little correlation (he continually misuses the correlation statistic) "between rewarding teachers for advanced degrees and improved student achievement." [There is some research to show that teachers who are knowledgeable in their fields and who've engaged in courses that examine pedagogy, are in fact better teachers.]

But early in the column Mathews asserts that it's "difficult to argue" that Keiler is a good teacher because he's the only teacher at his school who is nationally board certified, which is a "gold standard for American educators."

National Board Certification has become something of a silver bullet in public education: the assumption is that if one attains it, then one is automatically a good teacher. Not so. Indeed, there isn't much of a research basis for the claim that Mathews makes about national board certification (do your homework, Jay).

People still assume that the SAT is a good, valid test (it isn't). Many still believe that the SAT stands for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (it doesn't stand for anything). At its VERY Best, the SAT predicts about 14% of the variance in freshman year college grades (it its worst, it predicts only about 3 percent), and after freshman year it doesn't predict anything. College enrollment experts say that we'd do was well by using shoe size.

So, it's rather odd that Jay says advanced degrees don't affect student achievement, but national board certification does. Tsk,tsk.

Posted by: mcrockett1 | September 11, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Great article! I like reading these kinds of good-news stories mixed in with the other columns pointing out problems.

Jay, be careful in your description of the mother. Maybe she chose to be a stay at home mom? That is not the same as being unemployed.

The SAT is -not- an IQ test. Even the ETS people acknowledge that it is a measure of what students have learned, not a measure of potential. Furthermore, one does not need an exceptionally high IQ to succeed in college. A student's hard work and motivation are a large part of his or her success.

Posted by: drl97 | September 11, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

15 As, 6 Bs, and 1 C . A high-honors report care by any measure. But only one non-historically black college would admit him to its general program -- and even then, this student who received As and Bs in DCPS English was placed in remedial English, because he did not have college-ready writing skills.

Why? Because colleges are well aware of the lack of rigor in DCPS overall. For instance, almost half of the students at Deal Middle School are on the "honor" roll. Keeps the parents happy - ask them, and they'll tell you their kids are "doing great!" But when it comes time for their children to compete with students who have received far superior educations, the truth is painfully obvious - they really weren't doing "great."

Posted by: trace1 | September 11, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

For qaz1231: if you want to call it an IQ test, that is fine, but we have collected a ton of data over the last three decades showing that this thing you want to call IQ can be raised significantly with good teaching and family enrichment. The Washington Post company would be in much worse shape if our beloved corporate brothers and sisters at Kaplan hadn't worked out lots of ways to make those numbers go up. I will suggest they add "Raise Yr IQ!!" to their ad lines.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 11, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

I again question whether the concept of a "bad school" makes sense. We act as if there is something the school could do to fix the problem of poor students.

"The kid is conscientous enough to get decent grades. Good for him. Whether that gift is best put to use by going to a 4-year college where success demands a high IQ is a question you don't much seem to care about."

It just indicates that grades don't measure anything, at least SAT measures verbal, writing and math skills (not IQ). The AP and SAT Subject Tests are vastly better tests of what students have learned. A full battery of SAT Subject Tests would provide a much fairer comparison of students across schools.

Posted by: staticvars | September 11, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

One of the most successful mentors for DCPS students,ever, Dr. Art Siebens, --removed by Ms. Rhee and denied reinstatement by her appointed principal at Wilson HS--, argued that a "2" on the AP test demonstrated solid high-school level achievement, even if not deserving credit for college-level work. A "1" is earned by signing in and making no more or less effort on the test than randomly guessing and politely marking.
Unfortunately the Ballou HS AP students, whatever the merits of the AP program for English and US History, were able to produce just three "2"s. Could there not be much wrong with your "Challenge Index", Mr. Mathews, insensitive as it is to discriminating between some and perhaps no learning?

Posted by: incredulous | September 11, 2009 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Mathews your statement that DCPS is the worst urban school district in the country is unjustifiable.

Robert Vinson Brannum

Posted by: robert158 | September 11, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

for Mccrockett1: good points. For a while there the nat.board cert had very little research backing, but now there is some. It is not great, but it is a lot better than the correlation with masters degrees in education. (And i ran my language on the correlation past the author of that report, and he said it was correct.) I think the nat. board cert also wins some extra points for being selective. You can't get it just for doing all the tasks. You have to do them better than about half of the other people who do them to get certified.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 11, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

I'm a DCPS teacher and had another very successful career running a non-profit before I switched to teaching. This is the kind of student I love: motivated, interested in learning, polite, respectful and with supportive and encouraging parents. Sadly, he is in the minority in DCPS. bbcrock doesn't know what s/he is talking about. My job is to teach. Students have a responsibility to come ready to learn and motivated. My job is NOT to motivate them, bribe them, entertain them or beg them to learn. Does anyone's boss on here motivate them or try to make their job entertaining in order to keep your interest in working? I don't think so and kids need to learn self-motivation at an early age. My job as a teacher is to teach them and re-teach them if they didn't understand it the first time around. I do that on a daily basis. I love teaching and I love my students' scores went up last year on the standardized test they take. I came through one of the best public school systems in the country--Fairfax County--and I had teachers I hated and classes which were so boring I could have cried. My parents--neither of whom were college educated but hard workers and very successful--instilled in me the value and importance of an education and taught me to respect those who were teaching me. Most of us who teach in DCPS don't disagree with Michelle Rhee that there needs to be reform and most of us don't mind being held accountable for what we can control. It's her constant battering of us, her disrespect towards us and her lack of appreciation for what we do that we can't stand. She's very immature, has no clue how to manage a bureaucracy and has zero people skills. I think in time she may be good but right now she has created a culture of fear and mistrust in DCPS and that's not a healthy environment for principals, teachers or students.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | September 11, 2009 4:51 PM | Report abuse

(grin) UrbanDweller, maybe if Rhee was able to motivate, bribe, entertain or beg the teachers, you might like her better! It certainly sounds as though it couldn't hurt!

Personally, I do think that teachers (like parents) should use whatever works to get a child to learn. Whether that is motivating them, bribing them (my son was thrilled to get a Starburst today...) entertaining them (seeing a Shakespeare play makes reading one SO much easier...) or even begging them. Sometimes asking someone to do something produces miracles, after all.

You sound like a passionate teacher who loves what she does. So I'm sure you use some form of positive reinforcement in your classroom, even if it isn't motivating them, bribing them, entertaining them, or begging them. I'd love to hear more about what works for you. Because we know that positive reinforcement gets results: in the classroom, in our families, in our workplaces and in nearly every aspect of human interaction. It works on adults and children alike.

Perhaps Michelle Rhee isn't the only one who has forgotten that?

Hang in there!

Posted by: gretchenlaskas | September 11, 2009 9:25 PM | Report abuse

The fact that Clayton Armstrong has has two supportive parents makes a difference. That his father is employed is also an advantage.I'm sure that puts him in the minority in his school. The reality is that parent education and income are the best predictors of test scores. Describing schools as "bad" or "failing" is misleading. Schools are only as good as the students they serve. If it was possible to have the teachers in any urban school change places with teachers in a high scoring suburban school, there would be little or no difference in test scores. It's much easier to blame teachers, than to fix all of the problems associated with poverty.

Posted by: Susan50 | September 12, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

For incredulous: I suspect that great tutor did not have a chance to see what some great AP teachers in DC, like Frazier O'Leary, can do for kids that are way behind, and how even getting a 1 can be a big step forward, if done right.

Posted by: jaymathews | September 12, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

For incredulous: I suspect that great tutor did not have a chance to see what some great AP teachers in DC, like Frazier O'Leary, can do for kids that are way behind, and how even getting a 1 can be a big step forward, if done right.

Posted by: jaymathews | September 12, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Clayton is a great example of hard work. From the sound of it Clayton's parents encouraged and supported him.

I am not familiar with Ballou, but is good to hear that they do offer some AP classes and Clayton took advantage of them. At least he will have received some exposure to some higher level classes.

Schools all across the country are encouraging more students to try AP courses. This means that there are often times students who are not quite ready for everything that AP classes are. The trick is for schools to keep their standards and expectations high while allowing more access to these higher level classes. The key will be in providing better preparation in all classes leading up to the AP courses. Hopefully these higher expectations will trickle down to prerequisite classes, better preparing all students, even those who do not attempt Advanced Placement classes.

Mike - Total Registration, LLC - Helping high schools simplify the AP exam registration process by registering students for the exams online.

Posted by: mikeeco | September 12, 2009 10:32 PM | Report abuse

I liked the general tone of the article, but I wondered about the need to examine Clayton Armstrong's transcript and publicize it.

Is that a standard practice when exploring student success stories in more depth, or was that a way to use data to reconcile his graduating from Ballou with his acceptance at Arizona? Just curious.

Posted by: JustUs5 | September 13, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

He was truly an exception at the school. The real work is to get all the students doing what he did, but, it's almost always impossible.

Posted by: ericpollock | September 13, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

For JustUs5: You ask a very good question. I did not examine Clayton's transcript. That would have been against the rules, unless he himself had shown it to me, and we were a continent apart when I contacted him. Instead, he recalled for me on the phone as best he could his grades in each course in high school. I wanted to show readers as much relevant detail as I could on what his academic life at these three underperforming schools was like, and I thought course grades were an important part of that. First, because they were so at odds with his SAT, but second because they still obviously reflected hard work and significant learning, particularly that 2 in AP history. Art Siebens is absolutely right. We have data showing that students who get 2s on AP exams do better in college than similar students who do not take AP. I should have mentioned in the piece that for black students, some studies show, GPA is a better predictor of college success than the SAT. I will try to get back to Clayton after his first year of college and see how it is going. My view is that strong character traits are the best predictors of success, and he has those in abundance.

Posted by: jaymathews | September 13, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Statistics is not something many people understand, especially some WaPo education reporters!! Seems to be a lot of evidence that SAT functions as an IQ test.

Posted by: dave-420 | September 14, 2009 8:43 PM | Report abuse

For a long time I've been fascinated by students like Clayton, so I've done a lot of reading on the subject. The reason for their success, as Jay indicates, are almost always the parents. They can be rich or poor, but they are usually THERE and that makes all the difference. The very best book on this subject is "A Hope in the Unseen" by Ron Suskind. I believe the author won a Pulitzer Prize for his series of articles about a boy like Clayton who makes it to the Ivy League, with the help of his hard-working single mother.

Almost all parents of successful students understand that they are the primary educators of their children. The present emphasis on "schools alone" and "no excuses" misleads negligent parents to believe that this important parenting job can be given to others. It can't be, although with human beings there are always exceptions.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 15, 2009 10:57 PM | Report abuse

for dave-420: thanks very much for that link. It is 5 years old, but it is still a good piece by a fine education writer who has worked for the Post too. It has led me to think that the fight over IQ is less about the numbers and more about what we think IQ, or g, is. I see, and maybe I am misreading them, the pro-IQ faction saying this is an unchanging part of one's physiological makeup, an inherited quality that largely determines yr academic potential. We on the anti-IQ side see little evidence that g is not strongly affected by the environment, particularly good teaching. I think it measures intellectual skills that can be improved with teaching and enriched family life, but that is not what most people who use the word IQ think it is.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 16, 2009 5:38 PM | Report abuse

I hope the author of this blog realizes that Ballou didn't get AP classes until the 2003-2004 school year. This was also the year of the mercury spill. I'm pretty sure that these kids wouldn't pass the exam in this short time period of rigorous courses.

Posted by: harris23 | September 18, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

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