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Making the grade not about race, but culture

The Post's brilliant and provocative teacher-essayist, Patrick Welsh, did it again Sunday in his Outlook section piece, "Making the Grade Isn't About Race. It's About Parents." Read it. You will find not only a vivid description of what motivates students, from a star English teacher at T.C. Williams High School, but you will see that employees of the Alexandria City school system trash the district superintendent without any fear of retribution.

This comes naturally to Welsh. He has been writing for the Post for at least 20 years by my count. He has published a book of his essays. Several of his former supervisors have been eviscerated by him in the Post, but Alexandria is such a well-run city with such smart school administrators that as far as I know they have never disciplined him for his strong opinions, and thank goodness for that.

I also liked the piece because it reveals Welsh's interesting change of mind on the subject of restricting access to AP courses, like the one he teaches. He and I had a debate in Outlook several years ago. He said opening AP to all kids was dumbing down the courses. I presented lots of data showing he was wrong. Readers thought he won. But in the latest piece he presents the open AP system at T.C. as one more sign that the school is trying hard to reach all students, and instead reflects on why some minority students thrive under that system and others don't.

He says the difference is some kids have parents who push them to succeed, and others don't. He is right about that, but only partly. Good teachers like Welsh can, and have in many schools including his, inspired students from dysfunctional family backgrounds to be great students. They create a desire in their students to adopt a different culture than what their families embrace. They see the benefits of hard work and planning for college and their lives are changed.

Welsh is right, however, to criticize school district leaders who say the problem is race, and white teachers not having high expectations for black kids. That too is part of the problem nationally, but less so at T.C. than just about any other high school I know. The solution is finding a way, as a school team of teachers and administrators, to motivate all students to bring their game up to a new level. Welsh's fine piece shows many ways to do that. Although Alexandria superintendent Mort Sherman gets a lot of grief from Welsh on this issue, Sherman seems to me just as devoted as Welsh is to finding a way to make school work for all kids.

Welcome to Alexandria, Mort. You can't really call yourself an Alexandria administrator until you have been slapped upside the head by Pat Welsh. You two ought to talk and get together on a plan that will suit both of you, and all those kids you are responsible for in one of the great high schools of this region.

By Jay Mathews  | October 20, 2009; 11:29 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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The problem is that schools track strictly along racial lines. This is a major issue and honestly its stupid in this day and age. This issue is not anyone's race. Its all about $. Look at the kids that do well and look at their families income and their parent's education level. When they track data and scores they need to track it by wealth, not by race.

Posted by: | October 20, 2009 4:30 PM | Report abuse

This is a national pattern where the politically correct "blame game" results in the denial of services to suffering children. My favorite memory of this dynamic has probably been embellished by repeated retelling, but I recall the young administrator who had taught in suburban schools as he exhorted social studies teachers. "The high school excuse is to blame the middle school, which blames the elementary school, which blames the home, and then we are saying ..."

White teachers squirmed uncomfortably until a Black teacher said, "If you are blaming all these rednecks here, we’re cool, but ..."

The laughter temporarily slowed the administrator’s ardor, but he came back to the same old message.

This time I derailed him with a joke, but the young idealist looked like characters in "Dr. Strangelove" as they struggled to keep their true feelings from bursting out.

Unable to help himself, the administrator repeated the secondary to elementary school to home cycle of blame. Again it fell to a Black teacher to ask (this time in a more serious voice) "are you calling us racists or incompetents?"

"If the shoe fits!" the central office theorist exploded.

Another favorite memory is the national consultant who distributed clickers to sound support for the favored attitudes. A teacher dutifully, and tearfully recounted an assault by a middle school student. And that brought a round a clicking by supportive teachers (who were in the minority) .

"I wanted to cry," the teacher explained and again got a round of clicking.

"I wanted to write a referral. But I didn't!" she exclaimed. More clickers sounded but most of us, of all races, just averted our eyes.

My least favorite memory was a superintendent from the Broad School juicing up a church where I was one of the few Whites in attendance. "Those teachers just want to suspend our Black males! But I'm going to put our Black males back in the classroom and I'll tell those teachers 'Teach them or I'll fire you! I can't make you love our Black students. But I can make you do your job!'"

Regarding your debate on AP, I believe my adopted daughter grew up in generational poverty and she is the last African-American to pass an AP test in our school but she agrees with Welsh. But she also enjoyed how agitated I got during that debate and loved ragging on me afterwards, "I didn't know you were a racist. You have work on your racism. Now, give me the car keys tonight ..."

Posted by: johnt4853 | October 20, 2009 5:01 PM | Report abuse

The 2009 National tests for DC show the 6 percent of whites in the public school system scoring the highest average in the nation at 270 while the 84 percent blacks in the public school system scoring the lowest score in the nation at 213.

Now we are told that it is not about race but culture.

Yes you could say it is about culture if you mean that there is a large underclass in places like DC and it is not surprising that the underclass will simply fail in the public school system and that the majority of blacks in DC are in that underclass.

Public schools should be addressing the underclass problem and not pretend that it simply does not exist.

The DC public school system has done nothing to address this problem except to claim that the teachers are to blame.

Where are the innovative programs for preschool education to hopefully limit the damage of neglectful parents?

Where are the innovative programs for longer school days for children at risk and school dinners?

Where are the school programs for young children?

Where are the programs to identify the problem children who if left in a normal class room will disrupt the education of others and turn children who could benefit from an education into problem children?

Where are the programs to remove aggressive and violence prone students from regular schools instead of the policy of penalizing teachers for reporting incidents of violence and aggression?

None of these programs exist in DC and the only program is to blame the teachers for the problems of a large underclass and claim significant gains on a National test where black children are at the bottom of the heap.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 20, 2009 5:45 PM | Report abuse

Where are the school programs for young children?

This line should have been:

Where are the summer school programs for young children?

This does not mean giving children a basketball during the summer but rather running a full time summer educational camp for children during the summer. These children are so poor that the public schools have to provide lunch and their needs are totally ignored during the summer. Contrary to popular fiction these children have to eat and live during the summer recess. They do not use this period to hibernate.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 20, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

good stories,johnt4853. join us again.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 20, 2009 6:58 PM | Report abuse

Do enlighten me why poor under class Asians seem to do so well. The only differences between poor Asians and poor Blacks are color of the skin and culture. I don't think the color of the skin make one race more or less intellegent.

Posted by: AT_MD | October 20, 2009 8:56 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Jay, I got a million of em. Thursday in This Week In Education after endorsing Welsh's piece, I'll toss in a couple more stories.

But I must stress that when talking to my students I take the opposite approach. In contrast to adults who are looking for an easy out, the kids are much much too harsh in blaming themselves and their people.

Somehow we have to talk about these things and stop the simplistic blame game. After all, there is plenty of true evil that contributed to these problems.

Posted by: johnt4853 | October 20, 2009 9:33 PM | Report abuse

To bsallamack, who asks, "where are the...."

None of that stuff is part of Chancellor Rhee's vision of what it takes to improve student achievement. Her vision only includes miracle working teachers who overcome all obstacles in childrens' lives.

Posted by: efavorite | October 20, 2009 10:38 PM | Report abuse

I just re-read Patrick Welsh's article, Mr. Mathews, and I don't see anything in it that supports your long-standing view that maximizing AP enrollment benefits all stakeholders.

On the contrary: what I hear Mr. Welsh saying is that although race is not necessarily the deciding factor in school achievement, parental involvement is. Students--even struggling students--who have always had support and nurturing at home are better equipped to succeed in school: that is, I believe, Mr. Welsh's point.

You, Mr. Mathews, seem to be taking Mr. Welsh's recognition that race is not the deciding factor, and then leaping to the conclusion that Mr. Welsh has come around to your profligate suggestion of admitting all comers to advanced level classes.

As someone who teaches at a school that was one of your original "top 100 schools in America" (based on percentage of AP enrollment), I know what Mr. Welsh knows, and that is that if we completely ignore prerequisites and standards when it comes to admitting students to upper-level courses, it is impossible to maintain high standards for those courses without having a large number of frustrated, failing students.

And if we gear the courses to the struggling, unprepared student, (i.e., if we give in, and dumb down the courses) we end up with frustrated, under-challenged students.

In either scenario, there are unavoidably frustrated, exhausted teachers.

I've only taught AP English for fourteen years, so I can't claim quite as much "skin in the game" as Mr. Welsh. But I do know this: Mr. Welsh has twenty years of walking the walk. You, Mr. Mathews, have probably twenty years of talking the talk.

My experience confirms the validity of Patrick Welsh's personal observations over your pleasant and politically correct theories.

Posted by: ashevilleshep | October 20, 2009 10:46 PM | Report abuse

I think Mr. Welsh not only hit the nail on the head about the need for parental involvement, but pointed out the sad truth of what now constitutes "leadership" in a public school system. It used to be that people were subtle about their song and dance approach, in the case of Alexandria City Public Schools, it appears as though the leadership is proud of it's song and dance.

The 3 day use of teachers' time, district resources, and taxpayer dollars presented public education in Alexandria with nothing more than stories, inspirational Youtube videos, and catch phrases. This is not leadership, this is not courageous. What it is is a slap in the face to the profession of teaching and to the 1500 employees of ACPS who were promised a professional conference.

Those 3 days would have been better spent planning at each school or grade level. The 3 days would have been better spent analyzing a new schedule handed down to all schools (at a high cost from a private consultant). The 3 days would have been well spent training staff on new curriculum. Or as Mr. Welsh suggests, bringing students together to resolve conflicts and to lay out expectations.

Mr. Welsh was speaking about his experiences in his classroom and his own views about the administration, but I suspect that if you put your finger on the pulse of Alexandria City schools, you will find that many things are taking place which should raise red flags.

Goldie Hawn's appearance wowed Dr. Sherman's audience last year at the beginning of the school year kick-off. I don't think that this year's kick-off had the same desired effect.

Posted by: anorthwhitehead | October 20, 2009 10:50 PM | Report abuse

I agree with ashevilleshep that Mr. Welsh does not endorse open access to AP in his column. As a former AP teacher, I've also disagreed publicly with Jay about opening access to everyone.

The College Board, developers and administrators of the AP exams, does not embrace open access either and suggests limitations on which students should take AP. The CB's revised equity policy is contained in the "Fifth Annual AP Report to the Nation," Feb. 4, 2009, (p.7) “All willing and academically prepared students deserve the opportunity to succeed in rigorous, college-level experiences and the advantages they bring.”

In an e-mail exchange with Trevor Packer, who is the College Board's vice-president responsible for leadership of the Advanced Placement Program, Packer further clarified the College Board’s position regarding AP access. He writes in part:
"...(S)chools that have embraced open access should probably have focused on building a more effective pipeline rather than on open access... (A)ccess should be provided to prepared and motivated students, not all students. All students to (sic) deserve such preparation and investment in their pre-AP years, but that’s very different from saying that all students should be placed in AP right now, given current mixed levels of readiness/preparation/motivation. A simplistic, but perhaps not too inaccurate, statement of the problem might be that many schools that should be providing open access, given the level of readiness among their student population, are not, whereas many schools that probably should not be providing open access are."

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | October 21, 2009 1:23 AM | Report abuse

The only problem with the pipeline approach is that some students (intentionally not mentioning race) could be placed in the wrong pipeline at an early age due to narrow criteria and less objective teacher judgement. To say that prerequisites must be met to begin AP courses would mean that the student was some how on an advanced level by middle school to no later than 9th grade. Thus, we're back to the discussion on what makes a gifted and talented program and the highly controversial definition of giftedness among a wide variety of learning styles. Tracking, pipelines whatever...are logical, but not perfect.

Now to mention race. MD issued a report a while back entitled "Task Force on the Education of Maryland’s African-American Males" that caused a little mumbling. It stated,
"In special education categories with subjective eligibility criteria mental retardation, emotional disturbance, developmental delay African American male students are dramatically overrepresented."

Whether the boys are being disproportionately placed in special ed due to the lack of a father figure (or genetics as some people believe) is highly doubtful.
More likely it is a combination of low teacher expectations and the child's preparation for school. Boys, in general, tend to struggle academically early on. However, if the culture of any boy's family is to downplay education, their behavior in the classroom will certain be proof of what's been happening at home. As discussed in a recent Jay Mathews column, if kids can't read in kindergarten, they're already behind. Imagine having that strike against you plus having a teacher who doesn't expect much of you anyway.

Byron Pitts was featured on CBS Sunday Morning to discuss his new book, Step Out on Nothing. From a review: "Byron Pitts tells a gripping story about overcoming childhood illiteracy. Pitts didn't learn to read until the age of twelve. He stuttered until he was twenty years old. And despite those incredible odds he went on to become a [Emmy-award winning] 60 Minutes Correspondent.

On the subject of race, for Black people at least, we could learn a lot from people like Mr. Pitts, Ben Carson, and many others I'm sure who didn't have the best start in education, but still endured. The 45% of blacks at T.C. who are not taking AP courses as much as other kids should read these books too--and ignore any posted standardized test scores grouped by race.

Posted by: doglover6 | October 21, 2009 9:47 AM | Report abuse

To ashevilleshep and patrickmattimore1: thanks for the good posts. I didn't say I had totally converted Pat. I said he was no longer arguing, as he did in our debate, that opening AP to all who want to take it dumbs down the course. I would love for ashevilleshep to email me at and tell me where he teaches and more about what he has personally observed. As he says, I have been only talking and writing about, not teaching, for the past 27 years, but I have been the mouthpiece for many AP teachers who have been in the classroom even longer than he has, and have shown me in a hundred different ways---including test score and participation data---that opening AP to all students who want to do the work is the best way to go. Once you impose that GPA or teacher's recommendation requirement, you are saying to motivated kids who just need extra time and encouragement to do well that you don't really have any extra time and encouragement for them. Is that the way you want to go? The reality is in most schools if you don't let them take AP, the only available alternative is going to be a real snooze for them, and a big waste of their precious time. But I always learn from those who have a contrary view, so please email me and give me some details that will shake my viewpoint. As anyone who has read my columns knows, I do change my mind occasionally, particularly when pros like you share what you know.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 21, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

For those who read patrickmattimore1's post above quoting AP vice president Trevor Packer:

I know Packer and Mattimore pretty well, both great guys. But Mattimore's quote of Packer seemed odd to me, different that what he has told me when we have conversed on this subject. So I just asked Packer about it and he said Mattimore took out important parts of his email. Of course I get accused of this often. It is one of the red badges of journalism to be told you left out the most important stuff. So I will quote Packer's email to me in full (except for one sentence where he mentions a specific high school, something he put off the record because he is not allowed to comment on specific data from specific schools). You all can make up yr minds. What Packer sent me sounds more like him than what Mattimore posted above from Packer:

Jay: I’m willing and eager to weigh in here, since your skepticism about Mattimore’s description of my position is warranted. In fact, you’ll note an ellipses at the first of his quotation of me. He’s trimmed off the statements I’ve made in favor of open access, and also trimmed off the qualifying word I’d affixed to “Schools” that made it clear that only some schools were inappropriately providing open access. So here is the exact paragraph I sent Mattimore, prior to his very selective editing of my comment to make it appear as if I’m opposed to open access:

“Yes, I do believe that many schools that do not provide open access should. [SPECIFIC SCHOOL EXAMPLE DELETED HERE] But other schools that have embraced open access should probably have focused on building a more effective pipeline rather than on open access. . . ”

Pretty disingenuous to delete that part, right—particularly by dropping the initial sentence and the qualifier “But other,” it makes it sound like I was saying that all schools that have embraced open access were wrong to do so. And that’s certainly not my perspective. I have great admiration for hundreds of schools that have embraced open access and achieved tremendous positive changes in the college-going culture of their schools. What I oppose are open access programs without the sort of structure, policy, teacher professional development, and academic leadership to provide college-level rigor. AP in name only is not what any of want to see provided to traditionally underserved students.

Moreover, in a world in which the much greater problem is many qualified students not gaining access to AP, I think Mattimore’s focus on AP students that aren’t ready for AP is not the most important challenge or issue. In fact, the mean AP score—a metric Mattimore likes much more than the equity/excellence metric, swung upward this year, even though there continued to be strong continued growth in access to AP. I have a hard time getting as worked up about students taking AP without adequate preparation as I do about students with adequate motivation and interest being denied access due to the presuppositions, biases, and low expectations of their elders.

Feel free to use any of this as my response. And thanks for giving me the opportunity, rather than taking Mattimore’s abridged distortion of my statement as a true and accurate representation of my perspective.


Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 21, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

I don't know either Mr. Packer or Mr. Mattimore. All I know from what I've read is that Mr. Mattimore is former AP teacher, and Mr. Parker is a vice president of the College Board.

It is in Mr. Mattimore's interest to have students in his classes who have the prerequisite skills to succeed, or at least not to drown, in his AP classes.

It is in Mr. Packer's interest to maximize the number of AP test takers.

The College Board, though nominally a nonprofit, regularly has an annual surplus in the tens of millions of dollars; in 2006, its CEO, Gaston Caperton, had a salary in excess of $800,000. (source:

I am not questioning Mr. Packer's commitment to excellence in education, and I don't know whether he earns a mid-six figure salary. My point is merely that Mr. Mattimore, like Mr. Welsh, represents "boots on the ground," and has a much more realistic (and, I would say, valid) assessment of the efficacy of open enrollment in AP courses than either Mr. Packer or Mr. Mathews do.

If there are AP teachers who have been in the classroom after the institution of No Child Left Behind, and if, like me (and apparently like Mr. Welsh) they teach at schools with students from diverse academic and socioeconomic backgrounds, and if they teach the full range of students and take on the full range of teacher responsibilities--those are the testimonials to open AP enrollment that I will find persuasive.

Mr. Mathews: if, as you suggest, you personally know a great many such teachers, please ask them to post their opinions directly--or, better yet, have them write editorials in support of your view. Don't tell us what you think they are saying; let them say it themselves.

Posted by: ashevilleshep | October 21, 2009 5:30 PM | Report abuse

I'm quite sure Jay can find teachers who support open access across the board. I am much more persuaded by research like that provided by the Fordham Institute that the majority of AP teachers don't. From the Fodham Institute's report earlier this year:
"There’s a built-in tension in the AP Program between two fundamental and competing values: granting access to all (or as many as possible) or making access conditional on demonstrated ability.
The survey pits these priorities against each other. Forced to choose, 52% of AP teachers say only students who are deemed able to handle the material should take AP courses: “Otherwise it’s not fair to them, their classmates, their teachers, and the quality of the program.” But 38% say the
more students taking AP courses the better: “Even when they do poorly in the course they benefit from the challenge and the experience.” In a presidential election, a 52% to 38% margin might be considered a landslide; in an opinion survey, it’s not. And it reveals that teachers are indeed grappling with these competing values."

Also from the report:

"More than six in ten AP teachers (63%) think that conducting more screening of students to ensure that they are ready to do AP-level work before they get in those classrooms would improve the program. This is the “winner” among the eight possible changes we asked them to consider. Only 12% think more screening would make the program worse."

I did not feel the necessity to provide Mr. Packer's entire quote about AP access b/c I believe the concept of "open access" to be either/or. You are in favor of it or against it. Mr. Packer had indicated to me that some schools should be more open "whereas many schools that probably should not be providing open access are." (Mr. Packer's quoote). I therefore concluded, perhaps erroneously, that the College Board was against open access generally. If I misinterpreted their position, I apologize, as it was not my intent to mislead anyone.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | October 22, 2009 12:03 AM | Report abuse

I believe that my position re. access is not that unlike Jay's and Trevor's but whereas they emphasize access to the traditionally underserved, I focus on what I feel is the College Board's disingenuous (to use Trevor's word) use of a passing percentage which supposedly climbs every year using an inappropriate denominator (graduating seniors). The CB has an obligation to let folks know that more tests has resulted in lower percentages of students passing the test based on numbers of test takers (10% lower since 1988). The CB should make clear to schools and the public the trade-offs that expansion brings. Ultimately, our disagreements over access don't amount to much b/c the decision as to access does and should rest with individual school districts and schools and not with the College Board or journalists.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | October 22, 2009 9:20 AM | Report abuse

I am persuaded by Mr. Mattimore's suggestion that the open enrollment is either/or: either you think there should unrestricted access to AP enrollment, or you believe that there should be prerequisite conditions for enrollment.

It is easy and common to brand those of us who fall in the second category as elitists--or, worse, racists--for suggesting that there must be prerequisites. (Witness some of the vitriol aimed at Patrick Welsh in the blog for his recent article.)

But the College Board itself, in its "AP Report to the Nation" of February 4, 2009, explicitly lists limitations on AP enrollment. I quote from page 7 of the report: "All willing and academically prepared students deserve the opportunity to succeed in rigorous, college-level experiences and the advantages they bring."

Notice the qualifiers: "willing" and "academically prepared." I can't speak for Mr. Welsh or Mr. Mattimore, but that's a statement with which I couldn't agree more.

I am all about ending the stereotype of the AP curriculum as the private club of the socio-economic elite. Ten years ago, one of the biggest problems I faced with AP enrollment was wealthy but unmotivated WASP kids who signed up for the course because it was the socially correct thing to do.

Given the choice between "willing" and "academically prepared," I will always opt for "willing"--as long as the student has basic competencies (such as writing on grade level), and an understanding of what s/he's getting into. I had such a student last year: He knew that he'd probably make a D in the course, but he knew that the rigor would be good for him. He was a struggling writer, but he was an active participant in the class, and everyone benefited from his presence. He is now attending a prestigious state university, and is doing well.

If by "open enrollment" one means (as the College Board apparently does) "open to all willing and academically prepared students," then you get no argument from me.

But if the term "open enrollment" is taken at face value--i.e., "open to anyone who, regardless of motivation, willingness, or academic preparation," then everyone concerned is badly served.

Posted by: ashevilleshep | October 22, 2009 3:09 PM | Report abuse

for ashevilleshep: I have quoted AP and IB teachers who believe in welcoming all many times. I have written books about them. Goggle me and some of these names: Mike Grill at Wakefield High, Dan Coast at Mount Vernon High, Erin Albright at Annandale High, Roy Sunada at Marshall Fundamental High (CA), Frazier O'Leary at Cardozo High, Brian Rodriguez at Encinal High (CA), Chris Barbic at YES Prep (TX) and stories should come up. Or look at my books Class Struggle or Supertest, where I quote many more. That's the way it works in journalism. My job is to find great educators, ask them questions and quote them in the paper or in books. I show those quotes to everyone in advance to make sure I have their words exactly right. I like the idea of asking them for direct posts to the blog. I will do that as soon as I get a chance. But I hope you were not implying that what I quote them as saying is not their real opinion. Anybody who thinks that does not know me, or those teachers, very well.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 22, 2009 7:01 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Mathews: I'm not a regular reader of your column, so I don't know what AP teachers you have quoted. I certainly have no reason to presume that you misquote your sources; as Mr. Mattimore said in his most recent response, there are no doubt AP teachers who support open enrollment. I do not question either your integrity, or your sincere conviction about the benefits of open enrollment.

However, based on your interpretation of Patrick Welsh's recent column it does seem to me that you might not be completely unbiased in your perceptions of what AP teachers say. That is the reason I suggested that it would be more compelling if your sources spoke directly, instead of your restating their opinions.

You referred to Mr. Welsh's "interesting change of mind on the subject of restricting access to AP courses." I don't know Mr. Welsh's views that well, but I did go back and read the debate he and you had on the subject. I didn't see any evidence in his recent column of a change of mind on the subject.

Mr. Packer took issue with Mr. Mattimore's out of context quote--but (as I said in my last post) the College Board's statement about access to AP courses seems clearly to refute the idea of open enrollment. There are, according to College Board, preconditions for registering for AP courses.

These nuances are not insignificant. Maximizing enrollment for all students who are WILLING and ACADEMICALLY PREPARED is something any good AP teacher supports. That is by no means the same as what I understand your position to be--namely, that AP enrollment should be open to all students, regardless of willingness or academic preparation.

Even if you believe that the only prerequisite should be willingness, you would still not be in favor of open enrollment. What about programs like AVID, that push students into AP classes even if they aren't interested?

The point is not whether AP courses should be open to more students. Of course they should be. But I really don't believe that there are many AP teachers who think that there should be no standards at all for enrollment in AP courses.

If Mr. Mattimore's statistics are correct, then not only the plurality but the majority (52%) of AP teachers do not believe that any student, regardless of preparedness, should take AP courses.

I don't doubt that 38% of AP teachers agree with your view. But if your role as a journalist is to report the facts, you owe it to your readers to report that the majority of AP teachers disagree with you.

There is a difference between dispassionately reporting, and defending a thesis. My impression has always been that you have a thesis that you are defending (viz., that open enrollment to AP programs is the panacea to poor academic success), and that you look for evidence to support that view.

My experience suggests that your thesis is flawed. That's all I'm saying.

Posted by: ashevilleshep | October 22, 2009 10:20 PM | Report abuse

"There is a difference between dispassionately reporting, and defending a thesis. My impression has always been that you have a thesis that you are defending (viz., that open enrollment to AP programs is the panacea to poor academic success), and that you look for evidence to support that view." ashevilleshep

Not just Jay, but all of us. Two related critical thinking errors which I used to drill into my psych students-
1. confirmation bias (the tendency to seek information which confirms what we already believe and to disregard contrary information)
2. belief perseverance- our stubborn resistance to change despite evidence suggesting we are wrong.

Frequently we even see these as strengths (think resolute George Bush versus flip-flopper John Kerry).

One of the texts I used had a nice practical example of how the two concepts dovetail.

There was a cult that believed the world was going to end at a specific time and the cult's members gathered shortly before the appointed hour to chant or something. When the time came and went the group was at first confused but subsequently the group's leader announced, NOT that the group had been wrong, but that their faith had prevented the calamity. The preposterous explanation nevertheless strengthened rather than weakened the group's faith, at least in the short term. The good news is (like Jay's modification of his absurd hs ranking system this year to put schools that have practically no students passing the AP exams, despite high participation levels, into a separate category) the group of cultists eventually splintered.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | October 23, 2009 1:39 AM | Report abuse

I appreciate these comments. And I am glad you are doubting just my impartiality, not my honesty. Two points: No American journalist has given as much space as I have to smart people like yourselves who have been critical of the AP and IB programs, and critical of my view that they should be open to all and that good teachers should try to drag into challenging courses those students who don't want to take them, but give indications that they would succeed in them. That is the way Jaime Escalante worked. It is the way Mike Grill and the teachers at Wakefield High in Arlington work. They have even organized a weekly club meeting for students they have dragooned into harder courses, letting them bitch to each other about all this homework they have, and share tips on how to deal with those teachers. I certainly have a view on this. I am a full time columnist now, and wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't share my view, with as much factual support for it as I can. But anyone who reads the guest columns and other opportunities I give to critics will see that I accept your view entirely. I have an obligation to present other views. That is one reason why I welcome these comments, and come in to comment on them myself, hoping that will increase the attention they get. I am going to send this entire string to those teachers I listed, and see if they want to participate. I have written many stories about why many AP teachers want there to be entrance requirements. They are great teachers, but accept the sorting side of the sorting vs. teaching argument, a favorite of mine. The teachers I have cited are on the teaching side. They think their talents are better spent advancing all kids that come in the door, rather than making sure only certain students get their help.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 23, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

"Sorting vs. teaching" is a bit prejudicial, don't you think? It that the way it breaks down for you--that either we teach students, or we sort students? Either that we care about all students, or we toss some students aside?

The insinuation that the majority of us AP teachers who want some standards for admission to AP courses (just at the College Board does) are more interested in some kind of elitist selection than in teaching all of our students is, frankly, offensive and an affront to my professionalism.

And I must point out, as (I have in my last three postings) that both you and the College Board use qualifying language that contradicts your claim that there should be no restrictions on AP enrollment. You have yet to address that point.

Here's what you said (I am quoting a long passage, because I don't want to be accused of quoting you out of context):

" view that they should be open to all and that good teachers should try to drag into challenging courses those students who don't want to take them, BUT GIVE INDICATIONS THAT THEY WOULD SUCCEED IN THEM. [my emphasis]."

What are those indications? Who judges? Doesn't someone have to make the determination about who is likely to succeed, prior to the student's enrollment?

That's what the College Board says. That's what you say. That's what Welsh, and Mattimore, and I say. That makes all of us "sorters" (to use your term), doesn't it?

How do you reconcile the first part of your statement ("...should be open to all..." with the last part ("...indications that they would succeed in them...")?

You say that the teachers you have cited are on the teaching side. Well, guess what? I'm on the teaching side too. Have been for all twenty-four years that I've been teaching. I resent the suggestion to the contrary.

Posted by: ashevilleshep | October 23, 2009 6:53 PM | Report abuse

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