Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Why Washington area schools are the best

[This is my column for the Local Living section of Dec. 31, 2009]

The end of the year is a time to count blessings. Let’s start with the underappreciated fact that the Washington area is the best place in the country for children to both learn the mysteries of science, math, English and history, and to become comfortable with stark differences in race and culture.

I’ve looked all over the country for schools--particularly high schools--that have a critical mass of committed parents and educators of various backgrounds who are determined to create a lively learning environment for every child. It was hard to find that when I lived in Pasadena, Calif., which was still reeling from massive white flight after a desegregation fight. It wasn’t much better when we moved to Westchester County, N.Y., where schools were very short of minorities and low-income people.

Coming to Washington, it took time to see the difference. As usual, everyone complained about public education. That’s an American pastime. But the more high schools I visited here, the more I realized this was---at least relatively speaking-- the Shangri-la of American education. There were more schools in one place than I had ever seen that fit my profile---well-mixed, well-run, with families committed to strong instruction. They shrugged off neighbors who, betraying unexamined biases, wondered how they could send their kids to THOSE schools.

Other parts of the country share some of this good fortune: the San Gabriel Valley, the San Francisco peninsula, Houston, Dallas, Charlotte, Norfolk, much of urban Florida. This is subjective, of course, but I have data that shows the places most likely to have both challenging and diverse schools. Greater D.C. leads the list.

When I returned to local education reporting after two decades as a foreign, national and business reporter, I started covering the Arlington and Alexandria schools. I was amazed. Arlington’s three regular high schools, Yorktown, Washington-Lee and Wakefield, and Alexandria’s T.C. Williams were almost exactly what I was looking for. I wandered further and saw there were plenty more like that--to name just a few, Mount Vernon, Stuart, South Lakes and Annandale in Fairfax County; Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Springbrook, Blake and Gaithersburg in Montgomery County; Wilson, Duke Ellington and Bell (its name since changed to Columbia Heights) in the District. The outer ring of counties--Prince William, Loudoun, Anne Arundel and Charles--were all experiencing demographic shifts, but their schools, surprisingly, got better.

So many parents and educators here agree on the worthiness of rigorous instruction for as many kids as possible, and on helping children appreciate their differences. The region has some advantages. Issues of national unity are woven into many parents’ working lives. Salaries are relatively high and stable, which means healthy school budgets (which to outsiders look good even in lean years like this one). Smart school boards recruited wise superintendents, who picked the best principals, who found the most talented teachers, who gave students lessons rich in content and thought.

I remember asking seniors in a government class at T.C. Williams about the differences between them. The teacher, Jack Esformes, had put in the same class Advanced Placement students heading for college and other students praying for the last bell. Weren’t they uncomfortable, all mixed together?

They fiercely defended their pride at being one exciting class, with contributions from everyone. In their eyes, I was just another clueless visitor trying to stereotype them.

I have the data backing up my impressions. But who wants to deal with that on New Year’s Eve? So check the stats yourself and tell me if I’m not right. By fortunate happenstance, with much work and talk, people of every sort have created schools in this region that have turned that overused word diversity into something real, and given a greater portion of our adolescents a better education than I have seen anywhere else.


For more from Jay, go to http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle. For all the Post's education coverage, go to http://washingtonpost.com/education.

By Jay Mathews  | December 30, 2009; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  | Tags:  Shangri-la of public education, Washington area schools, challenge in schools, school diversity  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Foreign language teaching is becoming just Spanish
Next: Can D.C. teacher evaluations be too admiring?

Comments

As a Catholic High School graduate, I find they should be put into the mix here.
Students from DeMatha Catholic High School leave ready to succeed in college their post-education endeavors.

Posted by: edlharris | December 31, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

Jay,

Congratulations on winning the Upton Sinclair Award.

Keep up the good work.

Posted by: johnt4853 | December 31, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Jay,

This paragraph really caught my attention:

"So many parents and educators here agree on the worthiness of rigorous instruction for as many kids as possible, and on helping children appreciate their differences. The region has some advantages. Issues of national unity are woven into many parents’ working lives. Salaries are relatively high and stable, which means healthy school budgets (which to outsiders look good even in lean years like this one). Smart school boards recruited wise superintendents, who picked the best principals, who found the most talented teachers, who gave students lessons rich in content and thought."

After reading this, I found myself wishing that our school district had such a focus as we have the same financial profile and socio-economic mix you've found in the DC area. The "formula" you describe is not a national secret. Neither is it difficult to create. It simply takes leadership from people who believe that these ideas represent worthy goals. I don't expect anyone within our district to share the vision you describe. But I'm sure that at least a few of our school board members do. What remains, I think, is to create the cascade of positive changes you describe in that last sentence.

I've sent the paragraph to the school board with whom I communicate most frequently. Thanks for providing a concise "tool" that I can use to get our board moving this year.

Happy New Year!

Steve

Posted by: StevePeha | December 31, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

I attended HB Woodlawn, a public school in Arlington County and one of the best public schools in the nation. I wonder why it didn't make it into your article? Maybe because it is a secondary program? Nonetheless, our students regularly outperformed many of the "best" students at the regular public high schools when it came to GPAs, standardized tests, college admission rates, and graduation rates. Go HB!! I must agree we do have some great schools here!

Posted by: anka1 | December 31, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

thanks johnt4853 for yr kind message.

edlharris is absolutely right about DeMatha and the great Dan McMahon.

As Anka1 say, HB Woodlawn is also a terrific school (usually number one on the Challenge Index local list). Its only disadvantage in this category is that it doesn't have as high a percentage of disadvantaged kids as some of the other places I mentioned.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 31, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Congratulations on your award Mr. Matthews.

Prince George's County Public Schools have made significant gains for the past three years in AP, IB, Science & Tech, (a few HS even made your list) to include increased levels of SAT scores.

PGCPS may have challenges & frustrations as well as school systems that you've highlighted above in your article.

PGCPS will continue to get better because there are parents, community leaders & members, and most importantly, students that care and determined to succeed as well.

Posted by: PGCResident1 | December 31, 2009 1:48 PM | Report abuse

Jay:
Congratulations on the Upton Sinclair Award. No one is more deserving. And for the kudos and award your latest book has received. I can't wait for the next one.
This column, like so many of your others, is spot-on. I just wish I could convince people in Fairfax County to adopt Jack's practices, but the bias against sharing the "special classes" with those thought not worthy is still strong enough to keep it from happening. And, right now, the system won't fight to do what it knows is right.
Please keep pushing. You do it softly and gently, but insistently. You've made a real difference in the education of millions - and I do not exaggerate - and I hope you continue to weigh in for many years to come.
Have a very happy new year.

Posted by: LoveIB | December 31, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Jay,

I appreciate your reminder to the parents in our area of the high quality public education systems they are so fortunate to be part of.

For many years, citizens who understand the importance of a well educated workforce have been willing to provide the support needed, both financial and otherwise, to ensure that all children receive the services they needed to become productive, contributing members of society.

As we enter a new decade with more limited resources than in years' past, I encourage your readers to view your New Year's message as a reminder regarding what their support has meant in the past --and what it will continue to mean in the future.

Emily Snyder
Educational Consultant
Know Your Options, LLC
Fairfax, VA

Posted by: EmASnyder | December 31, 2009 4:59 PM | Report abuse

The public education system, by its nature, seeks the lowest level of performance that local conditions permit.

In the Washington D.C. area that's pretty high because of the large population of parents who aren't even slightly impressed by assumptions of authority by education professionals and aren't even slightly hesitant to use their resources on behalf of their children. But change your focus to Washington D.C. itself with its large population of poorly-educated, low-income parents and the situation changes drastically.

We know the difference is not accounted for by funding since the D.C. district is well-funded all endless complaints to the contrary not withstanding.

And rejecting as self-serving the assumption that all, or even most, poor parents are indifferent to the education their child receive, there being ample proof to the contrary, about all that's left as a difference between between the D.C. district and surrounding districts are the personal, and not necessarily financial, resources the individual parents have at their disposal.

A partner in a successful lobbying firm is unlikely to accord an EdD the same deference as a single-mother on welfare might nor is as likely to feel powerless before the might and majesty of a school district. A GS-15, much less an SES, is unlikely to take "nothing can be done" as the final word from some public education official.

Since there doesn't seem to be any policy that shrinks the difference between the upper- and lower-income earners, and ignoring whether that's as good an idea as some ideologues claim, if the public education system's going to go from seeking the lowest level of performance up with which the public will put to pursuing the best outcomes possible, some fundamental changes that are going to be necessary.

Posted by: allenm1 | January 1, 2010 8:27 AM | Report abuse

Jay,
I think you're absolutely right. In my own Fairfax County neighborhood, the economically diverse Hollin Meadows Science and Math Focus School does an excellent job. West Potomac High turns out amazing graduates. And my daughter had the privilege of being educated by the wonderful teachers and students of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Posted by: ktyson51 | January 1, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

The Washington area schools are the best, Mr Matthews, because of the profound influence of the meritocratic civil service as the major employer in the metropolitan area. Advancing up the ranks of the federal civil services requires technical expertise and professional experience, usually demonstrated by bachelor and masters, if not the doctoral, degrees which are all predicated on an excellent K-12 schooling.

I certainly benefited by graduating one of 13 valedictorians at Washington - Lee High in Arlington when it was ranked among the top 10 public high schools in the nation. That excellent college prep course of study allowed me the freedom to be accepted in the college of my choice -- which is what I think the current generation of K-12 parents are striving for: the freedom of college choice for their kids and the kids' ability to make it in the world on their own, as healthy, productive and happy adults.

Posted by: wooddebra2 | January 1, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Not to take anything away from the D.C. area schools...but you seem to believe that only coastal schools offer diverse, challenging and successful programs. I would suggest you look at some of the country's fine schools in the interior, starting with Des Moines,Iowa and the Denver, Colorado metro area. You would obviously be surprised but most certainly also impressed.

Posted by: tallygirl3 | January 1, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

Not to take anything away from the D.C. area schools...but you seem to believe that only coastal schools offer diverse, challenging and successful programs. I would suggest you look at some of the country's fine schools in the interior, starting with Des Moines,Iowa and the Denver, Colorado metro area. You would obviously be surprised but most certainly also impressed.

Posted by: tallygirl3 | January 1, 2010 8:14 PM | Report abuse

PGCResident1:

You can't be serious in your remarks below. PGCPS is on a steady decline. They have no consistent leadership because no qualified superintendent can work for the system long term. The County Exec, Jack Johnson, is a crook. The County Council is clueless. The Board of Education is incompetent. The new superintendent and his management staff should have been fired at the beginning of the school year when schedules were not prepared before classes started. There is no accountability for problems in PG Co. Issues are just brushed aside and never addressed. The majority of teachers do not speak or write English fluently but speak and write ghetto very well. There are huge discipline problems that plague the county's schools and the parents of these trouble making students are at the very core of the problem. As for the students themselves, ESOL - English as a second language rates continue to rise and will continue to do so as Maryland and PG Co. has become safe havens for illegal immigrants. Look at the demographics of the administration, staff and students to determine what is going on and why. Tour some schools and talk to the staff. Next, go visit the Board of Ed. You'll find people reading the newspaper and novels vs. working. Trying visiting with an administrator. I think you'll be shocked with what you hear and see. I know I was and I hope to never enroll my kids in the PG Co. School System. It is truly a shame we can not get school vouchers for our kids. I need to move out this dump of a county.

PGCResident1 wrote:

Congratulations on your award Mr. Matthews.

Prince George's County Public Schools have made significant gains for the past three years in AP, IB, Science & Tech, (a few HS even made your list) to include increased levels of SAT scores.

PGCPS may have challenges & frustrations as well as school systems that you've highlighted above in your article.

PGCPS will continue to get better because there are parents, community leaders & members, and most importantly, students that care and determined to succeed as well.

Posted by: neil64 | January 1, 2010 8:43 PM | Report abuse

Jay- I know you grew up here out on the S.F. Peninsula, but things have really changed since then. With a handful of exceptions, the public high schools out here are NOT good. Your alma mater, Hillsdale High, has gang problems as do many of the other schools.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | January 1, 2010 10:40 PM | Report abuse

great post, although I am puzzled at Charlotte and Dallas being considered coastal. I better go look at my map again. And for CrimsonWife, ALL schools with large numbers of students from certain communities are said to have 'gang problems,' like all schools with mostly wealthy students have alcohol problems. But that tells us nothing about the quality of those schools as places for learning. I have been looking at Hillsdale very closely the last few years. I did a piece on the school for Newsweek in 2008. They have one of the smartest and most successful approaches to teaching kids from diverse communities that I have ever seen, and that seems to go for many other Peninsula schools with similar demographics. Am I missing something?

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 4, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company