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Principal tells ninth-graders to study, or leave

One of my education reporting maxims is that principals of schools in troubled districts never seek me out. Journalists are poison to them. We only want to write about bad stuff. Anything they say can be held against them.

So I was surprised when Charlie Thomas, principal of Crossland High School in Prince George’s County, began sending me e-mails. His school has been one of the worst in a low-performing district for a long time. But Thomas, who arrived in 2004, was trying to improve his school and was willing even to deal with a fault-finding columnist if it would help. Nearly 66 percent of his students were low-income, but he was not going to let that slow him down.

I confess he has gotten my attention with some unusual moves. For instance, he quickly discovered that close to 800 of his 1,800 students were still in the ninth grade. “I asked for a list of every ninth grade student that was 16 years old or older with a grade point average of less than 1.0 [a D average],” he told me. The list had 330 names. Some had been there four or five years.

“As soon as the school year began we met with each of these students and informed them that they were being placed on academic probation,” he said. “They were informed that they had one quarter to raise their grade point average to at least 1.0. If they failed to do so they would be withdrawn from the school due to lack of interest or transferred to the evening school program. . . . At the end of the first quarter, only 50 students remained on the list.”

Several of his teachers needed to improve. He created performance plans and focused on absenteeism. Some left. Seventy percent of the faculty today were hired by him. Some got better. His state test scores improved, the passing rate in English going from 51 to 78 percent, and in algebra from 25 to 64 percent, in the last three years.

Then he got a disturbing letter from Pamela Stuart, whose daughter Destiny had passed all the state tests and won many school honors. College was going well for her, the mother said, except that “Destiny felt as if her academic courses really didn’t prepare her for what she was to face. . . Her roommate comments on how her college calculus class has been so much easier for her because she learned all that stuff in high school.”

So Thomas raised the standards even more. Every ninth-grader reading at or above grade level was placed in at least one honors course. Every 11th- and 12th-grader who had taken an honors course was placed in an Advanced Placement course, with a new International Baccalaureate program on the way. In the last two years the number of AP tests taken has grown from 164 to 687, a 319 percent increase.

“For many it is frightening,” said AP government teacher Brian Ford. They are getting academic challenges that many “have not had to face before,” he said. But senior Grace Bolompe said she appreciates how this will help her in college. “Personally, these classes have opened my eyes,” she said.

Now Thomas’ goal is to raise the school’s AP test passing rate from an abysmal 2.3 percent. Some critics say principals like Thomas are wrong to use college-level courses to revive their schools. Start with something easier, they say. Thomas says when his graduates go to college "EVERY class they take will be an AP class. I tell them that NOW is the time to learn how to be a college student.” Sounds right to me.

For more Jay, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle

By Jay Mathews  | April 18, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Advanced Placement, Charles Thomas, Crossland High School Prince George's County Md., reviving a high school, telling ninth graders to shape up or leave, tough principal improves high school  
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Comments

There are a host of problems with the "evidence" here that this superstar principal is succeeding beginning with the fact that it's darn nigh impossible for a journalist to write objectively about someone who so clearly buys into the journalist's own biases.
Some problems:
1. Largely untested assumption that "raising the bar" is good policy. Fact that apparently this school had 671 out of 687 AP test failures would suggest just the opposite. School is setting a bar too high for all but a handful of students to reach. What were the AP passing percentages before? Wouldn't it make more sense to work on getting smaller numbers of prepared students into AP instead of just throwing as many in as possible so as to shine on Jay's hs rankings?
2. The fact that school reduced its numbers of "failing" 9th graders from 330 to 50 in one semester tells you nothing. Did the students drop out? Did they transfer to night school? Did they improve? We don't know.
3. Although the percentage passing state tests sounds impressive, without knowing more it is largely irrelevant. Obviously all of the improvement could be as a result of the dropout of the lowest achievers.

It's hard work getting low achieving students to improve. Unfortunately, the magic bullet formula of putting kids into classes labeled AP or IB makes it sound as if a school is really doing something, i.e. "We have high expectations for all our students." Wave the magic wand, move the deck chairs, whatever... Always disheartening when anecdotes substitute for evidence and even more so when schools allow fairy tales to drive policy.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | April 19, 2010 6:38 AM | Report abuse

From what I read, I gathered that of the 330 students on the list, all but 50 were moved to night school/dropped out.

And frankly, that's good news. You are talking about 18 year olds in 9th grade. It is already impossible for them to graduate, since they can't stay in school past 21.
What you have here is nearly 20% of the school are students that have already effectively dropped out, only they are roaming the halls and causing disruptions for the other, 14 year old 9th graders, and this just continues the circle.

And no one is arguing that raising the bar, in and of itself will cure bad schools... but any solution that does not include it is hardly a solution.

Posted by: someguy100 | April 19, 2010 8:30 AM | Report abuse

Of course Jay had to use this school to promote the "new International Baccalaureate program on the way". Considering the abysmal failure rate in AP classes and an administrative mindset that it needs to waste more taxpayer money on the superfluous, divisive and controversial IB program instead of smaller classes and remedial reading programs, Crossland High School is sure to remain in the toilet when it comes to actually improving student achievement. Way to go Progressives!

Posted by: lisamc31 | April 19, 2010 8:53 AM | Report abuse

To the people who are arguing that "raising the bar" by setting a standard that is very high (arguably TOO high) is a bad thing, allow me to make this analogy: P90X

P90X is a workout system that tells you up front that you will not be able to finish the exercises in the beginning of the program. They have set a standard on those DVDs that very few people can attain and they do not lower it because you can't reach it. If you continue to work and strive for the standard, eventually you will reach it and get the results that you want (your beach body). If they lowered the standard, you might be able to complete the workouts, but you will not get the results that you want.

I am in favor of setting a standard that is difficult to reach. Raise the bar to near impossible levels. Even IF students can't pass all of thier AP tests by the time they graduate, they will be more prepard for college than if they were never exposed to the material. Accepting failure is how the school got to its present state.

IF YOU KNOW YOU HAVE A FAILING SYSTEM, CHANGE EVERYTHING

Posted by: ronjon629 | April 19, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

First, if "Every ninth grader reading at or above grade level was placed in at least one honors course," are the honors courses really honors courses or just what they should be taking with a fancy name?

Second, what do the scores on the state tests prove, since there is growing evidence that the only thing standardized tests measure is a student's ability to take that particular test. I used to work for a firm that packaged test preparation material, so I have some idea of how phony the tests are.

Third, I would like to know more about the evening school program. I remember years ago a school in the Midwest started a night school program for students who needed to work or were needed at home (because of a sick relative or such) during the day. They found they had a waiting list of "regular" students who wanted into the night program, wanting a no-nonsense program where there was no time wasted on announcements of social events, pep assemblies, or even the teachers getting distracted or joking around.

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Posted by: itkonlyyou16 | April 19, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

As a parent, I'm happy to hear that there's a principal who cares enough to try something different to get our students prepared for college. People with "passion" oftentimes "know" what's needed when the antiquated, bureacratic institution known as our school system seems satisified with using our kids as guinea pigs for the next "new idea." Sometimes "scientific" and "evidence-based" strategies take too long to prove (or they are outdated) when our children need help NOW! Also, the "cookie-cutter" approach doesn't work for all populations. My son graduated in 2009 from DuVal High School and has faced a rude awakening in his first year of college. As much as I tried to encourage him during his high school career that he needed to take more initiative and challenge himself when his teachers did not, it fell on death ears. He fell into the trap of "doing just enough to get by" because his teachers didn't expect anything more from him. Now, he's struggling to stay afloat because the college rigor requires so much more discipline and focus than he's experienced in the Prince George's County Public System.

Posted by: CharlotteUnderwood1 | April 19, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

Patrick,
The fact that 671 out of 687 students didn't pass the AP test could mean that they weren't capable of passing; but it also could mean that the classes weren't taught correctly (I personally think this is more likely). The problem I have with gradually including more and more students in advanced classes is: which ones do you not include at the beginning.

As for the passing state tests, you are absolutely correct. You can never look at these scores in a vacuum, the only relevance is in comparing with other schools, counties, etc..

Lisa,
I am sure that you will agree to give IB credit if Crossland's advanced scores improve since you are so sure that they wont.

Posted by: williamhorkan | April 19, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

Let's look at the P90X example which I know nothing about but works here using ronjohn629's representations.
You institute programs well beyond the current competencies of the majority of your students. You are going to get a few stars, the ones who accomplish the sculpted physiques who you then parade around as if they are representative of what happens to everybody, which they aren't.
But that's not the real problem. The real problem is that you never really know what happens to all the kids who fail at AP classes and IB classes for which they don't receive adequate preparation. Do they get even flabbier after a short time discouragement? Jay loves to cite the one Texas study which showed very marginal benefit for kids in universities that got 2's on AP exams relative to like kids who either didn't take the exams or didn't take AP, but the 1's did worse.
AP and IB for kids who are not adequately prepared is an attractive mirage, which doesn't fix the problem. It's really the cop out answer b/c it is a lot easier to put up labels instead of coming up with some real progress. It's not nearly as sexy to take fifteen kids out of a class of 30 in hs who read at a fifth grade level and move them up two grades in a year as it is to have a star who passes an AP exam.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | April 19, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

William.
Good teaching can certainly make a difference but I think the raw materials (students) and school culture are more important. With high-powered kids in an environment that expects success, kids can routinely overcome mediocre teaching.
Jay focuses on the teaching and environment and believes that nearly any kid can succeed if those elements are strong. For an ed writer, that may be the healthiest approach since it isn't going to do to sit around and bemoan the fate of society anyway.
But it is also an illusion and leads to representing the world according to those shiny anecdotes which support the illusion and ripping "poor teaching" or "bad administrations" when they don't fit the anecdotes. Nice circle, huh?
I don't really have a problem William with who gets into AP. That should be (and is) left up to each individual school. I agree generally with Jay and the CB that, particularly high-powered schools (my old parochial school, for example) should not limit AP to certain GPA's, for example, and that it's generally okay to push kids in a little over their heads if the kids are willing. What I don't think is that kids should be pushed into AP at the schools which are showboating the courses for whatever reason and have almost no one passing.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | April 19, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

It is illegal to refuse to permit a person to attend school until he or she graduates high school or the end of the academic year during which the student turns 21. Prince George's County Public Schools' own Code of Student Conduct acknowledges that "all students may attend school until graduation or the completion of the school year in which they turn 21." I also wonder how many of these kids simply dropped out as a result of Principal Thomas's threats.

Posted by: moolanie | April 19, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Interesting that Jay celebrates the principal of this presumably public school "culling the herd", while adamantly denying that charter schools do the same.

Sign me up for Patrick's observations.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | April 19, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Patrick,

I agree with Jay. Given the right teaching and the right environment, nearly every student can succeed. Of course, success doesn't necessarily mean taking advanced classes. It is probably a philosophical difference between us, but I think that good teaching and a good school culture can overcome 'poor' neighborhood culture and 'raw materials'. If you have a good culture at the school, which I consider to be giving every student every opportunity to succeed (which is not found often enough), you can overcome a culture of poverty, apathy and/or ignorance. While it does happen occasionally, I think it is harder to overcome poor teaching and a poor school culture.

Posted by: williamhorkan | April 19, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Jay writes: " “They were informed that they had one quarter to raise their grade point average to at least 1.0. If they failed to do so they would be withdrawn from the school due to lack of interest or transferred to the evening school program. . . . At the end of the first quarter, only fifty students remained on the list.”"

So did only 50 students remain on the list because the rest had improved their grades or because they had left the school? And if the latter, might not that explain the increased passing rates?

Posted by: qaz1231 | April 19, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

I am willing to bet that a majority of the students are out of boundary or from DC.
-
Saying this to save our schools its starts with compliance. A student residence should be verified every school year.

Posted by: largo | April 19, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Qaz,

Very good point. There are two ways of raising rates; one, by raising the numerator (students passing the test) and the other by lowering the denominator (students taking the test). This is another good reason not to look at passing scores or rates by themselves.

Posted by: williamhorkan | April 19, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

There has been much discussion regarding the relative effectiveness of different leadership styles in bringing about improved student performance. The fact that Principal Thomas has stepped outside the box of conformity and into an area of divergence (by some) and expecting much needed rigor has proven to be one the most useful tools in creating a forward-looking, student-centered school environment. What Principal Thomas is demonstrating is real instructional leadership. He has clearly changed the culture of a failing school by taking the necessary actions that a school leader take, or delegates to others, to promote growth in student learning. Principal Thomas has demonstrated and encouraged educational achievement by making instructional quality the top priority of the school and brought that vision to realization by getting everyone in his building to buy-in to his vision of excellence. I clearly agree with Principal Thomas. I only wish more principals would follow his lead. There are too many adults in the building perpetrating to be good instructional leaders and educators when in fact, most don’t have a clue what it means. They are afraid to rock the boat or make waives even when it is in the best interest of the child; thereby, putting “children first.”

Posted by: JBFranklin | April 19, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

I am gathering that this action was sanctioned by the majority of those who are intricately involved with the school. Believe me, if it was not this would have hit the fan much earlier. C'mon as soon as the first letter went to parents regarding the pending status...would have sent those NOT IN AGREEMENT to the Washpo for vindication. Is it extreme in some cases it is and is it enough only time will tell?

The ultimate question...would you rather for Crossland be harder to get into or harder to remain in after you enter?

Posted by: PowerandPride | April 19, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

"I am willing to bet that a majority of the students are out of boundary or from DC."

Yep. But again, Jay speaks favorably of exactly the culling that he denies occurs at charter schools.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | April 19, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

"I agree with Jay. Given the right teaching and the right environment, nearly every student can succeed."

William, I agree. Except that I don't believe that it is the teachers here that are the key. It's motivation and environment. Try this little thought experiment.

It takes what, $10,000 or something like that, to educate a kid in our public hs for a year. Let's take the 400 or so kids, however many Principal Thomas had to get the 687 AP exams with 16 passing scores. Now we are going to give those 400 kids $2,000 off the bat in Sept. with a stipulation that the AP test exam fee will be deducted from the money that they got in May for the AP test. Kids don't go to class and do whatever they want to for the year. The kids pick which test (or tests) they will take in May. If a kid passes a test she gets an additional $8,000- the cost of her school year. Let's make it even more interesting and give bonuses to kids that pass more than one test out of the $3.2 Million that has been set aside and is not claimed by someone else passing. Or maybe we can use all that governor's money that is being poured into low-performing schools to support AP and use that for bonuses. Kids can take as many AP tests as they like, the only stipulation being that they must pay out of their own pocket for each one.
Think how creative kids might get. Some might pool their talents or hire a tutor or whatever. Maybe 40 hire me with their $2,000 apiece and I teach them AP psych for five hours a day. But I'm guessing that a bunch get a good study guide (or several) and treat this like a paying job. Point is that it's hard to imagine that you can't get more than 2.3 percent passing scores.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | April 19, 2010 7:53 PM | Report abuse

Great comments. Great discussion. The ninth grade cleansing raises all kinds of issues that I did not have space to address, and requires more investigation. I tend to agree with someguy100 that that many social visitors to the school, enjoying the ambiance but not studying, is way too many and drags down the whole institution. But we don't want to lose those kids, if there is any chance of reaching them. So I am going to try to find out what happened to them, and whether or not Thomas' policy is being followed in other schools.
As for AP at Crossland, the school's highest passing rate was 42.9 percent in 1999, but that was just three passing marks on a grand total of 7 tests. From 2001 to 2005 the school gave about 40 tests a year and never got more than a 5 percent (that means 2 tests scored 3 or above) passing rate. In 2006 Thomas bumped it up to 162 tests, 164 in 2007, 433 in 2008 and 687 in 2009. The passing rates those years were, respectively, 1, 6, 3 and 2.3 percent. Thomas argues that he can't get the rate up unless he makes clear to everyone that AP is going to be a part of the lives of most students, and teaching and time available for learning has to get better. He can't send that message unless a lot of kids are taking AP. I agree with him, and since we have plenty examples of schools that have had success getting similar kids to the place where they can pass AP exams, all that is left to wonder is if the school and the district has the will to do that. I entirely agree with Patrick that teachers in the lower grades have to prepare kids to be ready for AP. I haven't seen that done in any effective way when there is not already a large number of AP courses ready and open for those kids in the 11th and 12th grades.
Thomas is the only principal of a school I have put on the Challenge Index Catching Up list, for schools with passing rates under 10 percent, who was honest and fearless enough to tell me he thought the Catching Up list was a bad idea, and put his school in what some might perceive as a dummy category. We are still talking about that, and maybe I am changing his mind. At the very least he is doing what I hoped the Catching Up list would help motivate principals to do, get their passing rates up.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 20, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

In the early 1950s, there was a popular sitcom in America, Amos N' Andy. A recurring theme was Kingfish swindling his Lodge Brother, Andy. In one of the episodes, Kingfish sells Andy a beautiful-looking house but, as it turns out, it is really only the façade. When Andy steps through the front door, he ends up in the backyard. Without a proper foundation and support, dropping AP into hs is a lot like the house facade swindle. Here's an alternative.
Here in Beijing where new malls and apartment buildings are springing up, the construction companies place a completed picture of the development on the outside walls surrounding the construction. Couldn't Principal Thomas outline his vision, urging folks to keep their eyes on the prize, while building the pre-AP infrastructure to support it? That would require articulation with the middle schools and a coordinated plan to get students adequately prepared.
That said, I don't have a "huge" problem with low-performing schools putting lots of kids into AP classes right away, concurrent with pre-AP development. As others have written, our traditional system is failing lots of kids anyway. But, it seems from what you have written Jay, that this school needs to balance the AP quantitative fervor with some pre-AP substance.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | April 20, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

For Patrick--Thanks for giving this blog an international flavor. Your suggestion of starting with the promise of AP, but not the courses, is intriguing, but we have both been in schools long enough to know the depth of cynicism about such promises. Money has to be spent. The courses have to be up and running. Or the promise is going to be received as just one more fairy tale, like the No Child Left Behind promise of near universal proficiency by 2014.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 21, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

No matter what the circumstances, kids should be encouraged to take AP classes. As a past high school teacher, I had many students tell me they would rather make a low grade in an AP class than be bored to death in "regular" classes. Mr Escalante proved that most kids can be successful, but the work involved in onerous. I just wonder that if so many kids can past college classes in high school, what's wrong with colleges and are they too easy at the lower, entry levels?

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | April 21, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse


"No matter what the circumstances, kids should be encouraged to take AP classes. As a past high school teacher, I had many students tell me they would rather make a low grade in an AP class than be bored to death in "regular" classes. Mr Escalante proved that most kids can be successful, but the work involved in onerous."

As a former AP teacher, I respectfully disagree with portions of this post.
I agree students should be encouraged to take AP, not forced into AP classes. However, I don't agree with the implication that we should base policy on what a select group of students say they that would like to do. I think you also have to consider the effect on students in an AP class when a majority of their classmates are not prepared to handle the AP challenge. Can the teacher teach at a college level when her students are not capable of doing college-level work?
Finally, the fact that an exceptional teacher (Mr. Escalante) could achieve exceptional results does not prove that most kids can be successful. It proves that an exceptional teacher can have exceptional results.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | April 21, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

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