Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Urban school sheds crime scene label

Why did Peter Cahall, principal of Woodrow Wilson High School in the District, give my colleague Michael Birnbaum a long interview last month about the kidnapping of a Wilson teacher by a Wilson student? Doesn’t Cahall know that urban principals avoid even mentioning the word “crime” for fear of tarnishing their school’s image?

The likely explanation is that Cahall is an unusually candid educator. But as I look at the latest numbers, I wonder if he might be signaling that Wilson has gotten so strong academically it no longer needs to worry about the poor urban school label often attached to it, even though it is as urban in character as it ever was. The school is 39 percent low-income students; 50 percent are African-American, 25 percent are white, 16 percent are Hispanic and 9 percent are Asian.

Has Wilson become too good to worry about bad news in the paper?

It would seem so. The school still struggles with the effects of poverty on student performance. But the number of tardy students has dropped, attendance is up to a school record 86 percent, the percentage of black and Hispanic students on the honor roll is rising and on some academic measures, Wilson is leaving even affluent suburban schools behind.

On the Challenge Index I use in the Post and Newsweek to rate high schools by college-level test participation, Wilson ranks 15th among 172 high schools in the Washington area. It does significantly better than almost all suburban schools with smaller percentages of low income students, including splendid schools such as Severna Park in Anne Arundel County (3 percent low income) or Briar Woods in Loudoun County (6 percent low income.)

I am still collecting the data, and can't be sure, but Wilson is likely to be among the top 100 schools on Newsweek’s annual list of America’s Top High Schools for the first time. Thirty-two percent of Wilson seniors had at least one passing score in AP, twice the national average.

Wilson’s image has rarely fared well in the Post or other local media. The recent kidnapping, though far from school, with the kidnapper surprised to see his random victim was a Wilson teacher, did the school no good. Two years ago we wrote much about Wilson student fights and lockdowns.

Yet a determined faculty kept standards high with support from alumni and from parents of all races who could afford to put their children in private schools, as their neighbors did, but had faith in the school.

The long list of exceptional Wilson teachers would include Belle Belew (English), Anna Wilder (science), Angela Benjamin (engineering), Elaine Smith (math), Charlene Watts Martin (English), Jeremy Singer (math), KJ Anderson (history) and Mary Barnes (art), plus academy coordinator Jeff Schultz, counselor Jean Marie Hansen and head custodian Lorenzo Morgan.

Many Wilson people have developed pugnacious pride about the place. Wilson student Paris Achenbach, daughter of my Post colleague Joel Achenbach and now a freshman at Oberlin College, said in a piece for the Post’s Close to Home page after the 2008 lockdowns that despite the bad publicity, she believed Wilson could “change the social divide we have in America.”

It also might be able to teach something about improving urban schooling. Like other exceptional D.C. high schools, such as Columbia Heights, Schools Without Walls and Banneker, Wilson has created a culture of loyalty, teamwork and ambition. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee installed Cahall in 2008 to keep that going, and the numbers suggest he is succeeding.

That feeling of everyone together for depth and breadth in learning may prove to have more impact on achievement than the innovations in teacher contracts and school financing being debated now.

Read Jay's blog every day at

Follow all the Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page,

By Jay Mathews  | May 2, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Peter Cahall, Wilson High School D.C., power of creating an academic culture, strong faculty, supportive parents and alumni, urban schools shed crime scene label  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Sorting out boys' school problems
Next: What happens to my high schools list if Newsweek is sold?


This is nice.
(i remember Wilson as the place where WTOP reporter Alan Etter was jumped while doing a story on violence at the school 13 or so years ago)

Is there any data on how long the teachers, especially those mentioned, have been teaching and have been at Wilson?

Posted by: edlharris | May 2, 2010 10:27 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for some positive news about my alma mater, Jay. Wilson has its troubles, as any school does, but overall it is an extraordinary school that does an excellent job of preparing its students both academically and socially for success in life beyond. Panicky parents who send their kids to supposedly safe suburban schools often express shock when they learn about Wilson alums who excel at top colleges and lead successful careers -- and those alums are not just from the Warren Buffet, pre-integration era. Wilson's diversity sets it apart from the rest of DCPS and many of the suburban schools, and that diversity is one of its most important educational features

Posted by: e-pluribus-unum | May 3, 2010 6:47 AM | Report abuse

For as long as I can remember, Wilson High School was the favored school in Washington, DC. To suggest it has somehow come from behind a tarnished image as an urban-crime ridden high school is not totally accurate. Not to take anything away from the hard work the principal and the teachers have put forth to improve the quality of the education provided the students, but let's step back a bit and be a bit more objective. Finally, I understand the Challenge Index and it surely has raised the awareness of school systems as to importance of challenging students to enroll in advanced courses, but does it measure the outcomes of the enrollments? Jay, you do good work. You have made public education more transparent. I just think sometimes you have favorites, like T.C. Williams and now Wilson High School.

Posted by: lukewes | May 3, 2010 8:10 AM | Report abuse

When I was a kid in DC in the seventies, Wilson was on a par with the suburban 'white' high-schools, such as B-CC, Whitman, etc. It drew its student body, of course, from the predominantly affluent white inhabitants of its surrounding residential neighborhoods. Last time I checked, that real estate was still extremely expensive. Affluent white people must still be living there. So you are telling me they send their kids mainly to the private schools, eg. Sidwell, St Albans, Landon, Bullis, etc? You see, I think the real story is THIS. WAPO once again let the real issue slip.

Posted by: lafayette89 | May 3, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

How do the numbers shake out for Wilson if you segregate the academy participants from students enrolled in the general Wilson programming? that is, what are the graduation rates, academic performance rates, and colleage readiness numbers for kids not enrolled in the academies? Anecdotally, I hear a lot about the existence of two separate that excels for Academy students, and one that leaves the "general population" (to use a terrible phrase) behind.

Posted by: mhm20011 | May 3, 2010 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, the incident with Alan Etter was at McKinley HS.

Posted by: edlharris | May 3, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

lavayette89--you speculated and than accepted your own surmise. But you are wrong. Just stand across the street from the school. Whites are a minority in the student body, and, yes, many white residents of NW sent their kids to private schools. Wilson still is a good school, but the privates offer much lower class size, few disciplinary interruptions, and decent curriculum. But they do not have the verve, or the price, of Wilson H.S.

Posted by: axolotl | May 3, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

When did Wilson become a problem school?

The neighborhood complaining about kids has always been an issue. Frankly, it seems that all this talk about Wilson being a problem school started when Rhee's people let in kids that were 17-18 in the 9th grade. Recall the story of the fights and how kids had to eat lunch in thier homerooms. You never heard of things like that at Wilson. DCPS always kept those kids out of Wilson because it was a marque school. So if you want to talk about fixing, talk about problems the current adminstration created too.

Posted by: oknow1 | May 3, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

The only thing that struck me about the article is the fact that 50% of the school is black in an area of the city where 85% of the population is white. Are whites not having kids anymore or have they realized the D.C. shcool system is so horrific and violent they send their kids to private school? Wilson still has plenty more like the kidnapper walking its halls.

Posted by: lottaaction | May 3, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

When I moved to DC more than 30 years ago, Wilson High was one of the premier high schools in DC. Up there with AB Carol, and Gonazaga... Now its considered a poor urban school, because its majority black and hispanic. Most of whites moved on to Fairfax and MontCo.

Posted by: demtse | May 3, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Gee, I thought that a likely explanation for the Birnbaum piece was some kind of cover story for Cahall and Rhee related to the murder of Shaw Principal Brian Betts. Why they would need a cover, I don’t know, but it seemed vastly inappropriate for the Post to do a feel-good piece about a principal who just lost a good friend and also had a teacher assaulted by one of his students.

Amid Birnbaum’s praise and sympathy to Cahall, I noticed that the story mentioned that Betts had contacted Cahall the night of the murder and that Rhee had phoned Cahall the next night from in front of the crime scene - Betts house. It made me wonder why Birnbaum wanted to get those facts out about the electronic- trail surrounding Betts murder and it made me wonder what other principals, if any, Rhee called while standing outside Betts house.

Now there’s this piece making it sound as if Cahall has lifted Wilson from the depths of crime, poverty and poor performance. In contrast, so much of what I’ve read and heard about Wilson in the past is that it has been a school of choice for a long time, and certainly predating Cahall.

So something if definitely up. What, I don’t know. We’ll soon find out. And if in the meantime, there’s a glowing Post editorial about Wilson and Cahall, that’s a signal that it could be something really terrible.

Posted by: efavorite | May 3, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

It's not pulling entirely from the surrounding neighborhood. Kids are bussed to Wilson from all over DC, for the purpose of maintaining a diverse student body.

Posted by: thenoggin | May 3, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

For lafayette89 and others who remarked on the difference between the demographics of the school and the demographics of the neighborhood, it is true that large numbers of those affluent parents in the neighborhood, both white and black, have been sending their children to private schools for many years. So many that I thought that fact was no longer newsworthy, but you have reminded me that not everyone has been watching DC schools as long as I and many of the readers of this column have. Forgive me. I will point out that salient demographic fact next time, and also the fact that Wilson sends many of its graduates to the most selective colleges, just as the local private schools do.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 3, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

Very astute comments, by the way. For Lukewes, I did provide what I think is a very good indicator of the outcome of those AP enrollments. 32 percent of Wilson seniors last year had at least one passing score on an AP test, which is twice the national average, and particularly impressive for a school with such a large number of low-income students. Wilson has the advantage of a large number of black middle class students motivated to take AP, just as white and Asian middle class kids are, so it has long had significant numbers of black students doing well in AP. It is harder to get at the participation of low-income students, but my impression is they are trying to involve those students also. Thankfully, like most high schools in this region (but UNlike most high schools in the country), Wilson does not tell students eager to work hard in an AP course that they may not take it because they don't have a teacher's recommendation or a high enough GPA.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 3, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

Wilson HS was adrift following the transition from longtime Principal Steve Tarason to Cahall, with an interim Principal in charge during the difficult 2008-'09 year when they expanded to a 4-yr. school.

Pete Cahall and his staff deserve credit for restoring the classrooms and the expectations for achievement to higher standards. This is not to take anything away from the Wilson of old, but Cahall has broadened the success measures across a diverse school population.

With the school now in the process of undergoing a major renovation through 2011, it is reassuring to know that, at least, he will be at the helm through that period.

Posted by: stivnik | May 3, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

My first problem with the table is this. There were about 800K graduating high-school students last year (NYTimes,2/10/2010), and about the same number of AP tests given (AP Report to the Nation, Appendix C). So while having an index over 1.000 might put a high school in the top 6 percentile, the index for the nation last year (just based on the AP tests) is already close to 1.000. I really wonder about that top 6 percentile claim, especially since it is also a claim made for the 1996 table! No... I don't wonder; let me be clear: it's bogus.

The second problem I have is with the E&E measure: It ignores the number/percentage of students who actually take a test at a school. So all a school has to do is pay for more students to take the test than the national average to increase their E&E percentage. (This is fiscally more feasible if the Lunch Subsidy percentage is higher.) This increases the number of people who fail too, but E&E ignores that aspect. And yes, I do understand the other side where schools used to only test the best students to inflate average performance.

For example, only 26.5% of the nation's 2009 graduating high-school students took an AP test (at least one) at any time in their high-school career (NYTimes,2/10/2010). And the average E&E score (students who score well enough to get college credit on at least one test) is 15%.

Last year Wilson offered an average of 4 tests per graduating student (4 times the national average) and only 32% (2 times the national average) passed at least one such that they would get college credit. Other schools, Montgomery Blair, Centreville, Washington-Lee have a high index and relatively high Lunch Subsidy percentage, like Woodrow Wilson, yet have a higher return on E&E. Why? Is it crime? Is it because Wilson is encouraging some students (Academy students) who are already taking several AP tests to take a few more tests versus encouraging a student who is not taking a test at all? Or is it because there are simply no Escalantes at Wilson?

It's unfortunate the table doesn't include the percentage of students (at Wilson or any of the other schools) who take at least one college-level test.

Posted by: prokaryote | May 3, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Jay, It's too bad your additional comments about Wilson weren't in your original print piece. I know you have space limitations there, but your remarks in the comments section paint a very different picture of Wilson and one that sound more like what I've heard in the past.

Another thought I had when the Birnbaum story came out was that Rhee had convinced the Post to use the unfortunate Wilson teacher assault and kidnapping to prop up her next Principal hero, to fill the void that Betts left.

I sure hope I'm wrong about that. I wish Rhee would realize that developing media heroes is not a good way to run a school system.

Posted by: efavorite | May 3, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

As a parent of a Wilson junior and a recent Wilson graduate, I appreciated the story, but wondered where the list of "exceptional teachers" came from? Not that I disagree, but there are many, many other teachers and administrators who devote extraordinary time and effort to students, one reason that the experience at Wilson draws so many diverse students. Even some transfers from Sidwell, I might add.

Posted by: sfnodcny212 | May 3, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Birth cohorts in the US are a little over 4 million. You've misunderstood a HS class of "800k" from your source. HS completion rates are NOT around 4 million / 800k = 20%.

If conditions in the halls and stairwells were not regularly out of control at Wilson HS, Principal Cahall would not have occasion to announce crackdowns coupled with hooplah of their success.
Wilson is a DC High School with a sufficiently large core of parents and teachers to insist on and get excellence. Such as Pete Cahall, shortening classes to under 50 minutes and firing Dr. Art Siebens, who beside teaching half his students in non-AP courses taught AP Biology to 90% of the public HS students in DC with passing grades in this essential pre bio-medical course, have little to do with that core. It is as likely that Cahall has contributed to greater interest in Banneker HS, School without Walls, and Ellington HS among public school options.

Thirty graduates from the last class before Cahall arrived attended highly selective Ivys and private similar. Another thirty attended flagship State institutions. Let Cahall show you that he has expanded the breadth of that success.

Yes, Jeffrey Schultz is a gifted composer of reference-letters-from-the-counselor. What's the value of a Michael Gerson? He can do for a college applicant what Jay Mathews can do for a high school.

Posted by: incredulous | May 3, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

"I did provide what I think is a very good indicator of the outcome of those AP enrollments. 32 percent of Wilson seniors last year had at least one passing score on an AP test, which is twice the national average, and particularly impressive for a school with such a large number of low-income students." JM

People should be aware of the context of this statistic. That context is knowing how many tests were taken on average per senior for Wilson to achieve the 1 in 3 senior rate of passing an exam. Since Wilson will be in the top 100 of tests taken nationally, that means that on average each senior will take approximately 4 AP exams. So, in order to get one of every three seniors to pass a single exam every senior takes about 4 exams. By way of contrast, over 90% of the high schools in the U.S. have, on average, students taking less than 1 exam per senior.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | May 3, 2010 7:16 PM | Report abuse

efavorite: you seem to keep on reaching into a bag of conspiracies to explain DCPS the way you want it to be seen. And, this is, count 'em, your fourth (4th) use of the tragic Betts murder to try to score a point against Rhee. You started doing that before the remains were cold. Have some respect for the dead, for goodness sake. This just smacks of desperation and disrespect, and there is no need for that.

Posted by: axolotl | May 3, 2010 8:22 PM | Report abuse

I'm pleased to see that axolotl is calling for decorum and civility.

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | May 3, 2010 9:02 PM | Report abuse

@incredulous, you're right, I misinterpreted the article (which seems to be regional numbers). I still do not understand how the 6 percentile mark of the number of college-level tests administered over the number of graduates would not change at all from 1996 to 2009/2010?

Explain this: "1.8 million more AP exams" given in 2009 than 1999. What were birth cohorts in 1991 vs. 1981? Are they that dramatically different? All I'm saying is that it makes no sense that the top 6 percentile mark is still 1.000 (as it was a decade ago). Unless what's written on the Post challenge index for previous years is wrong (and they should change it so it isn't wrong).

Posted by: prokaryote | May 3, 2010 9:23 PM | Report abuse

As a current Wilson student, I can attest to the fact that Mr. Cahall deserves a lot of credit for these improvements. Some at Wilson think that he is instating unnecessary and overly strict rules. However, they certainly have helped eliminate a lot of what made Wilson an environment that was not conducive to learning less than 2 years ago. These were things like students constantly making noise in the halls during class, which is virtually unheard of these days at our school. Plus, these changes have made Wilson look a lot better on paper as far as tardiness, attendance, honor roll diversification goes.

I think Wilson has a lot to offer. It has a long way to go but is only going to get better. I agree with Paris Achenbach about Wilson's potential to change the social divide that we are faced with in too many places in this country.

I also think Ms. Wopat (Spanish), Mr. Riener (English), Ms. Bean (college counselor), and Coach Williams (varsity basketball coach and administrator), among others, deserve mention as Wilson gems.

I'm really glad this article was written, though. I get tired of telling people I go to Wilson and receiving their awkward reactions as they think about the school's bad reputation from a few years ago which is really fading fast. Thanks.

Posted by: peterhh92 | May 3, 2010 9:34 PM | Report abuse

It is a phenomenon of education that any achievement has to immediately be slammed. Jay's index is one way of measuring a school. There are many others. I strongly believe that the rising tide raises all ships in the harbor. That is, that Wilson's AP program and the teaching methods employed by its staff, filters over to other students and other classes where teachers use the same methodology to teach the "regular" classes. By the way, if Wilson is named after Woodrow Wilson, he is probably turning in his grave, as he was a well known Va. racist who discharged most of the federal government's African-American employees.

Posted by: hotrod3 | May 4, 2010 12:13 AM | Report abuse

philmarlowe: u betcha. She is well capable of shunning such tactics, as the majority of her comments have great insight and are well written--even if one disagrees with her point. This is just my humble opinion, but I hope you agree that we do not need to trouble the soul of Brian Betts by encumbering his memory in all this. I'm all for decorum and civility, but that does not mean failing to draw conclusions or be (sometimes painfully) clear. Sometimes you call that name-calling, but that's not what it is. That label seems to be a standard greeting to points that are not liked. Such is the way of these blogues. I say this knowing that virtually every commenter here wants the same thing: strong schools for our kids. We disagree on the means to get there.

Posted by: axolotl | May 4, 2010 7:45 AM | Report abuse

"but I hope you agree that we do not need to trouble the soul of Brian Betts by encumbering his memory in all this."

Whatever we say here will not trouble the soul of Brian Betts. The Lord won't allow that.

"I say this knowing that virtually every commenter here wants the same thing: strong schools for our kids."
Glad to hear that, though that wasn't your comment on one of the budget stories last week.
But, one is allowed to have a change of mind.

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | May 4, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

oh, philly, pls find it and show us; no such thing exists.

Posted by: axolotl | May 4, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

I agree with efavorite. Something is not right here.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | May 4, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

oh, philly, pls find it and show us; no such thing exists.

Posted by: axolotl | May 4, 2010 9:27 AM

Go read yourself again:

You should take the advice given and go back (sans laptop) to Bermuda.
For awhile.

Who's that thinkin' nasty thoughts?
Nasty boys!
Who's that in that nasty car?
Nasty boys!
Who's that eating that nasty food?
Nasty boys!
Who's jamming to my nasty groove?
Nasty boys!)

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | May 4, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

I think hotrod3 has it just right.
On an unrelated matter, I just tried to post a long comment in response to prokaryote's and incredulous's good comments and got a message saying it will have to be approved by the blog owner, whoever that is. I know that some of you have had this experience. I am calling the head of interactivity to figure out what is going on. I will post an item on the results of my investigation when I get them. I am also wondering why the site made me reregister the last half dozen times i tried to comment after an item on this blog. I wonder if i will get that message again when I hit submit. Here goes:

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 4, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

hmm. so that worked. maybe my earlier comment was too long. But I love yr long comments. Stay tuned.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 4, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

When mentioning exceptional Wilson teachers -- let's not forget former biology teacher Dr. Art Siebens.

Such a shame that he's no longer at Wilson.
More info about this wonderful teacher is available here:

Posted by: GeorgeMcD | May 4, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

phil: I knew you'd come up w nothing. It's fine to go back and forth here, but you should try harder not to fabricate. And no one should try again to hijack Brian Betts's good name and tragedy to attack Chancellor Rhee. Make sense?

Posted by: axolotl | May 4, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

Well, I am not getting a quick answer, but my post was probably too long. Here is a short version. In 1996 only 1 percent of US high schools reached the 1.000 mark. I am wondering if prokaryote misinterpreted the intro to the 2010 Post challenge index, which to my eyes says the 6 percent only applies to the schools on the 2010 list, but he may have read differently. I hope he will let me know what words made him think the 6 percent also applied to schools in 1996. As incredulous said, about 2.7 million seniors graduated from high school in 2009. I had a citation for that but that would make this too long.
Centreville is not a good comparison to Wilson. Only 17 percent low income. W-L and Blair are better, and do have better e and es with slightly fewer low income students, but W-L also has IB, with adds to its e and e and Blair has what may be one of the best high school faculties in the world. It is fairer to compare Wilson, as I did, to some more normal suburban schools.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 4, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

You're not reading yourself very well axolotl.
Miss Rhee's collapse these past few weeks must be hard to take.

And I see that over at Bill Turque's blog(ue) your call for decorum and civility lasted less than 24 hours.


Posted by: phillipmarlowe | May 4, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Simple, Phil. If you don't agree, you cry some foul. Smile, things are looking up.

Posted by: axolotl | May 4, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

Simple, Phil. If you don't agree, you cry some foul. Smile, things are looking up.
Posted by: axolotl | May 4, 2010 5:24 PM

You've got that right, things are looking up.
Miss Rhee still can't add and even here on the Post the polishers of her carnauba wax are Jay and Jo-Ann.

Oh, I virtually never correct people on grammar or spelling, but you need it

I don't cry foul, just fowl.
(I'm not playing chicken behind a made-up moniker).

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | May 4, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

Jay has for years argued his preferred indicator for HS performance: high fraction of students taking one or more AP courses and tests. He prefers that high fractions of those students pass the exam (score 3+, indicating college level work.) But, he'll settle for "1"s, earned by both serious strivers AND those on whom the course was wasted, but who show up to sign in, or face an F in the course under typical fee-waiver sponsorship rules.
My quarrel with Jay, is
1) that he/we are ignorant of the fraction of strivers vs "overwhelmed" who are scoring "1", and that the total is high, exceeding 80% of all tests in some schools,
2) that because the euphemistically "overwehelmed' fraction is large and driven by cynical adults gaming the system and improving their own, adult, "striver" stats; 3) the integrity of the AP is being undermined by indicator-promotion. Also undermined are alternative educational treatments of students who reach HS with 6th grade knowledge and skills.
So strongly do I believe #3 to be true, I do not accept Jay's near-retirement as good reason for him not alter his Challenge Index. He should credit an AP test score of "2". Dr. Art Siebens is one of '000s + educators who think a "2" is a solid if not infallible indicator of "solid high school level mastery of the subject material," and a genuine challenge to students who arrived at HS with academic defficiencies.
That would be great win-win trade. Abandoning credit to high-fractions of kids with middle-school skills for taking a test that is over their head, in favor of credit --nay insistence -- that they, and their better-prepared peers display high-school-level mastery of material. If Jay cannot do this, he should explain his deal, if any,with the College Board, whose AP test scores he is using. This is no more a misuse of the AP than the refusal of many universities to grant credit for scores less than "4" or "5" on many of the AP tests.

On topic: No, I don't think much of Cahall and his claims for virtue and educational skill. More important is that it is NOT helpful to prematurely praise unsupported claims by any principal, when all principals claim their leadership will take two or more years to bear fruit. Last year Wilson HS still failed to make AYP, because at least two significant groups underperformed goals despite Cahalls assignment of one $110k (budgeted) assistant principal and support staff to virtual half-time employment identifying sophomores at risk to failing the exam and the four pre-tests.

Posted by: incredulous | May 4, 2010 7:15 PM | Report abuse

As the parent of a Wilson graduate and current student, I was pleased to see positive coverage of the school. Pete Cahall has worked hard to create an orderly atmosphere conducive to learning. However, I will never forgive him for firing the legendary AP Biology teacher, Dr. Art Siebens. Mr. Cahall had never even worked with Dr. Siebens, but concluded that he "didn't fit in." (Was he being coached by downtown? Michelle Rhee, perhaps? We'll never know.) Art Siebens' many virtues - and extraordinary record as an educator - are well documented on the website When I met with Mr. Cahall about the Art Siebens situation, he told me point-blank that "smart kids can learn with anybody." I think not. The most amazing testimonials for Dr. Art are from students who had been indifferent about school until they took his class. I know that Mr. Cahall has to bring the bottom up, but this is not a zero sum game. He can serve all the communities at Wilson. Mr. Cahall does not want to hear this, and does not brook criticism.

I want to end on a positive note. Here's a shoutout to other extraordinary Wilson teachers my kids have had: Julie Caccamise, Joe Riener, Anna Foxen, Harriet Bronstein, and John O'Steen.

Posted by: wilsonmom | May 4, 2010 10:22 PM | Report abuse

As a veteran AP teacher at a school with many students of color who are taking their first AP course, may I comment that a score of "1" on the AP exam may indicate an incredible leap for a student who took on the challenge of AP, not a "cynical" manipulation of a student by adults. A score of "2" can represent an incredible leap for ELD learners, who maybe only missed a qualifying score by 1 point. If the AP instructor challenged the student, he or she accepted the challenge, and worked hard to meet the high standards, no one should complain. Studies show that AP students will do much better in college than the student who failed to take AP classes in high school. There is nothing to criticize.

I always strive for "5's" but I accept the fact that there is a developmental element at play, and that ultimately my goal is to get students ready for college. We maintain a high pass rate above the national average, but I am still proud of all my students who challenge themselves by taking the exam. I am sure the Wilson staff feels the same way.

Posted by: hotrod3 | May 4, 2010 11:54 PM | Report abuse

In what is likely to become a leading work on the AP program, a new book has been published by Harvard Educational Press ("AP A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program," Philip Sadler, et. al., 2010)
Some conclusions:
Dougherty and Mellor- Place in doubt earlier Texas study showing some benefit for students scoring 2's. In examining student results from Texas, authors conclude: "There is no evidence of an independent effect of AP course-taking on college graduation for students who fail the AP exam."
Sadler (in a note to teachers)- "Those who fail the exam have little to show for their year of study; there is little evidence that they are any better prepared for college success than when they first entered your classroom."
Sadler (note to school administrators)- "AP courses in which few students take or pass the exam are not effective, and the resources, both material and personnel, should be considered for reallocation to improve lower-level courses."
Sadler (note to College Board)- "The intent on continual expansion of AP into more schools, with more students taking more tests each year, is reaching the point of diminishing returns."

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | May 5, 2010 7:33 AM | Report abuse

Thanks Patrick, and those who want a much longer and somewhat different take on that good book should read my review of it at

Sadler is a good guy, but keep in mind he has done zero on the ground research on the high schools that are using AP in a way he and Patrick disapprove of.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 5, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

For incredulous, who makes good points. That piece was not about Cahall, but Wilson, and gave the credit for its long term success not to him but to the faculty and parents who have been supporting the school long before he arrived.

There are indeed inner city schools that have tried to use AP to pull everyone up, and have 80 percent 1s. But their numbers are tiny. I count no more than 100 schools (probably less) in that category nationally. That is about one third of one percent of all public high schools, and these are schools in bad neighborhoods which have zero influence on the integrity of AP or any other educational approach you want to name. But I still think they are interesting and useful. What did incredulous think of our profile in the Post magazine on April 11 of Maria Tukeva, who brought that approach to Bell Multicultural (now Columbia Heights) in DC and appears to be doing well with it? He should visit the school. Seeing what is actually happening in these buildings is far more useful than spinning theories based on one's personal sense of how schools should work. Schools, once you visit them, are full of surprises.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 5, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Being in the DC area, I am familiar with a disproportionate share of the schools and programs which you cite as a tiny minority. They are the ones that caused you to produce last year a separate "Challenged Index." I've seen multiple years of annual data for specific schools. For other years, I've side-stepped confidentiality-protection, subtracting out Wilson HS and Walls HS numbers from the DC public totals. The utter failure rates are awful
I could be glad to hear that these DCPS schools are a tiny minority of schools with such practices. But, your inference that it cannot have undermined the integrity of the SAT is incorrect. It has just done so in DC.
I hope one of "the good point(s)" you would be explicit in crediting would be removal of incentive to just show up for the test, and that you would find a way of trumpeting a score of "2." There is nothing for any student to be ashamed of in doing solid HS level work on an AP level course and everything for students with poor academic backgrounds to be very proud of.

I'll take advantage of today's news to sharpen the point: When the "No Fly List" is trimmed from 1.5 million names, then a system now swamped with false-positives --ie OK people -- will find it easier to spot the dangerous someone who should have been stopped. You are enough a student of student behavior to know that %ages of students scoring just "1" on an AP test can undermine morale and motivation in a class.

Posted by: incredulous | May 5, 2010 6:36 PM | Report abuse

Responding to your challenge on Bell / Columbia Heights Campus

1. You are likely in correspondence with others challenging AP statistics for(CHC). I've noted wonderment that in other States with substantial Spanish language background students, infinitely greater fractions of students mastering Spanish Language also master the AP content of Spanish Literature. "Infinitely", because CHC enables none of its students to do so, leading me to wonder that the admin there -- let's not support cults of personality with names -- isn't cultivating and harvesting AP test taking from a Spanish Language background student population for its sake, and not for the sake of the students. Should those students get full AP credit for Spanish Language? Absolutely. Should the principal? No, only for the rest of the AP performance of the students.

2. DCPS has long completely subsidized and insisted on students as early as their freshman year (prematurely) taking the PSAT. Because the College Board reports demographic-specific stats in "School Integrated Summary(es)", we can compare CHC scores with those in other DCPS schools, which comparison should NOT be affected by selection bias. I do not find evidence that Hispanic students at CHH outperform all DCPS Hispanic students; to the likely contrary. More seriously -- because selection-bias effects should be smaller -- I find no evidence that between their Sophomore and Junior years, synthetic cohort PSAT gains are larger at CHC than in all DCPS. The evidence is stronger that they are equal or smaller. I will grant that the synthetic measure of "what is learned and tested" between sophomore and junior years may in DCPS and at CHC be only half the national average due to severe selection bias elsewhere. But, hard as many educators and Bell / CH work, and the annual turnover there is legendary, there is no evidence here of great success.

I wholeheartedly agree with the importance of capable visits to and observations of schools. So, please don't go buy principals' own press releases. Ever. Bad reps? Never bothered me on where I sent my kids.

Posted by: incredulous | May 5, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

Wilson is improving, and it's nice to see it getting positive press, but it still has a long way to go.

One of the biggest problems, academically, is that Wilson does not offer Honors level classes to juniors and seniors, unlike its suburban counterparts. (To be exact, only ONE honors level class is available for juniors and seniors at Wilson, which is Honors Pre-Calc.) If you have a child who is above the level of regular classes at Wilson, but who is not able to handle a heavy load of AP classes, then you have a child who is very unhappy, stressed out and terribly discouraged with the education process. Our child should not be in three AP classes, but Wilson, unfortunately, offers no alternative.

Honors level classes should be available for students who need to transition from classes that may not be challenging enough into extremely difficult AP classes that add tremendously to a student's stress level and include an overwhelming amount of work outside the classroom.

Some students at Wilson are being railroaded into AP classes because there is no "honors level" alternative in between.

I would rather have a child who is interested in learning than one who is in over his head in classes that are killing him.

Something is terribly wrong with this system, Mr. Mathews

Posted by: clarkkent2 | May 6, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse


When did you come to CHEC and who did you talk to regarding our AP classes?

I teach at CHEC and I can tell you that we don't offer AP Chinese at our school and the number of students taking AP Spanish doesn't match the massive number of students taking the exam. How many will pass the AP exams for their respective languages? Do they deserve it? Yes! Does it have anything to do with the instruction offered at CHEC? NO! Does it make our school look better on your supposed "challenge" index? YES!

Did you know that the College Board is in our school investigating the fact that our students get good grades in their "supposed" AP classes yet get such low scores on the actual exam? That sounds like grade inflation to me? AP for all means a whole lot of under-qualified students taking a class they shouldn't be in that leads to a dumbing down of classes that should be much more rigorous... as a school, we enroll as many as possible students in AP (or stupidly AP for all in English) so that we can rank higher in your biased and ignorant challenge index.

For a supposedly-proclaimed expert on education that has visited hundreds and thousands of schools and teachers over several decades and written books... your bias, opinions, and supposed researched based ideas come off as just another educational theorist who is working in a vacuum. I think you need to visit 100,000 more classrooms to meet real teachers and real students to get a REAL view of what is going on in education... that is if your focus isn't on the 0.01% exceptional cases of success rather than what is the norm.

Posted by: istheresocialjustice | May 6, 2010 11:07 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company