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Curiosity discouraged at competitive high school

Westfield High School in Fairfax County is one of the largest and most competitive public schools in America. It is not unusual that 180 sophomores enrolled in Advanced Placement World History this year, more students than most U.S. high schools have taking AP courses of any kind.

What did surprise some Westfield students and their parents was a sheet titled “Expectations of Integrity” included in the materials handed out by the three AP World History teachers. Their number one rule discouraged random outbreaks of curiosity:

“You are only allowed to use your OWN knowledge, your OWN class notes, class handouts, your OWN class homework, or The Earth and Its Peoples textbook to complete assignments and assessments UNLESS specifically informed otherwise by your instructor. “

That was not all. Students could not use anything they found on the Internet. They were not permitted even to discuss their assignments with friends, classmates, neighbors, parents, relatives or siblings.

What about complete strangers? The teachers had thought of that. “You may not discuss/mention/chat/hand signal/smoke signal/Facebook/IM/text/email to a complete stranger ANY answers/ideas/questions/thoughts/opinions/hints/instructions.” The words were playful, but the teachers were serious. Any violations, they said, would mean a zero on the assignment and an honor code referral.

Some students, accustomed to harebrained rules, took these in stride and immediately began to break them. Parents did not react immediately. It took a while to find the handout in the messes on their dining room tables. They had to read the instructions a couple of times to appreciate what the AP World History teachers meant.

One of the first parents to respond was Amy Fuentes, who had a child in AP World History last year and another this year. “Expectations of Integrity” was different from any homework rules she had ever seen. “So if a student talks with a parent about what he is learning in this class he could receive an Honor Code violation referral and be subject to the same consequences as someone who cheated on a test,” she said in an information sheet she sent to other parents.

I understood her point, but it wasn’t the one that most bothered me. I love history. It was my favorite course in high school. I was lucky to have a U.S. history teacher, Al Ladendorff, who encouraged us to read outside the textbook, discuss the lessons with our parents and friends, and be critical of anything we read that didn’t make sense. If we wrote something that took issue with the textbook, he was overjoyed.

Many of us were beginning to read newspapers and wonder about how the big stories of the day — Communism in Cuba, the Freedom Riders, the Kennedy moon shot plan — fit with what we were learning in class. The Westfield history teachers did not bother to ban newspapers, apparently since they knew that few if any of their students read them. Putting the Internet off limits was the same thing. Stray pieces of information from outside the tight sphere of classroom knowledge would not be tolerated.

Westfield Principal Tim Thomas told me he will decide soon if these rules are okay. He couldn’t say much on the record, but gave me the impression that the teachers, who did not respond to my request for comment, were only trying to be fair. Some students have more help and resources than others. They should not be allowed to use materials classmates cannot get. The teachers wanted them to come up with their own ideas, not borrow them from Wikipedia.

Is that the best way to encourage learning? Are we so stuck on managing classroom competition that we can’t let students explore libraries, or the Internet, and make connections between the textbook and the real world?

If the teachers are worried about cheating, there are Web sites and applications to catch plagiarists. I wish there were also an app to unleash curiosity, which in this class is locked up for the rest of the school year.

By Jay Mathews  | October 17, 2010; 8:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Expectations of Integrity, Fairfax County, Westfield High School, curiosity discouraged, no Internet searching, no talking to family, principal Tim Thomas, students can only use their notes and textbooks  
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In my classroom I encourage students to be problem solvers. Students work with partners or in groups and use a myriad of resources to complete a task at hand. I teach them about the pros and cons of the internet and author's bias, etc. They are third graders.
The tellers running these classrooms may need a reminder of how things work outside of their academic bubbles.

Posted by: holland21 | October 17, 2010 8:29 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry, did I read that right?

"180 sophomores enrolled in Advanced Placement World History..."

What are sophomores doing in AP, never mind 180 of them?

Posted by: RedBirdie | October 17, 2010 8:58 PM | Report abuse


/Freshmen/ routinely take the AP World text so for sophomores to do so is not exactly surprising. It's one of the classic examples, at least to me, of what a misnomer "Advanced Placement" is.

Posted by: PerpetualDissent | October 17, 2010 9:07 PM | Report abuse

I apparently deleted part of my comment. That should read "Freshmen routinely take and receive 4s and 5s on the AP World test"

Posted by: PerpetualDissent | October 17, 2010 9:10 PM | Report abuse

Of course we can't be sure, since the teachers didn't respond to comments, but as a high school teacher myself, I suspect that these folks were trying to do just what you've hoped for ("unleash curiosity"): by encouraging students to THINK FOR THEMSELVES rather than consult outside experts (including the masses of information on the Internet that novices in any subject are ill-equipped to judge).

It would be a rare, ego-tripping teacher who would shut down students' original thought, or who would refuse to allow them to bring evidence to bear in disagreement with their textbook. I think you've jumped to tremendous conclusions here.

I can see what the principal suggested also being an issue (not all students having the same access to information other than what the teachers have given them), and I respectfully disagree that the "Web sites and applications to catch plagiarists" are sufficient to keep students from using the Internet to collaborate on and copy from each other while doing homework. Of course Blackboard and (etc.) can catch plagiarism, but no one can catch the texted or emailed or (most likely) IM'd "what did you get for #7" type of "collaboration" or "You do the even #s and I'll do the odd #s" cheating that students regularly do.

Of course teachers don't want to look like fools and don't want to keep students from using outside sources like your history teacher did. What they DO want to do is encourage students to use their OWN BRAINS to answer questions, rather than relying on classmates or parents or anyone else.

Posted by: hippiehigh | October 17, 2010 9:17 PM | Report abuse

thanks, PerpetualDissent. I had no idea AP was so routine at those grades. Which, to me, says AP is not actually offering college-level work AND is an indictment of how weak the existing high school curriculum is.

Of course, at also suddenly makes a lot of sense why college freshmen would come to me (I was a grad assistant) in near tears when they were taking 200 and 300-level history classes and failing. There's just no way taking AP history 3 or 4 years ago has prepared them for a mid-level college course.

Posted by: RedBirdie | October 17, 2010 9:21 PM | Report abuse

Poor kids. Are you reading this, Westfield Class of 2014? My bet is, yes. Here's what you can do:

Get dog-eared copies of Plutarch and Plato. In the latin and Greek is better, if you're real nerds, but translation is okay.

Pass them back and forth, with margin notes and underlining. Sneak around discussing them, argue about them over espresso (might as well get started on that). It's going to be a long 8-12 years before you're done with competitive school, so have fun with it.

Then, everybody cite the text at least once in your papers, in an argument of your own. Make them fail you all for an "honor code" violation. That's the honorable thing to do.

Posted by: mport84 | October 18, 2010 12:41 AM | Report abuse

Folks rather than making uninformed comments like "gee, freshmen and sophomores take these AP classes, therefore they can't really be college-level can they," spend some time investigating the program. The College Board insures that people who pass the AP tests (get scores of 3 and above) have completed an equivalent college course at "C" level and above by validating the tests with college students taking like courses and then taking the exams.
The age of the high school students taking the courses is rather irrelevant since there are plenty of kids in 9th and 10th grade capable of doing college-level work.
If after investigating the AP exams you believe that the tests are too easy, go to the college professors who help prepare and grade the exams and suggest that maybe the college intro courses they are teaching (and that the AP class is meant to replicate) are too easy.
That said, it's important to understand that not all AP classes will satisfy every dept. at every college. Obviously, some competitive colleges will require higher cut scores 4's or even 5's (for AP credit) and some depts. won't accept AP at all. This is largely a good thing b/c it shows that colleges aren't just blindly awarding credit but are attempting to evaluate how well the AP class/test matches what they have to offer.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | October 18, 2010 1:32 AM | Report abuse

I hope the teachers distribute no materials, not textbook chapters either, until the day on which they are to read and studied.

Hard to see how see these kids will escape the historicist falacy, or believe in anything but inevitability.

But, interesting to treat students like members of an empaneled jury.

And, lets have some of those fine textbooks resulting from "standards" the Texas Board approves. That'll learn 'em good.

Please, everyone, submit this for celebration by the writers and presenter of the Stephen Colbert show.

Posted by: incredulous | October 18, 2010 1:46 AM | Report abuse

You got the impression they were trying to be fair to students who might not have the same resources? At Westfield? Hmmm. I could see that comment at Stuart, or perhaps Mt. Vernon or other schools with more of an income gap/some parents working many jobs...but not at Westfield.

Clearly something happened last year that caused the teachers to feel the need to write this up. A cheating scandal? An issue that ran contrary to what the text said, and the teachers were unable to handle the discussion/debate for some reason? I don't know if I am right on either of my guesses, but I highly, highly doubt that at Westfield it was written due to an issue of fairness amongst resources available as you surmise, Jay

Posted by: researcher2 | October 18, 2010 6:00 AM | Report abuse

The school and the teachers created an overambitious, bossy, and unworkable policy, but I think I see where they were coming from: horror at students' inability to deal with text and ideas without outside input. My collge professors frequently told their students to read the textbook, then some primary and secondary materials, but NOT critics or other commentators, as we prepared to write papers. The idea was to give our own minds a chance to grapple with the material and come to some conclusions. Today's students are robbed of that experience. (The professors, and my high school teachers as well, never had to advise us not to involve parents because it would not have occurred to us).

Posted by: jane100000 | October 18, 2010 7:27 AM | Report abuse

I suspect that some parents have crossed the line and are doing the work for their children. Then a student will turn in a major research paper on a topic and there is no way for the teacher to argue that the student didn't do the paper, even if that student shows no interest in the class and turns in classwork that is below level every single day. I have seen students turn in work and they don't even know what it says.

There is also a suspicion that students are typing questions online and finding well written answers. Maybe that is research, but the problem is the student has got to practice thinking, analyzing and summarizing information from a text without just copying and changing a few things from someone else's response.

This way, the teacher can say, "I didn't want your mom's ideas, I wanted you to think about what was in the text."

I am sure that this text is loaded with information. If this is a true college history course the students should have a ton of information to have to get through in order to pass the course. They need to get the main arguments and historical facts down for the AP Test. If the students are taking many challenging courses, I wonder how much time they have to spend researching extra material and having real discussions on these topics outside of class.

The no discussions rule is a little bizarre, but I really think parents do a lot of work for their children in some schools. Have you ever been to a science fair in an elementary school? If you go, you will see a mix of products from the students. With some (not all) projects it is obvious the parents bought most of it or did most of the presentation work.

When does "helping" become "cheating"?

Posted by: celestun100 | October 18, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

As a parent of a Westfield student who is currently taking AP World History, I am shocked that this article was printed. My older son took AP World History two years ago and now my daughter is in the class. I know that over 90% of the AP World students pass the AP exam (which is one of the highest passing rates in the county!). I'm pretty sure that this pass rate has been this high for at least the last 5 years from what my son and daughter have told me. My older son scored a 5 out of 5 on the exam (highest score possible).

My biggest issue is that most of this article is FALSE. Clearly, Jay must not have interviewed any one other than this Amy Fuentes whom he quoted for his article. I received the Expectations of Integrity paper the first day of school and my daughter explained that the teacher talked extensively about cheating and the need for students to do their own work. The teacher also told them that these rules only applied to assignments and assessments - homework and tests done at home. At no point in the Expectations sheet did the teacher say we couldn't "talk" to our students about class. Also, my daughter told me that the teacher asked them to discuss this with us (the parents) and we had to sign a sheet to be returned the next class period. I guess that Jay did not do his research to find out that these sheets were required to be discussed and signed - he makes it sound as if the paper could have slipped by.

Also, I am offended that Jay essentially acuses my daughter or cheating! He states that these students heard the rules and then "immediately began to break them."

I think this sheet was made because many students were caught taking homework answers and outlines off of the internet the last few years. I know the class used to check for plagiarism for my older son and uses it for my daughter, but my son told me about people in his class who were caught cheating by taking the outlines from a website and rearranging the words to keep from getting caught by the plagiarism checking website.

At Back to School Night the teacher made a point to encourage us to discuss history with our kids and my daughter often comes home with what she calls fun facts - little historical facts that she shares with us and this often results in more conversation. It seems unlikely the teacher gives fun facts in class he doesn't want kids to discuss history.

I wish Jay had taken the time to talk to more of the parents or the teachers before publishing his piece.

Posted by: govtanalystman | October 18, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I can't help thinking that the teachers' rationale for their "think for yourself" strategy comes from the weakness of the tests used to "prove" subject area competence. Since these tests by design have to be done without outside assistance, by the student working alone with just a pencil and a test booklet, the teachers likely feel it will be advantageous for the students to "learn" in this manner as well. But learning alone can be seriously self-defeating toward the goal of becoming an independent thinker. Creative people don't learn in a sealed-off environmental vaccuum; they learn more and better through collaboration and consulting diverse and even discrepant sources. The creative part of learning involves synthesis, which by definition requires multiple sources of information. The risk of confusion, which comes with this territory, is mitigated through collaborative communication. It's so odd that the behaviors that we call cheating in school are exactly the behaviors that we label as exemplary in the world of work.

Posted by: wielrijder | October 18, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

I am a bit shocked that there is an impression that Westfield is in the category of schools with students who "have" versus "have not". Maybe eleven years ago this was an accurate statement, but Westfield has changed dramatically in its socioeconomic make up and cultural make up over the past few years. It is now nearly a 50-50 school, and it has a good percentage of kids on free/reduced lunch. Hard economic times have hit everywhere, so Westfield is indeed more like Stuart and Mt. Vernon than a previous poster believes.

I think the posters who pondered that perhaps the integrity rules were created due to a cheating scandal are right on with their musings. Teachers are always trying to find ways to encourage kids to do their own work and to think for themselves. In this tech savvy age, it is increasingly harder to know who is doing the work. More and more students are adept and sophisticated at cheating (define it how you will).

Posted by: fcpsteacher | October 18, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

For patrickmattimore1---thanks for the excellent post. You described the level of AP World History perfectly, and why sophomores might do well on it. We should remember these are college-level courses and tests, but FIRST YEAR college courses and tests, the lowest level you will find in college. AP was designed in the first place 55 years ago because even then, at least at many prep schools, high school students had courses at that level and it seemed a waste of time to make their repeat them in college.

For researcher2---You are on to something, but without the principal telling me much, and the teachers telling me nothing, I could not verify what I was told enough to include it as relevant to this issue. Fuentes was not the only parent upset by this. I was contacted by others. If a teacher said that kids could violate the rule against discussing assignments with their parent, it seems an odd way to operate, since what was actually written in the rules would be what would trigger an honors code referral, not a student's interpretation of what one teacher said in class. There were indications that these teachers were upset at the principal failing to back them in what they considered a valid honor code referral the previous year, but as I said I don't know if that story is true or not because the teachers declined to respond to my request to talk to them, which I transmitted through the principal.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 18, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

I also do appreciate the view of many posters that the teachers probably wanted to encourage students to think for themselves. That is why I raised that issue in the column. But I still there have to be better ways than the one they chose to make that happen.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 18, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

I am not for easy courses. But I do wonder why should a first year college course be considered easy for sophmores in high school?
I still remember my freshman year in college. What I learned in that class was to consider American Historical events from different perspectives. It was a lecture hall class and I still remember the prof returning essays to over half the class and insisting that they rewrite them.

Some 100 level courses are more difficult and challenging than 400 level courses. It depends on the subject being taught and the professor's ability to put together a good syllabus, among other things.

Many courses I took in high school were more challenging than the ones I took in high school. I think that depends on the teacher and the high school curriculum and overall expectations at the school.

I think it is a good step that these teachers are trying to get students to think on their own.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 18, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

I meant to say that some courses I took in high school were more challenging than similiar college course. What I generally find is that high school teachers tend to give more guidance to students. In college students are expected to work more independently.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 18, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

For RedBirdie---In answer to your good question, remember that Westfield is a huge school. It usually has more than 700 graduating seniors each year. It is also very high performing, with nearly 4 times as high a percentage of seniors passing
AP exams as the national average.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 18, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

As a parent of a student in this class in a different, but neighboring, FCPS HS, I completely agree with the concern re: the policy limiting conversations and outside research, while still appreciating comments from above that the purpose was likely to foster more thought and not limit it, since discussions in class that are spontaneous and from the readings can be more meaningful than regurgitating ideas found elsewhere.

However, what I find MOST interesting is that the exact same course at two neighboring high schools handle it very differently. In fact, my daughter's teacher encouraged parents and students to purchase guides to the AP test (Princeton Review or Kaplan etc..)to help the students make sense of the VAST amount of information given to them if they felt they needed it. He did not want them to make use of them from the beginning, only after they had experienced the incredible amount of reading and samples of what AP exam assesments would require them to retain.

It seems to me that Westfields'real purpose may be to discourage the use of these study aides. Right or wrong, I am surprised that the schools would have different philosophies.

Personally, I think many students will need different aides (parents, tutors, published aides...)in order to do well in such an advanced class and on the AP exam and they should make use of them as needed in order to get the most out of their opportunity. Ultimately, they are responsible for the material in their heads being assessed at the end of the day. How it got there, is irrelevant.

Posted by: ChantillyMom | October 18, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

For ChantillyMom---Thanks very much for the very useful post. It is good to know how other schools are handling this.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 18, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

In the late spring of 1997, when my eldest child signed up for the AP Modern European History (in the days before Fairfax County Public Schools split World History into a 2 year curriculum, he and I attended the spring AP briefing, where the summer assignments were handed out. For AP Modern Modern European History the assignment was a DBQ(Data Base Question) on the final battle of the English Civil War. The instructions indicated that written response to be based ONLY on the two page reading assignment, mostly a letter that was written the evening before the battle. The concept of writing from such minimal subject reference matter is a feature of the AP Social Studies courses. I found the concept strange in that I would not be able to understand the emotions surrounding the British Civil War unless I knew something about what lead up to the event, a topic that I did covered only scantily in my World History course; the same held for my son's World History class in Fairfax County. As my younger son says - AP courses are not really college courses.

John Dickert
Mount Vernon Farms

Posted by: 12191946 | October 18, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

1. When I was in grade school, my mother and one of her friends returned to college (different colleges). I used to listen to them comparing their philosophy courses and discussing the different interpretations of their professors, and I thought of my own grade-school classes in which we read the book, answered questions, took a test, never encountered the information outside of class, and never used it after the test. In a few cases we never even found out the correct answers to the tests. From then on, I couldn't wait to get into college, since when you did college-level work you studied things that were so exciting you wanted to talk about them afterward. Apparently I was wrong.

2. Most communities have programs under which high school students meeting certain criteria can take courses for credit at a local college. If some can do college-level work in college classes, why do we doubt that AP students are doing college-level work?

Posted by: sideswiththekids | October 18, 2010 6:29 PM | Report abuse

I noted that there were posts about parents doing their kid's homework. That really made me laugh. Doing my childrens' homework never once crossed my mind.
However, I once worked for a man who did his daughter's homework throughout high school. This girl attended one of the best public high schools in San Diego.
He also bought her way into Harvard (his alma mater). When she didn't like it there, he bought her into Notre Dame. I think she actually graduated from there, but I'm not sure how. I think email was available by that time, so that's probably how they communicated from Cali to Indiana.

Is this what these teachers are trying to avoid?

Posted by: kodonivan | October 18, 2010 6:57 PM | Report abuse

Strange to find you upset by this Jay, since you were the number one fan of Michelle Rhee's regime where curiosity and creativity were declared unimportant.

But, ah, when it is rich, suburban white kids, your tune changes completely.

If you want that "medical model" "gold standard" crap you and your friends embrace - and which WaPo profits enormously from, then this policy - restricted learning so everyone can be tested on the very same things - makes perfect sense.

But if you believe that curiosity and creativity are important, all that you have trumpeted in this space over the past two years is wrong.

Or is it that I was right all along. That you have rather different expectations for black kids than you do for white kids?

- Ira Socol

Posted by: irasocol | October 18, 2010 9:51 PM | Report abuse

patrickmattimore1, I have previously taken 6 AP tests, and am currently enrolled in 5 more AP classes. That is, I have taken: AP US History, AP World History, AP Comparative Government, AP US Government, AP English Language & Comp, and AP Chemistry, and am currently taking: AP English Literature & Comp, AP French, AP Statistics, AP BC Calc, and AP Physics C.

I have also taken the intro Calculus and Electrical/Computer Engineering classes at Carnegie Mellon, so I am not making unfounded assertions here. I am basing this on 5 5's and a 4 without any studying. I am basing this on the fact that I didn't even read the textbook in the classes for fully half of my AP tests, and took the test with solely my background knowledge plus class discussion, and easily got 5's and a 4. In the college classes, I couldn't do that. I had to work. I had to think.

A friend of mine at Rice gave himself an old released AP Compsci test, after having taken about 6 weeks of an intro computer science course. He knew almost no Java (the programming language for AP CS), and yet he found the test to be laughably easy.

I can compare college classes (admittedly from a top school) to AP from experience, and believe me, the comparison does not leave AP looking good. Quite the opposite. It leaves AP looking like a joke.

Posted by: PerpetualDissent | October 18, 2010 10:22 PM | Report abuse

This is the problem with the quality of some teachers in the school system. I mean, what you describe is abject ignorance, disguised as "protecting" children with fewer "resources." Again, for shame!

Posted by: Jennifer88 | October 18, 2010 10:46 PM | Report abuse

As a journalism teacher, I am shocked that only one person (principal excepted) was cited by name in this column. As a FCPS teacher who is very familiar with the AP program at WHS, CHS and OHS, I know for a fact that students at all three schools are encouraged to discuss issues and topics with their parents. I also know that the efforts to stymie plagiarism are necessary as all too often students feel forced to "catch the nearest way." Jay - you should have not run the column without discussing this with the teachers of the course. Doing so slandered them, their program and the school. Fortunately there are enough students and parents whose children earned the magic 3 or above on the national exam who can attest that they did so in part because they mastered the material on their own, with the guidance of their dedicated teachers, and with integrity.

Posted by: YBQMKD | October 19, 2010 6:17 AM | Report abuse

There are two elements of this story that just jump off the page, but Jay really spent little if any time discussing either one.

The first, as some others pointed out, is the nearly 200 10th grade students enrolled in an AP world history course. Are all of these students so advanced and precocious – so intellectually gifted – that they're academically qualified to take what AP proponents call a "rigorous, college-level" class? Or is AP world history for 10th graders really not the equivalent of a college-level course? Either way, Jay doesn't inquire.

[A third question here is WHY are so many 10th graders signed up for AP world history? The answer to that question is more obvious; they're signed up to game the system, to pad their high school transcripts, to make themselves "look good" to college admissions officers when they seek acceptance a couple of years down the road. This is what AP has become: farm school for college.]

The second issue Jay largely avoids is why the AP world history teachers at Westfield were so crafty in developing their course "integrity" outline. [Personally, I think they went way overboard on this, and their refusal to discuss it speaks volumes.] My guess is that there is – or has been in the recent past – a serious problem with cheating. And that gets at another problem with AP; students are so intent on making themselves "look good" – which is derived from parental pressure(s) and the endless promotion of AP as "better" by such writers as Jay Mathews – that they sign up for all the AP courses they can, find themselves stressed and time-constrained, and they look to cut corners. It isn't really about learning.

Jay simply gives a tsk-task and tut-tut to the so-called "integrity" letter, suggesting that there's a better way.

There is. Stop all the misplaced emphasis on AP courses and tests (after all, the research is pretty clear that AP provides students with few if any benefits when they actually get into college).

Posted by: mcrockett1 | October 19, 2010 6:40 AM | Report abuse

I think the critical part of your statement is the following:
"I can compare college classes (admittedly from a top school) to AP from experience,...".
As I wrote, at many top schools AP will simply not be equivalent to those schools' intro course in many subjects. Since I taught high school psychology for many years (and AP psychology) I can say with certainty that the AP psych course is equivalent to the college intro course at most colleges.
There is another consideration at work here. Your AP score is from a cross-section of largely college going students across the country. So b/c you get a "5" for example on the U.S. History test you fall into a group of about top 10% of AP test takers in that subject. But let's say you compared that with a sample taking U.S. History AP who went to Carnegie Mellon. Now you are likely to find that maybe 50% or so of that group got "5's". So the course is college level but the sample of students is vastly different.
Let me offer you another example. I took a break from teaching for several years and toyed with the idea of going to grad school in psychology so I took the general GRE and the Psych GRE. Frankly, the AP psych test is a much better test and is at least as difficult. The difference is that to get a top score on the AP exam you need a lower percentage correct than you would need to score say above the 90th percentile on the Psych GRE.
Again I think your (and your friends' experiences taking classes at top universities) probably skews your results. Check the College Board website to see the type of equivalency testing they do to insure validity.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | October 19, 2010 9:16 AM | Report abuse

A large part of my history education in high school, college, and graduate school was learning to evaluate my sources. These students--all students--should be checking every source they can find and should have to be able to justify the ones they cite. Maybe then Seymour Hersch wouldn't have been tricked into "proving" Marilyn Monroe's affair with President Kennedy by using documents containing a Zip code several years before Zip codes were developed, and a wire service reporter wouldn't have accepted a sugar producer's press release that began, "Sugar, an indispensible part of everyone's diet . . . "

Posted by: sideswiththekids | October 19, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Just to clarify the demographics comparisons being tossed around on this blog between Westfield and Stuart, Westfield has a 17% free reduced lunch percentage and 90% english proficient percentage. Stuart has 60% FRL and is 64% english proficient. So if you want to talk about have/have nots, please don't try and make me feel sorry for Westfield. And I speak as a Stuart parent whose son took AP Government last year as a sophmore.

Posted by: samney | October 19, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

"You are only allowed to use your OWN knowledge, your OWN class notes, class handouts, your OWN class homework, or The Earth and Its Peoples textbook to complete assignments and assessments UNLESS specifically informed otherwise by your instructor."

Illogical. Is this to assume that the student had none of the mentioned "OWN" knowledge regarding subject matter of this course prior to entering the course? Whence came one's "OWN" knowledge? So, to level the playing field, this teacher would have to backtrack from the crib to be sure that no student developed a hankering for reading / attending lectures / watching documentaries and such on world history. And how ever is a student to truly distinguish among his prior knowledge and analyses from this newly presented material within this course? And what wise educator would truly desire for the student to abandon virtually all prior wisdom on the matter? And furthermore, where is there ANY virtue in restricting further reading on issues within the realm of world history? Certainly, reading original quality writings from those living at given times would only sharpen the picture (understanding) of world history.

This rule stunts growth. Perhaps, this rule is rather for the teacher who may wish to have a firm grasp on a more narrow scope of the knowledge presented so that the reading and grading of student papers will be vastly quicker and tidier.

"Expectations of Integrity?" No.

Posted by: shadwell1 | October 19, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

You are only allowed to use your OWN knowledge, your OWN class notes, class handouts, your OWN class homework, or The Earth and Its Peoples textbook to complete assignments and assessments UNLESS specifically informed otherwise by your instructor.

You may not discuss/mention/chat/hand signal/smoke signal/Facebook/IM/text/email to a complete stranger ANY answers/ideas/questions/thoughts/opinions/hints/instructions.
Only Jay Mathews would not see this as an attempt to prevent cheating.

This policy should be criticized not on the basis that it stifles curiosity but simply on the basis that it is stupid.

You devise in class tests so that students do not cheat. Not much point in cheating on a take home assignment when the material will later appear in the in class test.

I wish teachers and educators would stop trying to think for themselves and simply use methods that have been known to be effective for years.

By the way the text The Earth and Its Peoples at first glance looks like a horrible way to introduce world history to students who have been bored to death with American History.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 19, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

for YBQMKD, thanks for the good question. As i said in the piece, i sought comment from the teachers but they declined to respond. I spoke to the principal and gave him both my home number, where I work now, and my email address, and said I was very anxious to speak to them directly. That was early in the week, then on Thursday I emailed a draft of the column to the principal and the head of the social science department and asked them to please show it to the teachers and ask for their response. The principal left me a message on my old work number late on Friday saying the teachers had again declined to respond. Seems to me they made their intention very clear. As you know. it is unusual for a journalist to go to the length of showing the column to a source or potential source, before publication. I am about to tell the principal I may return to this issue and would love to include the teachers' response to the column, and the many good comments about it.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 19, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

For Ira---I can't speak for every DCPS teacher, but I think many of them would challenge your point. I have watched some very creative teaching, and heard about more. The central thrust of the Rhee era was to put good principals in charge and give them the freedom to hire the best teachers they could find. As I have said before, many of the principals she picked turned out to be not so good, but the ones that were picked some great teachers and there were already some terrific teachers in the system. Google "Frazier O'Leary Cardozo High School" sometime and you will see what I mean.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 19, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Curiosity discouraged at competitive high school
Cheating discouraged at mediocre high school
Another example of the confusion Jay Mathews has with thinking out of the box and banality.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 19, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

That students are discouraged from independent thinking, initiative, etc.. and are being 'held back' because others may not have access to learning materials is beyond outrageous! Those teachers should be fired immediately as well as the principal if he cannot see the lunacy of this policy.

Posted by: hjeanne47 | October 19, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Regarding the research on AP:

Posted by: mcrockett1 | October 19, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

I don't see where the school is discouraging curiosity. It looks more like they are trying to revive the old standard of being responsible for one's own work. There are a lot of similarities in the school policy and the Posts own User Agreement and Privacy Policy. Both are aimed at discouraging cheaters. The school rules have nothing to do with curiosity - it's clearly all about personal ethics.

Posted by: TenPenny | October 19, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

In my opinion the issue at hand is over exaggerated. This man that wrote this article does not actually understand the rule by which we had to comport to. The rules, we as the students felt, were completely reasonable and logical. When the teacher presented us with this information he had basically conveyed that he didn't want us to use anything but the book BECAUSE all the information was in the book. We did not seek to break the rules. We did have to turn our papers to plagiarism checking software, but the majority of the students had no problem with this. Our curiosity was never capped. In fact our teachers showed us various articles on present day issues around the world. The class is not a cold dungeon where curiosity and amusement are locked up. In fact it was quite the contrary. I looked forward to the class everyday. The class exuded with a fun loving environment.
I feel enraged at the fact that the author had the time to write an article about such a minor issue and inflate it to this point. There are plenty of other issues to write about aka budget cuts and their effects on the school systems of DC and nearby areas. Please don't waste you're time writing articles like this. It just shows that Jay Mathews is running out of ideas. It is also evident through his ignorant statements that he has no inside knowledge of the mechanics of the class.

- This comment has been checked for plagiarism ...

Posted by: WHSk1ng | October 19, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

People who read this article are assuming that it reports the entire truth. It DOES NOT. He did not use any of the information provided to him by the principal of the school, which would have explained that this policy is designed to keep students from cheating by copying from the book, online articles, or each other. When they are writing homework assignments they are to answer the questions in their own words. They are to think FOR THEMSELVES and to answer in their own voice. That's all that the policy means. Of course they can discuss topics outside of class. It is pathetic that this journalist (who clearly does not remember what he was taught by his journalism teachers) would publish something so blatantly biased. Something that is coming from one parent who obviously does not understand how to read the policy. Jay Mathews should have understood it, especially since it was explained to him by the principal; the fact that he did not report what the poicy actually stands for is a shame. It had led to people commenting on only half of a story and not the whole truth. I wish another journalist would step up and interview the principal, review the policy, and explain what they think of it. I bet they would come to far different conclusions.

Posted by: NVA1079 | October 19, 2010 5:39 PM | Report abuse

As a teacher of juniors and seniors, and the mother of an AP student, I was a bit upset about what appears as a seeming lack of creativity in the class--until I read govtanalystman's comment. His comment, as a parent, clarifies the situation. Of course with teachers being raked over the coals in any situation, it is disheartening to see teachers vilify other teachers. I hope Jay Metthews reads the comment posted by govtanalystman!

Posted by: helguy | October 19, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

As a Westfield HS senior, I have 9 AP courses under my belt including the 5 this year. I do admit, students take AP courses for the glory on their transcripts. But is it our fault with the new grading scale that rewards students with an additional point for taking APs or the increasingly difficult admission into college?
Yes 180+ sophomores taking AP World History is a little outlandish. But, FCPS has open enrollment so really, students can take whatever classes they want. Also, these AP classes are nothing like college. They are approximate to the first semister at best of a freshman class. My older sister, a junior at Mary Washington, has repeatedly told me that taking AP courses in high school is a smart decision for those interested in getting a "taste" not an innundation of college education. If one was to look at my transcript, you'd see A's and B's. I like to think that education is more important than the grade. But earning grades like C's in AP courses do hurt. So many students resort to cheating. Cheating is a very large problem for Honors/AP students not just at Westfield. Our honor code has changed to appease the many AP teachers, especially my previous AP World teacher. Cheating has been a HUGE problem that AP World has dealt with. Prior to, students would gather in the library and copy essays and share information. With the introducment of Turnitin, students had to became craftier to slip by. In my sophomore year, I remember a very serious incident where someone, under a fake account, sent out the essays for the chapter 15-21 test via Facebook message to at least 50 people. I had already taken the test along with everyone else who had the class on the Odd day. Our teachers conducted an investigation and voided the essay for the Even days. The police got involved and the culprit was found. Unfortunately, not enough evidence was found, but it was a large lesson to everyone.

I hope other readers agree that this article is somewhat misguided. I was shocked to see this characterization of Westfield and of the course. I applaud their HUMOR over a serious issue. What they mean is obviously that they've dealt with it, so don't even try.
Thank you.

Posted by: Littlebirdy | October 19, 2010 7:16 PM | Report abuse


Having read again the post by govtananystman, another concern becomes more clear. Is this document, "Expectations of Integrity" not a contract (of sorts)? And in being a contract, why would the teacher tell the students, and thusly conveyed to parents, what the rules "really mean" (only applies to....)? So, now, is this teacher teaching students a lack of necessity of deciphering denotative and connotative (or implied) when signing contracts? Surely, this is not the intention of the teacher, tho' it does seem to confer negligence in future signing of contracts in adulthood, whether employment, student loans, home purchase, etc. since the wording and meanings and bite are legally binding and have the potential to land one in hot water. Poor decision.

Posted by: shadwell1 | October 19, 2010 7:50 PM | Report abuse

The other thing to keep in mind is that all communications with the media by employees of the Fairfax County Public Schools are supposed to be preapproved by the office of Paul Regnier. If a teacher communicates with a member of the media without getting this preapproval, it can result in a letter put in his/her file or other more serious consequences. If the teachers didn't respond, perhaps it was because they were told not to respond by Mr. Regnier's office. I'd be curious what a FOIA request for communications between Mr. Regnier's office and Westfield regarding this article would reveal.

Posted by: Rob63 | October 19, 2010 11:59 PM | Report abuse

I'll try a second time, and be less oblique.

Nobody here -- neither knowledgable students nor challenging adults -- objects to the premise that a "World History" (or American History) course, at a college level, can and should be taught from a single textbook, which has, as one student who has been through the course attests 'all the material."

Jay with Michelle Rhee and perhaps others here, have no problem with the test having fully determined the curriculum. What better evidence of how wonderfully that reification works than the high fraction of these work-loaded students who get high scores on the test?

So, I'll repeat a notion thought if not expressed earlier. No problem with a citizenry using AP World History, taken at age 15 to satisfy a subsequent university "distribution requirement" believing it KNOWS world history -- or quite alot about WHY many events took place and what they mean, to a rigorous university level? No problem with students completing a course and certifying exam which demonstrates and reinforces that there is absolutely no need for thousands of histories published every year and

It isn't the stifling of creativity that I am concerned with. It is the breeding of certainty, the suppression of curiosity and empathy and the creation of future monsters that matters. So many bright and concerned folk quite OK with history taught as though in North Korea.

And why to ever younger students? Either to catch them earlier when they will arrive in class with fewer wayward notions........OR......(and this is the out that may be the best explanation of the teachers' requirement) This survey course so tests the limits of the instructors' knowledge -- how many Geoffrey Baracloughs are there --that students bringing to class ideas, sources, and connections not originating from the classroom material disrupts the flow of instruction

Posted by: incredulous | October 20, 2010 1:53 AM | Report abuse

I'll try a second time, and be less oblique.

Nobody here -- neither knowledgable students nor challenging adults -- objects to the premise that a "World History" (or American History) course, at a college level, can and should be taught from a single textbook, which has, as one student who has been through the course attests 'all the material."

Jay with Michelle Rhee and perhaps others here, have no problem with the test having fully determined the curriculum. What better evidence of how wonderfully that reification works than the high fraction of these work-loaded students who get high scores on the test?

So, I'll repeat a notion thought if not expressed earlier. No problem with a citizenry using AP World History, taken at age 15 to satisfy a subsequent university "distribution requirement" believing it KNOWS world history -- or quite alot about WHY many events took place and what they mean, to a rigorous university level? No problem with students completing a course and certifying exam which demonstrates and reinforces that there is no need for thousands of histories published every year and tens of thousands of historians and other social scientists doing historical studies? This is so much better than encyclopediast thinking; this is Cliff Notes finally recognized as legitimate. No longer the short cut, now the honor-code-approved, GPS-standard "Fastest (and therefore best) Route."

It isn't the stifling of creativity that I am concerned with. It is the breeding of certainty, the suppression of curiosity and empathy, and the creation of future monsters. So many bright and concerned folk quite OK with history taught as though in North Korea.

And why to ever younger students? Either to catch them earlier when they will arrive in class with fewer wayward notions........OR......(and this is the generous "out" that may be the best explanation of the teachers' requirement): This survey course so tests the limits of the instructors' knowledge -- how many Geoffrey Baracloughs are there? --that students bringing to class ideas, sources, and connections not originating from the classroom material disrupts the flow of instruction and too often threatens to embarrass teachers hard-pressed to keep up with pacing charts and AP course-coverage expectations.

I'm fully sympathetic with the last.

Posted by: incredulous | October 20, 2010 2:06 AM | Report abuse

Incredulous, I sympathize with your views but I think you are missing an important point. Students who are advanced and interested in high school have an opportunity to take several college-level history courses- AP World, AP European, and AP U.S. This is an enriched curriculum and for many of these students it will be merely an entree for them when they get to college and take more advanced and specialized history courses.
I'll resort briefly to a personal anecdote merely as an example. My daughter took two of those AP courses and went on to major in history in college. My son took those three AP courses and though he didn't major in history (applied economics) he is an avid history student.
There is plenty to cover in an AP History course but it's a real mistake to think that because of the course breadth, creativity is stifled. Kids in AP history courses are thinking about history in much more profound ways and exploring a variety of viewpoints not generally available in traditional high school history classes.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | October 20, 2010 5:47 AM | Report abuse

I believe this whole thing is rediculious. I was and am a Westfield high AP hist. Student. I fully agree with my teachers policy because they made it so we had to study and work hard to pass and couldn't just use a website for an easy A, and for the record this article took their syllabus way out of context. I openly questioned my teachers and their reasoning and I was NEVER in any trouble for it. In fact I have changed the view point of quite a few fellow students and was actually in fact applauded by my teacher for how I was able to see past my own little existence and understand how life worked for others in the past. Like for instance WWII, even though people seem to believe that Nazi were evil. I don't believe that for one second. In fact I believe that they thought they were the good guys in the war, and us Americans were evil. But as everyone knows history is only written by the victor. And that's my rant on people miss-judging my teachers and the school system that made me who I am today. (oh, btw. No I DIDNT get in any trouble for bringing out my point of view, wich I backed up with evidence from reliable sources, not in the book)

Posted by: RGVA | October 21, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Look the teacher has designed the policy to allow him or her to give the same assignments over and over. But I will make you a bet the students are still cheating.

The sad thing is that in the modern business world students must be able to work collaboratively by quickly integrating a variety of outside multimedia sources. Just watch any Droid or IPAD commercial to see what I mean.

This is a teacher friendly policy not geared to prepare students to do anything other than not collaborate. Nice job teach. The CHinese government would be proud. I am sure they use the same policy.

Posted by: Hrod1 | October 21, 2010 10:02 PM | Report abuse

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