Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 8:00 PM ET, 11/21/2010

Let schools be creative with motivation

By Jay Mathews

Two demographically similar and academically impressive local high schools — Northwood in Montgomery County and West Potomac in Fairfax County — have been debating grades. Both schools have been accused of letting too many students pass their courses without learning the material.

This is in line with what millions of Americans say about schools in general. But they disagree over whom to blame. Unmotivated students? Lazy teachers? Cowardly administrators? Short-sighted parents?

I wonder if there isn’t a way for all of these people to resolve the dispute by offering school choices that would approach grading and teaching in different ways. I know it sounds chaotic, but bear with me.

Last week in this column, Northwood math teacher Dan Stephens said he can’t motivate his students if his school district lets them pass his course even when they flunk the final exam, written by the county to set a standard for all schools. Contradictory county rules say the final may count as only 25 percent of the final grade. Other, also contradictory, rules make it easier to get passing grades on other assignments because all good faith efforts must be given at least 50 percent, no matter how many answers are wrong.

West Potomac became an issue when my Post colleague Donna St. George revealed it was giving students an I for incomplete, rather than the traditional F, if they were flunking a course. For a while, the school gave the kids extra time to turn in missing assignments and master the material. But late last week, the school said it was going back to the old rules because of widespread criticism.

On a national scale, these are both successful schools, with relatively high test scores and college-going rates. About one-third of their students are low-income, but their percentages of graduating seniors who passed Advanced Placement courses last year were more than twice the national average.

Nonetheless, like most schools, they have plenty of failing students. Lots of readers chimed in about that last week in e-mails and comment posts. Some demanded that the elementary and middle schools feeding into them get tough so all students were ready for high school. Some said parents and teachers should stop coddling kids. Many recommended that students be required to retake courses they did not master, even if that delayed their graduation.

(Montgomery County officials didn’t know what percentage of students flunk countywide final exams yet still pass the courses. But they said the number is likely to be small because passing rates on those finals are 67 percent or higher.)

Creative educators also have ideas. Stephens wants to deny students a passing grade if they don’t get at least 50 percent on the final exam (still 10 percentage points below the passing mark). West Potomac principal Cliff Hardison wants to give struggling students many chances to save themselves, even if caught cheating.

Montgomery County school experts told me the solution is great teachers who present content in an engaging and relevant way. They’re right. A parent said on my blog that her son hated math until he got a teacher “who encourages the kids to call her at home with questions, prepares great reviews of the material and communicates with parents.”

I predict neither school will stray far from the standard American approach: Let slackers slide through. Many will eventually grow up, educators know, and realize they must apply themselves in college or job training if they want a decent life. But there is another way to deal with them.

Some schools — usually with many more low-performing kids than Northwood or West Potomac have — are letting their administrators and teachers band together to experiment with required after-school tutoring, regular teacher visits to homes, more imaginative teaching, longer school days, and whatever else works for their communities.

Would the Washington suburbs ever tolerate a system in which families could choose schools with radical approaches, such as insisting students pass the final exam or retake the course? Would any parents expose their children to such experiments?

I think yes. Parents are demanding more choices as they worry about our economic future. Their children might also do better if we gave them fewer, not more choices, in how to handle their studies than we do now.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | November 21, 2010; 8:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Northwood High School, West Potomac High School, educators have creative solutions, grading systems, motivating students, readers say schools and teachers should get tough, schools accused of passing students who don't master the material, why not give families the choice of some school with radical solutions  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Another blue ribbon report suitable for shredding
Next: Is it harder for affluent schools to have good character?


I think kids need choice. They aren't studying for Algebra b/c they don't care about Algebra. We need fewer required classes in high school and we need more choices. Allow students to take classes in social studies if that's what they like, and science if that's what they like. And if they like cars, let them learn to be a mechanic. In a world of increasing specialization, this would necessarily a bad thing. And if you want motivation- giving students autonomy over their schedules is a step in the right direction.

Posted by: mmccabe4724 | November 21, 2010 10:01 PM | Report abuse

When you give unstructured choice students will take the path of least resistance, signing up for the easiest (least work) courses. this is even more true at schools where there is no parent college experience or where districts have cut counselors to save money. What about requirements for college? Our state requires certain courses. The more choice in high school the less chance of college.

Posted by: Hrod1 | November 22, 2010 12:07 AM | Report abuse

Hrod1 has it exactly right: "When you give unstructured choice students will take the path of least resistance, signing up for the easiest (least work) courses." This is as true as the Second Law of Thermodynamics (which only highly motivated students will recognize w/o having to Google it).

"The more choice in high school the less chance of college." Exactly true also. Schools aspiring to prepare college-ready students need a strict core cirriculum that all must take and a stringent grading system. Do this and SAT, AP, IB scores matter little.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | November 22, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

Jay, your suggestion has nothing to do with the problem, which is all about the official grade. Touchy feely nostrums about teaching methods are irrelevant--the same kids who want to skate by won't go to your vaunted tutorials.

The only way to solve the problem is to take the grades out of the teachers' hands and turn it over to a district or statewide test. Grades are dictated by test score.

If the district wants to set a low test score, so be it. If they want to set an accurate score, then 45-50% of the kids will fail math classes every year.

That's how it should be. The kids aren't failing because of bad teachers or failure to try, but because they aren't ready for the classes--and won't be, in some cases, ever.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 22, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

Motivation is an issue schools need to confront, but somehow I doubt that the most plausible solutions would appeal to Mathews. To the extent that the schools can stimulate students' motivation, the techniques that seem to work are precisely the approaches attacked by advocates of high stakes testing. Making school more hospitable, more tolerant of differences, exploring different approaches to learning and so on are inconsistent with the single minded pursuit of better performance on standardized tests.

Schools, however, can do only so much about motivation. The larger issue lies in communities and families. The research indicates that students' motivation reflects the expectations of their communities and families. If a student comes from a community with persistent poverty and unemployment (that is with little evidence that education matters) he/she is not likely to be well motivated. The solution here are all the social programs we seem to be intent on banishing from American life.

Moreover, it seems to me that many middle class students from places like Fairfax County are not well motivated because they perceive that being middle class is sufficient, that one way or another they will will come out on top regardless of how hard they work in school. What they see in their communities and families is that people with money and influence can work the system to benefit themselves and working hard has very little to do with success.

Posted by: Jphubba | November 22, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

I think Jphubba is right to differentiate between what a school can do and what society/politics can do. I'm not sure what the "social programs we seem to be intent on banishing from American life" he/she refers to, but these programs are what schools now provide in many communities. Schools feed, counsel, nurture, job-train, etc. Schools can not possibly do all of these things, especially on shoe-string budgets and under the pressure of state testing.

But I also think that Matthews is right to let schools get creative to develop programs to motivate their students as best they can. Middle-class students might be motivated by stringent grading policies, but that same policy may precipitate larger drop-out rates in lower SES schools. County/district developed policies can't account for the different communities each school serves, especially in large districts like MCPS.

Posted by: limnetic792 | November 22, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Good thoughts. I see what Cal is saying, but having a district wide policy that doesn't work is a problem. Why not see what happens if we give schools some leeway, and recruit families that way? If it doesn't work, we can try something else.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 22, 2010 7:27 PM | Report abuse

Why not have special high schools or special high schools within large "regular" high schools for the highly motivated student? The deal would be this: We offer to you as an incoming freshman student the option and opportunity to take a difficult, highly restrictive four year curriculum that will prepare you exquisitely for future success in any college that you may attend. The curriculum consists of all the hard courses, there are no easy courses.

You’ll work hard to complete this “eye watering” curriculum, and you may not graduate with as high a GPA as you might garner taking a lot of easy A courses. However, any university that sees your application will know from the courses that you have taken that you will succeed at their institution.

The only question is motivation. Are you motivated enough to take on this difficult project that will surely shape your life for the better? If you are, then welcome aboard. If not, then good luck anyway.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | November 23, 2010 8:48 AM | Report abuse

To all: My apologies for my last few posts/rants. The teaching-researching-fundraising multi-gig has been stressful lately. I shouldn’t vent here, it doesn’t help.

Fairfaxvaguy: Yes, please push specialized professional-development curricula in high schools. Break up the large 2000+ high schools in to smaller employment sector-focused subunits. Keep the current model as an option for student who desire it, but give other the choice of specialized programs.

Currently we’re expecting good students to know the second law of thermodynamics, the second act of Henry V, second position on the violin, Elizabeth II, the second valence level of electrons and terminal velocity in m/s. Even the prodigies and polymaths can’t handle it all perfectly or remember it permanently. Get folks on a defined track from early-on. Let them switch in the 9th or 10th grade if they don’t appreciate or enjoy curriculum. They can even change to a related discipline for their university major.

The dedicated specialized students could directly enroll in university majors and graduate in three years (similar to the UK)--AP/IB, and early college enrollment programs could be used in this system. This is far better than graduating, maybe, in six years with a degree major that you might not use.

Posted by: professor70 | November 23, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

A large proportion of European countries do use a track type system, starting sometime between 14 and 16 years old in most cases. Students choose an area of specialization, usually still relatively broad like "fine arts", "liberal arts", "sciences", "economics", etc. and from then on receive more instruction in those subject areas than in others, although they still do tend to have some required courses in subjects deemed of universal importance like math and reading.

The big difference is that once you move to a track, your choices are narrowed from then on. You can't even apply to a university program in the sciences if you graduated from the "fine arts" track in high school, for instance. So kids, along with their parents, need to make decisions about final educational goals and career goals, when a child is 14, 15, or 16. It's not something Americans are used to. We're more of a "freedom of choice" type of place.

The overarching goal of education in Europe is also much more career driven in most countries, particularly at the higher levels. Beyond the first years where everyone receives a general education on all subjects, students are expected to be preparing for work in a certain field, initially rather broad as a young teenager, then increasingly narrowed as the child moves through high school and college.

As I understand the American system, there is far less emphasis in preparing kids for a particular job. Aside from some professional post-graduate schools (law school, medical school, etc.) most American schools seem to be driving towards some general level of competency amongst all adults in all subjects. It is not related to whether or not students will need those competencies for their eventual jobs. In fact jobs are rarely discussed.

It's not a better or worse model than the professionalization of education as Europeans have chosen to do. But it is very different. You'd have to make many profound changes in American society to change that.

Posted by: JapanKate | November 23, 2010 8:26 PM | Report abuse

echoing mmccabe4724:

Firstly,anyone who wants to be a mechanic, hair dresser, electrician or plumber will always have a job because we all (350 million of us )need these professions and you can't outsource them. So, it's time we stop acting as if those skills aren't important.

Additionally,I think we need to offer students - particularly at the middle and high school levels - more choices in subjects that they not only like, but show an affinity for, and that they receive more guidance and exposure to possible fields they could have a career in long before their junior year in high school.

Mentors from all walks of life could do more volunteering in the schools. I know that many hard-working career counselors bring in professionals during a special day or two a year in high school, but I don't think it's enough.

And for everyone's sake, could we please dispense with the advanced math and physics for all?!? I am not adverse to exposure for students, but I would certainly like to see a little more encouragement in things like anthropology, world history, philosophy, economics, architecture, music, art and theater to round out one's education.

And a few more team-taught courses for students to help them make connections between math and music, art and architecture, biology and agriculture, etc. etc. etc. Young people want the world to make sense NOW, not 10 years from now.....not too long ago 15 and 16 year-olds were working their own farms and raising families. The adults need to stop thinking in terms of just school rooms and future office cubicles.

'nuff said for now.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 23, 2010 11:52 PM | Report abuse

mmccabe4724, I second many of your positions. Thank you for your contributions.
Erv Addison
erwin.addison at

Posted by: ErvAddison | November 26, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company