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Posted at 5:30 AM ET, 12/15/2010

Can city schools compete with the suburbs?

By Jay Mathews

I have an Oct. 18 e-mail from Jonathan Shea, an Advanced Placement World History teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School, a public school in the District. It raises an interesting question: Is it possible to establish academic rivalries between high schools, as we now have athletic rivalries? Can an urban school with a large portion of low-income students dare challenge an affluent suburban school in the level and sophistication of its teaching and learning?

Shea was responding to my column about the AP World History course at Westfield High School in Fairfax County. Teachers there were severely restricting research, at least in some cases, to what the student found in the textbook or class notes. Shea is suggesting that his school, with 39 percent of its students low-income, is a better place to learn world history than Westfield, where 14 percent of the students are low income.

Let me know what you think of Shea's cheeky message.

Jay --

I just wanted to extend a warm invitation to all the 10th grade parents of students in AP World History at Westfield High School to consider Woodrow Wilson High School in DCPS instead. We have about the same number of students (approx 160 at Wilson vs. 180 at Westfield) taking AP World History in the 10th grade this year, but with half the total student population (1,500 at Wilson vs. 3,000 at Westfield) and a larger proportion of students receiving free or reduced lunch. Last year, the school average for AP World History was over 3.0 [on a 5-point scale] -- much higher than the national rate.

While I know that the tuition for DCPS is over $8,000 [Jay's note -- D.C. public schools will accept students from outside the district if there is room, but they have to pay tuition], parents at Westfield might consider it a bargain, as it is much cheaper than many area private schools.

Students in my class work together often, especially on an important year-long research project on a region or country of the world across the five time periods of AP World History. If you've ever tried to research the economic system or the role of women in Haiti or South Africa between 8000 BCE and 600 CE, you will know that this requires significant work at university libraries, not just a quick look in the textbook or your class notes.

I'm not sure we have room this year, though, so you may want to pass this information forward to 9th grade parents at Westfield instead so that they can apply to Wilson for next fall. I'd love to see some of these students from, to quote you, "one of the largest and most competitive public schools in America," and see how they do at Wilson, where learning is most certainly not limited to the classroom.

Jonathan Shea
Teacher, Woodrow Wilson High School, DCPS

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  | December 15, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Jonathan Shea, Westfield High School Fairfax County, Wilson High School D.C., urban school teacher suggests his World History course is better than in very large and competitive suburban school  
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What was cheeky about his letter? I thought it was fine.

Fairfax has made a mess of redistricting in its district. The plethora of undesirable and unpopular IB schools in Fairfax had caused low staff morale and constant fear of being shuffled around.

What I do find astounding is that only $8,000 is being spent per pupil. Here on Long Island, if you want to opt out of say, your own crappy IB district in favor of the neighboring AP district, you have to pay $32,000 tuition for public school!

Posted by: lisamc31 | December 15, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

As a Wilson alum, I heartily support the "cheekiness" behind Mr. Shea's invitation. Many families in my parents' neighborhood paid (and still pay) tens of thousands of dollars to avoid sending their children to Wilson or any other public school. They are generally ignorant of what actually goes on in the public schools, though they often are shocked to find out that I:

a) am not scarred physically or psychologically from what they assume must be a traumatic experience of "surviving" in DCPS

b) went to an elite, Top Ten (at least according to US News) private university where I graduated at the top of my class -- outperforming peers I knew from St. Albans, Sidwell, etc.

c) wholly support public schooling and am proud of being a Wilson alum

I am not unique. Wilson is an excellent school that has an extraordinarily diverse and talented student body. Too bad that the Obamas and other wealthy DC families are too frightened to find that out...

Posted by: myerschris1973 | December 15, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Hey Jay, why don't you ever pit IB schools against each other? Hmmm?

Posted by: lisamc31 | December 15, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Shea,

Westfield HS has "only" 180 students enrolled in AP World History because it also offers an Honors level World Civilizations class which combines the study of world history with that of English and literature. As of next year, this civilizations course, due to FCPS policy, will no longer be offered to students as an Honors level course (and therefore no longer be eligible for the .5 "bump" in the student's GPA calculation). So next year, I will predict that the enrollment in AP World will more than double since a lot of the students who would take an honors level class will opt instead for an AP course and its 1.0 GPA bump. Secondly, Westfield's average AP World scores were nearly a 4 out of 5 last year. In addition Westfield's AP World student scores rank near the top of all AP World scores in the area, including DC. Thirdly, Westfield AP teachers have been hired as readers of the AP World exams and have also taught other teachers how to teach AP World History as instructors in the many AP Institutes conducted by College Board around the country. Lastly, if Mr. Mathews investigated and explained fully in his original article (and if you had read what I posted in response to his mistakes), there is no discouragement of research in the AP World classes at Westfield. The assignments which were to be completed without any outside help were to create outlines of chapters from the textbook. To write an outline from a textbook, what other outside sources would you use? The AP World History course at Westfield includes many research projects which utilize libraries, online and print articles and journals, and artifacts. To close, please don't comment on the teaching strategies of other teachers unless you know the full story.

Posted by: APforyou | December 15, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

The really sad thing is that Shea almost certainly knew everything that AP posted about, but took the opportunity for a cheap shot--aided by Jay, who took the opportunity to plug AP FOR ALL one more time.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 15, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Competing for students is one thing. Competing for teachers quite another:

Jon Shea was almost summarily dismissed by DCPS in the Spring of 2008. Wilson HS and Shea were fortunate enough to have his appointment reinstated on appeal, perhaps the only one of eight.

So, there's the matter of treatment of "human capital", as the non-economist current Chancellor of Schools has learned to refer to and regard mere teachers, before Fairfax teachers will be considering employment by DCPS.

Posted by: incredulous | December 16, 2010 1:31 AM | Report abuse

Thanks and kudos to "APforyou". He has most eminently proved my oft-reiterated point in these blogs that Jay should be giving large coverage to the only people "in-the-know", the classroom teachers of the discussed topics.
Visits to schools and classrooms are all well and good, Jay, but the reality can only come from those "in the trenches", the teachers. They have the details, the nuances and complexities of what goes on in the classrooms. The public should be informed of this on a daily basis to have some impact.
When will you get on with it? Valerie shouldn't be the only one at WaPo.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | December 16, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

For 1bnthrdntht---I appreciate yr opinion, and strongly endorse yr liking of Valerie Strauss, but am deeply puzzled that you think I am NOT "giving large coverage to the only people "in-the-know", the classroom teachers of the discussed topics." I thought my recent columns about teachers Dan Stephens, Anthony Priest and Erich Martel were exactly that, and that's just a sampling of my Monday columns. I have the advantage of having done this for several years, but the fact remains, if you count my books, no journalist has written as much about what classroom teachers do, from their viewpoint, as I have. I welcome the many critiques here of my conclusions and my missing important points, but writing about what goes on in the classroom from the perspective of teachers has been my focus for the last several years. I hope you will have a chance to read more of what I have done before you write me off.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 16, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

" Can an urban school with a large portion of low-income students dare challenge an affluent suburban school in the level and sophistication of its teaching and learning?"

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: No, because academic achievement depends on a host of factors that are independent of the school. Parental involvement, family income, level of parents educations, a 2 parent family, peer groups, and many other factors.

There's PLENTY of evidence to support the conclusion that factors outside the school matter, or even predominate. Look at the angst of the "achievement gap" in many school systems, say Arlington. The trouble is that achievement gap is going to persist even though all those kids attend the very same is the factors outside the schools that make the difference.

It is a pleasant fantasy to say that this can all be overcome by a great teacher, say, Jaime Escalante, but it remains a fantasy. Escalante's experience is instructive. He achieved amazing results for a small number of kids, but those results never scaled to other schools and had limited success in being picked up by other teachers. Wikipedia notes, " In just a few years, the number of A.P. calculus students at Garfield who passed their exams dropped by more than 80 percent."

Miracles are not a policy option. Miracles don't scale. Miracles are not reproducible.

The idiocy in our public school debate is encapsulated in our testing and "accountability" mania. The idea that we will "Hold teachers accountable" is mindless nonsense because they do not control all, or even most, of the factors that lead to educational success.

As a society we've systematically cut the government programs that support those external factors and decided to blame that all on the schools and teachers.

So, again, No, an urban school with a large portion of low-income students cannot compete academically with an affluent suburban school. I wish the answer was different, but pretending that will only encourage and continue the policies that have decimated public schools.

Posted by: skeptic9 | December 16, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

I find it amazing how WAPO like to dance around the real issue. The issue is not city vs. suburban that makes children more or less competitive. If we take the students in the city move them to the suburbs and vice versa, will things change? No! Next we like to talk about income. Making something of your life out of humble origins is the nation's creed. It has worked for every ethnic group to arrive in this country and quietly it is working in Mexican, Central American communities and yes, also African's and Caribbean's.

The real issue is an American Black issue. Children who are of the lineage of Brown v. Board just can't get right! It has nothing to do with income or where you live. I have never heard the Education section ever get at the crux of the matter. Also, where are the Black educators on this page! Why doesn't the Post employ Black education columnist. It's 2011. WAPO ought to be ashamed. It would not seem so bad if WAPO actually was on point about education. Unfortunately, the columns here run from the little impact Blacks have on education. Are you cowards on race?

Posted by: Concerned3 | December 16, 2010 6:24 PM | Report abuse


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