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Schools Monday: Two Worlds of Education

In this business, it's easy to conclude that we're two nations, sharply divided in every which way. I hear from hundreds of readers each week, and they tend to represent two very different slices of society--people who are doing well and people who are struggling to get by. Since I write a lot about schools, I tend to hear from parents of school-age kids, and they too cleave into two distinct realities: One in which kids are driven to succeed and parents are intensely competitive on behalf of those children, and the other in which just getting through school is a daunting challenge marked by obstacles that can almost seem like they add up to a conspiracy against them.

Sometimes the impressions created by reader mail are way off the mark; like the phone calls on a talk show, the mail can be unrepresentative, dominated by the extremes. But in this case, the readers seem to be spot on. The 25th anniversary of the landmark study of American education, "A Nation At Risk," has occasioned a whole bunch of reviews of where we stand in our schools today, and the answer is clear: Pretty much where we were a quarter century ago, meaning that 25 years of expensive and extensive reforms have amounted basically to nothing.

The big headline quotations from the original report were tough statements that we knew in our guts were dead right: "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." And this: "The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people." (The authors of the report were part of that tide of mediocrity: They couldn't even use the word "presently" correctly.)

What happened in the aftermath of that report? States raised standards and then the feds got into the act, seeking to force the nation's schools toward more rigor by requiring a vast regimen of standardized testing--the No Child Left Behind revolution.

Some revolution. Yes, at the high end, more kids take AP courses, chemistry, physics, and calculus. But three of ten high school students still don't take Algebra II, the most important indicator of whether a kid will end up in college. And two-thirds don't take physics.

The percentage of students who graduate from high school has nudged up only a bit, from 66 percent in 1995 to 70 percent in 2004. And those who do stay in school aren't getting a whole lot from the experience: In 2005, only one third of high school students scored at the proficient level in reading and fewer than a quarter of students did so in math. Even if they do make it to college, one in four U.S. students require remedial work to get through their first year on campus.

Have standards really gone up? Hardly. Only 18 states and the District require high school students to take a college-prep curriculum and 11 of those states allow kids to opt out of that requirement, according to the Stagnant Nation report.

We test the living daylights out of kids, but still subject them to dumbed-down, boring textbooks; thin courses; inexperienced teachers; and one of the shortest school years in all of the industrialized world.

And the gap that separates black and Hispanic children from others in school achievement has gotten only barely narrower.

What to do? We've tried all manner of cheap ways to fix the problem, anything we can think of that can be accomplished with existing structures and personnel. And we've tried some expensive experiments too, small settings with individualized attention. Sometimes that helps, but frustratingly enough, sometimes it doesn't.

Some school reformers give up after a couple of decades of this. Some go off and start their own schools, deciding that large-scale reforms cannot make a difference in a single lifetime, but that individual connections to students truly can change lives. That seems to be the most satisfying and perhaps most effective path. Politics has little to do with this: People who despise the public schools and go off to home-school their kids or start charter schools are often just as successful and satisfied as those who believe that public schools are the essence of our democracy and therefore decide to teach in the most difficult of schools, or to start small-scale, rigorous programs that take end runs around the bureaucracies.

To read the report on the past 25 years is probably to become despondent about American schools, but to work with kids is almost always a richly rewarding path. Perhaps that's the lesson of the past quarter century. Big solutions may sound great, but rarely produce much progress. The answers lie at the lowest possible level--one-to-one.

At noon today, please join me to discuss "Washington 2025," my cover story in the Post's Sunday Magazine looking at two possible futures for the D.C. area. We'll gather at

By Marc Fisher |  April 28, 2008; 7:26 AM ET
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I struggled through Algebra II and never used it again after the 11th grade. Didnt need it in college. As a liberal arts major math was not a requirement at GMU took Logic instead. And Physics has been really helpful since 12th grade. Please in college the only reason they require math courses for non math and engineering majors is to keep the tenured math professors gainfully employed. Its like statistics course in college for undegrad or grad degree it keep some profs employed and a department a life. A better class for high school juniors and seniors would be balancing a checkbook and real world finance. Same with college.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 28, 2008 7:49 AM

We learned how to balance a checkbook in 5th grade; this is well beneath what a high school or college student should be learning. No one uses everything they learn in high school. Advanced math and science teach logical thinking while subjects like English and social studies convey more free-form critical thinking skills. No, you don't face a logical problem later in life and say, "Let's see, let me draw upon my Algebra II training to solve this real-world problem" - the learnings gained are at a different level of thought. A real purpose is served by learning these subjects - a purpose that transcends "Will I ever use this?"

Posted by: Ffx | April 28, 2008 8:22 AM

Although I did take the time to read the whole post I wanted to pick up on a couple of points in the last paragraph.

The short school year: Other countries have longer school years but the vacation coincides with what is often national summer vacation for many workers as well who use the time for, well, vacation. Anyone remember the summer vacation? One of our litmus tests for who is wealthy or not in this country would be to ask who was able to take a vacation lasting more than a week. Our expectation is that teenagers work. The sooner they get out of school the sooner they get to work. Some work is given fancy names like "internships," but we all know that for most the learning experience is the same as those who have an "internship" at McDonalds. We tell ourselves that work instills values, but at the same time that those precious malleable brains could be easily absorbing Algrebra II or a foreign language (that's right, a foreign language!) our teenager are thinking, "if I can work an extra two hours then I can afford to go to the movies this weekend."

Textbooks: I don't want to go off on some anti-PC rant but at least part of the problem is that the textbook industry probably cares as much about balancing the race, ethnicity and gender of its illustrated images as it does the content of its products.

Posted by: $0.02 | April 28, 2008 8:46 AM

As a parent, I plan to be competitive about gaining opportunities for my son even through we are one of the families struggling to get by. I am glad that we have charter schools and vouchers, scholarships and financial aid for private schools. Otherwise the opportunities would be so imbalanced on the side of wealthier families. As for the use of Algebra II, I agree with the reader who commented on the value going way beyond its literal use. These subjects excercise our analytical and problem-solving skills. And they expose all students to a possible path in their professional futures. As for our long American summer breaks, they should remain as they are. Sitting in a classroom year-round does not produce healthy, well-rounded, creative children. Experiences outside of the classroom are essential in developing our children to be the people (not robots) we want in our society.

Posted by: dcp | April 28, 2008 9:05 AM

Those who succeed, learn to appreciate learning as a life long goal. Those who fail, are those who never learn how to learn. The US education system and the parents of the 30% or more, of students who do not graduate, never teach their children to appreciate the value of life long learning. Base courses such as algebra II, geometry, physics and logic teach critical thought process and expand the mind in ways that will be immensely valuable later in "The Real World". Teach your children to learn and they will learn to be successful.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 28, 2008 9:09 AM

Too much emphasis on money, infrastrucuture, and testing in the schools. Stop holding all the kids hands; Have a high expectation for achievement - Kids need books, and teachers to answer intelligent questions, mentor and tutor. Parents need to instill a work ethic and an expectation of achievement in the kids. With computers and the www, kids should be able to learn more in less time than we did growing up. Also, accountability for teachers - if they're not effective, retrain them or get them out of the schools...

Posted by: DontGetIt | April 28, 2008 9:35 AM

Hearing those express the idea that primary school should be about "how to balance a checkbook" brings me to mind of a recent warning I read from the Director of Intelligence that we better not get into a hacking war with the Chinese because there are tens of millions of Chinese who not only have advanced IT skills but who read and understand English while how many US-born techies, or anyone, read and understand Chinese? Would China have been able to achieve this if 20 years ago they had adopted the Chinese version of "how to balance a checkbook"-model for their schools? Although come to think of it, maybe the authors of that report were on to something. Maybe we can undermine our world rivals by aggressively exporting self-esteem-centered education.

Posted by: Paul | April 28, 2008 9:50 AM

I am shocked at the person who doesn't use Algebra in real life. What could they possibly do that doesn't involve math? dance? I am a liberal arts major and I use these kinds of algebraic formulas to manage my team's budget.

Posted by: DCer | April 28, 2008 10:17 AM

Fisher's basic point sounds right to me - we need to get more adults involved in the education of children. To do this, we as a society have to put a higher value on education, and create higher rewards, expectations and standards for educators themselves. More money would help as long as it's honestly distributed and carefully spent. Even better - our national leaders from all sectors of society need to increase their own personal investments (time, money, prestige, political clout) in the American educational system.

We could start by creating the right incentives to direct people towards education and away from other professional sectors that don't really add value (financial or otherwise) to the nation. For example: how much societal energy do we waste on the complicated federal tax code? We should simplify the tax code and redirect the army of tax preparers, accountants, lawyers, and IRS agents to work in the schools. Same with the legions of personal consultants that serve wealthy individuals, attending to their every need and desire no matter how petty. Get those people in the schools! With the right attitude, training, compensation and monitoring for high standards, they can provide much greater value to this country than in their current professions.

Posted by: Mentor | April 28, 2008 10:33 AM

Sorry cant remember the last time I solved for x or y or did a proof using geometry.
Physics please. Point is not everyone needs a hard science and math education to be successful. Or college prep. Trades are hurting. Average BMW or Mercedes auto tech at the journeyman level at a DC area dealership makes well over $100k. He gets half your labor rate.

And my sister in law the vet uses the calc and trig she was forced to take to get into a good college and into vet school evreyday. Wrong!

And the real problem is the NEA and local teacher's unions.

And Bill Gates isnt he a college drop out.
Critical thinking just isnt developed by taking math and science courses. Either is ability to think logically.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 28, 2008 10:35 AM

What was wrong with the "presently", Marc?

Posted by: Ryan | April 28, 2008 10:39 AM

Just wondering if the anonymous post at 10:35 was intended as a spoof. If it was intended to be taken seriously then your semi-literate rant made your point: you learned nothing in school. Please don't expect the rest of us to accept mediocrity as the standard for our educational system.

Posted by: $0.02 | April 28, 2008 10:49 AM


Presently means soon, not currently. Go ahead and replace presently with soon in that sentence

Posted by: $0.02 | April 28, 2008 11:19 AM

Physics: if more people understood physics, perhaps fewer would try to turn sharp corners at high speeds while driving vehicles with high centers of gravity.

Statistics: if you understand statistics, even on a basic level, you won't be so easily fooled by every report and poll that comes along.

Science: ideas and beliefs are not theories. If an idea can not be tested and potentially proved false, then it can not be a scientific theory.

Algebra, Economics: A mortgage that requires payments that are 60%-80% of your gross income is not something that you can afford. The tax deduction you receive on this mortgage will not help you buy enough groceries, utilities and clothing to keep your family going.

These are just some examples of why liberal arts majors can benefit from math and science education. Trust me, every time I read another engineering paper, I realize how engineers and scientists (could) benefit from (more) liberal arts.

Posted by: annapolis, MD | April 28, 2008 11:26 AM

How many people are there like Bill Gates? That he's a college dropout proves nothing.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 28, 2008 11:41 AM

All here should read Jay Mathew's "Class Struggle" column today on what happens when form and substance collide. Near the end of the article is a "rebuttal" from an administrator from Prince William county. When a county has tens of thousands of students to educate, rules are necessary, but when rules begin to interfere with the education process for any student, then some common sense must intrude. I do not see that happening in the case that Mathew's addresses. It becomes just another example of what is wrong with education in America.

Posted by: John Dickert | April 28, 2008 12:28 PM

In the 1950's, particularly after Sputnik but even before there was great concern about schools. (That's the era that saw the start of general federal aid to education.)

I've come to think the perfect education system is like the perfect parents, they don't exist. Instead we muddle through, each generation learning more than the previous one. Which isn't to say we shouldn't try to improve, but we should take a breath once in a while.

Posted by: Bill Harshaw | April 28, 2008 12:29 PM

I agree with the comments from Annapolis. We can all benefit from a complete education in high school. We all can benefit from a complete liberal arts education, which does require History Majors to take some Math and Science courses. What we get out of life depends on how prepared we are to face all element of it. I also agree that vocational education can be important too, but the choice of a vocation should be based on positives, not negatives.
Bill Gates ended his college career because somebody had to run the business he and his cohorts had sent up while in school. He didn't give it up because he was not doing well at it.
I see that someone responded to the semantic issue. As a lexicographer, I find it difficult to refrain from saying something about this issue.

Posted by: John Dickert | April 28, 2008 12:43 PM

Let's also not forget that the college Bill Gates dropped out of was Harvard, i.e., he was already pretty well-educated already. Gates is pretty vocal on social issues and I offer himself as an example on why formal education is worthless.

Posted by: Paul | April 28, 2008 12:45 PM

$0.02, that is not true. Here's the low-down from

" a little while; soon: They will be here presently. the present time; now: He is presently out of the country.

The two apparently contradictory meanings of presently, "in a little while, soon" and "at the present time, now," are both old in the language. In the latter meaning presently dates back to the 15th century. It is currently in standard use in all varieties of speech and writing in both Great Britain and the United States. The sense "soon" arose gradually during the 16th century. Strangely, it is the older sense "now" that is sometimes objected to by usage guides. The two senses are rarely if ever confused in actual practice. Presently meaning "now" is most often used with the present tense (The professor is presently on sabbatical leave) and presently meaning "soon" often with the future tense (The supervisor will be back presently). The semantic development of presently parallels that of anon, which first had the meaning, now archaic, of "at once, immediately," but later came to mean "soon.""

So, to Marc and $0.02, again I ask: What's wrong with "presently"? Or is it that the report's authors knew something that you don't?

Posted by: Ryan | April 28, 2008 12:54 PM

and before Harvard, Bill Gates went to Lakeside, the Maret of Seattle, current tuition: $21k+. it's a ridiculous example to point out as a 'college dropout.' he's as much of a college dropout as Shaquille O'Neal was (he has since returned to graduate)

Posted by: northzax | April 28, 2008 1:37 PM

Actually, I find myself baffled by all the talk of the alleged higher standards in the public schools since NCLB. As far as I can tell, kids are still not learning to write a simple declarative sentence. They are not learning the rules of English grammar. They are not learning multiplication tables. They have only the most rudimentary grasp of history or geography, at least according to most of the polls. They are not learning to use a library or even to do research on the internet beyong the most basic Google or, God help us, Wikipedia search. The enrichment activities, like foreign languages and music and art, have been pared down to allow more focus on academics, but the academics still aren't improving. And all this, by the way, is happening in Montgomery County schools, long fabled (with Fairfax) for their excellence! Where, exactly, are the higher standards?

Posted by: Mel | April 28, 2008 2:24 PM

The pity of this entire so-called "debate on education" is that we do know how to develop a national educational system which is effective in educating our children. We have stacks upon stacks of studies and analyses telling what works and does not work. The problem is that our educational policies are based upon business models and not educational models. It is more efficient -- cheaper -- to write off a portion of the student population than make any attempts to actually educate them. A student's educational opportunities seem to be more a factor of locale and family resources, than most seem willing to admit. American education is so fragmented, micro-managed, and resourced that disparities in schools are commonplace. Students too often seem to be an after-thought, not the reason for why the schools exist.

We know that student-teacher ratios, health screenings for sight/hearing problems, identifying learning modalities, and many other factors are important in educating our children. Yet, it is always money that has the final say. What is truly unfortunate is that so much money has been wasted on the symptoms rather than the actual problems of education. Little wonder that progress is rare and usually only temporary.

The warehousing approach to education favored here in America is efficient, but rarely effective. That the "Two Sigma Problem" remains, well, problematic is enough to convince me that despite all the time, energy, debates, reports, weeping, wailing, and whatever else you can toss in this, student learning is not a true priority. I hesitate to use the word "education" since it seems to have become separate from the learning process.

There is sufficient blame to go around to ensure that no one escapes receiving their deserved portion of it.

As an aside, I was astonished one day to find myself having to use a quadratic equation to resolve a problem I was working on -- as were the other members of my team! We were actually excited about it, all of us having memories of our Algebra II classes.... mine perhaps not as fond as theirs, however.

Posted by: Plato | April 28, 2008 2:42 PM

Our daughter went through the M.C. schools and was tested more than a lab rat. Then, along comes "No Child..." to add more tests on top of that. In an effort to improve her score and please her parents, she took the damn SATs three times (there's a form of torture for you). Someone out west observed "you don't make a hog fat by weighing it every day", but the test mania persists. The tests reflect the lack of confidence, as a society, in what we are doing and the anxiety of parents over whether their kid will be good enough to compete. All we learn are the intimate details of continued failure.

Considered in another light, the courses that are forced down the throats of high school and beginning college students amount to an obstacle course: see if you can get through this, kid, to find something you like.

What is the purpose of the "education system"? Consider the possibility that it is little more than a weeding out process to determine, first, who will be considered for various entry level jobs and, second, who will one day become a professor. The selection of those who will become professors is the ultimate purpose of the whole mess. In short, it is NOT designed to identify, promote and assist winners, but to identify, demote and eliminate losers. If your child, or mine, makes it through successfully (mine did, god bless her, graduating college in three years), then, wooho!, the whole system is just fine and dandy.

Here is da bottom line: if the system were not producing the desired results for the controlling classes in America, those with money, power and influence, it would be ripped apart overnight. As it is, the rest of us who bother to care run about like frightened mice screaming REFORM! REFORM! (What you didn't know mice could scream? No, we run like mice, and we scream, not the mice.)

I am not optimistic. If the perfect solution were found tomorrow, a well meaning group of parents would form an energetic alliance with teachers or supervisors and make certain that the perfect solution could never be tried at their school.

Posted by: | April 28, 2008 2:49 PM


Apparently the "low-down dictionary" was produced by the same people who thing that school is a waste of time. The word presently has always meant "soon." It is a commonly misused word. Does this masterwork have a sub-meaning for "intensive" to mean "all-encompassing" as in "for all intensive purposes?"

Posted by: $0.02 | April 28, 2008 4:41 PM

$0.02, what would it take to convince you that you are wrong? I'm quite serious. How many dictionaries would it take? Do you just simply believe it, kind of like how people believe in creationism, all evidence to be ignored?

Anyway, I'm afraid that, at some point, you became misinformed. "Presently" is also the adverbial form of "present", which means "current". As the adverbial form, therefore, "presently" can mean "currently" or "now". I'm sorry that you don't accept that.

BTW, you are also welcome to look up "presently" in Webster's Unabridged Dictionary and find the same set of definitions -- both your definition of "soon" and the other definition of "now".

Marc, I hope that you, too, look this up in Webster's and then correct it in your column. Frankly, I don't find you being the nitpicky grammar police to be particularly endearing and I doubt many others do either.

Posted by: Ryan | April 28, 2008 7:09 PM

I too struggled at school with reeding and that figuring out stuff and it never harmed me none. Today I'm president of the United States. I'm living proof anyone can do it.

Posted by: George | April 28, 2008 7:19 PM

"three of ten high school students still don't take Algebra II, the most important indicator of whether a kid will end up in college."

OK, so 3 of 10 kids don't take Algebra II and thus don't go to college. So what? That still leaves 70% who do. The economy only needs 25-30% to graduate from college. Unless you're one of those people who want everybody going to college so we can have taxi drivers with masters degrees, I don't see the problem. And to the commenters, Algebra II as I remember it was logarithms, matrices, high order equations, etc. The budgeting and assorted exercises you people are talking about is Algebra I or PreAlgebra.

"The percentage of students who graduate from high school has nudged up only a bit, from 66 percent in 1995 to 70 percent in 2004."
I guess this is a matter of perspective, but I would consider 4% in nine years to be pretty good. Feel free to correct me, but as I recall, the graduation rate in the 1950s was like 50%. So for it to go up 4% in the most recent 9 years, compared with 16% in the 40 years prior is not bad. Consider that as you approach 100% each full point increase is harder to get. Also consider there are a lot more students in our schools today who don't speak english as their primary language. All that said, I still can't figure out why people drop out. Highschool has almost no actual or opportunity costs, so what better use teenagers have for their time is a mystery to me.

As far as a longer school year, though I would have disliked it back in highschool, I completely agree with it now. Maybe tack on an extra quarter (9 weeks) per year and graduate the kids a year earlier, or have the last year be some kind of college prep year where college bound kids stay and everybody else goes to tech school or apprenticeships. I'd like to see it come up for referendum.

Posted by: Bill | April 28, 2008 8:03 PM


First off I've had many taxi drivers who got masters degrees... in the former soviet union. Just ask the older Ethiopians who drive in DC- I had a surgeon drive me once who complained that his medical school back home wasn't recognized here and he was probably going to move to Mexico.

Secondly, I am SO GLAD that people commented with the REAL Bill Gates biography. That guy was the scion of the super-rich who went to the Sidwell Friends of Seattle and people want to act like he's a "college drop-out." Sure, in name only. If I had his FATHER'S millions in the 1970s I'd be wealthier than I am today, let alone the money he made for himself.

Which is not to say that entrepreneurs often drop out of school, they do, but entrepreneurs at that level are often driven by an undefinable talent.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 28, 2008 9:55 PM

To $.02--

The phrase is "all intents and purposes" not "all intensive purposes"...

Posted by: cb | April 29, 2008 12:13 PM

Geez, I better check my style manual regarding "presently", what with all that chatter that has here *transpired*.

Posted by: anon | May 1, 2008 3:14 AM

Many of the people defaulting on homes are Illegal Aliens that should never have been allowed here or to buy homes. Just one more thing Illegal Aliens are doing, alone with Billions in Welfare, 10,s of thousands crime, and destroying our schools, ER rooms, justice system and culture!

Posted by: Jack | May 4, 2008 11:23 AM

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