Writer Jay Mathews examined the nation's elite public schools and found them wanting.Over a three-year period, Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews explored America's elite public schools, perennially well-thought-of and traditionally held above reproach. Not surprisingly, he found challenging classes, stellar students, and top-notch faculties. But as he laments in his new book, Class Struggle: What's Wrong (and Right) With America's Best Public High Schools (Times Books), there is much going on under the surface at these schools to tarnish their sterling-silver veneer. Many of the nation's best schools, he writes, "suffer from the same kind of expectation gap I had encountered in low-achieving schools. . . .Some of our best schools bar enthusiastic students from challenging courses and allow talent to fester in classes that do little more than fill time." Assistant editor David Field spoke with Mathews about his findings.
Q. How did you become interested in writing about the academic climate at the best public schools?
A. I had an idea for a book about an interesting math program at North Dallas High School that had worked well for poor kids. But the teacher who had promoted this program retired and they changed it to something very establishment that didn't work. I discussed this with a friend, Peter Osnos, who was then president of Times Books, and though he wasn't interested in that, he said, "I have an idea. You've got a kid at Scarsdale High. I've got a kid at Greenwich High, and we think those are wonderful schools, and everybody tells us those are wonderful schools, but you and I, if we are honest with ourselves, don't really know what goes on inside those schools, why or how they work." And I instantly saw that this was a very interesting idea. Because of the reputation of these schools, journalists and scholars don't write about them; everybody thinks they're slam dunks and thus uninteresting.
Q. Did you begin the project with any preconceived ideas?
A. I thought at the time that I was going without
preconception into virgin territory, but as I got into it I realized I
had some very strong
preconceptions, colored by my experience writing about Garfield High School [in East Lost Angeles] and Jaime Escalante. I had a very strong feeling that the vast majority of American high school students could be taught at a very high level if their teachers believed they could be taught in that way. I would argue that probably 95 percent of American high school students are capable of doing AP work, at least in one or two courses.
Q. How would you summarize your major findings in the book?
A. I think I make three points, in ascending order of importance. One is that American public high schools have now reached a level, at least for their best students, at which they've never been before, in terms of the quality of teaching, the rigor of the courses, and the worthiness of the lessons. No matter what the international comparisons show, when you look at our best students up against the world's best students, we're really doing very well. Any parent who looks at their kid's AP homework and compares it to their own homework is just blown away.
Number two, in schools that have some ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, and most of them do, very often the kids who are in the middle or lower middle are given courses that sound good and seem to be of high quality, but really aren't. The kids are passed through, kept happy, but not really challenged the way their upper-level peers are.
The last point, and the one that generated the most heat in my own mind, is that most of our best public high schools shortchange even those kids at the very highest levels, those who clearly are college bound and have all kinds of advantages. They do not let these students challenge themselves to the degree that they could. The schools have wonderful courses that they keep these kids out of for very bad reasons. The kids are told they can't take an AP course because they got a C the year before, or because their old teacher did not recommend them, or because they did not get quite enough points on an entrance test. Essentially, they are told that they cannot take an AP course because the faculty is afraid the students will have to listen carefully to everything the AP teacher says and ask questions at the end of class. What a terrible thing for a student to do to a teacher.
Q. In your book, you rank public high schools on what you call the Challenge Index. Explain how this index works and why you based it on AP testing.
A. I was looking for some way to quantify what I was doing, and I wanted some way to rate schools: Which schools were really trying to raise kids up and which weren't? There was no other national standard of rigor--other than the International Baccalaureate, which is too small to be used--that could be applied to most American high schools. All the other candidates are grossly inadequate. The SAT is a vocabulary and arithmetic test of items one might learn in the 7th and 8th grade. The most likely other candidate might be the achievement tests, the SAT IIs, but they aren't directly tied to classes in the way that the AP is. They don't have the strength of the AP test, in which half of the test is conceptual. Nor is there any way of using them to energize kids in a way that many teachers and many schools have done with the AP test. The AP has plenty of flaws, but there really is nothing else. So I came up with this Challenge Index--I was covering Wall Street at the time and had indexes in mind--that re
Q. There are quite a few rankings of schools. Many people argue with the validity and fairness of rankings altogether. Why did you decide to evaluate schools quantitatively rather than simply writing about their strengths and weaknesses?
A. The rankings are the most indefensible part of the project. And I did them for two reasons. One, I thought it would get a lot of attention, which it did. Second, it was a way to dramatize those schools that aren't in great neighborhoods but made my list, to say, "Look, here's a school that doesn't have those advantages, but here it is, doing well"--like Southside in Greenville, South Carolina; Jordan in Durham, North Carolina; Midwood in Brooklyn, New York; North Hollywood in Los Angeles; Wilson High in Washington.
And it was also a way to point out those schools that everybody thought were wonderful but didn't make the list, like Darien High in Connecticut. Sadly, any kind of way to measure schools numerically is going to have its flaws. The most irksome flaw was that after I did this analysis it was clear that there were some schools that had so many strong kids that even though they were behaving horribly--telling dozens of kids each year that they couldn't take AP tests--they were still near the top of the list.
Q. You write in the book about the stratified nature of elite public schools; underachieving students are placed out of honors classes in favor of those whose aspirations are to get into an Ivy League-type college. Why does this occur? What are the motivating factors to shift kids onto a less challenging track?
A. It has to do with the schools' most vocal constituencies. These are communities ruled by college-educated parents who want their kids to go to the same great colleges they did. All their decisions are couched in those terms. The parents of the kids who are shortchanged are not vocal parents--they are working hard, they've got lots of problems in their lives, they didn't go to college themselves. They can be bought off by a fair-to-middling grade in an easy course, as can their kids. There's no incentive for them to worry about.
Q. What must schools do to effectively serve all their students? Is it possible for schools to simultaneously maintain their reputations while improving their quality, or must they redefine how they measure success?
A. Well, you've put your finger on the problem. The schools worry too much about their reputations. As long as a majority of their parents are college graduates and earn healthy incomes, the schools' reputations are secure. Those parents are going to be college-focused, and the schools are going to have a lot of motivated students. The schools wrongly think that if their AP pass rate declines, then colleges will think less of them. College admission directors have no idea, and don't care to know, what the AP pass rate is.
The only time that AP becomes an issue in college admissions is on the margins, when they have one space to fill in the class and they have one student with all A's but no AP courses and another that has all A's except a B and a C in AP courses. Colleges will take the second student every time, because he has stretched himself and taken a chance and is willing to take a risk. But lots of counselors and principals and teachers and parents don't understand that, no matter how many times they hear it. They do not understand how little schools' reputations depend on gatekeeping or pass rates.
The solution is for these schools to follow the examples of La Jolla in California or Stevenson in Lincolnshire, Illinois, or the other schools like Shaker Heights in Ohio that have realized that they can do what Garfield does, which is to get as many kids as possible into these courses and harness peer pressure--have a kid want to take an AP course because his friends are in it. Most American high schools are throwing away the most powerful weapon in their arsenal, which is peer pressure.
Q.Who is most to blame for the problems discussed in Class Struggle? Overbearing parents bent on having their children get into the best colleges? Lazy students and teachers? Administrators with the wrong goals?
A. It's fear of failure on the part of all those people. It's the parent who sees his kid up at 2 a.m. working on an assignment and says, "Oh gosh, that course is too hard" and doesn't think back to his own high school days and realize that it was the courses he took in high school that kept him up until 2 a.m. that he now thinks of most fondly as the ones that really stretched him. It's the teacher or counselor who tells a kid not to take an AP class because he didn't do well in a class he took two years earlier. And it's the kid--though I place the least blame on the kids because they are manipulated in a way the adults are not--who worries that because he wasn't designated gifted in the 8th grade and he got a C in world geography that maybe an AP class would be too hard. But it's the parents and the educators that I think should take most of the blame, and the educators in particular.