WashPost: D.C.'s Brightest HS Grads Face Tough Time at College; Reporter Makes Excuses for Teachers, School System

June 17th, 2013 6:52 PM

High school kids who graduate with flying colors in District of Columbia schools often find that college kicks their butt, the Washington Post's Emma Brown reported in a front-pager today headlined "College-bound D.C. grads pack hopes and fears." "Past valedictorians of low-performing District high schools say their own transitions to college were eye-opening and at times ego-shattering, filled with revelations that -- despite taking their public schools' most difficult classes and acing them -- they were not equipped to excel at the nation's top colleges," Brown lamented.

Yet nowhere in her 45-paragraph story did the Post education reporter -- and former math teacher -- find anyone to blame D.C. public schools teachers and administrators for the failure to properly prepare their students for the academic rigors of college. To the extent that sub-par teaching was fingered for blame, it was explained away by that usual liberal bogeyman: standardized testing (emphasis mine):

District schools officials said they are looking for ways to improve students’ high school experiences. The need for more rigorous academics was one reason the city adopted the national Common Core standards, which demand critical thinking and problem-solving from students starting at a young age, said Melissa Salmanowitz, a schools spokeswoman.

But motivated students said they can get lost in classrooms dominated by disruptive students or students who are years behind and struggling with the basics.

Collier, the 2011 valedictorian at Ballou Senior High in Southeast Washington, said the first thing she noticed when she arrived at Penn State University was how intently her fellow students paid attention during class.


In her first semester at Penn State, Collier took seminars in which professors asked her to synthesize ideas, develop arguments and do original research. It was new to her.

“We had to go into the library all the time and research articles and really, really write,” Collier said. “It was difficult for me because I hadn’t done that in high school. I didn’t have to write a lot. I didn’t really research anything.”

The 2.1 grade-point average she earned that first semester devastated her. She visited writing tutors, talked to librarians and sought out professors during office hours. Now a rising junior, her GPA is 3.38.

“I’m not the type of person to give up,” Collier said.

Matthew Stuart, an AP English teacher at Dunbar, attributed students’ lack of college preparation in part to the city’s focus on annual standardized tests that demand little critical thinking or problem-solving. Many teachers give students simple strategies for tackling basic essay prompts, he said, but teachers don’t have a chance to venture into more difficult and stimulating intellectual terrain until after 10th grade, the final year of standardized testing.

That sounds like an awful bit of excuse-making, particularly since earlier in the piece Brown contrasted the experience of urban high school graduates with those from "high-flying" public schools in wealthier suburbs. Of course, suburban students in Virginia and Maryland also face standardized tests as well.

What's more, "classrooms dominated by disruptive students or students who are years behind and struggling with the basics" is a challenge that is not unique to urban classrooms. Simply put, it is the job of teachers, principals, and local policymakers to provide the disciplinary structure that gets disruptive students out of regular classrooms and into alternative schools.  Sensible policymakers also find ways to select gifted, talented, and motivated students and group them in classes with each other where the curriculum can move along with a faster pace and with more challenging content. Finally, it's the moral responsibility of taxpayers generally parents of schoolchildren particularly to ride herd on politicians and school officials to ensure that they are doing just that.

Kudos to Brown for noting how poorly Washington, D.C.'s public schools prepare kids for college. But if she were to be graded for the assignment, at best she should get an "incomplete."