MAXWELL:  High school hierarchies

4/12/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



What’s Wrong (and Right) with America’s Best Public High Schools

By Jay Mathews

Reviewed by BILL MAXWELL

Pity poor Florida.

The Sunshine State’s public education system rarely finds itself or any of its individual schools on lists of things that are praiseworthy. No one should be surprised, therefore, that no Florida schools are among the nation’s top 10 schools discussed in Jay Mathews’ new book Class Struggle: What’s Wrong (and Right) with America’s Best Public High Schools.

In writing the book, Mathews, the Washington Post’s highly regarded education reporter, created The Challenge Index, a unique way of measuring the nation’s top 230 schools. The index rates each school’s success in enrolling and keeping students in the most academically challenging courses.

These are Mathews’ top 10 picks: Millburn, N.J.; Jericho Senior, N.J.; Richard Montgomery, Rockville, Md.; Brighton, Rochester, N.Y.; Indian Hill, Cincinnati; Scarsdale, N.Y.; Manhasset, N.Y.; Greeley, Chappaqua, N.Y.; North Hollywood, Calif.; Gunn, Palo Alto, Calif.

The Challenge Index is based on a numerical model, calculated by dividing the number of Advanced Placement tests administered in schools in 1996 by the number of graduating seniors. Mathews included all American schools with more than 200 graduates who scored an index of 1.000 or higher, and all of the smaller schools he could find that fit this standard. Nationally, nearly 12,000 schools have AP programs, in which students can earn college credit.

One of the book’s most interesting, but not surprising, findings is that the best schools are clustered in certain regions of the nation, such as New York’s downstate suburbs and Southern California. The reason: good jobs, personal wealth, a strong property tax base, highly educated parents, mostly white students.

But these blessings harbor the very source of what ails our best schools, Mathews argues. While these schools have rigorous curricula and many of the country’s best instructors, they tend to be too stingy in the number of students permitted to take AP courses. In other words, these campuses reek of elitism, limiting the advanced courses to the brightest students and shunting others into less-demanding courses.

Mathews points out, furthermore, that, although teachers and principals want all students to be intellectually superior, the majority are of average intelligence and, therefore, are not sufficiently challenged in public schools, especially on the best campuses that have AP programs.

An ugly truth, Mathews says, is that requiring students to take difficult courses creates additional work for student and teacher. “It’s much more difficult to teach if you’ve got kids who are struggling,” he said. Even schools viewed as superior often adopt “the notion that it is better to make the kid comfortable than risk failure.”

The book’s central indictment _ and, hence, its title _ is that, like the rest of the nation, our top schools are highly class-conscious. “As wary of class distinctions as Americans are, their public schools still operate on the principle that the book smart and the street smart should not be given the same chance to learn,” he writes.

“This two-track system might make political sense in schools with sharp differences in family background and achievement, but its use in suburban schools where there are no socioeconomic differences appears to stem not from sound educational research, but from the ancient need to see ourselves as better than others.”

Beyond the numbers for The Challenge Index, Mathews offers few other hard facts to support his arguments. His anecdotes are telling, but they are still anecdotes. Many principles have reacted negatively to advance copies of the book and, during the coming months, will be trying to rebut many of Mathews’ claims.

Still, Class Struggle is worthwhile reading. While it points out the strengths of AP programs, it is a sober warning that we are letting our best schools adopt some of our ugliest national habits and traits. Instead of restricting who can take certain courses, our schools should be doing all they can to include as many students as possible.

Bill Maxwell is a Times staff writer.