by Deb Aronson
Education reporter Jay Mathews didn’t consider himself much of a writer in high school. It wasn’t until he got into college that he developed the interest and skills that would lead to him becoming a journalist.
“I decided, if I wanted to go to China—and that was my dream—that maybe I could go as a journalist,” he said. “So I went out for the college newspaper and I discovered the magic of seeing my name in print.”
That magic sparked Mathews’s long and successful career as a journalist, writing about disability rights, China, financial markets, and, now, education. A reporter with The Washington Post for 34 years, Mathews also has written six books, including four on education (Escalante: The Best Teacher in America; Class Struggle: What’s Wrong (and Right) with America’s Best Public High Schools; Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That’s Best for You; and Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools). He also writes a regular education column called “Class Struggle.” Mathews’s books on education delve into the complexities of teaching, such as how teachers balance the competing demands of the bureaucracy and the demands of motivating and inspiring students. His clear, concise, and often funny columns frequently debunk myths or help readers keep their perspective, as in his column titled “Seven Reasons NOT to Fear the New SAT” (The Washington Post, January 18, 2005) and “Six Surprises from Challenging High Schools” (The Washington Post, December 7, 2004).
Mathews is not afraid to come right out and say what he thinks is right and wrong about education. And his readers let him know if he’s on track or not.
“I hear a lot from teachers, who either tell me ‘thank you for telling that story’ or ‘your analysis is terrible.’ If you make a mistake in a story about politicians they’ll cut you off, but a teacher will take your call and treat you like a kid she just gave a ‘D’ to, telling me what things I did wrong.”
Mathews’s interest in education was triggered the day he walked into the classroom of Jaime Escalante, a math teacher in East Los Angeles, a community of primarily working class and poor Hispanics. In 1982 Escalante was in the news because his students had been accused of cheating on the AP Calculus test. (All but two of the students agreed to take the test a second time, with just a weekend to prepare, with no textbook. Every student passed.) But Mathews was less interested in the charges and more interested in how Esca-lante had gotten that many poor, struggling students interested in calculus in the first place.
“Jaime triggered my interest in education,” he says. “He had infected his school in the movement of teaching inner-city kids advanced placement. Everyone said they were nuts, that kids from those backgrounds just couldn’t handle that high level of learning. He showed absolutely that kids from those backgrounds could do very difficult work if you gave them encouragement and you gave them extra time and you created a team spirit so they were really into it and cooperated with each other. And that’s really the first message: that we can make our schools more challenging, because they need it and our kids can take it if we have the good sense to see that.”
Mathews eventually realized that Escalante was using the AP test as a great motivator: the academic equivalent of the big football game against their rival, the more affluent school across town, Roosevelt High School. It was not the kids versus the teacher, in that way, but the kids and the teacher against the test, which was the rival.
“It’s a much healthier classroom atmosphere, and if the test is so good it produces a very high standard, then the test has an authority and an authenticity which kids appreciate and they’re willing to study for,” says Mathews. “Good tests . . . inspire great teaching.”
Mathews, influenced by this experience, argues that AP classes should be open to everyone who is willing to work hard, regardless of their perceived level of achievement or intelligence. The goal of the AP class, says Mathews, should be to expose as many students as possible to the rigors of a college-level class in the relative cocoon of their high school, where they get more attention and support than in college.
Yet, Mathews has found that many elite high schools limit their AP classes to only the best students. Some even require an entrance exam to take the class. In an effort to encourage and measure instead the number of schools giving the AP opportunity to as many students as possible, Mathews created what he called “The Challenge Index.” This measures the total number of AP tests given, divided by the number of seniors graduating. The higher the number, the more open that school’s AP program is.
Having spent many years talking with teachers and students, Mathews has a few thoughts of his own about education in general, and English in particular.
“In my experience, the vast majority of English teachers are really good people who love to read and love to write and want to transmit to students their love of reading and writing,” says Mathews.
One way Mathews has seen English teachers inspire and motivate their students is to have them write things for publication. Certainly, there is a place for book reports and literary analysis in English class, says Mathews, but having their work published has “a narcotic effect on kids; it gets them really excited.” Mathews himself helps in this effort by helping budding journalism students once a week in an English class at Spingarn High School in Washington, D.C. This is a Washington Post supported program in the D.C. area, but one that can be emulated in other communities.
One of Mathews’s biggest concerns is that we don’t challenge high school students enough; especially those from poor or otherwise disadvantaged homes. We tend to hear about how hard school is, he says, but in reality the vast majority of high school students are not adequately challenged.
Mathews points to the annual UCLA freshman survey, which asks all incoming freshmen how much homework they had in high school. The average was a mere one hour or less per night. And, he notes, these are the college-bound students.
“It’s important to stop listening to parents like me whose kids attend these really precious private schools or schools in really expensive neighborhoods, where the theme is always that we’re stressing out our kids too much,” says Mathews. “There are too many AP courses, they’re staying up until 2 a.m. doing homework. That’s a complaint we hear a lot at the paper because a lot of newspaper reporters like me live in neighborhoods like that and [our] kids go to schools like that, but it’s completely distorting the actual situation in high schools.”
Mathews has no plans to slow down. He’s currently at work on another book, this one about the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools. He says he’ll continue to debunk myths, poke fun at, and praise the education system and all its constituents until there’s nothing left to fix.
Deb Aronson is a freelance writer based in Urbana, Illinois.
Jay Mathews to Speak at NCTE’s Annual Convention
Jay Mathews will present during NCTE’s Annual Convention at the College Section/CCCC Luncheon. For more information about the Convention, visit http://www.ncte.org/profdev/conv/annual.