To the editor:
Your recent editorial on T. C. Williams (“Don’t overlook the good at T.C. Williams,” March 18, 2010) was long on happy talk and short on specifics. Much more useful and informative was a recent article in the Washington Post by Patrick Welsh, a T.C. teacher with 39 years of experience.
While clearly recognizing as we all do that the majority of students at T.C. are good and capable, he identified some serious symptoms of a greater underlying problem: “Lack of consistent discipline,” “kids roaming the halls during classes,” social promotion (“passing kids through the system whether they learned the skills they needed or not”), students who cannot read at grade level, students who cannot add or subtract without a calculator and “better students [who] do not understand fractions.”
As a 10-year tutor at an evening program in Fairfax for “at-risk” elementary school students, I can relate to the last item and say I’ve never met any students in the Fairfax County Public Schools program who cannot add or subtract without a calculator or understand fractions at the sixth grade level. T. C. Williams high school students should certainly perform above that level.
Mr. Welsh also identifies what might be termed root causes of the conditions described above: Opting for appearances, mixing “newly arrived 18- to 20-year-old immigrants in the general student population” instead of adult education classes, failing to separate students according to ability (Why should a 12th grade writing and literature class have someone in it who cannot read at grade level, forcing Mr. Welsh to do remedial reading instruction and detracting from the stated purpose of his class?), and generally avoiding “anything that could resemble ethnic or class-based segregation.”
Even students apparently get this and one was quoted as saying that improvement at T.C. will require “a principal who will … be willing to make unpopular decisions and confront head-on issues involving race, which are really issues of economic class.”
Until we in the community get past the happy talk trivialities of this issue (yes, yes, the “majority” of students are doing well) and start focususing on underlying causes and deal with them appropriately, the situation will not improve. As a school, T.C. Williams will continue to trail its peer group. Simply spending more money on a new physical plant and giving students computers are cosmetic solutions that “opt for appearances” and do not address the root causes. By Mr. Welsh’s account, failing to group and teach students according to their abilities, not their age or ethnic origins, appears to be one of these issues.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Student ability is an element of character and it is past time to apply the judgment he once dreamed of.
J. L. Mac Michael