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Stephanie Mencimer’s article on D.C. public schools (“Class Dismissed,” 1/10), while generally interesting at the beginning (the problems that occur when people who really care about schools move in and crappy schools are forced to confront their crappiness—always an interesting topic and one with all sorts of solutions, none of them attractive to everyone), gets dicey when she attempts to come up with solutions. Magnet schools? Come on! Of course magnet schools themselves are successful—it’s what happens to the other schools that ought to be the measure of a city’s success in public education.
The “high-achieving junior highs and high schools” that Mencimer is hoping for suck money and talent from other schools and create a two-tiered system where even impressive performance at the nonselective schools is meaningless and counterproductive. While I suppose theoretically it makes more sense for one’s school to be based on qualitative admissions criteria rather than just location, eventually it’s all just the same thing. (SAT scores are loosely correlated to income, etc.) The Stuyvesant example, in which Mencimer places such faith, ignores the fact that most kids who go to Stuyvesant already live on the Upper East Side.
The best solution would be to find a way to educate the underperforming students so as to encourage effort and initiative. One of the biggest problems that America’s public schools have is that there is no way to encourage those who are not college-bound to actually try to learn. Europe does a much better job with this, in that European countries place great resources in training programs at their high schools for the non-college-bound. I’m aware that on a certain level eventually we’re talking about the Marriott plan—and an earlier Washington City Paper cover story (“Are You Being Served?” 5/17/02) demonstrated the failure of that particular program—but, at any rate, the issue is far more complicated than Mencimer would have us believe.