Senior Columnist EdNews.org
Eastern New Mexico University
Jay Mathews is Washington Post Education Reporter, and as such has his fingers on the pulse of what is going on in Washington in terms of education. He is an immensely popular reporter who has a variety of columns on various topics and his work is read nationwide. In this interview, he has been kind enough to share his thoughts about the current status of education in America from his viewpoint in Washington, D.C.
1) First of all, how did you first get started in journalism?
In college. I went out for the Harvard Crimson my sophomore year because I wanted to go to China and figured journalism might get me there. I didn't like Harvard much, too cold and preppy for me, a kid from a California public school whose dad was a technical editor and his mom a teacher.
But I loved the Crimson! It became my home, I rarely left that building, wrote and edited a lot, learned my craft from smart kids one or two years older, and married the managing editor the day I graduated. I did become the Post's first bureau chief in Beijing in 1982, fulfilling my dream.
2) Secondly, when did you start at the Washington Post?
June 13, 1971. The day the Times published the Pentagon Papers. Everyone in the newsroom seemed very unhappy. I thought there was something wrong with me until I saw the front page of the Times.
3) Humorously, how do you get along with your boss and fellow co-workers?
I am now 62, and have been here 36 years, longer than all but one or two other reporters. I know where all the bodies are buried. I know my editors' first wives. I am a very genial person, I think. I call myself Uncle Jay, and am treated in that way. The young reporters pat me on the head and ask me if I have taken my pills today. But among my top editors there is that undercurrent of respect, and fear, which I encourage. I pretty much get to do what I want, which is nice. Uncle Jay doesn't need any unnecessary stress.
4) Seriously, what got you interested in education?
I can give you the day, Dec. 7, 1982. I had seen a weird story in the LA Times about several students at Garfield High in East LA, a very low-income inner city school, taking and passing the AP Calculus exam, being accused of cheating on it, and taking it again and passing again.
(Six years later this incident inspired the film, Stand and Deliver.)
I could not understand how kids from very poor Mexican American families could be passing the most difficult exam in American high schools. I spend five years hanging around the school, wrote a book about the school and the AP teacher, Jaime Escalante, and realized this was a huge uncovered story---the potential of low income kids to succeed academically if given more time and encouragement.
I resolved to cover that story the rest of my life, and that is what I have been doing, including hundreds of stories and three books on that subject, with one more on the way.
5) In your mind, what are the good things in education, and the bad aspects?
We have the most free-wheeling and accessible education system in the world. Other countries admire the creativity of our teachers, and how they pass on this habit of critical thinking to students. Most of our schools are pretty good. The bad aspect is the very low standards of teaching and learning in our inner city and rural neighborhoods, at schools like Garfield.
6) When parents write to you, what seems to be their biggest complaint or concern?
Usually they seek my advice about where the best schools are in their area, since until US News started their list this month, I was the only person in the country regularly ranking high schools, and trying to do some of the same with middle and elementary schools. Their biggest complaint is that school officials do not take their complaints seriously.
7) What do you see as the top ten concerns in education? What are the biggest concerns in the Washington Circle?
My concerns or Washington's? I will go with mine:
1. Low standards and expectations in low-income schools.
2. Very inadequate teacher training in our education schools.
3. Failure to challenge average students in nearly all high
schools with AP and IB courses.
4. Corrupt and change-adverse bureaucracies in big city districts.
5. A tendency to judge schools by how many low income kids they
have, the more there are the worse the school in the public
6. A widespread feeling on the part of teachers, because of their
inherent humanity, that it is wrong to put a child in a
challenging situation where they may fail, when that risk of
failure is just what they need to learn and grow.
7. The widespread belief among middle class parents that their
child must get into a well known college or they won't be as
successful in life.
8. A failure to realize that inner city and rural schools need to
give students more time to learn, and should have longer school
days and school years.
9. A failure to realize that the best schools--like the KIPP
charter schools in the inner cities---are small and run by
well-recruited and trained principals who have the power to
hire all their teachers, and quickly fire the ones that do not
10. The resistance to the expansion of charter schools in most
school district offices.
8) What is your view on No Child Left Behind? What is the general parental reaction?
I think it is a mess, but that is to be expected because it was designed by a democratic legislature. Despite being a mess, it has pushed us in the right direction toward better teaching for low income kids, and is better than what we had before. There is no general parental reaction.
Most parents don't get it, but if asked, they like the fact that it makes schools report their academic achievements and forces them to rethink their methods if they are not doing well.
9) What question have I neglected to ask?
You covered everything. My title is Washington Post education reporter and columnist. And I would be happy for you to plug my book on KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, coming out next year.
Published December 17, 2007
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