Are high schools failing kids by not teaching them critical thinking skills? At least one Georgetown University freshman says so. A star student in high school, he says he’s behind many of his college peers when it comes to analyzing information. Some critics agree, and say most high schools nationwide fail to adequately prepare graduates for success in college. We look at solutions, including one local school system that’s introducing Common Core standards.


  • Ikechukwu Umez-Eronini Sophomore, George Washington University; graduate, McKinley Technology High School, District of Columbia Public Schools
  • Dan Gordon Deputy Chief of Academic Programming and Support, Office of the Chief Academic Officer, District of Columbia Public Schools
  • Thomas Nida Former Chair, D.C. Public Charter School Board; and Regional President for DC and Maryland at United Bank(Original description)


  • 12:06:45

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, inside the lives and the minds of Somali pirates, but first, are today's high schools failing kids by not teaching them how to think critically? At least one Georgetown University freshman says so. A star student since elementary school, Darryl Robinson will soon complete his freshman year.

  • 12:07:20

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut it wasn't until he attended college classes and met kids from around the country that he found a gap between him and his peers. Many know how to think critically and analyze information, and he does not. These are skills critical to each college student. One must master them in order to compete and succeed in college. But Darryl's experience doesn't really seem all that unique.

  • 12:07:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAcross the country, parents, teachers, school systems and communities are worrying. It seems many have identified a problem, that few educational systems today demand high school graduates be critical thinkers. How bad is the problem? Is it new, or has it always existed? And how does one local school system say it's battling the problem? Joining us in studio is Dan Gordon.

  • 12:08:05

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe is the deputy chief of academic programming and support in the Office of the Chief Academic Officer for DCPS, the District of Columbia Public Schools. Dan Gordon, thank you very much for joining us. The reason why we know this much about Darryl Robinson is because, well, he told us in an op-ed piece he did in The Washington Post that ran this past Sunday. What was your immediate and long-term response to it? By the way, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:30

    MR. DAN GORDONThank you for having us. Immediate response was just how true it felt. I was a teacher in the District, and I've been working in the central administration. And, you know, Darryl's experiences resonates very widely. I think what's actually unusual about his experience are some of the positive things in the story. The struggles and the gap that he experienced between high school and college, I think, is very true and universal.

  • 12:08:55

    MR. DAN GORDONAnd it's certainly a challenge in D.C. but in other places. What's usual is that he went -- he's at a school that offers a tremendous amount of resources for struggling students. Secondly, he took advantage of those resources, which is something that lots of students don't know how to do when they get to college. And then, third, in the span of one year, he'd made great progress, right? And sort of as you read through the story, he talks about having some real success academically at the end of the year.

  • 12:09:17

    MR. DAN GORDONAnd so he persisted. And the sort of concern I have about the story is he seems like he's on the right track, right? And he's going to end up doing just great and -- but that for so many of our students, they either don't have the access to the resources, they don't know how to access them, or they don't actually close that gap and fail to persist in college. But it's absolutely -- it resonates and really strikes a chord with us.

  • 12:09:41

    NNAMDII would also think that the concern that an individual in your position might have about the story is that, in the eyes of some, it reflects badly on D.C. Public Schools in general or I should say on instruction in D.C. Public Schools in particular.

  • 12:09:58

    GORDONAbsolutely. You know, there's -- Darryl attended a -- I believe, he attended D.C. public charter schools, but the -- but his experience could have easily been any of our students. I think there are a couple things, you know, one is about what are you asking students to do? Are you putting, you know, complex challenging text in front of them? Are you asking them questions that are worth asking?

  • 12:10:22

    GORDONBut then the other is what are you expecting of them when they respond? So it's that interaction between the teacher and the student and what kind of expectations the teacher places. Are you going to take an answer that isn't quite right, isn't quite accurate, isn't quite push to the next level and just move on to the next student? Or are you going to stop and push the student, ask for something deeper?

  • 12:10:41

    GORDONWhen they turn in a paper, are you going to just give a low grade to something, or are you going to say to the student, you know, I know you can do better and here's what you need to do to improve and push? And I think it's when we get to that interaction and we make sure that we're all -- all the adults in our system in and out of the District are holding students to a really high level of expectations, the students will rise to that level and then be better prepared than they currently are.

  • 12:11:05

    NNAMDIWell, let me cut to the chase in a way because I noticed that earlier you said some of the problems that Darryl -- his experiences are and is experiencing are universal. That's one response. Another response from people who read that piece is, see, this is a predominantly black school system in an inner-city or in a major city, and it's providing a substandard education. Which one of those two narratives is true, the universal narrative or the one that I just said?

  • 12:11:35

    GORDONThey're both are true. It is certainly a result -- I'll speak for myself. I, you know, when I went to -- from a public high school in Florida to a competitive college that I attended, there was a big gap. And I noticed the students who were coming from private schools had read more and been asked to do more. You know, and I managed to close that gap. But we certainly -- you know, students in D.C. have a lot of other challenges.

  • 12:12:00

    GORDONAnd, you know, for a long time, we failed to prepare them adequately. I'm really excited about the things that we have in place now moving forward to try and address this precise problem.

  • 12:12:09

    NNAMDIGoing to talk about that in a second, but I'd like to invite your comments. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. Did you read the op-ed piece by Darryl Robinson on Sunday? If not, you can find it at our website, We have a link there. If you have questions or comments, call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website,, and join the conversation there.

  • 12:12:42

    NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is Ikechukwu Umez-Eronini, who is -- who grew up in the District. He attended D.C. public schools. He graduated from McKinley Tech. He is now a sophomore at George Washington University. Ikechukwu, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:12:58

    MR. IKECHUKWU UMEZ-ERONINIThank you for having me, Kojo. Appreciate it.

  • 12:13:00

    NNAMDITell us, what was your own experience at George Washington University during the course of your freshman year...

  • 12:13:08

    UMEZ-ERONINISee, I also...

  • 12:13:08

    NNAMDI...and also your reaction to reading Darryl Robinson's piece?

  • 12:13:12

    UMEZ-ERONINITo be honest, Kojo, I actually felt, you know, really prepared based on my education. And, actually, I was kind of surprised that, you know, Darryl really felt that way coming into college.

  • 12:13:22

    UMEZ-ERONINIOne of the things that my teachers at McKinley, like, showed to me was that it was really important that, you know, not only do I make my own strides to look after my own education but also got me involved in extracurricular activities like debate, like speech events that kind of showed me how to think critically and kind of went outside the curriculum in order to give me the skills that I needed to be successful in college.

  • 12:13:43

    NNAMDIAnd how about your reaction to the piece when you first read it because it would appear that one of Darryl's major problems that he identified was what you just mentioned which is not being able to think critically?

  • 12:13:54

    UMEZ-ERONINIRight. I mean, to be honest, I don't want to disparage Darryl any, but I don't think the classroom is necessarily the place where you would even first receive the skills to think critically. I think, you know, going through life, having to learn how to solve complex problems as a teenager, as an adult, that's kind of where you get your critical thinking skills. And then it's kind of up to your educational system to kind of show you how to apply those things in the classroom environment.

  • 12:14:21

    UMEZ-ERONINIAnd then, honestly, I mean, I was kind of -- I was really shocked because while I understand, you know, a lot of the issues in the D.C. Public School system that do exist, I've never found it, you know, one of the problems to be that I wasn't given, let's say, a sophisticated toolbox. It might have been how deeply or in what way that toolbox was supplied. But one thing I made sure was I never was satisfied with what people, you know, just wanted to give me.

  • 12:14:49

    UMEZ-ERONINII wanted -- you know, everyone around me was educating me back in DCPS to know that I had these ambitions, and I wanted them to do the best for me possible.

  • 12:14:56

    NNAMDIWe did send an email to Darryl Robinson, inviting him to join the conversation. He hadn't responded to us yet. Of course, this is a very busy time of year if you're a freshman...

  • 12:15:05


  • 12:15:05 college, but I got the impression that he was somewhat traumatized by the initial experience. Did you -- Ikechukwu, did you experience any similar trauma at all during your freshman year?

  • 12:15:17

    UMEZ-ERONINII would say the most shocking thing, you know, coming from D.C. was just how radically different the demographic was coming to college at George Washington. But once you got...

  • 12:15:26

    NNAMDIHey, my kids came out of D.C. public schools and went to Howard, and they were shocked about how different the demographic was. But go ahead.

  • 12:15:33

    UMEZ-ERONINIRight. Exactly, exactly. You know, it's just a very different type of student, very different type of person that you run into college. And I was lucky enough that I had a lot of experience just traveling on the debate team, on the soccer team that I had run into this type of person before. So I kind of wasn't surprised about the big world outside of Washington, D.C. when I ran into it.

  • 12:15:52

    UMEZ-ERONINIAnd, I mean, if I'm able to project a little bit about what Darryl is going through, what (unintelligible) just another year of experience in college, it isn't so much that school didn't prepare you, you know, I think tools-wise. It might not have prepared you for kind of like the culture shock that occurred to me coming to college in that in DCPS, a lot of times, unfortunately, you can get away with not fully following the instructions.

  • 12:16:15

    UMEZ-ERONINIBut sometimes it takes that first D minus, that first bad grade for you to realize, like, whoa, I mean, to make sure that I do what's necessary to be successful in these courses that I'm taking.

  • 12:16:26

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here's Jesse in Arlington, Va. Jesse, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:16:32

    JESSEThank you for taking my call. I'm a retired high school teacher from Northern Virginia. I taught at a pretty prestigious high school. And I -- in my experience, I taught an intensified freshman class world history, for example, which was heavy loaded with, you know, upper-middle class sorts of Anglo kids and a fair number of immigrant students. And what I read in Darryl's piece just -- it just didn't ring true to me.

  • 12:17:02

    JESSEI mean, he says that he went to the most prestigious of the charter schools. Apparently, he was in high school during -- in a part of the Rhee years. And I know that critical thinking curriculum, inquiry teaching, cooperative teaching has been the norm, at least in the years that I taught. And it just -- I find it just odd to think that he felt so certain that his teaching -- his learning experience was so rote and so lacking in critical thinking experiences. I -- it just doesn't ring true. Now...

  • 12:17:41

    NNAMDIWell, I think we have to assume two things, one, that the story was fact-checked and, two, that Darryl was speaking from his heart and therefore speaking the truth. So I don't want to start on the assumption that there was any one iota of that article that Darryl Robinson wrote that was not true.

  • 12:18:00

    JESSENo. No, I'm not suggesting that anything, you know, about misleading -- I'm only just saying that I think maybe -- I think he's probably experiencing a great shock. But I'm in contact with former -- with lots of my former students who went to Ivy League universities. And it seems like, at every level, it's a shock. You know, kids who might be...

  • 12:18:26

    NNAMDIAllow me to have Dan Gordon weigh in on that. Dan.

  • 12:18:28

    GORDONYeah. I mean, I -- whether it was Darryl Robinson or any other number of students in D.C., I really think his experience does ring true. Let me just talk, Kojo, one thing -- there was a study that looked at the difficulty of texts that are -- the complexity of texts that are asked of students to read at different levels, including higher ed.

  • 12:18:48

    GORDONAnd one study said that the difference between 11th and 12th grade texts that we're asking students to read and what's expected at college is a greater change, a greater gap, greater level of complexity than the difference between fourth grade and eighth grade. And it's this -- it's not just one step that students are being asked to take traditionally from high school to college. It's a giant leap. And what we're...

  • 12:19:11

    NNAMDIIt's my understanding that as a result of that, you were kind of surprised -- I may even say horrified to find that D.C. public schools is only teaching to the 16th percentile of the SATs.

  • 12:19:23

    GORDONWell, let me explain that a little bit. So, yes, we looked at how students do on the DC CAS, which is our state end-of-the-year assessment and how that correlates, how that relates to their performance on the SAT. And if you're a student who -- this is a couple of years ago, but it's fairly accurate. If you're a student who just crosses over from basic to proficient -- you're just at that threshold -- those students tend to have an SAT score that is in the 16th percentile.

  • 12:19:50

    GORDONSo you can be considered proficient in the DC CAS and have a -- the chances of having an SAT score that's pretty low. And then if you get to the threshold difference between proficient and advanced, you're up at the 51st percentile in SAT. So it's more accurate to say if you're proficient on the CAS in the past, you would get somewhere the 16th and the 51st percentile. It's not good enough. And this is a good time to bring up sort of the key change in D.C. and in the country about this topic, is the Common Core State Standards.

  • 12:20:20


  • 12:20:20

    GORDONIn the past...

  • 12:20:22

    NNAMDID.C. is in the process of introducing the Common Core.

  • 12:20:24

    GORDONYes. So we've adopted them. The State Board of Education adopted them, and this year, DCPS implemented the entire kindergarten through 12th grade new standards in English -- language arts, as well as the kindergarten first and second grade math standards. And next year, we'll finish the math roll out and have the new math standards in grades three through 12. And the key difference in the -- I'm a former English teacher, so I'll just -- I'll speak to the English standards.

  • 12:20:45

    GORDONThe key difference is that when they created these standards -- and I should say that these standards have been adopted by, I think, 46 or 48 states. It's a huge C change in education that we're finally going to be able to look across states and compare apples to apples in terms of student achievement and expectations. But what they did to create these standards is they started at college and career readiness.

  • 12:21:07

    GORDONThey talked to institutions of higher learning. They talked to the industries and said, what are the knowledge and what are the skills that students need to succeed after high school? And then, from there, they built a staircase from that level one step at a time on each grade level down to the early grades. And so this leap that I talked about before in terms of being OK in the high school, but then not being, you know, having to take a real leap to college has been reduced to just one step on a staircase.

  • 12:21:29

    GORDONAnd that's part of raising expectation. So now with these new Common Core Standards, if we're teaching to those standards and we're making sure that at each level, the kids are mastering the skills and gaining the knowledge that they need, we should have much more confidence that the Darryl Robinsons of the world will have just one step to take when they get to Georgetown instead of that big leap.

  • 12:21:47

    NNAMDIAnd, Jesse, thank you very much for your call. We move on to John in Chantilly, Va. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, John, are you there? John? Come in, John. John, I'm going to put you on hold while we talk to Nahanda (sp?) in Reston, Va. Nahanda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:22:09

    NAHANDAYes, hi. Thank you for taking my call. I have two-pronged comment actually about critical thinking. I think that it is not very smart on our part to expect our students to possess critical thinking skills when our teachers, with all due respect to the hundreds or thousands of wonderful teachers that we do have out there, I would say that we also have several who possibly lack those critical thinking skills themselves.

  • 12:22:42

    NNAMDIWhy do you say that?

  • 12:22:44

    NAHANDAI say that because having actually taught children -- I won't say I wasn't a teacher, but I do teach an after-school program. I talk to children about their, you know, what they learn in school and so on. And I see that it's not that children are not capable of catching on quickly, or grasping what is presented to them in an appropriate way. It is more that it was never presented to them.

  • 12:23:17

    NNAMDIAllow me to have Dan Gordon comment on that because while I do respect Nahanda's after-school experience, I do think we have a tendency to universalize our experiences, that if one group of kids complain about something, we universalize it and say, well, teachers can't think critically.

  • 12:23:34

    GORDONThanks, Kojo. I -- it's a good point to focus on the teacher in a lot of ways because I agree that students are capable of great things. But we need adults who are asking them to do great things. You know, the centerpiece of our reform in DCPS has been around, you know, trying to make sure that we have an outstanding teacher in every classroom, an outstanding principal in every building. And it really does matter who the teacher is in front of you. And the more that teachers have mastery of their content, the better teachers they're going to be.

  • 12:24:02

    NNAMDIIkechukwu, I'd like to ask you how important were your teachers to you in your education in D.C. Public Schools?

  • 12:24:08

    UMEZ-ERONINIOh, my teachers were radically important. I was blessed to have the opportunity of running through a great slate of teachers, especially my history teachers. They are the ones who really kind of pushed my boundaries, got me kind of outside the classroom and showed me a whole bunch of great experiences that served me well moving forward in my future. So, I mean, yes, the teacher, you know, one of the most important stakeholders in your educational expense and what you get out of it.

  • 12:24:34

    NNAMDIOK. Ikechukwu Umez-Eronini is a -- attended D.C. Public Schools, and he graduated from McKinley Tech. He's now a sophomore at George Washington University. Ikechukwu, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:24:47

    UMEZ-ERONINIThank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

  • 12:24:49

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones again, here now is Linda in Washington, D.C. Linda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:24:57

    LINDAHi. Thank you so much for taking my call. I am a mother of two daughters, one graduated from a very well-respected D.C. public school. The other one attends a very well-respected private school in Washington, D.C. And I remember when my daughter who graduated from high school first began college and...

  • 12:25:22

    NNAMDIPublic school or private school? Which one?

  • 12:25:24

    LINDAThe one who attended public school.

  • 12:25:26


  • 12:25:27

    LINDAShe called me after her second week at the university where she was attending, which is a very good university, and she said, Mom, I was just assigned to write a paper. I have never written a paper before. And at -- you know, while she was going through high school, I didn't even -- I wasn't really paying that much attention to, you know, whether or not she had written papers.

  • 12:25:49

    LINDAAnd I just thought, oh, my God, I cannot believe this kid has never written a paper. And, of course, she got through it, and she had tutors. And she has successfully completed that university. And now she's very successful and everything is great. But to the second child who is in private school, she has been writing papers since sixth grade. I think that -- she's still in high school, but I think that she's written over 100 very substantive, thoughtful papers. And it's just, you know, and I think about these two kids how in, you know, in reality, they...

  • 12:26:24

    NNAMDIYeah, but you're generalizing here. Your kid, I presume, is going to a good private school.

  • 12:26:29


  • 12:26:30

    NNAMDIAnd the generalization tends to be, well, therefore, all private schools are good.

  • 12:26:35

    LINDAOh, no, no, no, no, no. I'm not at all. And the one who went to public school is -- had an extraordinary education in many other ways. My only point is that in terms of critical thinking, which was the...

  • 12:26:49


  • 12:26:49

    LINDA...subject of this discussion, that it was -- and just as an (word?) of great proponent of public schools. But I thought that that was very lacking in her experience.

  • 12:27:02


  • 12:27:03

    LINDAThe one who's going to private school has not had many experiences that the other one had, which were very positive. So, I mean, both have good and bad, but in terms of critical thinking, I was just, you know, wanting to make the point that the one who went to public school had never written a paper.

  • 12:27:20

    NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for your call. We're running out of time very quickly, and I know that Tom Nida is on the phone. Tom Nida served for many years as chair of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. His current day job is he's regional president for D.C. and Maryland at United Bank.

  • 12:27:34

    NNAMDIBut, Tom Nida, I wanted to talk to you just a little bit because the charter schools are a part of DC Public Schools, so to speak, yet people do make a distinction between one and the other, and Darryl Robinson attended charter schools in the District of Colombia. What did his op-ed piece say to you?

  • 12:27:53

    MR. THOMAS NIDAWell, I think, Kojo, that, you know, it spoke to his individual experience. I think that if you hold parents of recent high school graduates, who either went on to college or went into the workforce, they'd probably all tell you that their kids have more happening than they had expected, that they maybe weren't as successful as they'd hoped to be.

  • 12:28:15

    MR. THOMAS NIDAI looked at the article when it appeared Sunday, and I was wondering as I read it how many other, you know, freshman at Georgetown, you know, had either already dropped out or were having some real struggles that, you know, I think was just kind of difficult making that jump from high school, whether it's private, public, charter, whatever, into college. You know, I think we just don't do enough to prepare our high school students to go to college or into the workforce, and I'm not sure we do that much for preparing our college graduates to go into the real world either.

  • 12:28:47

    NNAMDIYou know, I can't help but remembering Coach John Thompson, the first John Thompson Jr. at Georgetown University making the argument that it's not how kids do when they come in, but whether or not they make it all the way through. And when his star basketball player Patrick Ewing, who had a learning disability in high school, was identified in high school, came in, it was thought that he wouldn't be able to make it.

  • 12:29:10

    NNAMDIBut he graduated from Georgetown University, the same school that Darryl Robinson is now attending and having difficulty with, which says to me, Dan Gordon, that there can be additional preparation and that, I guess, is what D.C. schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson is trying to put into place, I was reading in today's newspaper.

  • 12:29:28

    NIDAI think it's a matter of just, you know, aligning the expectations with the reality of the situation that each of these graduates will face and just making them better prepared across the board whether they're going on to college or they're going in to the military or otherwise into the workforce.

  • 12:29:44

    NNAMDIDan Gordon, talk a little bit about what we'll be doing in D.C. Public Schools.

  • 12:29:47

    GORDONThanks. Yesterday, we were excited that the mayor and Chancellor Henderson announced the launch of a new five-year plan for D.C. Public Schools called A Capital Commitment. And in that plan, the chancellor set out five very ambitious goals for the system in terms of increasing student's academic success and one that's sort of most relevant, too, that's really relevant to this.

  • 12:30:11

    GORDONOne is within five years, we want to make sure that at least -- we want every student to be proficient or every student to be advanced. But from where we are to where we can be, we're going to have to set a very ambitious goal to get to at least 70 percent of our students being proficient and doubling the number of advanced students. And the more we can do that, the closer they're going to be ready for that next step.

  • 12:30:30

    GORDONWe're also making sure that this is not limited just to some schools that are high performing, but the lowest 40 -- the lowest performing 40 schools in the District will increase their proficiency by 40 points. And then, third, there's a new way of calculating graduation rates in the country and starting in D.C., and it basically looks at the incoming ninth grade class and says how many -- what percent of them graduate four years later on time. And we're currently at -- in DCPS, we're on 53 percent.

  • 12:30:56

    GORDONAnd in five years, we want to be at, at least, 75 percent. And I mentioned the graduation rate because it's an end of high school thing, but we want to make sure that it's -- that diploma means something. It's not just becoming a diploma issuing factory, right? You got kids through with Ds. We want to really focus on, are you mastering the material? Do you have the knowledge and skills that you need to succeed? And we're really committed to making that happen.

  • 12:31:18

    NNAMDIAfraid we're out of time, Dan Gordon. Good luck to you.

  • 12:31:20

    GORDONThank you very much.

  • 12:31:20

    NNAMDIDan Gordon is the deputy chief of academic programming and support for the District of Columbia Public Schools. Tom Nida, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:31:28

    NIDAThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:31:29

    NNAMDITom Nida served for many years as chair of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. And good luck to Darryl Robinson. He seems to have found his footing and got his confidence. And good luck to our guest Ikechukwu Umez-Eronini. I am going to take a -- we're going to take a short break. When we come back, the -- inside the lives of Somali pirates. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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