MAN ABOUT TOWN: Shooting Down Some Local Myths

Falls Church Times Columnist

October 18, 2010

My college newspaper’s slogan was, “All the news that gives you fits.” Years later I’m still trying to give folks fits.

If people hold a popular misconception, and the press does nothing to dispel it, who’s to blame? Isn’t it the fault of the press?

When I lived in Barbados, I heard over and over that it had a 99.9 percent literacy rate – the highest in the world. Everyone was told it, believed it, and repeated it, although it was merely a myth.

Coming closer to home, the Little City of Falls Church has some cherished myths of its own, and woe to anyone who would dare try to dispel them.

MYTH #1: Even though real estate tax rates are 30 percent higher in Falls Church than in Arlington, the Falls Church taxpayer is compensated by a commensurate higher property value.

This is easy to “prove” if you want – just compare apples and oranges. But I see no evidence that similar properties in similar neighborhoods are any cheaper in North Arlington than in Falls Church. In fact, in many instances North Arlington properties are more expensive than comparable Falls Church homes.

MYTH #2: Falls Church City Schools are the highest ranked in the region, and among the highest in the country.

“Rank” is a difficult word. I don’t care for it, except for its adjectival form, such as describing an overripe cheese. But with no malice toward our excellent schools, I think it’s important to make the point that our school “ranking” benefits enormously from the 1948 gerrymandered shrinking of City limits to exclude the economically less advantaged. Sure, our schools generate top test scores – but so do many other public schools in well-to-do neighborhoods. The difference is that Falls Church has no schools on the other side of the tracks to dilute the top scores.

For example, compare George Mason High School with Yorktown in Arlington, which has a similar socio-economic student base. Click on the links to see the “report cards” prepared by the Virginia Department of Education. The biggest difference I see is that Yorktown is twice the size of Mason. Looking at various statistical reports, the scores are quite similar, although, overall, Yorktown seems to come out on top. And in large print you can read that Yorktown “Made Adequate Yearly Progress,” whereas Mason “Did Not Make Adequate Yearly Progress.” I don’t remember reading that in any press release.

Then there are the “Adjusted Pass Rates.” In three out of four categories, Yorktown beats Mason: English, 97-95; Math, 94-93; History, 98-97; Science, 96-98. Significant? Not really – but where did we get the idea that Mason was the top-ranked high school in the region?

Oh, I remember – we read the Washington Post’s Challenge Index, compiled by education writer Jay Mathews. Falls Church City Schools ranks No. 1 with a 5.3 rating, followed by Arlington at 4.2, Montgomery at 3.2, and Fairfax at 2.9. Pretty impressive. Except – just what is the challenge index? As Mathews himself states, it is not a measure of school quality. Instead, it’s the number of advanced placement or IB tests a school gives, divided by the number of graduating seniors.

Newsweek, owned by the Washington Post, uses the same formula to rank high schools nationwide. In 2010, Mason ranked 45th in the country. Again, pretty impressive – but there’s a catch: those advanced standardized tests are expensive to administer, and in most areas of the United States the students have to pay to take them. Locally, most school districts not only bear the cost but also require students to take the exams. Apples and oranges.

Oh, and by the way: the top Challenge Index locally was not George Mason but rather Arlington’s H.B. Woodlawn. But Falls Church City Schools earned the top ranking because it has only one high school, whereas Arlington’s Woodlawn score was “diluted” by Arlington’s other high schools.

My point? Merely that while our City has excellent schools, so do many surrounding areas, Arlington in particular. And as a parent who has sent children to Falls Church, Arlington, and Fairfax County schools, I would contend that our small schools have advantages and disadvantages. Yes, there’s a nice feel about a small school where everyone knows everyone else, but on the negative side, we have no crew team, no swimming pool, no industrial arts or other distributive education, and very limited foreign language selection, to mention a few. Size matters.

So, print this article and then burn it. Or wrap it around a rock and hurl it through my window. Or cancel your subscription. Or — if you really want to spite me — just refuse to let it give you fits.

October 18, 2010 


15 Responses to “MAN ABOUT TOWN: Shooting Down Some Local Myths”

  1. Peggy Monahan, Falls Church City on October 18th, 2010 7:27 am

    Maybe this was a freudian slip, George, but I think you meant commensurate:
    –verb (used with object)
    1. to feel or express sorrow or sympathy for; empathize with; pity.
    –verb (used without object)
    2. to sympathize (usually fol. by with ): They commiserated with him over the loss of his job.

    GEORGE REPLIES: In these Orwellian times, books (and columns) are easily rewritten, history is changed, and any need to commiserate over a Freudian slip is thus obviated. (Thanks, Peggy!)

  2. Ellen McRae on October 18th, 2010 7:31 am

    Go to to compare our elementary and middle schools with similar schools in Arlington. Jamestown Elementary has much higher SOL scores, as do any number of other elementary schools in neighboring jurisdictions.

  3. Andy on October 18th, 2010 7:36 am

    What’s the Mark Twain saying about statistics? Anyway, great column.

  4. Stephen Siegel on October 18th, 2010 8:44 am


    I don’t know who these unnamed experts are that think Falls Church has higher property values. It’s simply not the case, and I’ve never heard anyone suggest that. Frankly, I wonder why people pay so much more — 10-15% by my reckoning — for Arlington.

    As to the tax rate, yes, it’s much higher here. However, while I think the government should be managed such that the tax rate could be lower, there are many reasons it is where it is and Arlington’s is where it is. One of the reasons could be the accuracy or fairness of the jurisdiction’s assessments, which have a major impact on the rate.

    Many houses in FCC have been selling for well above their assessed values, suggesting assessments may be too low. And research I’ve done suggests that Arlington remains in denial about the housing market in at least some cases and hasn’t reduced assessments enough. In turn, that means some Arlingtonians are being overtaxed despite the apparently lower rate, and are thus paying a higher effective rate than it appears.

    Also, not to quibble, but Newsweek is no longer owned by the Washington Post, which sold it for the stunning sum of $1.00.

  5. COL Mustard on October 18th, 2010 8:48 am

    Oh oh….George is writing another column! Should you label this one as opinion, or are you ready to get flamed again????

  6. Pat Riccards on October 18th, 2010 9:45 am

    I cannot understand the ongoing hostility shown to our schools week in and week out on these pages. Falls Church City Public Schools offers a great deal we all should be proud of. When you look to discount or downright ridicule those accomplishments, you do a disservice to every taxpayer, parent, educator, business leader, and student who has made our public schools what they are today.

    Whether you agree or not, the Washington Post has honored FCCPS as the top school district in the region. We achieved such despite all of those terrific neighboring school districts in the region you seem to long for. And there are hundreds and hundreds of districts across the nation that would gladly embrace operating one of the top high schools in the country, according to Newsweek.

    Last month, FCCPS was ranked first in Virginia for on-time graduation rate with 97 percent (as Arlington came in at 84 percent). Our average SAT scores have also soared, with FCCPS students posting a 1795, while Fairfax came in at 1664, Arlington at 1657, and the state average at 1521.

    Then we have the tremendous athletic successes of FCCPS, again winning the Wachovia Cup for having the top overall program among 60 school divisions in Virginia. Or you can look at the significant number of National Board-Certified Teachers in the City, a leading national indicator of teacher quality.

    Yes, there is room for improvement in our school division. But our continuing desire to do better and ensure all Falls Church students receive a top-notch education doesn’t mean we should discount the significant achievements our schools, teachers, and students have accomplished year in and year out.

    This year, we were forced to cut 5.9 percent from our schools budget (after cutting the previous year as well) as enrollment increases and our needs became more acute. Instead of looking to deflate the schools, we should be joining together to ask what we can do to ensure the levels of achievement and accomplishment we have all grown accustomed to.

    Falls Church City Public Schools stands as a well-deserved source of pride in this community. If you want to vent at the School Board for any issues you have, just bring it. But our teachers, students, and community at large deserve better.

  7. Mike Smith, Falls Church on October 18th, 2010 10:06 am


    Thanks for giving us fits. It is not a myth that saying anything about our schools other than that they are perfect is a sure path to perdition. Sadly, by embracing all the wonderful statistics we have blinded ourselves to the need to be always improving. I don’t necessarily agree with the implied solution that we should combine with one of our neighbors, but I do agree that we should seek more efficient ways to deploy our dollars.

  8. Carol Mallory (FCC) on October 18th, 2010 10:56 am

    After reading Mr. Southern’s comments for about a year I conclude that he is on a one-man crusade to have Falls Church become a neighborhood of Arlington County…or he is trying to annoy us to the point of speaking up in support of the City. Let’s hope it is the latter. Falls Church is a unique place. One can use statistics and/or rankings to either support or argue against that statement. The character of Falls Church is not found in statistics. It is found in its history, in its assertive attitude. The City has consistently been highly successful in educating young people since its independence from Fairfax County. No comparison to other schools is needed to make that statement, but rather the success of its graduates speaks volumes. The continued success of Falls Church as a city depends on the interest and positive involvement of its citizens. Negativism at City Hall and in the press from a few individuals can lead us to see ourselves as failing when in reality we have much to be positive about.

  9. Kurt Thurber on October 18th, 2010 11:38 am

    So… George whenever you do sell your home you will be sure to point out the fallacies in the myths that perpetrate life in Falls Church City and take less of a price?
    Also, I agree not having ready access to industrial arts facilities/instruction is a disadvantage to any student body. However, not having a pool or a crew team is an elective and is hardly a detriment or a black eye to a school system. Elitism or populism, make up your mind…

  10. Robert Thomas, Falls Church on October 18th, 2010 1:33 pm

    OK George, try this measure – take your Winter Hill townhome and find a similar home in age (old) and size (small) in a good Arlington school district and see how much it is worth on the market. I’d bet you would find your home is worth at least $50K more that the Arlington comp. If your home was near metro, I’d another $50K on top of that. This is the value of a home in FCC, and it may be because we have Brown’s hardward or Panshir Restaurant, but I would bet it is mostly due to the perceived superiority of our school system to those of our neighbors. Thank you to Patrick for pointing out the great things about FCC schools.

  11. Robin Smith on October 18th, 2010 4:41 pm

    It is always nice to be recognized as having a good school distrtict. However, the Challenge Index is a poor way to measure such a thing. The Challenge Index merely measures how many kids take advanced tests such as the IB and AP. As Falls Church City has covered the fees for students taking these tests in the past, it is understanble that we would do well in the Challenge Index.

    IB schools also tend to do better in the index. This is noteworthy in that the creator of the index has been a speaker at IB events at the event and is selling a book that touts the IB program (see

    In any event, when one asks how do our kids do on these tests and others, Falls Church City kids do not do nearly as well as other students in the area. and US News World Report, both of which take into account test scores, rank a number of elementary, middle and/or high schools in the area ahead of Falls Church City schools. For example, Madison, Marshall, Mclean, and Langley are ranked ahead of George Mason in the US News and World Report rankings. This is concerning to me in that we pay 6 to 8k more a year to educate our kids than Fairfax county.

    Instead of telling residents that we should be thankful for the premium we pay to live in the City, the school board should be asking why are we so ineffecient at educating our kids and why are our kids not doing as well as others in the area.

  12. George Southern on October 18th, 2010 9:03 pm

    This column has been up for 20 hours, and last I checked my windows were still intact. Thank you, readers, for your restraint. However, I’m afraid my point was lost on School Board member Pat Riccards, whose comment validates my observation that when the press deviates from a cheerleader role, it is denigrated as “hostile,” to use his description. I have six student-years’ experience with Falls Church City Schools, and I believe the least flattering adjective I applied above was the word “excellent.” However, I did point out that this year the Virginia Department of Education has branded Mason HS with the phrase “Did Not Make Adequate Yearly Progress.” Is it “venting” to observe that? Disloyal to the home team? Perhaps Mr. Riccards or another official could explain what it means (if we’re allowed to talk about it).

  13. Ed Strait, formerly City resident, now in Fairfax County on October 19th, 2010 1:38 am

    In the 1st paragraph under Myth #2, reference is made to “the 1948 gerrymandered shrinking of City limits to exclude the economically less advantaged.” I believe you are referring to the change in the Town (not City) limits retro-ceding to Fairfax County the area south of Washington Street that had a predominantly black population.

    That action occurred in 1887 (not 1948). The Town was not a separate School Division, Public education in the Town was under the jurisdiction of Fairfax County.

    I see little relevance of that reprehensible, racially-motivated boundary change 123 years ago to the quality of education provided by the City’s School Division today.

    This is not the first time you have misdated the retrocession.

    The Town of Falls Church was further “shrunk” in 1936 when its East Falls Church neighborhood was retro-ed to Arlington County at the initiative of it residents.

    What happened In 1948 was the 2.2 square mile Town became a 2.2 square mile City.

    GEORGE SOUTHERN REPLIES: Arguing with Ed Strait about Falls Church history would be like challenging Lance Armstrong to a bicycle race. But I can at least try to explain myself. I used the 1948 date because that, of course, is when the City was incorporated and the school system began. Prior to 1948, students living in what then was the Town of Falls Church were not separated (except for racial segregation) from a larger pool of students living in nearby areas — they all attended the same Fairfax County schools. Rereading the way I phrased it, I agree that it was misleading. I did not intend to imply that the City shrank its borders in 1948, but rather that the practical effect of forming the City in 1948 was to shrink the pool of students attending the same schools. And that is a far more recent action than the retrocession of 1887. Thanks for clearing that up, Ed.

  14. Pat Riccards on October 19th, 2010 7:54 am

    George, I’m not looking for cheerleaders. I accept that you don’t like the Challenge Index or the Newsweek high school rankings or a number of other measures that schools and districts across the country use to measure the quality of the schools. But those are real measures. And when you say those shouldn’t count, because you don’t agree with them, that does a disservice to the educators and students who are working so hard.

    As I noted previously, we do have room for improvement. And we are surrounded by a lot of other great schools and districts. That should be a stronger testament to what we are doing here, not a reason to try and knock down what we have achieved.

    Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, is an accountability term that the Bush Administration established as part of No Child Left Behind. The premise is simple, with student achievement scores on the state exams expected to increase each year. The tool also looks specifically at achievement rates in sub-populations determined by various factors such as socioeconomic status, race, and disability.

    This can be particularly difficult in a high-achieving school. If last year 90 percent of students passed the state exam, and then this year 90 percent again passed, the school fails to make AYP. But if a school across the district goes from 35 percent proficiency to 36 proficiency, they made adequate yearly progress. It is about forward motion, not overall achievement.

    That said, you are correct. GM did not meet AYP this year, as the FCCPS announced in a press release on August 25 of this year. Our high school end-of-course SOLs showed improved overall pass rates in Reading, Algebra I, World History I and Biology. But overall (particularly with a few subpopulations) we did not meet the state’s AYP targets.

    We are making no excuses here. Since August, our teachers and administrators have been having difficult and honest conversations about priorities and how to specifically reach those students who need our help the most. Our educators have put together action plans and are taking specific actions to address what we learned in this year’s SOL results. And bringing our new student data system on line later this school year will provide additional tools so we can both improve instruction and improve achievement.

    As a community, we should be proud of our accomplishments and willing to acknowledge our shortcomings. More importantly, we should work together to increase the root of the former while decreasing the scope of the latter. Yes, we have excellent schools in Falls Church. And we need to commit, as a community, to do what is necessary to ensure we continue to have excellent schools.

    GEORGE RESPONDS: Pat, I do appreciate your providing an explanation for “Adequate Yearly Progress” — and, by the way, please add it to the list of “rankings” that I don’t like (did I mention that I’m a former public high school English teacher?). And thank you as well for pointing out the August 25 press release. I wasn’t trying to be snide when I wrote that I had not seen a press release. The Falls Church Times used to receive press releases from the City Schools, but with the elimination of the Schools public affairs officer position, we don’t get much anymore. I couldn’t find it in the News-Press archives either. But I did find it on the web, and here is the link for interested readers.

  15. Dudley McDonald Mechanicsville, VA on October 19th, 2010 9:50 am

    From afar in central Virginia:

    LFCC: Continue to be VERY PROUD of your school system. It is the main reason for the City to exist and with good reason. It has always been an education leader here in the Commonwealth. Like all systems, it has some warts (size matters) because it has to conform to statewide standards which cause some cost ratios to be completely out of whack. There are some ‘eduaucracy’ staffing numbers issues which could be addressed and extracurricular costs issues as well. BUT on balance, LFCC is getting what its willing to continue to pay for – a measure of educational autonomy. Think of it as “control and flexibility”.

    As a former staffer/parent/citizen, some wise and very difficult choices were made in the past that still serve the system well. Each of my now-adult children took full advantage of the opportunities offered by the system. Each used their different ‘academic’ paths to springboard into their college/vocational choices. Each successfully continues to progress down life’s paths. What more can a parent ask from any public school system???

    BUT in challenging economic times feasibility questions need to be raised as a check on reality!! Keep the questions coming, George. They serve the community well. Just keep the record clear!

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