What’s the Value of a Great High School?

Alright, we’re back for Round 2 of wondering What The Hell Jay Mathews is trying to say.  New readers are highly encouraged, should they have a hankering for snarky criticism of poor logic exhibited in published newspaper columns, to check out this.  When I saw that Mr. Mathews, of the Washington Post, had delivered his devoted readers a new column entitled “Why America’s best school may be no better than yours,” I couldn’t let it slide.  As always, Jay’s words-untouched-are interspersed with mine, in bold:

I have written many columns about the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. Some readers have suggested I stop. They ask: Why is one school so important?

Well, the U.S. News and World Report has had them as the best high school in the country every year since ‘07.  TJ’s average SAT score is 2,184, compared to the national average of 1,509 and the Fairfax County average of 1,664.  Per Wikipedia, “For schools with more than 800 students in grades 10-12, TJHSST was cited as having the highest-performing AP Calculus BC, AP Chemistry, AP French Language, AP Government and Politics: U.S., and AP U.S. History courses among all schools worldwide.”  This doesn’t seem particularly hard to grasp.

Here’s the situation. I am an education writer who focuses on the best teachers and best schools, as measured by how much value they add to students’ educations and lives. Jefferson is the most selective high school in the country.

I’m pretty sure the statement about selectivity isn’t true.  TJ may be the most selective public HS in the country, with an admission rate of around 16%.  But Stuyvesant in New York seems to have an admission rate under 10%.  Is Jay allowed to make up whatever he wants?

By many benchmarks — faculty quality, course level, equipment — it has to be considered among the best.

So doesn’t that sort of answer your question?  If it’s ‘among the best,’ surely it’s important, right?  Also, let’s not forget that Jay recently said that TJ’s teachers may not be any better than those at other FCPS schools.  Apparently faculty quality is now one of the primary pieces of evidence for TJ’s greatness.

That is irresistible to me. Now I have found a Jefferson graduate, Chelsea Slade, who has given me a way to drag into my Jefferson obsession everyone who didn’t go to Jefferson, which includes me and almost all of mankind.

That last sentence is practically a war crime. 

Slade sent me an e-mail challenging my view that it doesn’t matter whether you go to Jefferson or not. I think if you are as smart as the people who get into the school, you will find everything you need at any of Fairfax’s other fine high schools. Because the quality of high schools around here is so good, I would even argue that a Jefferson-quality student can get a Jefferson-quality education at most of the public and most of the private schools in the Washington area.

Jefferson does not make the students it admits more persistent, more intuitive, more charming or more gifted than they are.

This is veering dangerously close to a “Why even have great schools at all?” argument.  It’s one thing to say that other FCPS schools are pretty good themselves; now he’s just throwing in digs at TJ.  Also, more charming?  Really?  That’s one of the most important traits for a school to infuse into its students?

Jefferson provides great teachers, many learning options and smart, interesting classmates, but so do many other schools in this region that attract Jefferson-quality students.

OK.  It’s true that one’s own individual motivation greatly affects what he “gets out of” his education.  But Jay’s three pieces of evidence for TJ’s greatness were faculty quality, course level, and equipment.  He didn’t say they were its only benefits, but they were the first things he mentioned.  Wouldn’t those things set TJ apart?  That is to say, how could faculty quality be one of TJ’s biggest strengths if it doesn’t set it apart from other FCPS schools? 

Slade graduated from Jefferson in 2006 and from Brigham Young University in 2010, and she is a medical student at George Washington University. She said the environment at Jefferson is more conducive to achieving academic and career goals such as hers.

Here are her reasons, based on her impression of other schools, such as Langley and Marshall, which one of her siblings attended:

“1) Drug use at Jefferson is much less widespread, as far as I am aware, than at many other high schools. I felt my peers better understood the negative consequences of drugs and were smart enough to choose not to use substances. At other schools, the peer pressure to use drugs would have been much stronger.

I don’t have a huge beef with this, although it should be noted that upper-class adolescents use drugs a lot more than most people seem to think.  Also.  Nevertheless, this is her first point in TJ’s favor?

“2) Students at Jefferson use all of their spare time to study — lunch, between classes, in study hall, etc. At other schools, students are more inclined to gather and talk and gossip. I know when I have been in similar situations, despite being a well-motivated student, it’s much easier for me to give in and stop studying and start talking with friends. Whereas at Jefferson, people really did expect their peers to let them study during free time.

OK, I’m sorry, but now we’ve violently derailed.  First of all, the initial statement here is patently false.  A ton of TJ students spend not just lunch hours, but also 8th period, before/after school times, and, yes, even class time in senior lounge, playing ping-pong, playing video games, or just lounging.  A ton of students found it amusing to figure out how frequently, and to what extent, they could be late for class without the teacher caring.  In other words, they were normal 17 year-olds.

Second, and probably worse, is this: if Chelsea’s claims were correct…THAT’S A GOOD THING?  To feel guilty about talking to friends?  To spend ALL of break time studying?  Are you serious?

“3) Students at Jefferson don’t tease each other for doing well. When my sister achieves a great score on an exam, she is mortified if anyone sees, because of the teasing and rude remarks that her peers make about her (“nerd,” “tight-wad,” etc.). At Jefferson, we got excited for each other’s high scores, and pushed ourselves harder to do better than our peers on the next exam. It was certainly a competitive environment, but that helped us all achieve much more than a degradative or rude environment would have done.

There’s something here, except for the bit about getting excited for others’ high scores.  False; fellow students are in competition with you for grades—no teacher is going to hand out 25 As—so you’re rarely all that excited to see someone excelling next to you.  It’s basically a zero-sum game. 

“4) My peers at Jefferson had very high self-esteem. Eating disorders, self-mutilating behavior, and other things linked to low self-confidence in adolescents were much less frequent than what I have seen in other high schools. This environment of feeling good about ourselves helped us all feel and do better, be proud of our accomplishments, and help each other in achieving our goals.”

According to my Abnormal Psychology college textbook: “Research demonstrates that young women with eating disorders endorse perfectionist goals both about eating and weight and about general expectations for themselves.”  Doesn’t this sound a lot like TJ?  Also, “eating disorders are considerably more common among middle- and upper-class whites,” which makes up a considerable portion of TJ.

So, no, I’m sorry but I can’t subscribe to this one, either.  The TJ environment may preclude people from teasing others for good grades, but the uber-competitive environment doesn’t reduce behaviors like eating disorders.

It also would have been nice if Jay had noted that Langley, one of the schools with which Chelsea was comparing TJ, is one of the wealthiest high schools in Fairfax County-and thus similar to TJ in many respects.  But OK.

There are little or no data to buttress her view or mine.

An enjoyable statement on many levels.  First off, it’s not all that accurate.  Secondly, isn’t this a bad thing?  Shouldn’t people hold off on making proclamations without evidence?

Jumping off that a little bit…it seems that Chelsea was speaking from her anecdotal experience.  But relying on anecdotes is a prime way to get misled, for anecdotes lie easily.  I don’t care if Chelsea thinks this way–she’s not writing articles.  I mind Jay acting as though this is the best defense of TJ he can give us.

To the many observant teens out there, is your school so bad? Is Jefferson that good? Comment on my blog at washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

Yes, please do comment. 

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

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