Brace yourself, all 4 of our readers (oh hai)…my post today will either be an Earnthis vanguard—or an epic failure. It addresses neither movies/TV nor music, but if you make me, I’ll defend its popular culture relevance, and that’s listed in our tagline too. Our source material today is a column from Washington Post writer Jay Mathews. Mathews writes for the Education section of the Post, focusing particularly on high school, college admissions, and the like.
Jay’s latest piece addresses Thomas Jefferson High School in northern Virginia, the old stomping grounds for this site’s original editors (and my only reason to hope that Dan won’t delete this posting). I very much believe that intelligent discussion of one of the country’s most prominent high schools is warranted. This is not that. (I gleefully lift my format from the peerless site firejoemorgan.com, except that my comments will be in bold and the author’s–verbatim–in standard font.)
My colleague Kevin Sieff reported last week that the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is not only the most selective public school in America, but one of the least diverse. After years of promising to reach out to the third of Northern Virginia students who are black or Hispanic, less than 4 percent of its students have that background, while ultra-selective colleges such as Harvard and MIT have about 20 percent.
First of all, as a former resident of NOVA and attendee of TJ, I can tell you that playing the race card for that school is such a tired story I can’t believe an editor allowed it. But whatever.
Second of all, Jay, referencing 2 schools proves nothing. Moreover, Harvard and MIT draw from, you know, the whole country, rather than a piece of one state that so happens to be one of the most wealthy—and concomitantly one of the least diverse—in said country. Harvard and MIT have also been in the public eye as a ‘very selective school’ for much longer than TJ has, and thus have probably faced more pressure, for longer, to amend their admission’s criteria to ensure sufficient minority representation. I hate when people assume two things to be comparable without taking into account the substantial differences that render said analogy moot.
That said, there may be a minor point to be made here. But he doesn’t make it.
When you create a school based more on sorting than teaching,
What? What in the world does that mean?
as Fairfax County did with Jefferson in 1985, it is hard to break the habit of picking applicants by their accomplishments and test scores at age 13, rather than their potential to benefit from Jefferson’s great teachers.
A) You went from “based more on sorting than teaching” to “great teachers” in like 40 words. Just how good are these teachers, in your eyes?
B) Then what, pray tell, should we use to evaluate applicants, if not their accomplishments and test scores at the time of their application?
Don’t worry. He’ll get to that point later. I’m all of a flutter.
Four percent underserved minorities is not good enough. Public schools have to follow court guidelines on admission, but U-Va., also public, manages to have 13 percent black or Hispanic students.
Here’s another lazy analogy. UVA by itself doesn’t come close to countering the notion that ‘public schools have to follow guidelines on admission.’ (Is it just me, or could one of the words “follow court” in that sentence be cut?) And, once again, UVA draws students from California to Texas to New Jersey, not just Tysons Corner.
Furthermore, he hasn’t told us what percentage of minorities he wants—though 4% is clearly too low—but his apparently-acceptable number has dropped from 20 to 13%. Well that was easy, eh? Let’s find a public school that’s 9% and pimp that one. Nothing like having incredibly vague criteria that allows you to mold facts to fit theories, rather than the other way around.
Jefferson still rejects many qualified blacks and Hispanics.
And many qualified Whites. And probably some qualified Tiger Woods-esque Cablinasians. And maybe my cat. Meaningless statement.
Last year, the school says, 52 Hispanics and 29 blacks reached the semifinal round of admissions, based on their academic records. But only 13 Hispanics and four blacks were enrolled.
First of all…enrolled does not mean admitted. Thanks for skewing your data. And I personally think ¼ of Hispanics going from the second round to enrollment isn’t a terrible number. Roughly half of all students go from that stage to admittance, and since there were likely more than 13 admitted, that’s not heinous. The numbers for Blacks are worse, yes, which gets at what I was saying earlier—that he might have been able to squeeze a small point out of this piece—but the sample size is ridiculously small; why not go back farther to have a larger sample?
The ability to benefit from the school’s imaginative teaching
I attended, and I’m glad I did. But there is little to no imaginative teaching.
is not the main criterion for the admission people, I suspect.
As well it shouldn’t be. Hmm, let’s see, what should we examine in consideration for admission—one’s tangible ability and achievements, as reflected in such meaningless dross as test scores, teacher recommendations, essays, and grades—or some vague ability, which everyone would define differently, to “benefit from [supposed, speculative] imaginative teaching”?
Like the rest of us, they are impressed by test scores. I have seen the Ivy League admissions process at close range.
If he would actually explicitly state how ‘close’ he’s been to said process, I doubt most people would interpret his proximity as positively as he does.
Applicants in the 95th percentile on standardized tests are not seriously considered because there are so many in the 99th percentile above them. Those colleges will, however, take a second look if you are a talented flautist or a ranked squash player or black or an alumni child or Hispanic or related to the family that just funded the new science center.
Finally, he gets to the meat of the piece, and it’s the most befuddling part. Is he really defending the practice of admitting a lesser-qualified candidate because he happens to play squash or be related to a wealthy alumnus? Is this what TJ is supposed to do? These are better criteria than test scores and recommendations? This is how you judge the intangibles of which he’s so fond? Really?
Jefferson teachers tell me their admission committee is more handicapped by the fact that many bright eighth-graders, of all ethnicities, don’t want to attend their school or any like it. Here is a relevant demographic fact: at many of our most selective public schools, students of Asian ancestry are the largest ethnic group. This is true of Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Hunter College in New York City, and Lowell and Whitney in California, all of whom draw from areas where Asians are a minority. At 46 percent, Asians are also the largest ethnic group at Jefferson.
With no transition or paragraph break after the first sentence here, the continuity makes no sense. ‘Many students, of all ethnicities, don’t want to attend.’ ‘Lots of Asians attend.’ Um…?
Maybe if he’d said, “Because many talented students don’t want to attend [although this is speculative, anecdotal information in and of itself], the pool of applicants shrinks, thus allowing for more variance in the data; and that, combined with Asians’ apparent zeal for education, allows them to be disproportionately represented,” he would have made sense. But he didn’t.
There are two ways to explain this. First, most parents have little opportunity or interest in sending their children to selective high schools, public or private. We think our kids can get just as good an education in the neighborhood school.
This is ludicrous. If we’re talking about private schools, then fine, some parents won’t want to pay. But you can’t possibly tell me that most parents wouldn’t send their child to a public school—with free tuition—that probably provides a superior education. No chance. Talk to me about whether the kids themselves want to attend TJ, and I’ll listen; don’t try to sell me on parents not wanting it.
In many cases we are right. Most Northern Virginia schools have teachers just as good as those at Jefferson.
Wait, I thought TJ had such “imaginative teaching” and “great teachers.” He said this, like, 4 paragraphs ago. Maybe that bit about TJ caring more about sorting than teaching should have hit the cutting room floor, eh?
Second, many Asian American families, particularly those more recently arrived, have a reverence for science, math and academic success not typical of this country, and remember prestigious selective secondary schools in China, Japan and Korea. They love what Jefferson offers and apply out of proportion to their numbers.
All of this is prolix; if he’d just said something resembling what I wrote above, he could have explained the Asian numbers with far less time and ink wasted.
Their children’s commitment to science and math may be particularly important to their being more likely to be admitted than other ethnic groups, because Jefferson principal Evan M. Glazer says interest in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math) is key. “A very bright student without a passion for STEM should not be selected for admission,” he says.
Welp, I guess I shouldn’t have been admitted. Better shore up that loophole, guys.
To be fair, that wasn’t Jay speaking. But it still has little relevance to his piece, and it vaguely offends me, so I’m going to attack it.
Asian-American children get terrific educations at these selective high schools, but they learn eventually that attending Jefferson does not guarantee admission to Princeton or Yale.
So? God, these vague statements kill me; ‘Some qualified Blacks weren’t admitted,’ ‘TJ is no guarantee of admission…’
Again, with different wording, this paragraph might have sniffed cogency: “Attending TJ can provide a stimulating academic environment for the right student; however, because of restrictions on how many students from one HS will be admitted to one college, a gifted student might be better served, as far as college goes, to stand out at his local public school.” Is that what he’s going to say?
Those colleges dole out admissions like Halloween candy, not too many to any one high school.
No, he’s going with a terrible analogy. Jay, most houses dole out Halloween candy liberally—primarily because they don’t want two tons of it left over for the dog to choke on—so this couldn’t be more off base.
Broadening the ethnic profile of our nation’s best high school should not be that hard.
Actually, since affirmative action is one of the most controversial subjects in our society right now, I’d say it is/would be hard. And what in the world does “broadening the ethnic profile” mean? I hate euphemisms.
Many educators and students supporting Jefferson have formed a Diversity and Engagement Curriculum Team to recruit more blacks and Hispanics interested in science. I think the school should also keep in mind that success in America stems more from character than test-taking ability.
I guess I can just sign an affidavit at the end of my GRE that testifies to my exemplary character, which will raise my score 500 points.
Washington offices are full of brilliant people who lacked the patience, persistence and charm to rise as high as they hoped.
So? The nation’s top positions are also full of people who possess little more than the good looks and/or charm to win over someone in the first 2 minutes of an interview. This is how the world works.
Sadly, we haven’t figured out a sure way to teach character.
Well, then that makes this piece rather irrelevant, doesn’t it?
The largest federal study of character-building or social-development programs just reported little progress in improving student behavior or achievement.
There’s no attribution here, but I don’t mind so much, because he’s digging his own grave.
But we can tell which Jefferson applicants show signs of the determination and grace that produce great lives.
Can we? Really? So picking TJ applicants on the basis of their test scores and tangible accomplishments at age 13 is unfair, but by that age we should be able to descry “determination and grace that produce great lives”?? What in the world does that mean?
And who are you to define what a great life is? I have utterly no idea how much ‘grace’ Isaac Newton had, so he must not have done anything for our society, eh?
I’m being intentionally annoying, I know, but statements like “we can tell which TJ applicants show signs of the determination and grace that produce great lives” represent the kind of vague and illogical claptrap that should never approach the pen of someone who’s paid to transcribe his thoughts for a prominent international newspaper.
Just ask their middle-school teachers.
Um, they do. They’re called teacher recommendations. They are required.
Many of the most promising ones will be black and Hispanic. Give more of them a chance, and Jefferson will not only be a more interesting school to attend, but more reflective of the values we want all of our kids to have.
How do you know how interesting it is or will be to attend?
And are there ANY values that “we all want” our kids to have?
Arg. In retrospect, this piece exemplifies typical Jay hallmarks, namely that roughly 5% of it addresses the actual thesis—such as it is—and the rest features tangential filler riddled with inaccuracies and logical fallacies. Oh well. Back to your regularly scheduled programming later. Maybe I’ll start firejaymathews.com.