I went to high school in northern Virginia. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. A public magnet school, one of the best in the nation.
It is common knowledge that the school has very low numbers of black and Hispanic students. For instance, I think there were three black students in my graduating class of about 450. Hispanic enrollment is slightly higher, but still disproportionately low, with respect to the Hispanic population in northern Virginia.
For many years after its founding in 1985, Jefferson “actively sought to diversify its enrollment, even if that sometimes meant admitting students with lower test scores than others.” This policy was modified in 1997, in the wake of affirmative action policies getting struck down throughout the nation. Black and Hispanic enrollment dropped in subsequent years, and then the school modified its admissions policy again in 2004 “to allow race to be considered as a factor,” without actively requiring it.
As it turns out, Jefferson still has not managed to attract higher percentages of the desired minorities. The new policy was put in place back in 2004, and since 2008, Jefferson has consistently been admitting a plurality of Asian students. Nevertheless, despite this four-year delay (see this chart) and lack of any corroborating evidence, the WaPo and its guest contributors have been quick to establish cause and effect between the 2004 change in admissions policy and the changing face of the student body (See this and this).
They claim first of all that the student body has changed: not just in racial make-up, but in educational background, and in motivations for attending Jefferson. But instead of having a productive discussion about the supposed changes, these pieces attach value judgments to the changes, blame the admissions policy and then descend into hysteria over who does and does not deserve to attend. Ultimately, these articles betray a discomfort with the changing face of the student body.
The narrative varies depending on who is writing. Some commentators have separated the change in policy from the changing racial demographics of the student body. So for instance, the WaPo has published a couple of articles this year about how the new admissions policy can be easily gamed. There was this article about how Jefferson has become soft on math, and this piece by John Dell, a Jefferson physics teacher, about how the new admissions process “is more about memory, language skill, motivation to be successful in college admissions, test prep and just plain luck than the best available indicators of promise as a future scientist, engineer or mathematician.”
We have competing narratives: Jefferson is attracting humanities types, rote memorizers, mere opportunists who want to get into a good college (<– all BAD things). And all this is a result of the new admissions policy. The missing link is: these new narratives do not explicitly connect themselves to the narrative about changing racial demographics. I will return to this missing link.
By the way, there was also this article last year, which was almost refreshing in its blatant xenophobia. It was published in the wake of Jefferson announcing that it would be adding an ESL instructor to its staff. The principal defended the decision by saying that since the school is a science and tech school, it is entirely plausible that Jefferson gets some students who excel in those areas but have trouble with English. The best part, though, was this quote by Gary Bottorff, former director of corporate and community relations for the Thomas Jefferson Partnership Fund. He said he “hope[s] that the administration is ensuring that all of these kids are U.S. citizens.” Oh, Gary.
But let us take these criticisms seriously. I know what that physics teacher Dell is describing: a nebulous sense that the kids at Jefferson these days are motivated by something… different from what he was used to seeing. And that this is a cause for panic.
For what it’s worth, that scary-sounding statistic about a third of entering students needing remedial math help? It seems to concern Jefferson administrators as well, and sure enough, the admissions policy is apparently up for revision now. (Unrelated: I would like more context for that statistic. This article frames it as an issue of middle schools failing to teach students well. At its most benign, it seems like an instance of leveling the playing field: note, the tests seem to have been administered right after the students arrived at Jefferson. Of course, that is exactly what Dell doesn’t want to do: waste time catching people up)
Am I defending the new admissions policy? No. It could be genuinely flawed. That’s not the point. The school should do whatever it thinks best, and anyway, I have insufficient data. But if I have insufficient data, so do these contributors to the WaPo, within and without the school. The new admissions policy underpins so much of what they think is wrong with the school. But at some point, it stops being about the admissions policy. It turns instead into an arbitrary discussion about who does and does not deserve to be at Jefferson.
In one of these narratives, the hand-wringing is over those humanities types who game the system, just jonesing for a world-class public education. In another narrative, the hand-wringing is over people who see Jefferson as a stepping stone to an Ivy League college. In another narrative, the hand-wringing is over the school not only not attracting the desired minorities, but actively attracting the “wrong students.”
And the missing link? These narratives are explicitly connected to one another and to race only a couple of times: in Dell’s oblique references to “other agendas” and “political failure” overwhelming the goals of the “old Jefferson,” in Jay Mathews’ acknowledgment that the school would do better “finding the students who come for the love of math, not prestige.”
But all of them peddle a deeply conservative outlook towards education. They champion meritocracy and blind students to the limitedness of their own cultural context. They encourage that pernicious myth of a post-racial school. All things, by the way, that sometimes made my time at Jefferson miserable. All things that are laid bare in the comments sections of most of these articles.
The hysteria itself is nothing new; but the scale of the hysteria is. Many years ago, one of my teachers at Jefferson told me I didn’t deserve to be there. Based on… what? He didn’t say. It probably was not my race, never my race. We were far too post-racial for that. But perhaps my initial (and very Indian!) comfort with rote memorization as opposed to critical thinking? My eventual realization that I wanted to pursue a non-STEM field? I was guilty as charged on both counts. I was also 14.
Dell’s framing of the issue is seductive because it relies so heavily on nostalgia. Consider his “old” Jefferson, where things were just so… reliable. Where teachers could assume a certain level of knowledge, a certain type of schooling, and the right type of interest in STEM.
His framing of the issue is dangerous because applicants to Jefferson are certainly not that monolithic now, even if they ever were before.
The fact that ideas like his get such prime space in the WaPo is even more disturbing. In any case, it has become the dominant narrative in this WaPo-fueled hysteria over how Jefferson is going to the shitter.
But is this narrative helpful? Maybe the peddlers of this narrative will see their grievances addressed in the upcoming revision of the admissions policy. If the new admissions policy caused all their problems, maybe the newer one will solve all of them. Maybe Jefferson will once again start admitting only the right students, who come for STEM and only for STEM, who have no thoughts of prestige, who speak English fluently but not too elegantly for a STEM student, who just get critical thinking and come from middle schools that already encourage it.
Hell, Gary, maybe they’ll even all be citizens.