Meritocracy, Nostalgia, and the Myth of the Post-Racial School

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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.

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One response »

  1. SOME COMMENTS FROM A FRIEND WHO GRADUATED FROM JEFFERSON MY YEAR. SHE WRITES VIA EMAIL:

    “Some things I’ve been thinking about:

    This idea of admitting the “wrong people” who aren’t interested in science– it strikes me as odd, this attitude that interest in science and mathematics is inherent, rather than inspired. Besides which, we were admitting into TJ before the new policy and how many of our classmates do you see pursuing science? Most of them seem to be drained into finance or consulting. People no longer see education as something with intrinsic value, but a means to obtain access into the global elite.

    The idea that thirteen, fourteen year olds can do anything other than rote memorize. There is nothing wrong with rote memorization for a teenager– it is the basis and foundation on which they build their ability to think critically. If Thomas Jefferson teachers no longer see critical thinking emerging in their new student body, perhaps they should reconsider their teaching methods. Much of science and math relies on memorization, and the ability to scientifically question, reason, is only developed in those classes that force discussion and analyzing multiple perspectives.

    The idea that science should not be political. I think this is an old idea, goes back to the whole science is based on merit, blah blah blah. You and I have had this discussion before. What I think is a shame, however, is how much at Jefferson they tried to encourage us to think about science and politics, how science should be a major part of policy and the ignorance of much of the world should be countered, but they never talked about the politics of science. The closest we ever got to that discussion in a meaningful way, I feel like, was when we discussed Rosalind Franklin and the attitude of James Watson towards her in his book, how he dismissed her and stole her work. We never talked about the social dimensions of a discipline that has always (and I really mean always) been dominated by white males. I don’t think I’m writing about this coherently, how it’s appealed to me.

    The thing is, I didn’t understand what I was missing in diversity until I got to Columbia and New York City. Science prides itself on being international, a discipline that is supposed to transcend the lines of race, class, and so on. So long as you have the mental ability and the spark of imagination, you can discover anything.

    Just… [this view of science] is a cultural thing.

    You’re right, there is something fundamentally off, missing, an unspoken thing in this discussion about TJ. As someone who’s been teaching science for a few months now, I understand the frustration of suddenly getting students who need remedial math, who need to be brought up to speed. It’s not fun teaching students who have little to no foundation– teaching the brilliant is always a pleasure. Perhaps this is about the politics of the brilliant. Is it really so simple as believing that those with brilliance will rise to the top, that no obstacles in their education or circumstance will stand in their way as genius lights the inevitable path to success? Why don’t we have more images of “natural genius” who are black, Hispanic? (They come with the taint of exotic, of truly exceptional circumstances that are astounding.) (I feel like I’m devolving into incoherence again.)

    The truth is, I get tired whenever I think about Thomas Jefferson, where the teacher demographics as just as skewed as the students. It gave me an education… I don’t know what education means to people in this day and age, I don’t know why people are up in arms about this. Is it parents, who are afraid that the spot they believe should be given to their child (who obviously has all the right STEM interests?) will be given to someone “undeserving”? By the way, who exactly is this phantom population that they talk about, those kids (rare) who are burning to know science? I think that those kids who, at the age of thirteen, are already passionate about science and want to do it for the rest of their lives– they will always get into TJ. I feel like sometimes, they’re envisioning a group of children who aren’t there. What they’re really talking about are those kids who are uncertain about what they want to do, who have no natural leanings either way, and the belief that it’s the fault of the admissions process that not more kids are interested in science makes no sense. Interest is something cultivated over time, rarely does it manifest itself as a life passion. Is it the fault of the student who’s had a mediocre science education in elementary and middle school if they don’t evince an immediate and total interest in science? And the hostility from teachers, the intensity of the Jefferson curriculum, can’t be helping them. So many of us were burned out by the end of school.

    Also, how do they know which students will go into science after leaving the school? How can they make this judgment? I never had a particular interest in mathematics, yet I ended up majoring in it and here I am, teaching science to hapless high schoolers who need to take the SAT II. I just.. am not sure I understand these people’s world view anymore.”

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