Friday, September 18, 2020

Why Fix the Best School? Because It's Broken

The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology is consistently ranked as one of the best public high schools in the country. We can debate the metrics that are used for such lists, but it's hard to argue with the results the school produces: Tons of exemplary students who gain admission to impressive colleges and universities and go on to amazing careers. TJ is a success.

So why would anyone suggest changing anything about the school? The table below shines some light on the problems.

Three things jump out at me from this table. First, Hispanic and Black students aren't even applying to TJ nearly as often as we would hope. Second, once they apply, the admissions test knocks many of them out of contention immediately. Third, it's an even worse picture for economically disadvantaged students. 

If you look at these numbers and think "Well, the Asian kids are just smarter," then we have different assumptions about the nature of race, so you can just move on. I have no reasoned response.

If you look at these numbers and think "Well, the Black and Hispanic kids are not as qualified (through no fault of their own), and letting more of them in will significantly dilute the academic strength of the TJ student body," then we can have a reasonable discussion (though I disagree with you). 

In a recent School Board working session, the Superintendent presented his TJ Admissions Merit Lottery Proposal, and I like it. For the first time, the admissions process can reflect the reality that many students could benefit from the rich experiences at TJ -- not just excellent test-takers. Most students who meet the new requirements (e.g., moving the minimum GPA up from 3.0 to 3.5) will be able to thrive at TJ. A few points: 

  1. The current system does a great job of identifying great test takers, but there is more to academics than test taking. I actually don't care about creating a strict ordering of everyone who can take a test well. It's important that admitted students be qualified, but more than 500 students in Fairfax, Loudoun, Arlington, and the other participating districts are qualified to attend TJ. 
  2. TJ teachers can figure out how to bring out excellence from students who took Algebra I in 7th or 8th grade and have a 3.5 GPA in their core middle school classes. Their classes will be SLIGHTLY less homogeneous, but not much. 
  3. More Black and Hispanic students will apply than in recent years. I would guess that many students of color haven't particularly wanted to go to a school where they are culturally alone.
  4. The TJ community will benefit from having more diverse perspectives and skill sets, while communities around Fairfax County will benefit from having connections to TJ. 
  5. For the class of 2022, 2 middle schools combined to send 140 students to TJ (about 40% of the county's total), while 15 middle schools sent too few to report (small single digits).

The lack of diversity in TJ's student population has inspired hand wringing before. One question that struck me from this article was from an alumna who asked "Why are her white peers just noticing the problems now?" Honestly, I suspect that the declining representation for white students is a significant trigger. Nothing gets the attention of someone with privilege like being underrepresented. There are probably other reasons including the increased emphasis on equity in our society, but I'm a bit of a cynic.

Here are a few bold predictions:

  • First of all, defenders of the status quo are going to lose their ever-loving minds. They will make impassioned pleas and defend the current system as the epitome of meritocracy.
  • If this merit lottery ends up being enacted and the number of National Merit Finalists goes down, those defenders of the current status quo will freak out again and say "I told you so!" My response: I'm ok with that. When you rely on a test for admission, then it is no surprise that those students remain good test takers. I will not judge TJ based on how many exceptional test takers attend. That merit is judged primarily by a single test is ludicrous and narrow-minded. What is being rewarded with the current system is test preparation.
  • Some families are going to move (or at least appear to move on paper) so their kids can have more favorable chances of selection. Any system can and will be gamed.
  • Academic achievement will rise a bit at many middle and high schools. All of a sudden, kids from underrepresented areas of the county will realize that they have a chance of getting into TJ, and will work to become qualified for the lottery. 
I applaud Dr. Brabrand and the folks at FCPS who put together this innovative proposal. It will improve educational opportunities and outcomes across the county, and will make TJ a better place to learn.

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Why Fix the Best School? Because It's Broken

The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology is consistently ranked as one of the best public high schools in the country ....