Success factory

Is Northern Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High, a science-and-tech magnet, too successful, asks The Washingtonian. “Why You Should Hate This School” is the subhead.

The public school admits only 16 percent of  applicants. In addition to “whiz-kid scientists, computer jocks, and chess champions . . .  there’s also a professional model who juggles New York gigs with dissecting leeches in neuroscience lab.” Students excel in music . They even do well in sports.

Among the faculty, there’s a fear that the school is becoming a success factory — a place where overachievers are too busy racking up trophies and college credentials to test themselves in the lab or classroom. The nation’s number-one school is asking itself: How much success is too much?

Students are smart — and highly motivated. Teachers complain they’re obsessed with grades.

“They are professional students,” says Emmet Rosenfeld, a former English teacher at Jefferson. “They know how to game anything, and they know how to get A’s.”

We should all have such problems, concludes Education Gadfly, which suggests creating more schools like TJ.

This year, 54 percent of TJ’s ninth graders are Asian-American; whites make up 36 percent of the class. The rap on the school — kids work too hard and care too much about grades — is one I’ve heard often in Silicon Valley with a lot of Asian-American students. Should we hate schools for achievers?

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  1. It would be worth asking what is the background of the teachers? Did they go to the schools where their students aspire to going or have careers that their students dream of? You only get a few chances to work hard at things you love — better to do it while you are young.

    I am actually tired of hearing about overachievers from people who are average achievers.

  2. Diana Senechal says:

    I remember in college (and even high school) seeing a divide between those whose main goal was to get As and get to the next place (law school, med school, a desired job) and those whose goal was to stretch their minds, question their assumptions, and learn from those around them. But then there were those who did both. It was possible.

    Many believe that if they become achievers, they will lose their creativity, or that if they entertain goals other than achievement, they will not do as well. This is a big mistake in thinking and a big waste.

    At Thomas Jefferson High, it may well be that students are obsessed with grades. But rather than downplay grades, teachers can show students that it is possible to study something for its inherent value, for the intellectual stimulus, and for the credits, grades, and other marks of achievement.

  3. They are hated because they are better. People who are brighter, smarter, harder working, more creative, or more successful will always be hated.

    Humans didn’t survive this long by liking when others were higher on the status ladder than they were. We’re wired for envy and jealousy. Sometimes, we’re smart enough to have this make us work harder ourselves. But when a society wishes to denigrate the hardest working, it’s on the way down. Our decline is here. It may be reversible, but it’s happening right now.

  4. Richard Nieporent says:

    More schools should have such problems! From someone who went to the Bronx HS of Science, all I can say is that the critics are jealous of their success.

  5. Doug Sundseth says:

    OMG, a school where the students care about, well, school. That’s just unnatural. And terrible. Obviously terrible.

    Apathy, disillusionment, and disengagement are so much better for kids.

  6. For teachers to complain about students who strive too hard–shameful. If you don’t like the lessons your students are learning in school, teachers, teach them different ones! But don’t hold them back academically.

    I thought we needed all kinds of people in the world–including brainiacs. Don’t the teachers at that school celebrate diversity?

  7. “For teachers to complain about students who strive too hard–shameful.”

    It would certainly seem shameful. Maybe it makes their work all the more difficult. I’m not saying they’re right, but can you imagine having a classroom full of kids who plow through everything you give them and may be ready for the next thing…and you aren’t, because you have a shedule already planned? To me, it would be like being a mama bird in a nest with 20 or 30 baby birds, all wanting to be fed at the same time.

    At any rate, the school is successful and needs to be imitated rather than ridiculed.

  8. I don’t begrudge them their success at all, but clearly it is not a model that every school could follow. I live on the opposite coast from TJ, but a cohort from my region visited there to see how to reform our public school model to be more like theirs in order to promote student achievement. The fact is, those kids who end up at TJ would be successful anywhere–they are gifted and whatever success they achieve should not be discounted as “too much” if they earn it honestly. If those kids were at my high school, they’d find success. For these kids–and this cannot be said for all–the school is not what makes them successful.

    Unfortunately in education, we too often look for what cookie cutter shaped those “model schools,” and then romp around the neighborhood trying to stamp the same model elsewhere. Their model works for them, but I’ve seen many other schools invest millions of dollars and thousands of hours into imitating TJs model while ignoring the fact that they are dealing with a different entry clientele than most schools. I bet if you take every remedial 9th-12th grader in a 250 mile radius of TJ and force a transfusion, there would be proof that the school’s performance is not a factor of the model of programming. The cause-and-effect is backwards. The program is not facilitating the kids’ success on exit, the kids’ success on entry is what enables the program. That’s great… but schools trying to imitate TJ need to remember that.

  9. Don Bemont says:

    Mark G’s point is, of course, the most important one. Most of us read widely about education hoping to take something home that might bring educational hope to our own locality, and this Virginia school is not it.

    However, there is the question as to why the program is attracting hostility.

    Is it because it has the whiff of gaming the system, specializing in producing the appearance of education, in place of real education?

    Is it because concentrating the elites in one place offends many people?

    Is it because working hard to acquire book knowledge has become so passe that even many teachers become uneasy when they see it?

    My guess: in some part, we are hearing all three concerns being voiced here.

  10. One element in the article that triggers an alarm is that they talk about students ‘gaming’ the system. that can be an indicator that students are far more adept at getting good marks than they are mastering the material.

    While grades are usually a pretty good proxy for mastering the material, experience with some Japanese students who were masters at writing tests taught me that the link is not necessarily so straightforward when students are focused on marks rather than the underlying knowledge.

    [The students were in Canada and were constantly being placed (much to their dismay) in much higher level ESL classes than they could actually manage or benefit from. They could produce reports getting A’s without any real understanding on what they had read. The funny part was that this was happening when the students didn’t care about the grades. They were just here to learn English. In many ways, their training in the Japanese educational system was betraying them…]

    Still, pretty hard to imagine that this focus on grades is a real crisis for the entire school.

  11. Far too many people, both inside and outside of the education world, are uncomfortable with or hostile to the entire concept of elite/gifted etc. Of course, they are likely to be equally hostile to the identification/separation of kids at the opposite end of the spectrum. That is how we have kids with IQs of <80 sitting in "algebra II" classes, instead of in classes designed to prepare them for jobs they can do. That's why the full-inclusion, differentiated instruction, groupwork model is so popular; it allows people to pretend that everyone's educational/career needs can be met in the same class at the same time. Of course, lots of those people don't see good vocational programs or entry-level job skills as worthy goals.

  12. For me, the worst part of this is the inevitable suggestion from my principal that we should use the same methods with our students so we can achieve the same results.

  13. Gaming the system has you upset Tom? Come on, given the collapse in the perceived value of a high school diploma that’s just the smart thing to do.

    After all, if high school’s merely the welcome mat for college then why overexert yourself for a degree that’s largely considered worthless now?

  14. Tom West makes a good point, i.e., it’s possible to game the system without having learned much. I find this particularly true of what I call the “point sluts,” whose main goal is to rack up their percentage in class in order to maintain a high GPA on their transcripts. Most of them are high-achieving Asians that have little passion for learning and scant interest in becoming analytical thinkers. As a freshman in college I read a book that profoundly changed my way of viewing education. It’s called On Becoming an Educated Person by Virginia Voeks. The first chapter was the most important for me, as it attempted to answer the question, Toward what ends are you attending College? I devoured it joyfully and enthusiastically. However, I don’t see the “point sluts” as having the mentality of developing “an increasing appreciation and love for the arts,” or of learning “new skills in thinking–as contrasted with memorizing or blindly accepting ‘authority'” as mentioned in the book. They are a driven lot, driven to succeed for parents or for status among their peers, but in spite of their high GPA’s, many club activities and other school/community involvements, they seem a rather shallow bunch upon graduating high school.

  15. “Most of them are high-achieving Asians that have little passion for learning and scant interest in becoming analytical thinkers.”

    Ah, I was wondering how long it would take for this sort of thing to pop up here. Please, like the white students at NYC’s elite schools (just to give a more specific example, since that’s where I live now) are any different?

    I do fondly (snort) remember the time when Joanne posted about high-achieving Silicon Valley high schools with large Asian populations, and there were people crawling out of the woodwork to snarl about how so many Asian students were cheaters anyway, blah blah blah. Interesting how some people feel the need to denigrate Asian students’ achievements, as if they’re not as good as high-achieving white students.

  16. It sounds like jealousy to me. How do you determine a person who makes good grades but hasn’t learned anything? It seems unlikely to me that some one who makes really good grades is actually dumb as a rock.

    And heck, if some one who hasn’t learned a thing manages to get really good grades anyway… chances are, they will do well in life.

    You can only succeed in faking it for so long, eventually you are caught. It’s not easy to seemingly succeed your whole entire life but deep down inside you are a failure. So if these kids have been “faking” it their whole entire lives… sounds like they are actually smart and not cheating.

  17. Actually, Julie, cheating is much more acceptable in cultures that place a higher emphasis on collectivism than individualism. A good discussion of the topic can be found here:

  18. Andrew Bell says:

    Wait a minute. This school isn’t really successful. It’s the students that they choose that are successful.

    But wait a minute, if every school chose the top 16% from a high-quality pool of well-off students, we would have total success. It’s so simple! Have any of the states proposed this in an effort to get the Race to the Top money?

  19. Ah, I was wondering how long it would take for this sort of thing to pop up here.

    You were just waiting to pounce, weren’t you Julie? I’m glad I could give you your gotcha moment.

    The demographic area in which I teach has very few whites, so I can’t speak to cheating by whites in elite schools, although I’m sure it exists. There are scoundrels everywhere and in every shade of skin color. I’m speaking only of my own experience. Second, two years in a row our school had Asian valedictorians who were removed at the last minute because of petitions circulated by teachers who had had the students in class and said they had cheated. I was not one of those teachers, but they were probably jealous like me, right, ns?

    Asian culture is one of social conformity, and at our school, if you want to be in the high-performance Asian in-crowd, you must meet certain requirements: high GPA, tennis or badminton, membership in certain clubs, etc. Last year a Vietnamese female in my honors class confided that she would not have been accepted into her current circle of friends had she not played badminton. Not every Asian student is driven, and I’ve had quite a few average ones and some duds, but they are in the minority.

    And how much exposure have you had to Asian high school students, Julie? I doubt very much. I had Asian roommates in college and shared a house with Asian roommates when I was teaching in another venue fifteen years ago. I have taught college, adult and high school classes with Asians for nigh on three decades and could site many more examples. I live in a city that is more than 50% Asian. You remind me of the students in one of my methods classes a few moons ago who accused a fellow student of racism when he asked the professor how he should deal with rampant cheating among Asians in his AP Calculus class.

    I’m going to end this post with one final comment. You don’t know what you’re talking about.

  20. Second, two years in a row our school had Asian valedictorians who were removed at the last minute because of petitions circulated by teachers who had had the students in class and said they had cheated. I was not one of those teachers, but they were probably jealous like me, right, ns?

    I am surprised they actually maintained their high grades when they were caught cheating by their teachers. Did the teachers not report the cheating? In my experience, cheaters either were punished severely or failed the class.

    I am quite surprised they were not already on the radar with the administration for cheating. It seems unlikely that the administration would choose known cheaters for valedictorian.

    I guess this subject hits a nerve with me because I’ve been accused of cheating at one point – which I did not. The teacher just accused me, but did not take any action, but I did take action on my own and report his accusation to the dean of my school. That’s how outraged I was. And I was a non-typical successful student in my field of study. Plus I was not the favorite, but I always excelled against the teacher’s chagrin.

    So just because some one does well doesn’t mean they cheated. Though there are people who do. I just don’t think it’s a very productive policy to accuse successful people of cheating with no evidence – just a general “Oh, this race cheats a lot, they have lot of that race, so they must be successful cuz they cheat” kind of a attitude. This may not be your specific attitude, but it’s the tone and message I got from reading the article.

    Again, it just sounds like jealousy to me – to accuse some one of cheating without solid evidence. It’s easier to genuinely be smart and successful than to stay on top your whole life through cheating.

  21. ns

    I agree with everything you said. After I posted I happened to remember an incident in an adult ESL class I was teaching a few years back. The students were a mix of Hispanic, Asian, and Middle Eastern, and I noticed that three Taiwanese women were comparing their test answers in plain sight of everyone else in the class. I said, “Is that the kind of example you want to set for your kids?” One of the women vehemently answered, “Yes, if it gets him into a prestigious university, I want him to cheat.” Of course, it was spoken with an accent, which I’ve edited out, but the other Taiwanese women concurred by nodding their heads in agreement. A brief discussion among the ladies and some of the other students ensued. Not a good public relations moment for the Taiwanese, I’d say.

  22. I don’t see how students can ‘game the system’ when the teacher has control of that system (unless the grading policies are established by the school administration).
    If the students are able to earn grades that do not accurately reflect their learning and knowledge, then that means the teacher is not appropriately assessing them. Too many teachers give too much weight to fluff like homework, participation, and group activities. Don’t even get me started on extra credit.


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