STEM magnet goes remedial

Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology was created to provide a demanding curriculum for high-aptitude students bound for “productive lives as scientists, engineers and mathematicians,” writes John Dell, a long-time physics teacher, in the Washington Post. The new Jefferson admits remedial math students.

Above all, what made Jefferson special was the extraordinary learning environment created by assembling a critical mass of truly prepared students.

. . . At the new Jefferson, students are no longer selected primarily on the basis of their promise in science, technology and mathematics. One-third of the students entering Jefferson under the current admissions policy are in remediation in their math and science courses.

Some of the most promising middle school math students are passed over for admission, Dell writes.

. . . Jefferson students are now selected using an admissions process that is highly random, subjective, and devoid of measures that distinguish students with high aptitude in STEM. This process that 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.

Dell doesn’t name the “other agendas” that have replaced Jefferson’s original mission. However, the school’s demographics — mostly Asian, very few blacks and Latinos and predominantly male — have been criticized for years, reports the Post. “The school system tinkered with the admissions process several years ago in an effort to create a student body that more closely reflected the county’s entire population,” but the school remains heavily Asian and white and the gender gap is widening.

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Comments

  1. Here’s an overtly and unapologetically selective public school and not a complainant about selectivity in public school admissions in sight.

  2. Jay Matthews of Class Struggle at the WaPo has been leading a crusade against Thomas Jefferson for years now. Hope he likes the results.

    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle/2010/12/how_many_minorities_rejected_b.html

  3. Stacy in NJ says:

    This is sad for all concerned. This sort of thing increases racial tensions rather than ameliorating it.

    Why not establish a feeder charter middle school within the district to focus primarily on bringing promising minority students up to standard so that admission to Jefferson under its old standards is achievable?

    Of course, this feeder would need to “cherry pick” the best minority students from mediocre or failing districts, and we can’t have that. ;-)

    • Why not establish a feeder charter middle school within the district to focus primarily on bringing promising minority students up to standard so that admission to Jefferson under its old standards is achievable?

      It’d be a lot of money for relatively modest results. It’s not poor education at the source of the discrepancy.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Possibly true, but if we’re going to socially engineer an acceptable outcome (more minority students with a TJ high school diploma) then why not attempt to actually provide a high quality STEM’s education instead of just a credential with diminished value?

        I get that AA’s at the top of the bell-curve may still struggle when competing with Asians and whites at the top of their bell-curve. But an honest attempt at providing the education would be in my humble opinion more worthwhile and honest.

  4. How can a STEM exam school admit any student who needs remedial work while passing over applicants with strong STEM skills????

    I think having a couple of “boot camp” middle schools, one for girls and another for those who are from low-income families where neither parent has a college degree (of whatever race) would be a great idea. I am uncomfortable with having a program specifically for kids of a certain race, because the true disadvantage these days comes from SES rather than race.

    • If I remember correctly, this was done a number of years ago – based on race – and was stopped, for the same reason. Also, some of the URMs from the best DC-area Maryland high schools admitted openly that they knew they could get into top schools without taking the AP course load the white and Asian kids had to have. Most of those kids simply took the honors classes, with maybe 1-2 APs, so it’s unlikely many are motivated to do TJ-level work.

    • the true disadvantage these days comes from SES rather than race.

      If only that were true, but we’ve known for a very long time that it’s not.

      The SES argument is attractive because the one thing government can reliably do for a problem is to throw money at it.  If the only tool you have is a hammer….

      • The SAT scores chart you linked to doesn’t indicate anything about the obstacles that poor students have to overcome in their lives if they want to be successful. An affluent African-American family like the Obamas these days has their choice of any neighborhood in which to live and private schools if they wish. They can hire tutors and foot the bill for music lessons, sports equipment, and other extracurriculars. Poor families (of whatever race) don’t have that luxury.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          I think what engineer-poet is pointing out (and he can speak for himself, obviously) is that WHEN CONTROLLED FOR SES African-Americans score lower on the SAT.

        • While attending deservedly top-ranked high schools in some of the most affluent DC suburbs, black and Hispanic friends, classmates and teammates of my kids admitted that they did not have to have the same coursework or (weighted) GPA that the white and (especially) Asian kids needed – they would get into top colleges anyway. Most did not take the most demanding AP course load but did honors instead; a generally-ignored legacy of AA in college admissions.

        • The SAT scores chart you linked to doesn’t indicate anything about the obstacles that poor students have to overcome in their lives

          If you look at the average math and verbal SAT scores by race and parental education (source), you’ll see that the “social obstacle” theory has been debunked too.  You cannot argue that the children of Black parents holding graduate degrees are educationally disadvantaged compared to White parents with just HS diplomas, yet the children of the former underperform the children of the latter on both the math and verbal SAT.

          The truth is obvious.  It’s also not something we’re allowed to say out loud.  The taboo, not the facts, is the real problem.

          • Engineer-Poet (and Stacy in NJ), I applaud you two. You speak the truth that no one wants to hear, and dare not mutter. What makes me sad though, is that when this country finally turns on the dime and becomes a full dictatorship (which I think is <2 Presidents away at this rate), you two will be two of the first good people to "dissapear." :(

          • “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants and of patriots.”

            So be it.

          • “You cannot argue that the children of Black parents holding graduate degrees are educationally disadvantaged compared to White parents with just HS diplomas

            Actually, I’m arguing the opposite- children from affluent black and Hispanic families are the ones who are advantaged compared to children from poor families (of whatever race). It’s SES creating the obstacles to success these days, not race/ethnicity. That is why I favor eliminating race- and ethnicity-based affirmative action and instead having only SES-based AA. If that means that AA slots go primarily to poor whites and Asians instead of rich blacks & Hispanics, then so be it.

          • That is why I favor eliminating race- and ethnicity-based affirmative action and instead having only SES-based AA.

            You realize that this would essentially empty many academic institutions of so-called “under-represented minorities”?  (Not that this would be a bad thing of itself, but it’s horribly un-PC.)

          • I’m in favor of giving a hand-up to those students who actually face true obstacles, not those who have tons of advantages by virtue of their parents’ wealth. Maybe race-based AA was necessary back in the ’60′s and ’70′s to make up for Jim Crow, but that was four decades ago and at this point we’re talking the grandparents of today’s college applicants.

  5. This is nothing less than a tragedy, illustrative of the disinterest-to-contempt, that the ed world has for the most capable and motivated students. The system spends vast amounts on (1) the kids at the very bottom, who are incapable of any academic work and will always require custodial care, (2) those who are not educable but could be trained for suitable jobs, and (3) those who are currently called intentional-non-learners who interfere with the education of the willing – with little or no return on that investment. At the same time, the system generally refuses to provide appropriate challenges to the top kids, even though our country needs outstanding STEM graduates. It’s perverse and a waste of human resources. This idiocy risks compromising the quality of the TJ staff, also.

    • It’s not just a terrible tragedy for our smart and gifted K-12 students; in the long run, it’s a threat to our national security, and the civility of our society.

  6. “How can a STEM exam school admit any student who needs remedial work while passing over applicants with strong STEM skills????”

    That’s a good question.

    It would be a lot more excusable just to make exceptions for strong STEM students with English language issues or who are not verbally gifted, or maybe to have a special boot camp for such, as Crimson Wife suggests.

    What this change in admission policy misses is that one of the main advantages of an environment like the old TJ is the students themselves as much as the classes or the teachers (I believe Harvard is supposed to be similar in that respect). Change the student body, and you change the educational experience available to the new admits.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Wait– but if we admit that student population is as big a factor as staff or curriculum, then doesn’t that start undermining a lot of our reform efforts…..

      I went to an exam school (Blair) when it just took the top 100 in the county based on scores alone. Part of the lure was being in classes where the ‘slow’ kids would have been highly gifted in any other environment. (I was one of the slower kids, IIRC)

  7. “This idiocy risks compromising the quality of the TJ staff, also.”

    There’s that, too. Change the student body, and the staff composition will change. It has to, actually, because the sort of person who can teach high-flying math is not at all likely to be the same sort of person who can repair remedial students’ mathematical foundations.

  8. Why does this have to be some sort of zero sum game? Open up another high school. Fix the problems in the earlier grades so that there is no remediation, AND open up another high school. The need for remediation is the real problem.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Fix the problems in the earlier grades so that there is no remediation…

      Ah, if we only had the knowledge and the will to do that.

      I fear we have neither.

    • Peace Corps says:

      I like the idea of opening another high school. TJ-lite or TJ Humanities. There seems to be students applying to TJ because a diploma from there is a ticket to the University of Your Choice. If there were another choice for good students that weren’t high flyers in math and science, I would bet that many of these “remedial” students would make that choice.

  9. By admitting students who need remediation, this only takes spots away from well qualified students who worked their tails off (only to be denied admission). I heard Michael Savage the other day, and he was quite correct in stating that our public school system virtually ignores the top 1-5 percent of students in this country while kow-towing to the students who aren’t able to master basic math, reading, and writing skills (according to grade level).

    Dumbing down STEM courses is not going to produce the types of persons we want working in these careers (ummmm, what happens when the student needs to pass their board exams in nursing, medical school, etc? I can assure you that they won’t be getting any slack on the exam content (at least I hope this wouldn’t happen).

    The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America

  10. Lightly Seasoned says:

    NCLB comes home to roost.

  11. If I understood the article correctly, the number of non-Asian minorities has barely budged. Does this mean that the primary beneficiaries have been whites and Sians with less aptitude for.interest in STEM?

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      It maybe an issue of who’s applying for the available slots. It’s quite likely that boarderline whites and Asians are very eagar and willing to apply to TJ while miniority students shy away from a mostly white/Asian academically demanding environment. It’s a cultural thing.

  12. I was at this school today, to introduce students to policy and educational research.

    The principal (Glazer) and I sat down to talk for a few minutes. He admitted to me that he kicks out students who — at the end of their freshman year — have a B- average because he doesn’t think his school can get these kids to college.

    I’ve never heard of a principal saying that he didn’t think that a school could get a student with a B- average after his/her freshman year into college.

    Why is this man the principal of this school?

    (btw: Dr. Dell was my physics teacher his first year at TJHSS&T.)

    • If a student has a B- average despite diligent work at an exam school, then I think that student probably *would* be better off at a regular high school. Now if the kid has the brains to succeed but is losing points for careless mistakes and not turning in all homework assignments or whatnot, then I can see working with him/her to try to remedy the sloppiness. But you can’t remedy a lack of aptitude for the subject.

    • Maybe it’s a grade inflated B-? And if it weren’t for grade inflation, it would actually be a D-…

  13. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Actually, at least when I was in school (class of 1995), a B- taking classes at Blair actually meant you were taking much harder classes and learning a lot more than would have even been possible at a normal school.

    That B- represented : Doing a full year of physics in a semester. As a Freshman. Computer program courses that exceeded the top level available to seniors at my home school. Reading scientific papers, learning to write precis and abstracts (skills that make me money now!), A full year of chem as a freshman (in a semester.) Engineering classes. And then English, History, etc,. at the normal level.

    I was a C+/B- student in Blair Calculus. And I got a 5 on AP Calc BC. Easily. Like “Finish early and take a nap” easily. At my home school I MAY have gotten to take Calc AB.

    A B- at an exam school is NOT equivelant to an A student at a normal school. Well–at least if the home school was “Gaithersburg High…..”

  14. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Basically, if a program takes the top 100 kids in the county and tries to give ALL of them a challenging education, SOMEONE has to be the ‘B-” student.

    • I’m not convinced it is actually to the student’s benefit to be in the low achiever at an exam school than the high achiever at a regular school. Now I do think it is better to be average at the exam school, than a superstar at a regular school. I was only middle of the pack at the Ivy caliber college I attended but I think I got a much better education than had I attended my local state college.. But getting half C’s and half B’s isn’t average unless TJ has unusually tough grading standards.