Every now and then I read something which gets me thinking: "Diversity -- or Meritocracy", by Patrick J. Buchanan on the LewRockwell.com site is such a piece and it got me thinking about school quality. I know it's a fuzzy term but school quality is essentially "the ability to set and maintain standards"--the better the standards the better the school. Every school has to battle with school quality issues on some level, even the best. In a poor quality school the lack of standards slaps you in the face: in my case, trying to teach algebra 2 to students who struggled with arithmetic. There's very little you can do when students lack the basic foundation needed for the course. When students are in classes they don't belong in (especially because they "passed" the previous course) you know your in a poor quality school. Behind most of those students were parents who wouldn't return phone calls, never came to parent-teacher meetings, and would never call to find out why their child has an average below 20%. Schools that operate on this poor level don't care about the basics. That's why the problem is there and why bad schools tend to stay bad. From what I've seen, admin know about the problem but aren't ready to make the difficult choices to create change. They just want the kids to go through the school and then it's the problem of the colleges--if the students can get into one.
But problems with standards also occurs in better schools with "good" students. This shows up, for example, when students who don't belong in accelerated classes get in just because they want to. At the public schools I've worked at the teacher would determine which students shouldn't be in the accelerated track--only to be overruled by the guidance counselor. Maybe that's because school "quality" is often determined by formulas that give more points to schools that have many students taking AP classes. As a result it's common nowadays to have students in AP calculus even though they struggle mightily with fractions. Years ago these poor quality students would be kept out of the classes; now they're encouraged to take the classes and they confidently assert they're good at math. Parents can feel good about saying their spn or daughter is taking AP classes but the level has, in so many schools, been been dumbed down. And in response AP seems to have dumbed down their exams to compensate. The article "Universities Raise Standards for Earning Advanced Placement Credit" by Heather Zimar (2005) states, "According to the Web site for the College of Arts and Sciences, the minimum required score students needed to earn college credit increased from September 2003 to September 2004 for the following AP exams... In addition, in 2005, the required minimum score for AP exams will increase from four to five in the following subjects.......“I have to assume that they felt that they had been too generous for giving fours and fives,” Lunkenheimer said of the departmental faculty who establish the standards for accepting AP credit. She said she suspects that students were not doing as well in the courses that followed those for which they received AP credit......more and more students who are not ready for college-level work are taking the AP in order to boost college applications. These students do not do well in the courses that follow their AP courses, she said. “They take the test in order to write it down on their application,” she said. “This is a national problem, and it’s hard to see a way out of it.”".
Welcome to today's world where it's more about placating people trying to get an edge than setting and maintaining high standards. Which is one reason why I favor having less public education; it's so difficult to maintain a standard when the student has to be at the school. A private school can say no to the parents: if you don't like it, leave. Many parents I've talked to over the years have learned to tolerate issues at magnet schools because they realize the quality is so much worse if they were to take their child out of the magnet school and put them in the regular public school.
Which brings us to Thomas Jefferson high school. It's the gold standard of public education. Thomas Jefferson is not a typical school; it's a magnet school and it's success comes from borrowing the ideals of the private school model: in particular there are higher standards to get into the school. These higher standards keep the worst kids out. That policy has helped create a school that offers an education that puts many private schools to shame. Buchanan's piece makes it clear that even the public nature of the school means there is always pressure to weaken the quality.
Thomas Jefferson high school has decided entrance based on merit--and that's the problem in today's world because some 70 percent of the students are asian in the latest class. And, unfortunately, according to the Washington Post article: "The data also shows that for the fifth year in a row, 10 or fewer black students were admitted to TJ.". This prompted a lawsuit in 2012 when "...an activist group representing those students filed a complaint against Fairfax County with the U.S Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, alleging that the admission process discriminates against black, Hispanic and poor students. That complaint is ongoing. Bob Frye, one of the longest serving black members of the Fairfax County School Board, who voted to establish TJ as a magnet school in 1985, said that the administration should take a closer look at the school’s admissions process.“I have no interest in lowering the standards at TJ,” said Frye, 78, who served as chairman in 1999 and 2000. “I believe even now with the proper amount of preparation and interest the numbers [of black students] could surely be higher than they are now.”...Jeremy Shughart, the TJ admissions director, said that a committee is reviewing the application process to improve diversity at the school.".
No proof of unfairness in the admissions process, just some people believing that there "could surely be" more students of color and the willingness to bring a lawsuit. Indeed, the "evidence" of unfairness seems to be a result that favors asian students, and for that people are essentially advocating discrimination against students who have earned their right to study at Thomas Jefferson in order to get the right distribution. While a private organization such as the NBA doesn't have to face discrimination lawsuits over the demographics of their players, Thomas Jefferson high school is public and now acceptance based on merit is under pressure. As Buchanan writes, "And while Fairfax County generously supports its school, it does not spend what D.C. does. And how are D.C. schools doing? The Post reported yesterday: “Only 58 percent of D.C. students graduate high school within four years, and only about half of students are proficient in reading and math."".
Pat Buchanan's article raises all sorts of questions. Obviously, Thomas Jefferson administration wants the lawsuit to go away, but what will it take for that to happen? Will letting in 3 more students of color do that or is 30 the right amount? Who decides the "proper" amount and what is the criteria to do it, if not by merit? Would a quota be used even if the students of the "desired demographic" is too much too weak? And what about the qualified applicant who is now discriminated against because the merit system shows one group outperforms the others? Perhaps the magnet schools that hold lotteries to determine admission will be next if the luck of the draw results in the wrong racial distribution. The admissions process to get into Thomas Jefferson was set up to be fair but now merit takes a back seat to other factors. This is the sort of nonsense that promotes racism and undermines school quality. It's a shame, in the public arena quality standards aren't valued properly.
Here are some other stories that caught my attention:
- the untamed scribe has a piece on "Cell Phones in the Public Schools: a Tool or a Distraction?". Seems like he read my mind but obviously is a much better writer.
- Business Insider has a great article and video on "A college math professor brilliantly pranked his students and won the internet". A first class April Fool's stunt.
- The Atlantic Journal Constitution has coverage on 11 former Atlanta educators who were convicted in the cheating scandal.
- Scientific American has a piece on "The Cantor Function: Angel or Devil?".
- The Telegraph has an article on Pietro Boselli, his students, and, "That moment when you realise your maths lecturer is a top designer model."