Raising the Floor, but Neglecting the Ceiling

Admission to what was until recently “America’s best high school” (as named by U.S. News & World Report) is again under assault from multiple directions. Seven teachers at Virginia’s acclaimed Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology allege that the school’s famously rigorous selection process has been eased, such that it’s no longer enrolling the ablest and best-prepared pupils.

A federal civil-rights complaint filed by a former Fairfax County School Board member asserts that entry criteria at TJ, as the school is known, in conjunction with the district’s clumsy handling of “gifted and talented” education in earlier grades, rig the enrollment against black and Latino kids. At the same time, a law professor is pressing his claim that black students are favored over white students in the admissions process.

Any of these allegations could be true. But both complaints about TJ overlook two widespread failings in American public education that give rise to such grievances while also jeopardizing the nation’s long-term economic competitiveness.

First, we’ve been neglecting the education of high-ability youngsters. States, districts, and individual schools, pressed by federal policies and metrics, have concentrated attention and resources on low-achieving and other “at-risk” youngsters, while paying scant heed to the fate of smart, eager pupils. Uncle Sam hasn’t helped in recent years by zero-funding the one program intended to strengthen “gifted and talented,” or G/T, education for poor and minority students. While struggling to raise the floor in K-12 education, we’ve failed to lift the ceiling.

Second, this negligence (coupled with our wariness of “elitism”) has produced a dearth of places and pursuits for able youngsters, both at the elementary and secondary levels. The demand for rigorous G/T programs and high schools like TJ vastly outstrips the supply.

What we’ve done instead is expand access to Advanced Placement courses and encourage more kids to take them. Not a bad move, but, when done in isolation, it can lead to youngsters turning up in AP classrooms who are ill-prepared for such academic challenges, very likely because their previous instruction wasn’t strong enough. (There’s evidence, too, that these courses don’t always challenge the brightest kids.)

When access to rigorous programs is limited, or entry into them is handled simplistically (e.g., a child’s score on a single test), plenty of kids who might benefit don’t get drawn into the pipeline that leads to later success at the AP level and in schools like TJ—of which there aren’t enough, either.

Youngsters with educated, motivated moms and dads also tend to find their way into the right classrooms and schools, even if that entails an expensive private education. The victims are the poor and those whose parents don’t know how to “work the system”—girls and boys whose life prospects would improve most from such opportunities.

Our forthcoming book* provides a pioneering look into the underexamined world of selective public high schools. We found just 165 of them, lumpily distributed across the land. And we learned that, despite their reputations as havens for rich kids, their students are almost as poor as the general public high school population. (Rich families truly have other options.) African-American youngsters are over-represented in these high schools, and Asian-American youngsters heavily over-represented. Both white and Latino kids are under-represented.

That doesn’t mean every school on our list is a demographic microcosm of its community. Like TJ, many are not. It does mean, however, that selective-admission high schools as a group are impressively diverse in both ethnic and socioeconomic terms.

We also learned that they handle admissions in many different ways. A few (mainly in New York) rely exclusively on test scores. Others, TJ among them, resemble selective colleges in the breadth of factors they consider and the pains they take when evaluating individual students’ likelihood of thriving there. They are selective, however, both because their academic expectations and standards are (usually) lofty and because the U.S. education system hasn’t generated nearly enough such schools to accommodate today’s demand from well-prepared and fully qualified kids—demand that would further intensify if it included the many youngsters from every sort of background who could have been prepared and qualified if they had been better served early on.

Perhaps the big question for Virginia decision-makers isn’t whether TJ discriminates, but why there’s only one TJ.

-Chester Finn and Jessica Hockett

*An article, “Exam Schools from the Inside,” based on our new book, appears in the Fall 2012 issue of Education Next.

This essay was originally published in the August 22, 2012 edition of the Washington Examiner.

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