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Posted at 2:00 PM ET, 12/18/2009

Reader: Valerie, spare me ‘your snarky column’

By Valerie Strauss

I get a lot of emails from readers, sometimes expressing agreement with positions I've taken and sometimes raking me over the coals.

Here's one that I received after I wrote criticizing a list of “best high schools” in America by U.S. News Y World Report. Because the school at the top of the list was Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, I used that school to question the premise of picking any single institution as the best.

Some readers thought I was denigrating the school, including one who wrote the email below. That was not at all my intention, and in fact, my post says that Thomas Jefferson is one amazing school. I noted that it might not be “the best” school for everyone.

You can read the original post here. Below is the email. I don't agree with his criticism but I'd be interested in hearing whether you agree with him. Let me hear from you either in the comments section or at

By the way, the author of the email below asked that I not use his name because, he said, “I embarrass my wife and children enough as it is.”

So I won't.


Ms. Strauss,

I expect this will be one of several notes of protest you receive on your snarky column on Thomas Jefferson H.S.S.T. in today’s Washington Post.

It’s disgusting how local writers and media denigrate this magnificent school. Instead of repeatedly running the place down, locals ought to be proud that it produces so many success stories for outstanding achievements during high school and thereafter.

I have debated in correspondence with Jay Mathews his criteria for “best high schools”, and I understand his perspective that a school should be judged on how well it does with the material (i.e. students) it receives.

The pure percentage of kids who take the AP tests, a key factor for Jay, isn’t much of a measure if few or none of the kids ever pass, though. If I recall correctly one area school made the news a year or two ago for its first student to pass after many students over several years tried.

I understand your point that no particular school will be “best” for all students. That was certainly true for my two kids, one of whom went to TJ while the other did not. The one who did not was wise enough not to take the entrance exam since she knew the pressure to attend would be high if she had been admitted. She took GT courses in our local high school and later graduated magna cum laude from an ACC school in North Carolina.

Certainly TJ would not be best for learning disabled kids, and perhaps a high school for learning disabled kids which improved those kids’ abilities the most could be labeled the best.

But there is no reason for you to be dismayed at TJ being recognized again. “Best” certainly means “highest achieving” in the context of these high school ratings, and that’s not really a bad thing.

You wrote that TJ might not be the best for aspiring musicians or writers. You might ask professional musicians Thao Nguyen (indie folk-rocker) or Emily Schelstrate (cellist).

I was looking for the name of the remarkable violinist who was a member of my son’s class of 2005 from TJ and who performed at their commencement, but I couldn’t remember his name. My son said he has gone to Europe to study with a violinist there in hopes of a solo career.

However, in my search for TJ musicians I found Justin Chen, a remarkable violinist at TJ who graduated from Yale in ’03, won an award as a student journalist, spent a year in a Fulbright Fellowship and is now a third year medical student at Yale. I also found Stephanie Lai, who was featured in this 2001 article about TJ music students.

That article certainly suggested she had an interest in being a professional musician, but after a B.A from Harvard in Social Studies and Music and a Masters in Cello Performance from the Royal Northern College of Music, she’s doing other things.

Perhaps Justin and Stephanie don’t count as serious musical students in your book.

Does singing count? Ask 1994 TJ graduate and Broadway star Jose Llana.

As for writers, ask 1994 TJ graduates Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, co-authors of, "The Rule of Four," which reached the top of the New York Times Bestseller list, where it remained for more than six months. Dustin is also a co-creator and writer for ABC TV show, "The Evidence" and co-executive producer of the Fox TV show, "Lie to Me."

Or you could ask 1990 graduate Ehren Kruger, screenwriter for "Arlington Road," "Reindeer Games," "Scream 3," "The Ring," "The Brothers Grimm," and "The Skeleton Key."

For more recent graduates you could call my son’s classmate Sam Wilmott, who is doing pretty well composing music and lyrics and performing piano in New York, after graduating from the Tisch School at NYU.

Yes, there is a public fascination with “best of” lists and that is exploited to sell magazines. Likewise there is a public and journalistic fascination with attacking successful institutions like TJ (See the Washingtonian Magazine’s October, 2009 cover “Why You Should Hate This School.”)

Please stop the madness.

A Reader
Vienna, Virginia

(If for any reason you want to use any part of this letter for publication, please withhold my name. I embarrass my wife and children enough as it is.)

Follow Valerie’s blog all day, every day at

For all the Post’s Education coverage, please see

By Valerie Strauss  | December 18, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Fairfax County Public Schools  | Tags:  Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology  
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People tend to personalize educational matters, and that's what "reader" certainly did. The substance of your post, as I read it, dealt with the matter of ranking high schools and colleges. Some high school happened to be at the top, but you went out of your way to praise the school.

It's hard enough to decide "best of class" in dog shows, let alone in high schools. The argument you presented convinced me. Actually, "Reader" says that he agrees with you.

It's unlikely that the rankers will cease and desist. Journalists, like schools are tough to "turn around." But who knows? It sometimes happens.

Posted by: DickSchutz | December 18, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I'll call it out... TJ has its pick of the top 3% of students from the 13th biggest, 2nd wealthiest county in the country.

You can't stop that population from being successful.

Posted by: someguy100 | December 18, 2009 5:31 PM | Report abuse

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