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Top high school should look for character as well as brains

By Jay Mathews

My colleague Kevin Sieff reported last week that the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is not only the most selective public school in America, but one of the least diverse. After years of promising to reach out to the third of Northern Virginia students who are black or Hispanic, less than 4 percent of its students have that background, while ultra-selective colleges such as Harvard and MIT have about 20 percent.

When you create a school based more on sorting than teaching, as Fairfax County did with Jefferson in 1985, it is hard to break the habit of picking applicants by their accomplishments and test scores at age 13, rather than their potential to benefit from Jefferson’s great teachers. Four percent underserved minorities is not good enough. Public schools have to follow court guidelines on admission, but U-Va., also public, manages to have 13 percent black or Hispanic students.

Jefferson still rejects many qualified blacks and Hispanics. Last year, the school says, 52 Hispanics and 29 blacks reached the semifinal round of admissions, based on their academic records. But only 13 Hispanics and four blacks were enrolled.

The ability to benefit from the school’s imaginative teaching is not the main criterion for the admission people, I suspect. Like the rest of us, they are impressed by test scores. I have seen the Ivy League admissions process at close range. Applicants in the 95th percentile on standardized tests are not seriously considered because there are so many in the 99th percentile above them. Those colleges will, however, take a second look if you are a talented flautist or a ranked squash player or black or an alumni child or Hispanic or related to the family that just funded the new science center.

Jefferson teachers tell me their admission committee is more handicapped by the fact that many bright eighth-graders, of all ethnicities, don’t want to attend their school or any like it. Here is a relevant demographic fact: at many of our most selective public schools, students of Asian ancestry are the largest ethnic group. This is true of Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Hunter College in New York City, and Lowell and Whitney in California, all of whom draw from areas where Asians are a minority. At 46 percent, Asians are also the largest ethnic group at Jefferson.

There are two ways to explain this. First, most parents have little opportunity or interest in sending their children to selective high schools, public or private. We think our kids can get just as good an education in the neighborhood school. In many cases we are right. Most Northern Virginia schools have teachers just as good as those at Jefferson.

Second, many Asian American families, particularly those more recently arrived, have a reverence for science, math and academic success not typical of this country, and remember prestigious selective secondary schools in China, Japan and Korea. They love what Jefferson offers and apply out of proportion to their numbers. Their children's commitment to science and math may be particularly important to their being more likely to be admitted than other ethnic groups, because Jefferson principal Evan M. Glazer says interest in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math) is key. "A very bright student without a passion for STEM should not be selected for admission," he says.

Asian-American children get terrific educations at these selective high schools, but they learn eventually that attending Jefferson does not guarantee admission to Princeton or Yale. Those colleges dole out admissions like Halloween candy, not too many to any one high school.

Broadening the ethnic profile of our nation’s best high school should not be that hard. Many educators and students supporting Jefferson have formed a Diversity and Engagement Curriculum Team to recruit more blacks and Hispanics interested in science. I think the school should also keep in mind that success in America stems more from character than test-taking ability. Washington offices are full of brilliant people who lacked the patience, persistence and charm to rise as high as they hoped.

Sadly, we haven’t figured out a sure way to teach character. The largest federal study of character-building or social-development programs just reported little progress in improving student behavior or achievement. But we can tell which Jefferson applicants show signs of the determination and grace that produce great lives. Just ask their middle-school teachers.

Many of the most promising ones will be black and Hispanic. Give more of them a chance, and Jefferson will not only be a more interesting school to attend, but more reflective of the values we want all of our kids to have.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | November 7, 2010; 9:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, character should be an important trait in picking students, few blacks or Hispanics admitted to Jefferson, largest ethic group is Asian, need to find more students interested in science  
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Next: Even our best kids lag in math--middle schools to blame


Jay, the first round that you mentioned a number of black and Hispanic students made the cut, is the test taking round (combined with gpa). The second round is where they look at other factors, including teacher recommendations.

One of the issues some MS's have, particularly the ones with more diversity (i.e. not Longfellow or Carson)is TJ doesn't have the history with some of the teachers due to teacher turnover at those schools. This can affect student enrollment from those schools, if the teachers are not used to writing recommendations (MS teachers rarely develop that skill, were HS might due to their students applying to college).
TJ should offer teacher training in writing the applications, perhaps, at the schools that have more blacks and Hispanics applying.
I don't know, it is just a guess on my part...teacher turnover equals teachers new to they system having to write recommendations on students that aren't traditionally going to TJ...might make that second round more difficult than it needs to be.

Posted by: researcher2 | November 8, 2010 5:45 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for bringing this question the attention it deserve, Jay. These issues, of course, reach far beyond Jefferson High.

You start by noting,
"Last year, the school says, 52 Hispanics and 29 blacks reached the semifinal round of admissions, based on their academic records. But only 13 Hispanics and four blacks were enrolled."

Well, maybe kids and families know that, and that's why they don't bother to apply, and aren't particularly motivated to strive for the academic record and test scores that will not win them a ticket to ride, anyway, as it turns out.

You end by suggesting, I think, that if their character could be taken into account, these academically qualified minority kids might be considered more favorably by the selective admission committee.

Then you define character as, "the determination and grace that produce great lives," and contrast it to "brilliant people who lacked the patience, persistence and charm to rise as high as they hoped."

Jay, "character" fell through the crack you opened, as it so oftern does.
I do teach it, and am an expert, in fact. The news is that, especially for honorable pweople in low-wealth communities, a great life might not be aimed at "rising as high" as one hoped, through "patience, charm and persistence."

Were you, by chance, a legacy yourself at Harvard? You might not know about character development in gifted children surrounded by loved ones who are in physical need and distress.

We need courage, spiritual strength, and loyalty to our own hearts to maintain our capacity for insight, and keep our minds running at the high cognitive level required by supposedly "cold" fields like the sciences. YOU might only need "patience, persistence, and charm" to get ahead, but you never tackled calculus-based physics at 17.

And then you also get mired in this dilemma,
"The largest federal study of character-building or social-development programs just reported little progress in improving student behavior or achievement."

I love this one. The cheats and liars who are trying to turn public education into a fake-data-driven, tax-funded profit machine for themselves are designing and assessing programs to teach character!

You've written a very good, thought-provoking column. I have to post this without proofreading - my apologies.

Posted by: mport84 | November 8, 2010 6:43 AM | Report abuse

TJ is a magnet school for students who are very good at and strongly interested in science and technology. If you want to create a magnet school for character, go ahead. But don't dilute TJ's mission with some hard-to-define attribute of character. I am a professor and yes, it's great to have nice, patient, and charming students in class. But if they can't master the concepts, then they will fail their class. Why dumb-down the TJ classes just to include patient or charming students? The goal for TJ is to have more outreach to parents of elementary and middle schoolers. Convince them that TJ is a great fit for their children. Maybe these parents don't want their kids to be so intensely focused on academics at such a young age. I also agree with the poster above about the importance of the middle school teachers. They have to understand TJ and encourage their students to apply, plus be willing to get to know the students enough to write really strong letters of recommendation.

Posted by: drl97 | November 8, 2010 7:33 AM | Report abuse

It is absurd to claim that one can get the same math and science education in a class with average students as you can in a class with nothing but the best. Unless you are ready to flunk many of the average students, you can't provide a really challenging education to the best in a class that includes the mediocre.

You are right about many high ranked colleges passing over smart Asians for the mediocre of favored races. For anyone who is not a racist, this is what should be considered a national shame, not TJ's high standards.

As a group, graduates of education schools are among the least intelligent of all college graduates. They have the lowest IQs, performed the worst on college boards, and had the poorest high school records. This probably has a lot to do with the our school systems' antipathy toward elite students and focus on raising the dumbest to mediocre.

Unfortunately, it is not the mediocre who will win Nobel prizes in science, create new industries, and create the jobs for the mediocre. It is the best who will do this. Thomas Jefferson should be praised for its focus on these students, whatever their race.

Posted by: ronStrong | November 8, 2010 7:42 AM | Report abuse

And how exactly do you propose judging "character"? Our local (non TJ)HS claims to place great emphasis on "character", but in my experience it seems to be more a judgment of "personality". The students who know how to smile and "kiss up" to the teachers and administration are rewarded. Is this what we want at TJ?
I would love to see more under represented minority students at TJ. But do you suggest that we assume that these students possess more "character" than the students who now populate the school?

Posted by: READR | November 8, 2010 8:13 AM | Report abuse

Jay, can you tell us the racial make-up of the Admissions officers who decide which students get into TJ? I was told by someone who would know at TJ that the admissions panel is entirely made up of minorities. If this is true, then miniorities are deciding which minorities get in and their decisions are based on each applicant's qualifications - NOT their skin color or ethnicity. This seems to be an important point worthy of mention in both yours and Mr. Sieff's articles. Perhaps future articles could focus on what FCPS may be doing (if indeed they are doing anything) to recruit science and technology mentors who can work with minority students to get them involved in activities like Lego Robotics and Science Olympiad - pathways that can improve any student's chances for getting into TJ.

Posted by: abcxyz2 | November 8, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

"There are two ways to explain this. "

There are more than two ways to explain this. Don't be silly, Jay. You don't like the other explanations, but there are more than two.

""Last year, the school says, 52 Hispanics and 29 blacks reached the semifinal round of admissions, based on their academic records. But only 13 Hispanics and four blacks were enrolled"

Just because they made the semifinal round doesn't mean they were the strongest candidates. On average, the Hispanic and black candidates would have had lower test scores. So it probably makes sense that few of them made the final cut. And remember, they probably make the semi-final cut score low so that they can get as many blacks and Hispanics as possible.

This is a statistical fact, unfortunately. You should investigate it--but then, you probably have. If their records showed that blacks and Hispanics were being discriminated against, it'd be big news. I suspect you already know what I pointed out, which is why you spend so much time talking about character.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 8, 2010 9:05 AM | Report abuse

“Their children's commitment to science and math may be particularly important to their being more likely to be admitted than other ethnic groups, because Jefferson principal Evan M. Glazer says interest in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math) is key. "A very bright student without a passion for STEM should not be selected for admission," he says.”

Is “a passion for STEM” his way of saying ‘best behaved’, ‘best looking’, ‘from the right neighborhood or middle school’ or ‘with the right parents’?

Does Fairfax County Public Schools, the 12th largest school system in the US, have any concern or value for these other bright students—many of whom may not be of European or Asian descent?

This whole thing smells of a bureaucracy of conformity.

FCPS does have a small alternative grade 9-12 school with 200 students (Mountain View Alternative HS) which has a high level of cultural diversity. However, there are rumors of it being shut down.

MATH and SCIENCE, UBER ALLES! Oh, that was really unfair. Or was it?

Dear FCPS, have a performing arts high school, an international studies high school, a medical professions high school, a governance and public administration magnet school (think of what many student’s parents do for a living in the county). FCPS is supposed to be a leader an innovator in public education. TJHS diversity problem makes the system look like it was run by P.W. Botha— I am absolutely sure the students at TJ don’t understand the reference; keep working those pipettes and algorithms folks.

Posted by: professor70 | November 8, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

Terrific comments, particularly on the character education issue. I will respond in reverse order so I can scroll up:

for abcyz2---You ask a great question. I had not heard that about the admissions committee, but I will ask and post the answer as a comment here.

For READR---I define character as traits that make people around you better and get you through tough times, but I am sure there is a better definition. I will have to get into this.

for ronSTrong and drl97---I don't see a great difference between kids at the 99th and the 95th percentile, and I certainly would not call kids at the 95th percentile people "who can't master the concepts." As I understand it, that first cut at TJ is designed to weed out kids who could not master the concepts. Anybody who makes that round is ready to go intellectually, but of course they don't have room for that many kids. The rest of the selection appears to be based on non-quantitative factors.

mport84---I wasnt a legacy. My mom graduated from UCLA and my dad did not graduate from college. I find yr post fascinating at several levels. I don't want to burden you because you are helping me on that Kaplan post, but i would much appreciate an email whenever you can pointing out the differences between how you teach character ed and how these programs do it, and how you think the effectiveness of such programs is best measured.

researcher2---You make an excellent point. I am well aware of the effect having a middle school math teacher like Vern Williams at Longfellow, and what an amazing record of TJ admitees he has. I think the TJ panel I mentioned is trying to address that very issue.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 8, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

1) When will we start asking what parents and students have done? And stop blaming schools and teachers???

2) If people aren't interested in science and technology, why do we force them to have interest?

Why don't we complain that NBA isn't diverse enough? Should NBA recruit people who have "characters"?

Posted by: washingtonian10 | November 8, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

I have posted a long criticism of this article on my blog, DISCRIMINATIONS:

Posted by: jsr1 | November 8, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

I think it is interesting to say that one cannot teach a class with average students and "nothing but the best". Even is a class with "nothing but the best", there will be a wide range of ability (sometimes a wider range than in a 'regular' class). Since it will always be the case that someone will have the highest ability, the same argument can be made that one cannot teach a class like this while simultaneously challenging the highest student without giving a poor grade (or failing) the lower students (even being in a high level class). This same argument can be repeated until you only have classes of one students (or few students who are at the same level). This, of course, is absurd.

Not only is it possible to have a challenging class with students at different levels, it is being done (unfortunately not as often as it could be).

As for saying that graduates of education schools have the lowest IQ, performed lowest in high school, etc., I would like to see data on that. Anyone can make a specious claim (especially anonymously), it is usually the easy way out for someone who wants to make a point but is too lazy to (or can't) back it up.

Posted by: williamhorkan | November 8, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Maybe we should put more Asian students on all the high school football teams so they are more diverse. After all, these poor Asian students might bring more 'character' to football. Wonderful, isn't it?

Posted by: washingtonian10 | November 8, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Actually, Jay, there is a huge difference between someone at the 95th percentile and the 99th percentile, especially when it comes to highly analytic subjects such as math and physics.

First, as a simple statistical matter, the gap between 95 and 99 is the same as the gap between 75 and 95. Just as 95 is the top 20% of the 99 percentile, 99 is the top 20% of the 95 percentile.

If you were to go to an advanced undergraduate math or physics class at MIT you would find everyone is well above the base of the 99th percentile. There would be few there who were not in the 99.9+ percentile. The average would probably be around the 99.95 percentile.

A suggestion for a quick demonstration. Check out the problems used in the math olympiad. All problems used during the last 50 or so years are available online. Show a few of these to students who are no higher than the 95th percentile. I doubt you'll find many such students who even understand the problems, let alone could try to solve them. Even at TJ, there would be very few who can solve such problems. Their solution requires persons at the top 99.999 percentile and higher.

The higher the math and science aptitude of the class, the higher level at which a qualified teacher can teach. If you can limit a class to the top 1% you can make a more challenging presentation than if you can limit the class to the top 5%. If you can limit the class to the top 0.1%, you can provide still more challenge.

It is these people at the very top who will create the future. Teaching them, challenging them, and interesting them at the highest level possible increases the likelihood that they will be among those top contributors to society.

Posted by: ronStrong | November 8, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

The admissions procedures at a private college versus a public high school may not be comparable. I teach at a selective middle school and we have had to drop all criteria but grades and test scores because of parent scrutiny. Ivy League colleges aren't accountable to the parents of rejected students.

Posted by: pittypatt | November 8, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

And then there are those of us who care not for what TJ has to offer. As the mother of two Asian students who are both in accelerated math classes but are not so fond of science, I want my children to attend Annandale for the diversity and the culture. One child is also gifted musically, a trait often found hand in hand with math ability. The other one wants to be involved in drama and has the promise to be a good writer. Perhaps either one or both will end up pursuing a career in a STEM field, but perhaps they will not. Not attending TJHSST won't hold them back if they end up wanting to pursue STEM after hs. But attending TJHSST may well reduce their future options to only STEM related fields. Why narrow the options in high school?

Posted by: janedoe5 | November 8, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

"I think the school should also keep in mind that success in America stems more from character than test-taking ability."

How very true, but I'd like to add one more trait: Until recently success in America stemmed from respect for the huge variation in human abilities.

About twenty years ago I had a conversation with a man from Japan. I said something like "Your educational system is so much better than ours."

He shocked me with his response: "No, YOUR system is much better."

"Why?" I asked.

He told this story:

"When we lived in Japan my son who is gifted in math and science did very well in school; but my other son, who is not good in academics, was shunned. He did not fit. His abilities were not valued in Japan. He was considered a failure in school and that is a very bad thing there. He would not have been admitted to any college.

Then we moved to Fullerton [CA] where both sons were enrolled in the local high school. My older son went into the advanced classes and took AP courses. He went on to medical school and is now a doctor.

My younger son found his niche too. In high school he was permitted to take classes in art where his talents were recognized and appreciated. He studied at an art institute. Today he's a graphic artist in Beverly Hills making more money than his brother."

The man went on to say that Americans don't appreciate what they have. Now we are copying the test worshipping countries that have traditionally done worse than we have in the area of general achievement.

Hopefully citizens will realize the huge mistake that we are making at the present time before too many of our children are lost to the testing craze.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | November 8, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

For ronStrong---Yours is an interesting argument, which I have never seen made before. I will check it out with a few science and math teachers, and try to report back. You will have show me some data before I will ever accept this statement, however:

"It is these people at the very top who will create the future."

Certainly some of them will make great contributions, but my reading of history suggests that lots of people with demonstrably more modest academic achievements also made enormous strides forward. But if you have evidence for that, send it to me here or at It would make an interesting column. I have also yet to find a statement from any of the great contributors in that IQ range who credited their achievements to being taught in a school that accepted only people like them.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 8, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Rather than altering a good program, how about creating another school where just students with exceptional character are admitted. That might be the true leadership training institution that the country seems to so desperately need and students aspiring to this school would be rewarded for traits normally not recognized in academic contexts.

Posted by: toss255 | November 8, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

@Linda/Retired Teacher,

Your comments are so true and on the spot. TJ has become such a pressure cooker where the emphasis is on test taking and scores. It doesn't help that many of the Asian parents are especially focused on test scores in no small part due to their experience of their native countries' highly competitive college entrance process.

I went to Bronx Science 30 years ago, and my oldest son just went through the TJ entrance proces. He ended up not attending the school. The entrance process and selection criteria were just so convoluted and opaque that no one had a clue as to where they stood in regards to all the other applicants. My personal experience at Bronx Science as to take an entrance exam and make it past the cutoff score. That's all. Nothing else mattered. Why can't TJ's be that simple?

Posted by: dhpan | November 8, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

A nice quote on character:

"Men of energy of character must have enemies; because there are two sides to every question, and taking one with decision, and acting on it with effect, those who take the other will of course be hostile in proportion as they feel that effect."
--Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1817.

Sure, there is a base line of character - to do right because it is the right thing to do, to consider others, show kindness, be honest, and the like. However, perhaps true character is revealved in how one handles conflicts or pursuits as well, even to the detriment of one's own "best interests" (ridicule or scorn?) or personal safety or livelihood (consider such as Billy Mitchell, Tesla, Leeuwenhoek, Spallanzani, and our founding fathers).

Our future (and present) scientists should have a strong sense of character and be unwilling to compromise in situations of ethics. The "conflict of interest" statements in journal articles are present for good reason. Medical schools receiving monies from private industry to "conduct certain research" is and should be suspect (think tobacco studies). Fudging on data? Not giving credit when credit is due, as wrongly happened to Rosiland Franklin, Lise Meitner, and Charles Best). Strong character is sustained through tough waters.

Posted by: shadwell1 | November 8, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Jay writes "Top high school should look for character as well as brains." Fair enough, but he gives the game away by also writing "Four percent underserved minorities is not good enough."

I don’t care if all of the TJ students are Asian, or, for that matter, if they are white, black or Hispanic. Just so long as they are all qualified and are treated the same way, starting with admission requirements.

If we lower standards to admit certain pupils, then it cheapens the result for all at TJ.

Merely being born a member of a particular group should never be a qualification, not here in America.

Posted by: Jack43 | November 8, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

I would rather we look at the kids from high poverty homes than skin color. This should not be an elitiest school based on a parent's W-2 income.

As far as the teacher recommendation letters... FCPS currently offers a course to all teachers on writing these letters. Do they take advantage of it? Good question.

I would be very troubled if these letters carry a heavy weighting in admissions-particulary if we know that some teachers know how to "game" the admissions dept and some don't.

Posted by: takebackourschools | November 8, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

abcxyz2 posted a comment asking me to check a report from a friend that the TJ admissions committee is made up totally of minorities. I got this response from Paul Regnier, spokesman for the Fairfax County public schools:

"This is totally untrue. I have looked at the lists for the last 3 years, and Whites are the majority.."

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 8, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for checking Jay. Thank you Mr. Regnier.

Posted by: abcxyz2 | November 8, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

I agree that increasing the percentage of African American and Hispanic students at TJ is important. I disagree with (1) your assertion that 'broadening the ethnic profile of our nation's best high schools should not be hard" and (2) that it is as simple as changing the admissions criteria to place more emphasis on character. You imply that if Harvard can attract 20% minority then TJ should easily be able to do the same. However, TJ's mission is focused on math, science, and technology so perhaps the better comparison would be with the Engineering School at Harvard ---where attracting U.S. minorities apparently isn't so easy. Please see the Oct 29, 2010 article in the Harvard Crimson, "SEAS Struggles to attract Minority Students." (

“This isn’t a problem for Harvard so much as this is a problem in STEM in particular,” says Computer Science Professor Margo I. Seltzer....... “If someone had figured out...some recipe to get more minority students [to concentrate in STEM], it would be fabulous,” Seltzer says. “But at the end of the day, students get to pick their concentrations.”

As I'm sure the students at TJ know, correctly defining the problem is the first step in making sure you find the correct solution.

Posted by: bogart2 | November 8, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

How do we know that the 13 Hispanics and 4 blacks who enrolled at TJ were the only ones offered admission? Perhaps there were others out of the semi-finalists who got in but ultimately chose not to attend.

The minorities who made the initial cutoff are presumably going to be highly sought-after by top colleges regardless of which high school they attend. If they are aware of this fact (and it's hard not to be), they may have much less incentive to put up with the exceedingly high academic demands at TJ than whites and Asians do.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 8, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

I think we need to put more short white males on HS basketball teams. Just think of all the Napoleonic complexes we could avoid if we made varsity basketball more "diverse".

Posted by: lisamc31 | November 8, 2010 7:44 PM | Report abuse

1. Why ACCEPT someone BASED ON RACE when the person is NOT QUALIFIED? This school is for children who show passion in science and technology, and show accomplishment in these subjects. Students who have not preformed well before will just fail and get kicked out anyway.
2. There were Hispanics and African Americans that got accepted but chose not to go. This is not the school's fault; it's the students' choice.

As someone else said "it's great to have nice, patient, and charming students in class. But if they can't master the concepts, then they will fail their class. Why dumb-down the TJ classes just to include patient or charming students?"

Posted by: avidwpostreader | November 8, 2010 7:49 PM | Report abuse

I believe it is unfair to judge 'diversity' simply my ethnicity or race...
I have seen the hallways of TJ, and although it is true that Asian Americans make up the majority of the student body, it is not as if all of them are the same. Diversity comes from the different interests of the students, and in this respect TJ is just as diverse as any other high school.

Posted by: Privacy1294 | November 8, 2010 9:32 PM | Report abuse

Dear Mr. Matthews,

I really think you ought to check with the students at our school before you let your pen run over the newsprint (or fingers over a keyboard, as the case may be). After all, we are approaching the age of eighteen: as a senior, I will be eligible to vote next year. SO will my classmates. We are all trying to take on responsibilities that are bestowed at eighteen.

If that is the case, then why not let us take responsibility for defending our own education? Certainly, you can learn a lot about a school by talking with parents and teachers: after all, they are the ones interacting with the administration. However, I feel that your articles often lose sight of the fact that Jefferson is not just an "institution," but a "school." The students do have a voice here, and we have something to say about our school.

The entire culture here at this school is that learning is the priority. Walk through the halls: you'll hear some crass jokes and profanity, just like anywhere else. You'll also hear jokes: but these are different. They're jokes about scientific advancements, political happenings, ideas, philosophies-- things absent from many base schools. It can be learning about anything, anywhere.

That is definitely not to say that we are "better," but that we are "different." And to judge a school that has forged its own identity based not on race, but on common purpose is very silly; especially when you have repeatedly failed to consult students, especially minorities. Keep in mind that although you single out Asians as being overrepresented, many activities and fields do not follow this paradigm.

My personal story: debate. I've noticed with interest that away tournaments revealed the debate community as being rather white. Asians are a distinct minority in the overall field, but at the same time our team is comprised mostly of them (no, that does not mean 100%). This school gives us a chance to compete.

Saying we "need to increase diversity" at Jefferson would be an equivalent of force-feeding a healthy person. It is not a necessary step. Why? You presume that "Asian" is a monolithic label, when really the school's Asian community is in and of itself a huge mixing pot. There are other factors that make up diversity besides race.

Then again, one can say the same thing about "African-American" or "White," for that matter. The school builds its identity based off of motivation and ability. If you work, you get in. If you don't, you don't get so far. Most of the people here deserve their spots.

My best friend didn't make the cut. She deserved it too; in fact, she probably would have done much better than I did.

By the way, she was white.

There are limited spots at an already overcrowded school. Please talk with the students here before judging our institution based on statistics. Many of us had friends in definite majorities who did not make the cut-- either of them.

I hope to hear from you.


Posted by: GunboatDebater | November 8, 2010 9:35 PM | Report abuse

Doesn't the extremely high level of competition for entry to this school as well as others indicate lots of demand for advanced education in STEM subjects at the high school level? And isn't more scientists exactly what Obama has been arguing is needed to keep America at the top of the world economic ladder? So why not create more schools like this, to serve a larger and more diverse population? If competition weren't so fierce for this one top school, the Asian kids could still get the education they (and their parents) want, and other minorities could also find spots in these advanced schools.

I know that exclusivity drives the impression of quality in part, and you do need a selection process, but wouldn't it be nice and transparent to create as many spots in advanced STEM programs as there are kids who can pass the entrance tests? Pass the test = get admitted to an advanced program.

Posted by: JapanKate | November 8, 2010 9:44 PM | Report abuse

I missed the part where students at TJHSST don't have good character. Maybe you could elaborate?

If it's that TJHSST is looking at prospective students, and denying them admission purely because they are black, or Hispanic, then that is completely wrong. While I will admit that there is a disproportionate amount of Asian students at TJHSST, that does not mean that the admissions staff is going out of their way to accept these students. TJHSST picks it's students for their merit and performance, and willingness to study hard and dedicate much of their time to school and schoolwork. During the admissions process, the most important parts in becoming semifinalists are not test scores, they are the essays detailing the student's moral values, ethics, character. The second part of the admissions process is making a resumé and getting referrals from teachers who have worked with the student and seen if they are fit for TJHSST. This does illustrate that they have the "patience, persistance and charm," to rise as high as any would hope.
TJHSST is a highly competitive environment, and maintaining a GPA of 3.0 or higher is required for continued enrollment. It's better for a student to not go to TJHSST at all than to go and drop out because of a failure at reaching the high standards set.

Lastly, it also wouldn't demonstrate outstanding character to deny Asian and white students admission purely so they could balance the student population to reflect the general population.

Posted by: derekxwu | November 8, 2010 9:52 PM | Report abuse

@JapanKate; We simply do not have the resources to accommodate more students within limits of reason at this time.

We get a lot of money, but it goes into equipment. A tour around our building will quickly show that this school, and many other schools in Virginia, are in desperate need of renovation and expansion.

Posted by: GunboatDebater | November 8, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

Also a student of this school, I have to agree with Chris. I'm also in his debate and I've also seen what he points out.
Why is it that everywhere there are articles putting TJ down and playing the Asian race card? In case you people don't know but over 50 of people admitted or not Asian, but in fact Caucasian. Indians are also making a rise in percentage these recent years. Sure there are lots of Asian around but a majority? That is just an unjustified exaggeration.
Who doesn't want diversity? I'm sure most kids of TJ would agree that diversity is good and that it contributes a lot to the community but there are many other selective factors at play. Most of have been mentioned such as monetary constraints and public interest. When most of the applications are sent from Caucasians and Asians, those two are bound to take the top two percentages in admission statistics.
Furthermore, income was brought up earlier, but income is common sense. studies have shown that families with more wealth are more likely to buy books and other academic supplies. the presence of books would help the child grow up educated and want to pursue further learning. people may not want to face it but sadly, many African Americans and Hispanics are part of the lower, not at wealthy class.
finally @dhpan. if everything as simple as a test, the "admission" process wouldn't really be a process at all and would reflect very very little of what the applicant has done, can do, and will do which are all in the interests of the school.

Posted by: Gundam69 | November 8, 2010 10:52 PM | Report abuse

@janedoe5 - I'm a TJHSST '10 alum and I'm a Classics major at Georgetown...I don't really think my options for pursuing my interests have been limited to STEM fields. TJ has one of the finest high school Latin programs in the country and its students consistently win the most Oxford Classical Dictionary Awards for repeated excellent performances on the National Latin Exam. Our humanities classes are top-notch across the board.

Posted by: 2010dwarring | November 8, 2010 11:45 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Matthews,
Perhaps I am missing something in all of this analysis and deep thinking, but I still fail to see what the problem is.

Several articles have made the claim that racial diversity is lacking at TJ, but I've yet to see a reasonable argument saying why racial diversity is good. Furthermore, your article seems to imply that being African-American or Hispanic means you have better character than if you are Asian. The specific part that I felt this undertone from was the "success in America stems more from character than test-taking ability" part. When immediately preceded with a note of an organization striving to include more African-Americans and Hispanics in TJ, this statement starts to carry a weight that I suspect isn't meant to be there. Another alarming statement I found was in the last paragraph. "Give more of them a chance, and Jefferson will not only be a more interesting school to attend, but more reflective of the values we want all of our kids to have," them being African-Americans and Hispanic. Interesting. So Asians aren't reflective of the values we want for our children? Being a "child" (senior at TJ) myself, I'm not seeing values at TJ that aren't reflective of American values.

Another thing I found puzzling was the character issue. I fully agree that character should be a part of the admissions process. However, the qualifier I have to use is the word "ideally." It seems implausible to have the admissions officers find out what the character of each applicant is. Even an interview won't produce more than a gut feeling. All these officers can do is rely on the test scores, accomplishments, and the personal essay. Ah, the personal essay. I don't think you mention it at all. Its significance in the application process should not be overlooked. Here is as good a judge of character as we'll ever be able to reasonably get.

I applaud your efforts in research and thank you for getting comments from our current principal. However, it doesn't seem like anyone feels like interviewing students, or even asking anyone who's not part of the educational staff. Oh well.

Posted by: Emrakul | November 9, 2010 12:03 AM | Report abuse

I'm a McLean student, and I even find this article fustrating. The students enrolled there deserve to be there whatever race they are. It's unfair to cut back on the number of Asian students admitted just because of their ethinicity. If Hispanic and African American students are qualified but don't get in, it means that they're not more qualified than students of another ethinicity. It's a competition, so no double standards should be employed.

Posted by: emilyt22 | November 9, 2010 12:04 AM | Report abuse

It's annoying to me that Asian students aren't considered "diverse" in the same positive way that black and Hispanic students are. Indians are at least as different from Chinese as Americans are from Bolivians. The idea of a monolithic Asian culture is beyond stupid.

Posted by: bokamba | November 9, 2010 12:58 AM | Report abuse

Although I wish there was no such categorizations of race, there are. We must deal with the stereotypes that man has created. The main question that this article truly brought up was how can character accurately be measured? Or more specifically, how are American students taught character throughout their academic careers? Of course, there were lessons in class touching on having characteristics such as respect, loyalty, honesty, etc. but it is one thing to teach character and another to embody it. Students know a good person when they see one, but in this dog-eat-dog world, what is reality? How can our children decipher genuine humanity? One cannot simply judge character, for who out of mankind is righteous "enough" to measure a man's worth through his actions? The answer is no one.

Posted by: swishere2 | November 9, 2010 1:56 AM | Report abuse

Start trying to use "character" as a proxy for examination scores and you head down a very slippery slope- the same one the Ivy League followed in the mid 20th century when "too many Jews" were getting in.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | November 9, 2010 3:41 AM | Report abuse

Dear Readers,
I deeply regret my article regarding TJ diversity. I always had a grudge on the school because I have four children and all of them didn't even make the first round of the application. But I realize that TJ is an amazing school and my kids are just purely incapable.
Again, sorry everyone for causing such disturbance. I wish I could one day join the elitist class.

Posted by: Jay_Matthews | November 9, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse

While it is important to give all ethnicities a chance, it is more important to reward those who've worked hard and showed determination. While nobody with a black or Hispanic ethnicity should be overlooked, reverse discrimination should also be avoided (not admitting a more qualified and hard working applicant just because they're white). However, as you said everything should be taken into consideration, not just test scores. However, as I said after ALL of these criteria are taken into consideration I feel that that should be the blind determining factor of who should be admitted, not race or color. No matter a child's race or background, a child's teachers will still be able to tell the admittance board if the child is determined or a hard worker, which is not decided by ethnicity or color.

Posted by: taylord6 | November 9, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Thank you bokamba!! Well-said!

Posted by: washingtonian10 | November 9, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Judging a student on character should not play an equal role in determining whether or not a student attends TJ (or other schools like it). The majority should be recognized as whether or not the student shows qualification, established achievement, and an outstanding interest in science and technology. Basing admission on factors of skin color might diversify your school, but is it really the best option? Diversifying a school is an honorable thing and I agree that in some cases it is necessary, but for a school like this, diversity needs to take a back seat behind the above criteria I stated. To accept a student solely based on their "character" and not their already established educational background, will not lead to an institute of higher education, but instead an institute sharing common traits with your average public school...something TJ is obviously striving to stray away from.

Posted by: jahnc1 | November 9, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Schools like these are just another factor in why we will never have equality in the United States. All children should be given the opportunity to experience a quality education. I don't believe that parents don't want to send their children to these schools I believe that they already know how the system works and it weeds out chlidren such as their own, so they just make the best out of the education that they are offered. It's a never ending cycle of keeping the elite in a small group and and closing everyone else out. How is it justifiable to deny someone the right to a prestigious education that could lead them to being accepted by colleges such as Princeton or Harvard? We in the United States are being left behind when it comes to eduaction because we waste to much time trying to exclude people and be selective. Instead of offering great educations to everyone.

Posted by: cortneesmith23 | November 9, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Schools like these are just another factor in why we will never have equality in the United States. All children should be given the opportunity to experience a quality education. I don't believe that parents don't want to send their children to these schools I believe that they already know how the system works and it weeds out chlidren such as their own, so they just make the best out of the education that they are offered. It's a never ending cycle of keeping the elite in a small group and and closing everyone else out. How is it justifiable to deny someone the right to a prestigious education that could lead them to being accepted by colleges such as Princeton or Harvard? We in the United States are being left behind when it comes to eduaction because we waste to much time trying to exclude people and be selective. Instead of offering great educations to everyone.

Posted by: cortneesmith23 | November 9, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Dear Readers,
I deeply regret my article regarding TJ diversity. I always had a grudge on the school because I have four children and all of them didn't even make the first round of the application. But I realize that TJ is an amazing school and my kids are just purely incapable.
Again, sorry everyone for causing such disturbance. I wish I could one day join the elitist class.

Posted by: Jay_Matthews | November 9, 2010 8:23 AM

Hehehehe. Very clever impersonation. ;-)

Posted by: lisamc31 | November 9, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

One of the major benefits to being a citizen in this country is the availability of diversity. Diversity offers opportunity to learn and grow in ways that are apparently misunderstood. Although I can commend TJ for the great work they do with a STEM emphasis, I can also say that they are doing their students and their teachers a disservice by disregarding, or misunderstanding, the benefits of diversity. The ideas of students from all cultures and ethnicities can only compliment great study.With any higher-order thinking, we should assume that considering all view points and backgrounds will always result in greater learning.

Posted by: cooperle | November 9, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the laugh lisamc31. I wish this other Jay Mathews knew how to spell my name correctly. We are not one of the fancy two T Matthewses.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 9, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

I am very pleased to see so many student comments. Please keep them coming. Two more points raised by readers that I thought worth responding to. First, I hope I made it clear I have no problem with the large number of Asian American students at the school. I assume if TJ lets in more blacks and Hispanics, the percentage of both whites and Asians will go down a little, but they will still be the largest groups. The reason for Asian American dominance of the numbers, as I said, has nothing to do with their race, but their family culture--an unusual reverence for careers in science and math. If there were a lot of Russian immigrant families in this area, TJ would be getting lots of applications from their kids for the same reason.
Second, we have survey data showing that American parents prefer schools that are ethnically diverse. I think that is certainly true of Northern Va., a very diverse suburban area. If you google the National Survey of Student Engagement, you will also connect with research showing the college students who encounter more students of different backgrounds give their schools higher favorability ratings. That is why, if I am remembering this right, the NSSE college rating system includes measures of student contact with other races.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 9, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Just wondering....what is the percentage of noncitizens at TJ? It appears that some newcomers have TJ entrance heavy on the mind.

Posted by: shadwell1 | November 9, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Jay, Do you think all white people are the same? Chinese, Vietnamese,Pakistanis, Koreans, Indians, Japanese, Laotians, Thais, Filipinos all have different languages and cultures. They come from very very different backgrounds. TJ is actually very diverse. These kids can definitely bring a lot of 'character'. Your article is so racist and ignorant.

Posted by: washingtonian10 | November 9, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

In this article you talk about trying to develop character within Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. The funny thing is that you answer your own question within the confines of your own article.

This excerpt is what I refer to:

"Their children's commitment to science and math may be particularly important to their being more likely to be admitted than other ethnic groups, because Jefferson principal Evan M. Glazer says interest in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math) is key. "A very bright student without a passion for STEM should not be selected for admission," he says. "

This plainly states that the kids are being selected on the emphasis of a learning the main subjects in STEM. No where is that method is there room for a student-centered classroom learning. If the kids that are being looked at are chosen on their desire and ability in STEM, then their growth socially and emotionally is put aside for a mental growth.

I'm not saying that it is wrong, as I greatly advocate the idea that education is a place where kids are taught in order to grow in their intellect, however if one wants students to grow elsewhere, even beyond the breakdown of ethinicities they interact with, then the school can't have a main emphasis as this school does. It is not a bad school, indeed it is a gift that we have such schools in our country. However, other kids gain a more complete growth in character due to the environment they go to learn in.

Enjoyed the article, thanks.

Posted by: gbake5 | November 9, 2010 1:20 PM | Report abuse

Diversity at TJ as I see it is a pipeline issue. Instead of changing admissions standards for blacks and hispanics what TJ should do is outreach to increase the pipeline. This doesn't just mean encouraging more of these students to apply, but also working with schools where diversity is higher to ensure these applicants are preparing quality applications.

I just graduated from business school and it's the same issue underrep. minorities are around 8%, but from that group the admission rate is the same as any other ethnic group it's just so many fewer apply. So the school puts a lot into outreach efforts targeted at this group to try to get more qualified applicants to apply. Without more applicants it's unllikely the percentage attending will ever rise.

Posted by: skaballet | November 9, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you seem to have identified the root of the problem and the solution. You stated

"The reason for Asian American dominance of the numbers, as I said, has nothing to do with their race, but their family culture--an unusual reverence for careers in science and math."

Assuming this is the case, how do the diverse Asian (Indian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc) cultures influence the scientific aptitude and accomplishments of their children. The answer is obvious. Asian childrens' performance is not due some mysterious channeling between parents and children, but due to the fact that the children were encouraged to work hard and DID work hard long before they applied for TJ.

Why not work on instilling such "asian" cultural values into the black and hispanic communities? So long as they are part of a culture that does not value academics, black children are not going to work as hard as those from cultures with values more appropriate to the 21st century.

If culture is as powerful as Jay claims, the cultures of those groups with disproportionate underachievement should be targeted for improvement. But don't reward those children who have achieved less because their culture encouraged them to work less than others - get them to work harder in the early years when asians are developing their academic abilities.

Posted by: ronStrong | November 9, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

@gbake5 - Your comments reflect that you know very little about the curricular requirements and opportunities at TJ, both within and outside of the STEM fields, which foster student-centered and intellectually diverse classroom discussion. The intellectual growth developed through STEM studies and social/emotional growth are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, TJ provides nearly 200 8th period activities 3 times a week to participate in a variety of clubs including: UNICEF, Amnesty Internationl, political clubs, community service clubs (Key Club, NHS, Building a Better Community), various cultural groups (which students of other races also join), MUN, etc. TJ students are passionate about STEM, in addition to being very socially conscious. Check out the "One Question" program - . Through such means, students take it upon themselves to develop their identities as citizens of the world and recognize their responsibilities/beliefs...sounds like plenty of character building to me.

Of course, those facts aren't quite as incendiary as buzz-word titles like "Class Struggle." Character building is not equivalent to fostering racial diversity alone (especially if you're only concerned with a limited subset of racial diversity).

Yes, our curriculum requires that we take more Sci/Tech/Math courses than other schools, but the humanities requirements for a TJ degree are still more rigorous than those of base schools. TJ students excel just as much in the humanities, because the passion and motivation of the students transcend the disciplinary divisions of their work.

STEM fields also require intense development of critical problem solving skills and the scientific approach to knowledge building--skills which are universally useful. I can tell you that my research in the Microelectronics Lab my senior year was heavily dependent on interdisciplinary, student driven discussions with group members and teachers.

Posted by: 2010dwarring | November 9, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

I'm sure people will continue to try to criticize TJ at every opportunity, but maybe they'll never understand. I suppose an education at TJ is similar to the Washington Post in some respects: "If you don't get it, you don't 'get it.'"

Posted by: 2010dwarring | November 9, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Mathews,

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what constitute American values. You make the claim that our Asian friends are not really American. Let us run through some values that our Asian American students possess:

* Entrepreneurialism
* Hard work
* Family cohesion
* Personal responsibility

There are more, but those are key ones I see in the Asian students here. Those are also what I consider to be quintessential American values. Immigrants come to this country with those values as a matter of self-selection: Only people who are willing to work hard in order to get ahead in life while following the rules will resettle their entire lives in a new and foreign country. They have a better understanding of and greater adherence to American values than you do.

That is why I respectfully refer to these immigrants as Asian Americans. They are from Asia, but they are just as American as you or me. Perhaps more so. I salute them.

When students are admitted to Thomas Jefferson, they are selected on an individual level, not a group level. It is worth noting here that society is just a group of individual people, and I personally find it deeply disturbing how quickly people like you, Mr. Mathews, revert to treating individuals as groups of people based on skin color under the pretext of ending racial inequality. It would be a travesty if a highly intelligent Asian child were rejected from Thomas Jefferson because an unqualified black or hispanic child were accepted under racial preferences. As an individual, that Asian child would be wronged. Affirmative action is not positive racism as school admission is inextricably a zero sum game. For every admission of a black or hispanic student through racial preference, a more qualified white or Asian student must be rejected through racial discrimination. That is not equality! That is evil! Know the difference!

Something else that I find deeply offensive is the fact that you think that diversity is important in the first place. Diversity is not something that should be avoided, nor is it something to be sought. Preference for many different ethnic groups is no less inherently racist than preference for a single ethnic group. Nobody should hold any preference on the base of race or skin color of any kind. People who promote racial diversity ARE NO BETTER than people who promote racial uniformity.

"If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today." --Thomas Sowell

If Sowell is right, then I'm proud to be a racist.

Steven Godofsky
Student, Class of 2011, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology

Posted by: sgodofsk | November 9, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

See above comment, it explains everything and all the students at TJ agree wholeheartedly.

"Preference for many different ethnic groups is no less inherently racist than preference for a single ethnic group. "

Posted by: avidwpostreader | November 9, 2010 6:18 PM | Report abuse

There wasn't enough space in my previous comment to get to the inconsistencies in your article.

"When you create a school based more on sorting than teaching, as Fairfax County did with Jefferson in 1985, it is hard to break the habit of picking applicants by their accomplishments and test scores at age 13, rather than their potential to benefit from Jefferson’s great teachers."

Then later,

"...most parents have little opportunity or interest in sending their children to selective high schools, public or private. We think our kids can get just as good an education in the neighborhood school. In many cases we are right. Most Northern Virginia schools have teachers just as good as those at Jefferson."

You are switching horses here. You can't both have your cake and eat it. This kind of internal inconsistency, by Occam's Razor, seems unlikely to be due to any cause other than an existing and immutable loathing of Thomas Jefferson High School.

Steven Godofsky

Posted by: sgodofsk | November 9, 2010 6:43 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Mathews,

As another recent graduate of TJ, I am concerned about your statements regarding admitting students based only on achievement, and not on character. I know you are familiar with the general outline of our admissions process: a round based on test scores, followed by a second based on short-essay answers and student recommendations (the specifics of the process often change, but the overall idea stays the same). In that second round, I would contend that "character" is exactly what's being looked at. The board is looking for students who are passionate, who are willing to work hard, and who have the maturity to handle the academic demands and pressures of TJ. Do we have a diversity problem at TJ? Yes, in that the racial composition of the school does not reflect, or even come close to reflecting, that of the counties whose residents make up the student body. But I would not at all attribute that shortcoming to a lack of looking beyond test scores at the personal traits of applicants.

Instead, I would agree with several previous posters that the issue lies in the preparation offered for parents, teachers, and students during middle school. The fact of the matter is that some middle schools have higher admittance rates than others, which to my mind can likely be traced to experience in writing recommendation letters and helping kids be aware of the application process, as well as providing opportunities to get involved with and interested in math and science.

In closing, I would like to extend an invitation to you to go visit TJ and see for yourself. Yes, the school has problems. It is a community that is constantly trying to balance a focus on science and academic excellence with giving students opportunities to explore their full range of talents. And we are a talented group in a variety of ways. If you take a tour, you're sure to be shown the computer systems lab (where I spent half my senior year), but make sure you check out the music and theater wing (where I spent the other half). Go see a play or a concert. Next fall, watch our field hockey team (2010 district champs) play a match. And most importantly- talk to students. Ask what their concerns are with diversity and the admissions process, because as seen in the posts above, many of us do have concerns. We are much happier to be spoken with than to be spoken about.

Anna Stapleton
TJ 2010

Posted by: 2010astaplet | November 9, 2010 7:52 PM | Report abuse

One thing to consider is that the figures given are for enrollment. There are some students who are accepted to TJ but choose not to go. Minorities may be more likely stay at their base school. There are many excellent schools in FX county where students can have a more complete education, one that addresses all the needs of a teenager, not just academics. Students can be very bright, but also have talents in other areas (ex. athletics) which could not be addressed at TJ.

Posted by: prnt23 | November 9, 2010 8:05 PM | Report abuse

While I admire him for stating his name and views openly, let me be the first to ridicule Steven Godofsky for his terrifically pretentious writing (particularly the mixed metaphors).

I would also venture that most TJ students strongly disagree with his suggestion that promoting racial diversity is closet racism.

Evan Warner, TJ '08

Posted by: ewarner2 | November 9, 2010 9:01 PM | Report abuse

Those who promote diversity might not have bad intentions but the results are the same as those of open racism, and that's what matters.

Posted by: sgodofsk | November 9, 2010 9:06 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Mathews,
I am a senior at Thomas Jefferson and I won't waste your time re-iterating the excellent points my classmates have already made: those regarding the logical flaws in your article, the unfairness of blaming one school for racial and socioeconomic disparities endemic to American society and its education system, and the arguable benefits and flaws of affirmative action itself.

Instead, I would like to repeat what I consider the most pertinent part of your article: the fact that you don't attend TJ. Indeed, you never attended TJ. I rather doubt that you have ever even visited TJ. So I feel it incumbent upon me to point out that _you know nothing about my school_.

There is plenty of diversity at my school, sir. There are people who love physics and engineering, and biology, and even (despite our principal’s apparently anti-character views that people applying to a STEM school should like STEM subjects), people who hate science and are pretty sure that they always will. We have weird, awkward people, and jocks and cheerleaders (although perhaps more intelligent ones than the typical stereotype). We have people who love Dungeons and Dragons, and we have Gossip Girl devotees. We have clubs for debate, and swing dance, and community service. Maybe all those characteristics are less important than having different skin tones, I don’t know. I realize I'm uninformed about race and class dynamics in most of America, so feel free to inform me otherwise.


You know what’s even better than the fact that we have different groups at my school? I’ve never been bullied in high school. I’ve never been offered alcohol or pot. I doubt any of the students at my high school will become teenage parents. I have friends who hang out in our syslab coding during lunch, and I have friends who french-braid each other’s hair and wear matching puffy paint t-shirts to their field hockey games. And those friends like each other. They even admire each other. Some of them are the same people. Even the people whom I don’t like, the ones who I think are annoying or shallow or awkward have friends. Yes, high school is still a time of awkward adolescence. But I honestly think that if I hadn’t gone to TJ, I would have spent my lunches reading alone in a corner, just like I did every day of elementary school, just like I did for a good deal of middle school. Instead, I go into DC on week-ends, I attend school dances, and I spend my lunches lauging myself sick at nerdy jokes. Maybe that’s because I’m not one of the downtrodden 4% at my school, and thus don’t suffer the racist slurs that we throw around due to our lack of character, but somehow I doubt it.

TJ is a wonderful, amazing place, and I think it is wholly unfair to tell my classmates and me that we have no character, that we are test-taking automatons who don't understand how, and never will, succeed in real life.

Thalia Aoki
Class of 2011

Posted by: cottia | November 9, 2010 9:18 PM | Report abuse

I didn't have room for this point in my previous comment, but I'd just like to ask: why do people keep feeling the need to write about TJ? Are we really so anomalous that we merit a steady stream of articles pointing out that we are unsurprisingly not as perfect as people didn't think that we were? And if we really are so amazing that not writing articles about us causes physical pain to reporters, then why continue writing the exact same article about our 'lack' of diversity (because even ethnic diversity apparently only matters when it's not a 'model majority')? Why not investigate TJ's convoluted approach to the humanities? Or whether it causes a brain drain in the surrounding area? Or whether it is a solution to the United States' rapidly declining standings in STEM subjects? I simply don't understand why the most important part of my school is the beginning--the genetics of those accepted eighth graders, rather than the ending--the graduating seniors who have achieved so much.

Posted by: cottia | November 9, 2010 9:30 PM | Report abuse

BRAVO TJ STUDENTS!!! What eloquence! I am SO proud of you for cleaning Jay's clock! Absolutely superb replies.

I guess no one from TJ is treating Jay to 5 star hotels, fancy conferences or publishing perks the way International Baccalaureate does.

Posted by: lisamc31 | November 9, 2010 9:40 PM | Report abuse

As a white male TJ student who never passed through the freshman admissions system, I feel that I have a particularly irrelevant point of view on this issue.

If I recall correctly, TJ receives a significant portion of its funding through parent donations of various forms. Regardless of what we would like to see in place, the simple fact is that FCPS does not have the kind of financial control over the school that would necessary to change the focus so drastically. Ignoring the fact that TJ is a STEM school is at best wishful thinking.

The uniformly passionate (zealous) responses from current and former TJ students are at least partially a product of this wishful thinking; the same arguments are repeated often, and repetition is tedious.

Some random TJ student sick of the obsession with the school
Class of 2011

Posted by: ThatOtherOtherGuy | November 9, 2010 10:03 PM | Report abuse

"we have survey data showing that American parents prefer schools that are ethnically diverse"

Sure, but do the parents place a higher priority on "diversity" or on rigor of the curriculum? Ideally, I'd like any high school my children attend be reasonably diverse and I would say the majority of parents likely feel the same way. But given the choice between a diverse school with so-so academics and a non-diverse school with top-notch academics, I'd make academics the higher priority.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 9, 2010 11:00 PM | Report abuse

"I would also venture that most TJ students strongly disagree with his suggestion that promoting racial diversity is closet racism.

Evan Warner, TJ '08"

Well I'm a Jefferson senior, and I certainly agree with Steven. I found his point regarding the difference (or lack thereof) between people who promote diversity and people who would promote racial hegemony to be particularly strong. Showing preference for one individual over another solely based on race IS racism.

Racism (noun): The use of race to establish and justify a social hierarchy and system of power that privileges, preferences or advances certain individuals or groups of people usually at the expense of others.

So yes, showing any preference one way or another for any individual of any race based on their race IS, intrinsically, racism.

Personally, I don't CARE what race somebody is. If it turns out that Asian kids are more likely to meet the qualifications for entry to Jefferson, that isn't a problem. If it turns out that Black kids are less likely to be qualified to go to TJ, that IS NOT a problem. What would be a problem to me, as a student at the school, is if any sort of policy existed which excluded more qualified individuals from gaining entry to TJ just because their parents happen to be of Korean or German descent, as opposed to Nigerian or Mexican. What would be a problem to me is if TJ had anything but a 100% merit based admissions process. I don't care about race.

Dwindling numbers of Blacks is not a concern. It's just a thing. When people imply that black students help a school community by virtue of being black, they are being racist. Keeping in mind that TJ admissions is a zero-sum game (For every space given to a less qualified individual of an underrepresented minority, a space must be taken away from a more qualified Asian or White student), if anybody says or implies that TJ could be improved by removing Asians and Whites and replacing them with Blacks and Hispanics, they are being racist.

~Connor Docherty, TJ '11

Posted by: HalcyonDaze | November 9, 2010 11:40 PM | Report abuse

A lot of kids apply to TJ. Some are more qualified than others, "qualified" referring to every merit-related factor that the admissions guys take into account when looking at an applicant. Test scores, GPA, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, etc.

There is some sort of "cutoff." I'll call him Joe Schmoe. (Or, if you prefer, Kim Schmoe.) Students who are less qualified than Mr. Schmoe will be rejected, but so will a lot of kids who are more qualified than he is. Why? That seems pretty stupid. Turns out there are just too dang many of them, and TJ can't possibly accept all of them. So what should TJ do? First thing I think is "raise the cutoff."

I don't know anything about the admissions process at TJ, but I do know that that isn't what they do. They're fine with admitting someone who's less qualified than someone else. Why? Who knows. Something about diversity.

I think it works like this graph I made:

This isn't based on actual data--it's purely speculation. If this is how it actually works, then we've got a problem. Take a look at the group of applicants I've highlighted in red. They're above the cutoff. Yet, only a few of them get in. Their test score, GPA, etc. all evened out to be the same in terms of whether or not they should be admitted to TJ, but they can't all get in.

The easy answer is to take that cutoff point and shove it to the right until the area under the "accepted" curve you see now is equal to the area on the right side of the "applicants" curve. That way, every kid who is above the cutoff will be accepted, whatever his race. But that would mess things up. Then instead of a normal distribution of students (academically, anyway), TJ would have far greater numbers of kids on the low end. Teachers don't know how to teach classes like that. Nobody knows how students will respond to that sort of environment. It's a mystery, and nobody likes mysteries. (Well, perhaps they like them, but they probably won't want to fund them.)

That aside, let's say, for simplicity's sake, that the "Applicants" area is made up of 40% white kids, 40% Asian kids, 10% black kids and 10% Hispanic kids. Ideally, each little vertical segment will also be described by that ratio. In my mind, the best way to figure out which of the kids in the little red rectangle to admit would be to say OK, we can only admit a third of these kids, so we'll take a third of the black kids, a third of the white kids, etc. Repeat for every slice.

So the issue becomes not one of accepting a less qualified Hispanic kid over a more qualified Asian kid, but one of accepting a Hispanic over an equally qualified Asian kid. Or the other way around. That seems to me like the fairest way to do it.

Posted by: 584369 | November 10, 2010 12:13 AM | Report abuse

I would also have to agree with Steven. I'll heard the statement many times (albeit as a joke but) that if you don't want be to think you are racist, just be racist to everybody. Isn't this the same thing with promoting racial diversity? Maybe its a stretch but anyways, onto more important things.
Not only is taking positions away from a more qualifies Asian student and given it to a less qualified African American or Hispanic immoral, it is also unconstitutional. It deprives that rights on the Asian student on a fundamental basis.


Posted by: Gundam69 | November 10, 2010 12:29 AM | Report abuse

As an alum (2010) I remember a general dislike for Jay Mathews (esp. in certain faculty members) based on his refusal to include TJ in his rankings or whatever (based on magnet school status). The horror. That's not to explain away all of student's responses above in opposition, but it appears a fair amount have missed the boat entirely. I didn't much care for TJ but it was a fine place and a nice environment and that's not what's being challenged here. Nor do I understand Mathews' piece to be an endorsement for explicit racial quotas by lowering test score standards etc. in the first stage. TJ is an educational platform that aims to serve and represent the county, and when "years of promising to reach out to the third of Northern Virginia students who are black or Hispanic" has yielded only a 4% minority student body, something is obviously not working. It's not a conscious effort to exclude minority students, but rather a lack of concerted effort and to include them.

I'm not suggesting there's no room for substantive debate on the subject... I think that's what Jay was inviting by writing this article. I'm not personally sold on the idea that newfound emphasis on character in admissions is either actionable or likely to produce results. Maybe Jay's right, maybe there's a better way, in any case it's worth discussing.

Posted by: rgc19 | November 10, 2010 12:31 AM | Report abuse

Some friends of mine wanted to ask Mr. Mathews how he feels about squirrels, but didn't feel like registering accounts with this site to do it. So, Mr. Mathews, how do you feel about squirrels?

Posted by: 584369 | November 10, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Okay, so maybe one third of students are Hispanic and African American. But really how much of that one third are going to respond to TJ's outreach? How many of those students are willing to commit themselves to the harsh and STEM focused curriculum at TJ? No doubt there are many that want to be dancers, artists, or pursue a career in the humanities field. How many of those students are willing to take 1-2 or even three hours bus ride to and back from TJ? Serious think about it. Are we realistically going to have one third or close to one third of the Hispanic or African Americans in TJ?

TJ '13

Posted by: Gundam69 | November 10, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

As a TJ student, I can say that while it may be true that we do have a lot of Asians and not as many blacks and Hispanics at our school, this isn't because TJ doesn't want to admit people with lower test scores. You say that "Applicants in the 95th percentile on standardized tests are not seriously considered because there are so many in the 99th percentile above them." While this may be the case in some top-notch colleges, it is most certainly not the case with TJ. I got into the semifinalist pool and ultimately into TJ, and I am Asian. HOWEVER, my test scores were only at the 86TH and 74TH percentile for math and verbal. Not so great, especially for the description of those academic- and grade-obsessed Asians in your article, huh?

And yet I still got in. This is because the second round (which determines whether you get into TJ or not) has to do with the "character" that you mentioned. There are 2 essays you wrote during the test, one of which focuses on a moral/ethics question, and another that focuses on "STEM" topics (which, in the end, still have to do with morals). Next are teacher recommendations, your personal statement (250-word essay about why you want to go into TJ), and your information sheet (extracurriculars and outstanding school achievements). So as you can see, there's a lot more to it than just test scores.

~TJ class of 2013

Posted by: chizukuremu | November 10, 2010 8:50 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for noticing our effort at being clever. =D Please excuse the spelling of your name. My friends posted the comment just before classes were about to start. As you can guess, most of us have a good sense of humor at TJ. Being tech savy as we supposedly are, I assure you that your article has been widely read in our school.

Teachers and students alike have read this article and we reached a general concensous: despite being overwhelmingly of Asian and white background, our school does not lack character or diversity. Some of the students here at TJ (hispanics and black students among them), were offended and even insulted at the notion of our school lacking character.

There were a couple of questions that were raised in school disucssions. What does character have anything to do with one's ethnicity and background? We reached a conclusion that our school does look at character and made its best choice when picking candidates.

As for diversity, we would very much like to be proven wrong on the fact that our school is NOT diverse. Statistics cloud information and hides the details. Sure we have a large Asian population, but are all asian students alike? No, differnt cultures of asians bring their own unique culture to TJ. Chinese, Koreans, Iraneans,Taiwanese, Viets, Japanese and the list goes on. My fellow indian students would like to point out that they are also catagorized as Asians. As a sub continent, the culture of India is very distinct on its own. My friends would argue that north indians are distinct from its south indian compatriots.
I personally fail to realize how increasing the proportion of certain ethinicities would "raise" our character. This would imply that some ethnicities have more character than other ethnicities. In light of the recent book Mr. Bush has published, I believe an article that ties the lack of character to ethnicity proportion can be almost considered racist. Of course, I am not calling you sir a racist, but maybe a little more consideration in the choice of words was needed.

My fellow classmates would like to point out that statistics are just statistics. We have been well educated regarding statistics and we would appreciate it if you did not use statistics against us. Anyone, with fair amount of experience, can manipulate statistics to reflect favorable to their position or argument, which why I am not going to break down the statiscs regarding black and hispanics in our school that you quoted.

Overall we believe your article was a good effort to sum up TJ. However, we dont think such an analysis of our school can be done by staring at statistics and interviewing a couple students. Rather one must take his or her time to be fully immersed into our unique soup of character and diversity.

Posted by: Jay_Matthews | November 10, 2010 10:21 PM | Report abuse

It seems that I have forgotten to raise a point that our athletes would like to make. Not all of us geniuses and we knew from the beginning that we wouldn't go to TJ. Also the athletes would liek to point out that we are not all brains but athletic also. Maybe not football but other sports.

Tj Sports
Soccer - 2007 State champions
Swimming - 2002-2004 State Champions
Cross Country - too many to list, but a power house
Track team - power house state champions, again too many champions ships to list.
Tennis - numoerous state champions, runners up last year, again too many wins and a constant powerhouse
Crew- IMPOSSIBLE TO LIST, state championships goes back for more than decade. Two time stotesbury cup winner, two time national champions, and rowed in the Henley. Again a team second to none in the country.

I believe the athletes made their point, not to mention only state titles are listed since listing district and regional championship titles would be too many to list.

If curious you may want to check out the VHSL AAA Libert District TJHSST wins record. However, crew is not a VHSL sport and you will need to look at other sites for major wins.

Posted by: Jay_Matthews | November 10, 2010 10:31 PM | Report abuse

Having participated in crew, I whole heartily agree.
P.S. the misspell of the work "like" kind of killed the the genius and us having brains. lol XD

Posted by: Gundam69 | November 11, 2010 12:31 AM | Report abuse

among the various other spelling and grammatical errors...come on guys, you've got to maintain our rep! TJ Cross-Country/Track for the win!

Posted by: 2010dwarring | November 11, 2010 1:52 AM | Report abuse

Time to analyze how Horn is spending her Young Scholars money. We all know about Saturday school and the using external sources for math. There is even pre-teaching available.

Posted by: mydchome | November 12, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Looking at admissions statistics for the past few years shows that applicants to TJ who take Algebra 1 in 8th grade have only about a 5% admissions rate, a success rate far lower than applicants who take Geometry or more advanced math classes in 8th grade. That admissions percentage is in the same range as the percentage of Black and Hispanic applicants who are accepted. If the data reveals that Black and Hispanic applicants tend not have more advanced math backgrounds, that would explain the disparity in admissions. Because of TJ's focus on math, science, and technology and its unique requirement for independent scientific research in senior labs, it places a premium in the admissions process on students with demonstrated mathematical aptitude and achievement. TJ's charter as a Governor's School requires this focus; it is not an ordinary Fairfax County school, although it is located in Fairfax County. (The tuition of students from other participating school divisions is paid by those school divisions. Other Governor's Schools in the Commonwealth focus on humanities, the arts, etc.) If participating school divisions focus on encouraging advanced achievement in math and science at the elementary and middle school levels among all students, the result should be higher percentages of qualified Black and Hispanic students applying to and attending TJ.
By focusing on test scores, Mr. Mathews has overlooked the important role in admissions decisions of level of mathematical achievement and interest, as demonstrated by grades, STEM participation and passion, advanced math courses, and teacher recommendations.

As others have noted, he has also done a disservice to TJ students and the TJ community in suggesting that a focus on character would alter the decisions of the admissions office. The cooperative spirit, dedication, hard work, public-mindedness, and general good will of the TJ student body is remarkable. The students every day show "determination and grace" and help each other though demanding, rigorous, and exhausting school years. Attendance at TJ is a deliberate choice to spend one's high school years in intensive study, in a community of high-achieving, academic-minded, hard-working fellow students who still manage to have fun together but are willing to accept the considerable opportunity costs of attending a school like TJ. TJ works not only because it selects the right students, but also because the students select the school. If bright and capable students from any racial or ethnic group lack the encouragement or opportunities at home or at school that would lead them to develop into the kinds of students who would be qualified for and interested in attending TJ, that is a shame. It is deeply troubling as a societal matter if Black and Hispanic students are disproportionately denied those opportunities and encouragement. As far as I can tell, however, the problem does not lie with TJ or with its admissions policies.

Posted by: anotherPostreader | November 12, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

I think pushing young students into very accelerated math classes often does them a disservice, as Montgomery County is finding out,

Maybe if TJ relaxed their Math requirements a bit, it could help. You can still succeed in Math & Science even if you don't take Algebra in 7th grade!

Posted by: prnt23 | November 12, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

@prnt23: I agree with you that pushing students into very accelerated math classes that they are not comfortable handling does not benefit them. That's the same principle, however, that has led TJ to establish an Algebra 1 by 8th grade baseline requirement for admission (although even that can be waived in extraordinary cases). Kids who do not have that foundation upon entering TJ would likely flounder in many of the required math and science classes, as they wouldn't be adequately prepared for the content. Softening the admissions standards to admit them would do neither those kids nor their classmates at TJ any favors. My comment was directed to the schools that discourage students from taking advanced math classes even when they are capable of the work, and the impact that has on those kids' chances of admission to TJ.

Posted by: anotherPostreader | November 13, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse


So you saying that the Asian kids who worked their butt off to get into TJ are not, to quote "...reflective of the values we want all of our kids to have"??

Posted by: fishsauce | November 13, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Algebra by 8th grade is a relatively new requirement for TJ, I think it started 2 or 3 years ago. I assume all the previous students were able to do well at TJ without that requirement.

Posted by: prnt23 | November 14, 2010 8:48 AM | Report abuse

@prnt23: "Algebra by 8th grade is a relatively new requirement for TJ, I think it started 2 or 3 years ago. I assume all the previous students were able to do well at TJ without that requirement."

WRONG!!! It was a requirement in 1988 when I applied. They have never even offered the course at the school.

Posted by: staticvars | November 14, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse


Sadly this is really a misguided approach. It is NOT access to the best teachers that make TJ great. While there are good teachers there, they are not wildly different from those at other schools, and when I attended there were some truly awful ones. The one difference, the absolute only difference that really matters, is having classes full of students who are as smart as you. This allows courses to move faster and cover more material. This is the "innovation" and the opportunity. Ever reduction in the level of the student quality reduces the quality of the school.

Also, it is wrong to say that things beyond tests don't matter, but knowing what is on those tests really matter. If you aren't good in math, you are going to suffer in multiple topics. I am sure science fair prizes and other factors matter, but you need to be at the same basic qualifying level, or the whole concept doesn't work. Even the most advanced kids can't find everything they need there, and university partnerships allow for more advanced classes to be pursued off campus.

Finally, they already tried to relax the standards to bring in a different racial mix a couple of times, notably in 1987, and faced a much higher number of drop outs.

We must face facts- race is a biological fiction. It exists primarily in the minds of racists. We must not reinforce it by creating special racially based standards. We must not say that people fail because of their race, it is not the cause of anything. It is merely a correlation, and it is correlated with behaviors, not skin color.

It is attributes of Asian culture that place a high value on educational attainment and the hard work required to achieve it that we should be attempting to copy, not attempting to punish people that demonstrate the attributes we desire by putting others that don't work as hard ahead of them because of their "race". Rather than endlessly breaking down the statistics by our made up concepts of race, why not break down the statistics by the hours of homework done per week?

It is those that advocate race based admissions that are today's racists, poisoning the minds of those who think that they need lower standards because of their race. Complete and utter nonsense. You are hurting people and encouraging racist attitudes in others, and giving people excuses. There is no excuse. Work harder. Get in. Win.

If these changes are made, there will be lawsuits.

Posted by: staticvars | November 14, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

By the way- using the term racist term Asian, as often done in America, is a big no-no when on business in Asia. There is so little to connect Indonesia, China, India, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia. These are all vastly different cultures. If you are negotiating a deal with a bunch of these folks and try to label them all "Asian", you will not be pleased with the results. It's a made up American concept that seems as stupid to them as Hispanic being different from European.

Accordingly, the focus should not be on creating a "race" based admissions policy at any school, but in getting all students to adopt the behaviors of success. to have a growth mindset, valuing educational attainment, and working hard on their studies.

Posted by: staticvars | November 14, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

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