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Posted at 8:23 PM ET, 02/27/2011

America's best high school soft on math?

By Jay Mathews

By all accounts, he is one of the best math teachers in the country. The Mathematics Association of America has given him two national awards. He was appointed by the Bush administration to the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. For 25 years he has prepared middle-schoolers for the tough admissions standards at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the most selective high school in America.

Yet this year, when Vern Williams looked at the Jefferson application, he felt not the usual urge to get his kids in, but a dull depression. On the first page of Jefferson’s letter to teachers writing recommendations, in boldface type, was the school board’s new focus: It wanted to prepare “future leaders in mathematics, science, and technology to address future complex societal and ethical issues.” It sought diversity, “broadly defined to include a wide variety of factors, such as race, ethnicity, gender, English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), geography, poverty, prior school and cultural experiences, and other unique skills and experiences.” The same language was on the last page of the application.

“This is just one example of why I have lost all faith in the TJ admissions process,” Williams said. “In fact, I’m pretty embarrassed that the process seems no more effective than flipping coins.”

Last year, he said, Jefferson rejected one of only two eighth-graders in Virginia who qualified to take the Junior USA Math Olympiad test, six scary problems to be done in nine hours. At the same time, “students who had very little interest [or] motivation in math and science were admitted,” he said. “Some admitted students had even struggled with math while in middle school.”

Williams knows that the school board is concerned that less than 4 percent of Jefferson students are black or Hispanic. He is black himself and was born in the District. He is familiar with the failings of math education for low-income minorities, but he doesn’t think rejecting top math students is the best way to make the school more diverse.

The solution, he said, is to “get rid of all warm and fuzzy math programs at the elementary school level and teach real academic content to all students.” Textbooks are dumbed down, he said, to accommodate allegedly math-phobic children. Don’t get him started on the overuse of calculators.

He showed me a copy of a Jefferson recommendation he filled out in 2004. It asked him to rate the candidate on “interest in math,” “self-discipline” and “problem-solving skills.” There was no mention of ethnic diversity. This year, recommenders are required to assess three qualities: intellectual ability, commitment to STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] and whether the applicant’s background, skills and past experiences “contribute to the diversity of TJHSST’s community of learners.”

Last November, I wrote a column endorsing that approach. I said that if the school put more emphasis on character and less on math scores, more black and Hispanic applicants would have a chance. I still believe that. But I have been so taken with the power of Williams’s teaching over the years that I feel obliged to present his contrary view.

He has run into several cases of Jefferson ignoring STEM commitment. Humanities types are being accepted, and stars of Mathcounts, the nerd equivalent of youth soccer, are being rejected.

“And yet how many minorities have this corrupt process scooped up? Barely any!” Williams said. “I usually write between 45 and 60 TJ recommendations and spend at least 75 minutes on each because I make them all totally unique. I felt like last year’s effort was a total waste of time.”

The Jefferson admissions committee’s careful sifting produced last year’s average senior class SAT score of 2233, the highest in the nation by far. That is impressive. But at least one gifted teacher who knows Jefferson well thinks it could do better finding the students who come for the love of math, not prestige.

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  | February 27, 2011; 8:23 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Junior USA Math Olympiad, STEM, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Vern Williams, great math students being rejected  
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I apologize for not putting this column up last night, as I usually do. I blame the Academy Awards for keeping me up past my bedtime. There are already some spirited comments on the main Web version of this column. Just search for my name at the top of this page and you will find it.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 28, 2011 10:58 AM | Report abuse

I thought TJ used an admissions test to select applicants? How can a student do well on the Math Olympiad or Mathcounts but not the TJ test?

Posted by: CrimsonWife | February 28, 2011 12:39 PM | Report abuse

I have a problem with 14 year olds having to profess a "commitment to STEM [science, technology, engineering, math" to get into TJ. I'd rather hear them make a "commitment" to the Boy Scout Oath than some ethereal commitment to STEM.

Best just to have a cutting score in the math test for consideration to TJ admission and leave it at that.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | February 28, 2011 1:46 PM | Report abuse

Typical. Liberal insanity has already destroyed public EDU in the U.S.

Posted by: illogicbuster | February 28, 2011 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Wiliams's claims about the process, assuming the post accurately represents them, seem to hold that rigor is not possible in the humanities, or at least that rigor in the humanities isn't as important as rigor in STEM subjects.

While I can understand where that comes from, it seems at the very best self-serving, and at the worst a way to produce robot geniuses without souls.

Posted by: dfbdfb | February 28, 2011 3:56 PM | Report abuse

TJ is a fine highschool and one that many parents want their children attending - but I firmly believe that the students selected should be "STEM" students. The high school was formed in order to give those "Math and Science" kids the opportunity to explore and become even more proficient in those subjects. Yes, diversity is wanted and needed. I applaud the school for trying to make their population reflective of the community, but enrolling students who do not take advantage of the math and science classes offered isn't the way to go in my opinion. The magnet program should be a true magnet program and not just an elite status symbol. Getting into TJ is a great accomplishment - but I am tired of reading about their student body when the profiles consist of students who are clearly not math and science oriented. Let the costume designers, the next great American author, the talented musician, the history buff and the elite athlete attend their base school. Clearly bright and talented students staying within their home boundaries would be such a great thing for the student populations at each high school. The AP programs, higher level classes and even the school clubs and sports would benefit from having these students at home. From the wisdom of one "gifted" teacher: Would most students benefit from a TJ education? Yes. Do most students need to be at TJ to be successful and challenged in school? No. But, this teacher clarified, there is a group of students who NEED to be there. What a shame that a child who truly might need to be at TJ because he/she is a math and science nerd gets rejected because he/she isn't as well rounded as the intelligent humanities student who submits a well versed application. Magnet programs have a place in our education system as long as they maintain their purpose. TJ lost its purpose years ago.

Posted by: educationadvocate1 | March 1, 2011 10:54 AM | Report abuse

There's no way in the world that I would have ever qualified to get into TJ - math and science were my worst subjects and the humanities were a piece of cake. However, I believe that TJ is a school for the hard sciences, hence the school's full name, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. And don't "dumb-down" the school if kids can't pass the tests to ensure minority students are accepted. This hurts the kids that are looking for the challenge of TJ.

And to the poster called illogicbuster, I'm a liberal.

Posted by: missingwisc | March 1, 2011 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Northern Virginia should also have magnet high schools for:

-Performing Arts (Even DC has one)
-Humanities and Languages (Programs in journalism, film-making, Mandarin or Arabic [gasp!])
-Social Sciences (How many people in the region work in governance, diplomacy, social welfare, etc.?)

Gifted students in many more academic areas would have focused, highly specialized places to learn. Something tells me that these schools wouldn’t have the admissions diversity problem.

And someone tell me why TJHS has a football team?

Posted by: professor70 | March 1, 2011 5:59 PM | Report abuse

I belive that Virginia has other magnet schools, and I know that it has a summer Governer's school program.

There are the "nerds" who have to come here, or else they will run out of math classes to take before their junior year. However, everyone at TJ must be strong at math or else not only will they fall behind in math, but also chemistry, physics and any other science course they may choose to take. In addition, every student is required to take a computer science class in which a strong math background is required.
I will agree that TJ's admission process has grown more loose, however the school itself has not changed.

Posted by: cloudsrpretty168 | March 1, 2011 8:26 PM | Report abuse

"And someone tell me why TJHS has a football team?"

Wow, stereotype much? My DH was quarterback on his high school's varsity team until a knee injury ended his career jr. year and still a math & science geek who went on to study engineering at Stanford.

If there are enough students at TJ interested in playing football to support a team, by all means the school should have one.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | March 4, 2011 10:54 AM | Report abuse

I'm a student at TJ, and crazy about STEM. I completely disagree with the statement that diversity is an issue at TJ. Sure, there aren't many African American or Hispanic students, but just a few years ago, I knew barely any Asian or Indian kids. Out of over 200 kids, my 8th grade class had 2 Asian students and no Indian students. Now, easily half my friends are of Asian or Indian heritage. I think that is one of the misconceptions about TJ, that 99% of the student body is white. In fact, the majority (46.4%) of students are Asian or Indian. Try finding those kind of numbers at any other school in the country.

The point is that TJ is a school for science and technology. It says so in the name. It's just wrong to reject the students who, like me, are clearly passionate about STEM in favor of someone who would theoretically improve the diversity of the school but couldn't care less about science. Instead of helping the school, it hurts it. We're nerds, no one at TJ will deny it (we actually take pride in it); get a bunch of kids who, like many kids in this country, think STEM is a joke and something only studied by geeks and the best part of TJ is gone. Plus, imagine if you were really into STEM, were rejected, and then told that the person sent in your place "contributes better to the diversity of the school." Personally, I think that would really suck.

On a side note, our football team won a game this year! Seriously though, somewhere around half of the student body (myself included) play sports for TJ. Our basketball team had a winning record this year; the crew team is ridiculously good; TJ won the boys' soccer state championship a few years ago; we're really good at track, cross country and swimming; and the tennis teams have been in the state finals for the past three years. So yeah, we can hold our own on the field.

Posted by: speedbird2794 | March 4, 2011 11:25 PM | Report abuse

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