Well the education news week started off with a bang. A front page, above the fold, left column story in Monday’s Washington Post: “At Magnet School, An Asian Plurality: Group Forms 45% Of Freshmen at Thomas Jefferson.”
This is news? And the point is … well, what is the point? The racial composition of TJ has been covered for years. As the article notes, the admissions criteria for the school have been closely watched and fine-tuned several times in the last 15 years. And as the article also notes, similar trends are evident at highly selective high schools around the country. I guess the question being posed is, is this something that anyone needs to worry about? Are families gaming the system? And if so, who cares as long as the school continues to select for excellence? My answer: I vote for excellence, and if the result is racially lopsided, so be it. Society as a whole benefits when the most gifted are nurtured. I only wish that Virginia (and lots of other places) offered similar targeted opportunities for the the non-math/science gifted. But you knew I’d say that.
Stepping back, what I find fascinating, and would love to find research on, is how programs such as TJ–and Stuyvesant and IMSA and the Texas Academy of Leadership, etc., etc.–got started in the first place and how they are able to maintain political support. (Please let me know if it exists…there’s gotta be a Ph.D thesis on this out there somewhere.) Because across the river, in MoCo and the state of Maryland in general, the choice has been very different.
Dual enrollment? Early entrance? At Montgomery College if you’re lucky, and then only as a junior or senior, after jumping through lots of hoops. Classes at College Park? Same deal and lotsa luck. (Thank goodness for UMBC.)
Sure we have our signature programs at every level, but rather than gather them under one or two high powered roofs, MoCo has chosen to go the school-within-a-school route, putting excellent programs and students into some of the more troubled schools in the county. (Meanwhile if you’re wealthy enough, your kids can attend the high schools on the western side of the county that still top the magnet schools in national rankings.) It’s as if having selected the best of the best, MCPS then takes steps to deliberately hobble excellence and achievement, and what’s more, foster tension in school communities. Gifted students and their parents are routinely placed in an uncomfortable position when attempting to advocate for the selectivity of their programs. It breeds a “head ducked” quality about the magnets, a “can’t speak out too much or we’ll will be branded elitists” mentality that I think ultimately harms students and harms the cause of excellence. The message: You should all be grateful to have what you have, so don’t rock the boat.
A case in point is Richard Montgomery High School. RM’s IB program, from what I’ve heard, is world class in large measure because of the highly selective admissions process; on average between 800 and 900 students from across the county apply for 100 slots. Every year students win national awards and go on to top colleges and universities. It counts two Rhodes Scholars among its alums. The program has managed to create a culture where being excited about learning is valued, not something to hide, where intellectual engagement is respected and supported by peers, not derided as freakish. For many students, it’s the first time they’ve experienced that kind of encouragement. Sounds wonderful, no? So what has MCPS done? Removed the 25-student cap on the number of Middle Years Program (MYP) students that can be admitted to the full-on IB program at the start of 11th grade.
A little background. At the local feeder middle school to RM, students have the opportunity to participate in the IB Middle Years Program in 6th through 8th grade. When they come to their home high school, RM, they continue the MYP program in 9th and 10th grade, while the selected magnet students take different, even more rigorous pre-IB classes. In the past, after MYP students finished their program, they were permitted to apply to the official IB program for 11th and 12th grade. Up to 25 students were admitted, with rejected students participating in honors and AP classes within the general school. This year, I’ve been told (from someone who messaged me privately, and should know), the 25-student cap was eliminated, and 50 students were admitted, with only six turned away. 46 of these accepted students will be entering the IB in the fall, along with the 100 admitted through the more rigorous 9th-grade application process.
So what’s the problem? Well to start there is the uncomfortable issue of eroding the culture of a program where being smart and loving learning is cool. (Just writing that sentence I find myself getting into a protective crouch, the better to ward off the shouts of “elitist” hurtling towards me.) Increasing the number of students in the program by half–students who meet the minimum criteria for completing the IB diploma but who may not share the same ethos toward learning–very likely will (according to my source) have an impact on the program’s academics and learning community. And not for the better. (“Hey but it’ll make the Challenge Index numbers look great!”)
What’s more, there is the question of equity. How do the parents of the 700-800 students from around the county who didn’t get into RM under the more competitive process at 9th grade feel about feeder middle school students being ushered into the program through a back door?
How long will that legacy of excellence, that reputation hold?
I guess they’ll find out.