Mark Spooner | Fairfax Schools Monitor
Since this story broke on December 21, new developments have occurred almost daily. The story has held the attention of the public, press and government authorities because it vividly exemplifies how the Fairfax County public school system (“FCPS”) has elevated “equity” over academic standards and achievement.
Journalist Asra Nomani’s December 21 article in the City Journal revealed that Fairfax County’s elite high school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, or “TJ,” had failed to inform its students about their National Merit “commended student” awards on a timely basis, and had downplayed the awards’ significance when belatedly conveying the news. The school hadn’t informed the parents at all. When the facts came to light, TJ’s director of student services reportedly justified TJ’s conduct on the ground that “we want to recognize students for who they are as individuals, not focus on their achievements.” He and the school’s principal didn’t want to “hurt the feelings” of other students.
The revelation created an immediate uproar. What could possibly justify a decision by the leaders of an elite high school to withhold from its highest-achieving students information about, and recognition for, the fruits of their hard work? Several local and national news outlets publicized the story, and the superintendent of the school system was flooded with demands for an investigation and disciplinary action.
On December 29, Julie Moult, Media Relations Manager for FCPS, attempted to minimize the controversy, telling reporters that the the incident at TJ was a “one-time human error in the fall of 2022 only.” This only inflamed the situation. “Human error” suggests an unintentional oversight, whereas the news reporting had said TJ’s leaders deliberately withheld and downplayed the awards. The reference in Moult’s statement to “the fall of 2022 only” contradicted the assertion in the reporting that TJ had failed to inform parents of the awards in past years as well. Moult also implied that the “human error” occurred only at one school, TJ.
On January 3, Governor Glenn Youngkin called for an investigation, stating: “We need to get to the bottom of what appears to be an egregious, deliberate attempt to disadvantage high-performing students at one of the best schools in the country.”
On January 4, the Superintendent of FCPS, Michelle Reid, sent a message to all FCPS students, families and community members. She stated that “our current understanding is that the delay at TJ this fall was a unique situation due to human error,” but she announced that FCPS was initiating “an investigative review by an independent third party into the circumstances surrounding this situation” and would leave it to the investigators to draw any final conclusions.
Also on January 4, Virginia’s Attorney General, Jason Miyares, announced that his office would investigate whether TJ’s actions violated the Virginia Human Rights Act.
On January 6, Asra Nomani reported that the handling of “commended student” awards was not a “one-time error,” because the issue had been considered by TJ’s administrators in the autumn of 2020, if not earlier. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation had sent a letter to TJ’s principal on September 10, 2020, asking her, in bold type, to present letters of commendation to the TJ students who had earned the awards. She didn’t do so. Two months later, when a parent inquired, a TJ staffer incorrectly responded: “There is no letter and no formal announcement for commended scholars.”
On January 6 and 7, two additional Fairfax County schools, Langley High School in McLean and Westfield High School in Chantilly, disclosed that, like TJ, they had not informed students or parents of the National Merit awards. Langley’s principal sent an email to the affected parents on the 6th, stating that she was “delighted” to inform them that their children had been designated as “commended scholars” last autumn and then stating: “I must apologize that certificates were not distributed to these … students in the usual way this past fall.” The next day, the principal of Westfield High School sent a similar message to the parents of its students.
On January 9, Superintendent Michelle Reid reported that she had proactively informed the Virginia Attorney General about these recent disclosures. Later that day, Attorney General Miyares announced that his office was expanding the TJ investigation to include all Fairfax County public schools. He stated: “It’s concerning that multiple schools throughout Fairfax County withheld merit awards from students.”
“Equity” — code language for achieving equal outcomes for all racial and ethnic groups regardless of the actual achievement of individual students — has been at the center of FCPS policy in recent years.
One prominent example of this occurred two years ago when FCPS revised the entrance requirements for the county’s elite high school, TJ. Based on objective testing of readiness for rigorous education in the sciences and technology, Asian Americans accounted for about 70 percent of TJ’s student population in recent years. This was deemed unacceptable by FCPS leadership, so the entry requirements were changed. The standardized test was discarded in favor of a more “holistic” admissions system. TJ’s leaders — the same people who believe students shouldn’t be recognized for their achievements — supported the “equity”-based revisions. (Note: a federal district court has held that the new system is unconstitutionally race-based. The case is pending on appeal.)
In September 2020, FCPS’ then-Superintendent, Scott Braband announced at the kick-off of the school year that whereas “equity” had previously been “a” thing in school policy, it would henceforth be “the” thing. In pursuit of this goal, FCPS has taken several steps to report success in closing gaps in achievement, for example, by revising grading systems from a 0-100 scale to a 50-100 scale, so that what used to be a score of 0 would now be a score of 50.
FCPS is currently in the process of developing a new multi-year Strategic Plan. It has announced that this plan will focus on “equity.” Its consultant in the planning process, which has been awarded a $455,000 contract, advocates a goal of “equal outcomes for every student, without exception.” This is, of course, unattainable: There are and always will be differences among individuals in intellectual capacity, motivation and a variety of socio-economic factors over which the school system has little or no control. When “equal outcomes” becomes the over-arching focus of educators, there will inevitably be attacks on meritocracy, as has recently occurred at TJ and other area high schools.
Mark Spooner, a retired attorney, is the founding editor of Fairfax School Monitor, where this article was first published.