In Defense of Merit at Thomas Jefferson High School

The Fairfax County Times recently published the following letter from Joann P. DiGennaro, president of the McLean-based Center for Excellence in Education. It is republished here with the author’s consent: 

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST) has maintained its standards for demonstrated excellence, particularly in STEM disciplines, in great part from its steadfast support of the Fairfax County Business Community and individuals who champion academic ability. Forward thinkers knew that Virginia’s ability to attract companies to build the economy in science and technology was dependent on a stellar educational system.

As President of the Center for Excellence in Education, based in McLean, Virginia, I participated in hours of discussion about the rigorous liberal arts curricula proposed for TJ. Clearly the school was not proposed to be available for all students, but rather for a select few historically labeled as “gifted for mastery of math and science”. Julian Stanley, Founder of the Center of Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins, characterized this cohort of students as: one in 10,000 students able to master 1½ years of math in three weeks. Norm Augustine characterized these prodigies as performers who could complete the work of four employees.

The Center has sponsored the Research Science Institute each summer with MIT for this cadre of special needs high school students at no cost to them since 1984. Indeed, premiere faculty at leading colleges and universities and corporate leaders, including the founder of Pinterest, the developer of CRISPR, and renowned researchers in COVID therapies, are among those “Products of CEE’s Genius Program”. TJ’s students have numbered predominately among those chosen for the Institute and the USA Biology Olympiad. Indeed, a member of the TJ faculty directed the summer institute for several years.

Many remember Earl Williams, one of Northern Virginia’s preeminent corporate leaders, who spearheaded fundraising year after year for state-of-the-art lab equipment and worked to encourage companies and organizations to provide research opportunities for TJ STEM students. What would he says today about the constant drumming and accusations of discrimination against TJ for demanding academic excellence as the most important criteria for admission to the school? Selection of students for the Center’s programs and TJ’s student body are both highly selective and use test scores as but one variable to identify talent. Both CEE’s programs and TJ have been described as “too Asian” and not representative of the student community at large. The mission of TJ was not to rectify the ills implicit in U.S. elementary and secondary schools that result in underperformance in Latino and Black student populations. The mission was to nurture and maximize the potential of Crown Jewels, those who long outperformed their classroom peers; those who could master two, three, or four years in quantitative and theoretical higher level thinking above their respective class designation. The criteria for TJ acceptance must remain consistent brute academic talent as defined by global standards, not by social engineers who continue to redefine “merit”.

Academic acumen is not measured by race, color, or creed – but by performance, hard work, and study. It should not be measured by quotas nor should it be called to answer for the challenges inherent in our educational system and in society as a whole. Testing results should be considered as providing additional information about the student’s academic ability. Our nation needs to continue pursuit of global leadership in science and technology, and a system of lottery for positions to attend TJHSST will do nothing to strengthen U.S. international ranking in STEM or rectify deficiencies in Fairfax County’s K-12 system. The lottery system will negatively impact the Asian community, the long standing interest in the business community for a robust local technology workforce and possibly run afoul of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

Note: Since this letter was written, the Fairfax County School Board voted to abolish TJ’s merit-based admissions standards in favor of “holistic evaluations.” As the Coalition for TJ stated, “The Fairfax County School Board has doubled down on its illegal race-based social engineering at TJ.”

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