The Quest For “Diversity” At The Most Selective Public High School In America

Selective colleges are not the only sites of conflict between the search for academic excellence and the determination to promote “diversity.” Very selective secondary schools have also been engaged in this conflict, of which there is no better example than Northern Virginia’s exemplary Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology, “[t]he most selective public high school in America” and the subject of my posts several years ago on “Diversity” In A Highly Selective High School (citing a number of sources) and “Diversity” Mania Attacks A Very Selective High School.

That diversity mania is still alive and well, as evidenced by a long, whining, front page article in the Washington Post last Sunday, “Black, Hispanic students dwindle at elite Va. public school.”

Years of efforts to raise black and Hispanic enrollment at the regional school have failed, officials acknowledge. The number of such students admitted has fallen since 2005.

There are two major reasons. Admissions decisions are generally made without regard to race or ethnicity, despite a policy meant to promote diversity. And initiatives to enlarge the pipeline of qualified black and Hispanic students in elementary and middle school have flopped.

“We need to do a better job of evening the playing field,” said Richard Moniuszko, deputy superintendent in Fairfax County. “But there’s a limit to what we can do, both legally and financially.”

Evening the playing field? Oh well, since almost everyone else demands leveling the playing field, I guess a little linguistic diversity won’t hurt. What does hurt, however, is the untroubled acceptance of the fact that “diversity” requires racial discrimination — TJ has too few minorities because it treats applicants without regard to race.

I have, by the way, criticized the “level playing field” argument (actually, more a metaphor than an argument) a number of times, such as here:

Note what this metaphor assumes: fundamentally, that the game of life is a competition not among individuals but among racial and ethnic teams. And for the field to be “level,” of course, the resources of these competing teams should/must be equal, which they are not so long as one team comes to the field with better equipment, coaches, experience, etc.

The “field,” of course, will never be “level” — radical redistribution of wealth, resources, educational history is not likely or even possible — and so the “level field” metaphor sets out a requirement for eliminating preferential treatment that cannot be met. Not in Justice O’Connor’s wishful-thinking 25 years, not ever.

And here:

… that argument holds that minorities will deserve preferential treatment until the “playing field” becomes level, and that the field is not level so long as minorities are “underrepresented” anywhere, so long as any racial “disparities” continue to exist. In short, it posits the continuing pervasiveness of racism even in the absence of visible racists, of pervasive discrimination even in the absence of discriminators….

And here:

… “to promote a level playing field for all” … is rather like saying that blacks and Hispanics have to run only 87 yards in the 100 yard dash while whites must run 100 and Asians 110 “in order to make the race equal for all.”

And finally (for now), here:

To return to the playing field, however, when will it be level? How will we know when it’s level? Since I’ve yet to see an answer to these questions, I am hereby launching a contest (prize to be determined later) to see who can provide the most persuasive conclusion to the following sentence:

“The playing field will be level when ….”

To get the ball rolling, I will submit the first entry:

“… when the cows come home and the lions lie down with the lambs.”

It is no accident, as conspiracy theorists of all stripes are fond of saying, that in practice academic playing fields are often viewed as uneven or unlevel because there are too many Asian winners, as the Washington Post never fails to mention.

Ninety percent of TJ’s 1,764 students are of Asian descent (the largest and fastest-growing group) or are non-Hispanic white (the second-largest)….

The overall admissions rate is 15 percent. But it’s 2 percent for black students and 6 percent for Hispanic students.

That was last week. Now comes Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews, who sent a request to an online list we both read for comment, “possibly for quotation,” about some thoughts he had for a follow-up article on TJ. Since I’ve both criticized and had pleasant email correspondence with Jay before (more on which below), I felt bad that I didn’t have time to let him know what was wrong with what he proposed. But now that his article, “Diversity is a tough test for Thomas Jefferson High, the country’s most selective school” has appeared (it’s also here), it’s clear that the points I would have made (and make here) would have made no difference.

How do I know? Because Mathews did not mention the persuasive legal objections to his proposal sent to the list by Hans Bader, senior attorney with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, citing Fourth Circuit decisions to demonstrate that Mathews’ recommendation for achieving “diversity” at TJ are in all likelihood illegal. Nor did he acknowledge or respond to the incisive criticisms submitted, in two parts, by Roger Clegg, president and chief counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, criticisms that in substantial part had been posted by Clegg in the comments to last week’s Post article.

Mathews’ starting (and ending) point is the fact that blacks and Hispanics make up only 4% of TJ student body “is not good enough” and its inevitable corollary: the fact that “At 46 percent, Asians … are the most common ethnicity at Jefferson” is part of the problem to be remedied. (He of course does not come right out and say too many Asians are a problem, but adding more blacks and Hispanics would almost certainly result in admitting fewer Asians and whites, just as it does in selective colleges.)

Not good enough for what, and how many is “enough”? Like most believers in “diversity,” Mathews never explains his faith, i.e., he never says how the scientific and technical education at the core of TJ’s mission would be improved by having more black and brown faces in the chemistry and physics labs. But he does suggest something regarding how many:

After years of Jefferson promising to reach out to the third of Northern Virginia students who are black or Hispanic, fewer than 4 percent of the school’s students are of those ethnicities, while ultra-selective colleges such as Harvard and MIT manage to have about 20 percent.

Of course, it’s clear that what Mathews really finds lacking at TJ is not that it failed “to reach out” to blacks and Hispanics but quite simply that it didn’t admit more of them, perhaps because he asserts (but presents no evidence) that “[t]here are more eligible black and Hispanic students who are capable of handling the Jefferson curriculum.”

Since, as noted in last week’s Post article, the admission rate last year was 2 percent for blacks and 6 percent for Hispanics, Mathews seems to be convinced that there are large numbers of blacks and Hispanics who could have met TJ’s stringent admission requirements but who chose not to apply. Indeed, he writes, “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,” and he admits that “most parents have little opportunity or interest in sending their children to selective high schools, public or private.”

Nevertheless, he argues that “broadening the ethnic profile of our nation’s best high schools should not be that hard.” Really? Why not? What does he propose, identifying the bright blacks and Hispanics and drafting them? Well, no. What he proposes is changing the admissions standards, replacing or at least restricting the emphasis on demonstrated ability in favor of “interest” and “determination” and even “character.” Really. I’m not making this up. Read it for yourself:

Many educators and students supporting Jefferson have formed a Diversity and Engagement Curriculum Team to recruit more blacks and Hispanics and inspire an interest in science and math that will impress the admissions committee. The key to their effort is that success in the United States 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 recently 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 also more reflective of the values we want all of our kids to have.

Of course “many of the promising ones” meeting these new politically correct Mathewsian requirements “will be black and Hispanic.” But unless such qualities are found among minorities much more often than among Asians, whites, and various unpreferred minorities, requiring “interest” and “determination” and “grace” and “character” would not necessarily produce more black and Hispanics at TJ. As Roger Clegg pointed out in one of the list submissions I mentioned above,

[l]et’s assume for the sake of argument that Jay is right and that admissions should be based not just on academic readiness but on academic potential. Fine. But how do you get from that to considering race and ethnicity in deciding who gets admitted? Diamonds in the rough come in all colors, and there is no reason to use skin color or what country your ancestors came from as a proxy for academic potential.

And if the ineffable subjectivity of these new requirements became just a smokescreen both allowing and disguising the determination to admit more minorities, all minorities at TJ would soon be stigmatized as being only “potentially” talented.

In arguing that TJ should emulate MIT, Mathews in fact sounds very much like … MIT — which is to say, largely incoherent on the justification for “diversity.” As I argued at some length on Minding The Campus (here), a long report by MIT’s Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity lacks a reasoned argument supported by evidence of how and why “diversity” is so crucial. If it is so “clear” that there are large untapped pools of talent, pools that exist primarily in — may in fact be identical with — the racial and ethnic groups “underrepresented” at MIT, you’d think the report would present some evidence of it.

Diversity, the report argued, is essential for several reasons:

  • It is intrinsic in the mission of excellence in science and engineering education that we engage a truly diverse faculty; we must diversify our faculty or we lose in competitive advantage and in mission.
  • A part of MIT’s mission is to be of service to humanity — to hope to accomplish such a bold endeavor, one must also be inclusive of humanity
  • A diverse faculty is key to communal scholarship and intellectual scope
  • If we do not succeed in the diversification of faculty across the nation, we constrain ourselves and limit our success in all fields of endeavor.

“In other words,” I concluded,

“diversity” is “core” to MIT’s excellence because it is “intrinsic,” because “one must … be inclusive,” because it is “key,” and because insufficient diversification limits success. In other words, well, just because.

MIT prides itself on seeking “the world’s brightest minds,” often justifying that effort, as do all similar reports, with a nod to the national interest in enlisting the best talent to aid us in international competition, etc. Fine, but where is the evidence that the enormous costs involved in trying to find, create, cajole, hire, promote, etc., more women and black and Hispanic scientists will produce more top flight scientists than would recruiting even more decidedly not “underrepresented” Asians and Jews? …. If we need more scientists, we need them of whatever hue or sex….

Fishermen usually try to fish where the fish are biting, but not those trolling for more scientists.

If Mathews’ suggestions for TJ were adopted perhaps its name should be changed to The Thomas Jefferson High School For Interested, Determined, Graceful Students Of Good Character. The school would probably still be good … but it wouldn’t be TJ.

ADDENDUM

For my earlier encounters with how Jay Mathews’ devotion to “diversity” colors his reporting, see … And Now Some Numbers From UVa, As Filtered Through The Washington Post and “Diversity” At UVa, As Reported (Or Not) In The Washington Post. Mathews was the author of both articles discussed in those posts, and you’ll get a better feel for his take on TJ if you look at them.

In subsequent emails after those posts I found him polite, congenial, and willing to listen carefully to my criticisms. On the other hand, I continue to find him about as open to those and similar criticisms as President Obama is to those “Republican ideas” he always claims he wants to hear.

ADDENDUM II

Evidence for the fact that tinkering with admission standards in order to admit more blacks may not be popular with blacks already at TJ comes from Chantelle Ekanem, president of TJ’s Black Student Association, who writes that last Sunday’s article “did not reflect the feelings of the TJ student body.”

While diversity is a good thing, it should not be attained at the expense of excellence. The TJ community is very accepting, and I have never once felt a racial separation.

If people were let into TJ based solely on the basis of their race, it could hurt them in the long run. Underneath all of TJ’s hype, it’s purely a challenging school for those who want to work hard.

Say What? (1)

  1. elle January 25, 2012 at 4:52 pm | | Reply

    Their diversity went down the year they put new application stuff in place to increase diversity.

Say What?