Educational Diversity and Structural Racism
Critical race theory rears its ugly head yet again.
A local magnet school that’s often ranked as the nation’s top high school radically changed its application process for the incoming class, hoping to increase admissions of Black, Hispanic, and otherwise disadvantaged students, thus generating quite a bit of controversy. The results were announced earlier this week and were pretty much what everyone expected.
WaPo (“After admissions changes, Thomas Jefferson High will welcome most diverse class in recent history, officials say“):
Prestigious magnet school Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology will welcome the most diverse class of students in recent school history next fall, according to data released Wednesday by Fairfax County Public Schools.
The class will include more Black and Hispanic students than any class admitted in the past four years. It will include fewer Asian students, who have historically made up the vast majority of admitted students, and a larger percentage of female students.
But the biggest jump came in admission offers to economically disadvantaged students, meaning students who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. In previous years, these students accounted for 2 percent or fewer of all children offered spots at Thomas Jefferson, known as TJ. This year, 25 percent of all students receiving offers are economically disadvantaged, according to Fairfax data.
About 46 percent of offers went to female students this year, an increase from the past four years.
So, goals achieved.
The TJ Class of 2025 is the first to be admitted under a new admissions system approved late last year that asked school staffers to consider applicants’ socioeconomic backgrounds and did away with a long-standing, notoriously difficult admissions test, as well as a $100 application fee. Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand implemented these changes in a bid to boost diversity of all kinds at the school.
In an interview Wednesday, Brabrand hailed the demographics of the Class of 2025 as proof that his admissions revisions worked, after many long years in which previous superintendents tried, and failed, to enact changes with the same goal. The school, which focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, has enrolled disproportionately low percentages of Black and Hispanic students since its founding in 1985.
A $100 application fee is obviously a barrier to low-income families. Presumably, it was waivable but having to apply for a waiver is both time-consuming and embarrassing. So, getting rid of it certainly helped a lot.
Dropping the standardized admissions test, though, removes a means of fairly comparing students from very different schools. But I guess that was the point. According to another report, in the local Patch (“TJ High School Admits 550 Students Under New Admissions Policy“),
Spots in the class of 2025 were determined by the top 1.5 percent of applicants from every middle school. For the first time in at least a decade, every Fairfax County Public Schools middle school has students who were accepted to TJ.
This is the technically-non-race-based system famously implemented by the University of Texas years ago with precisely the same goals. Since our local schools vary greatly in rankings, owing almost entirely to local demographics, pulling in the top students from each of them is going to produce very different outcomes than open competition.
Still, on paper at least, student performance for the incoming class looks very much like past classes.
The school saw an increase in applications this year — 3,034 compared to 2,539 in the last school year. The 3.9074 average GPA of applicants was higher than recent years, while the 3.9539 average GPA of accepted students was similar to past years.
The student body is comparable in achievement to recent classes and yet far more diverse in terms of race, sex, and socioeconomic status. So, everyone should be happy, right?
Of course not.
This is a highly competitive system and those whose kids lost out think the game was rigged against them with the new rules.
The Coalition for TJ, a group of parents, students, alumni, staff, and community members opposed to the admissions changes, responded to the admissions announcement in a statement. The coalition believes the changes discriminated against Asian students and has an active federal lawsuit.
“We love Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, and we congratulate every student accepted for admission into the TJ Class of 2025,” the coalition stated. “Fairfax County Public Schools has also broken the hearts of many deserving students by waging a crusade against Asian students at the school, first by proposing a random lottery and later by implementing the current race-balanced ‘holistic’ admissions system that amounts to social engineering.”
Now, rather obviously, there is no “crusade against Asian students” in Fairfax County. Still, a system where Asians fared disproportionately well in open competition was replaced with one in which Black, Hispanic, and disadvantaged students were pretty much guaranteed a large number of slots by virtue of school district lines. And that came at the expense of the Asian students.
This, though, is hysterical:
The coalition also denounced critical race theory, an academic concept studying how racism can be found in various public policies. Opponents see it as a wedge that pits people of color against white people, according to Education Week.
Aside from glomming on to a Trump/Fox News talking point, the kerfuffle demonstrates a central tenet of critical theory quite nicely: rules don’t have to be intentionally racist to have racial impacts.
The old system was ostensibly race-neutral but worked to the advantage of white and, especially, Asian students. Presumably, given that the folks drawing up the rules were predominantly white, they weren’t trying to give Asians a leg up. But a seemingly modest admission fee screened out most low-income students, who were disproportionately Black and Hispanic. And a standardized test, also designed to be race-neutral, is almost invariably going to be easier for students from families and communities that are more affluent and educated. [And, as @Mikey notes in the comments, more likely to be able to spring for expensive test prep services.]
The new system is ostensibly race-neutral but, because of structural racism in the funding and distribution of our schools, was intentionally anything but. Because we fund our schools with local tax dollars and send students to middle schools near their communities, Black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students are concentrated in lower-ranked schools. Those schools have trouble attracting and retaining the best teachers. They have far less extra money flowing in from the PTA. And parents are less likely to be able to help their kids with schoolwork, much less constantly drive them to various application-enriching extracurriculars. Braband leveraged that structural racism into a virtual racial quota system.