STEM School’s Entrance Policy Sparks Debate

By Erik W. Robelen — May 30, 2012 2 min read
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A nationally recognized STEM school in suburban Washington is the subject of debate after changes to its entrance policies apparently led to the need to provide far more students with remediation.

An editorial in today’s Washington Post highlights the situation at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and raises the thorny matter of balancing the goals of attracting a diverse range of students and helping top-achieving students thrive and become the next generation of STEM innovators.

The editorial notes that the changes to the elite magnet school’s admissions policy were aimed at increasing student diversity on campus to better reflect the demographics of Fairfax County, which contains a highly diverse population (though also one of the nation’s most affluent).

“Not only did the change not have the desired effect, but something equally troubling may have occurred: The wrong students may be getting accepted at the expense of students better suited to the school’s rigor and mission,” the editorial says. “Fairfax school officials are right to revisit this issue.”

As the editorial notes, a full one-third of entering freshmen at the high school during this academic year required remedial coursework in math and science.

Thomas Jefferson is one in a long line of STEM schools in the country. However, as I noted in a recent story, a new trend is the creation of STEM-themed schools explicitly aimed at attracting students who are underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, including low-income students, African-Americans and Hispanics, and females. These schools typically do not have entrance requirements, or if they do, they are not especially high.

The push for this new generation of STEM schools appears to be driven in part by an economic imperative to cast a far wider net to develop talent that might not otherwise be tapped. In fact, a recent report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said the creation of new STEM schools should be a key strategy to reverse the STEM “interest and achievement gap.”

At the same time, many experts say it’s still important to save room for a cadre of highly selective schools that are explicitly intended to nurture the nation’s top talent.

The Washington Post editorial notes that a teacher at Thomas Jefferson recently wrote an op-ed raising concerns about the situation at that school.

“The old Jefferson was never a route to increased STEM achievement in the general school population,” wrote Thomas Jefferson teacher John Dell earlier this month. “Rather, it was created to nurture promising STEM students at just the point where such students come into their real power— where their brains are literally fired up and ready to go. The regional commitment to the old Jefferson, tenuous from the start, has finally been overwhelmed by other agendas. A genuine success has been followed by political failure to embrace and sustain it.”

The Post editorial reports that the Fairfax County school board will take up the issue of TJ’s admissions policy this summer. We shall see how they handle this matter.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.