FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va.—Last week, Harry Jackson signed into a virtual hearing of the Fairfax County Circuit Court to gauge the future of his freshman son’s school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Established in 1985 as a school for gifted students, TJ has been the crown jewel of not only the Fairfax County Public Schools system but also the nation, ranked America’s No. 1 high school last year by U.S. News and World Report.
However, in superficial and dubious response to the killing of George Floyd last year, the Fairfax County School Board’s 12 members recently eliminated the race-blind, merit-based admissions tests to the largely Asian school. They argued high test performance was a “barrier” to black and Hispanic students. Most TJ students have tested in the top 2 percent of nationally normed tests that measure cognitive development, with IQ levels largely ranging from gifted at about 120 to genius at about 160.
School officials have replaced the tests with a “holistic” popularity contest for students who best fit their “Portrait of Student,” with race-based criterion, middle school quotas, and subjective markers about whether a student is an “Ethical/Global Citizen,” “Creative and Critical Thinker,” “Goal-Directed and Resilient Individual,” “Innovator,” “Problem Solver,” “Leader,” “Collaborator” and “Communicator.”
Officials also discussed bringing to the school the “anti-racism” indoctrination of critical race theory, the controversial and divisive ideology sweeping K-12 education across the country. Early data analysis shows the new admissions scheme at TJ will discriminate against gifted students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In hearings last week, expected to continue Jan. 26, Virginia school officials are not only arguing to eliminate the admissions tests, but also undermine the very mission of the school.
A NAACP member and the first black student admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy from Lancaster County, Pa., years ago, Jackson doesn’t buy this racial politics and gerrymandering. Decades ago, Jackson’s father, a descendant of slaves from West Africa, took an academic test to attend Philadelphia’s Central High School, a magnet school for academically rigorous students. He eventually graduated from the University of Pennsylvania law school, paving the way for future black students.
Jackson is also the parent of one of 17 brave middle-school students who recently sued the school system to restore the tests as the fairest way to evaluate admissions to TJ. Education experts like Dante Dixson, a black assistant professor of school and educational psychology at Michigan State University, and organizations such as the National Association for Gifted Children argue that tests are the most race-blind way to evaluate giftedness.
But about one hour into the hearing, Jackson was shocked by what he heard. Fairfax County Circuit Judge John Tran started to ask the school system’s attorney a question about TJ, beginning, “You would be fine with it being considered a school for gifted students…”
“No!” the lawyer said, interrupting the judge mid-sentence.
“No?” Tran responded. “You’re not?”
“It is not a school for gifted students,” the lawyer insisted, conveniently ignoring decades of state Board of Education documents to the contrary, repeatedly identifying TJ as a school for gifted students. Jackson listened, stunned.
School officials trying desperately to dismiss the lawsuit took a position reflecting a wider attack on gifted students nationwide. Earlier this month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he is eliminating the test for the city’s gifted and talented program to also rig the program’s racial demographics, something critics like the Pacific Legal Foundation say is unconstitutional “racial balancing.”
This past fall, lobbied personally by the architect of “anti-racism,” author Ibram X. Kendi, Boston education officials eliminated their test to the academically advanced Boston Latin School and other selective schools.
“The attack on gifted education is not only a loss for students, but it’s a loss for our country. It’s a national security issue,” says Jackson. “As a nation, we should be supporting and nourishing our greatest minds. They will be our scientists, engineers, inventors, and innovators of industry. Their contributions will cross so many sectors: IT, defense, health care, government, and the arts. Our TJ graduates have an outsized positive impact on society for their numbers. They should be supported, not punished.”
Jonathan Plucker, a professor of talent development at Johns Hopkins University and president of the National Association for Gifted Children, has warned that an “ideology is turning against excellence” and “institutionalizing anti-intellectualism.” Indeed, last month, one of the chief proponents of critical race theory, Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times’ controversial 1619 Project (and an Ivy League graduate) wrote on Twitter, “Gifted programs should be eliminated,” sparking a firestorm of criticism from California to New York. She previously bragged about the benefits of getting a “gifted and talented” education.
Around the country, parents are organizing to oppose ideological indoctrination in our schools and advance educational excellence. In Boston, parents have created the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence. In New York, PLACE NYC will host an Education First Mayoral Candidate Forum on Jan. 28 to pose tough questions to candidates, including former presidential aspirant Andrew Yang.
PLACE NYC cofounder Lucas Liu says, “Attacking higher-performing students under the guise of ‘equity’ grabs headlines, but won’t result in improving elementary school education, which is the where the inequity problem starts. For those ‘equity’ advocates, ‘equity’ is nothing more than a fashion accessory to make them look attractive, hiding the failures of Departments of Education to improve the academic outcomes of our most vulnerable students.” In California, Wenyuan Wu, executive director of Californians for Equal Rights, opposes the attack on gifted students as a “race to the bottom.”
In northern Virginia, where my son is a student at TJ, we’ve created Coalition for TJ, speaking at board meetings, hosting socially distant rallies where we wear facemasks that say, “JUSTICE” and #SAVETJ,” and support lawsuits, like the one filed by Jackson and the other parents. Nationally, we have strategized in Zoom calls, and have an #AdvancingExcellence campaign ready to launch as soon as we can get a breather from putting out fires set by school officials in our local communities. (I invite parents to contact me with their tips about indoctrination in K-12 schools.)
What Jackson says is true. Over the past three decades, TJ students and graduates have won national Science Bowls, geography bees, science fairs, and the bulk of northern Virginia’s National Merit scholarships, sent a satellite to space, launched technology startups like Robinhood, and pioneered advances in science, technology, engineering, and math. They’ve kept America competitive.
Earlier this month, President-elect Joe Biden named an Ethiopian-American TJ graduate, Yohannes Abraham, executive director of the Biden-Harris Transition, to be chief of staff of the National Security Council. This past weekend, Biden named scientist Eric Lander, a 1974 graduate of a specialized school in New York with a race-blind admissions test, as head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and elevated the position to cabinet level.
In Fairfax County, school officials have said unabashedly that the new “holistic” admissions are designed to make TJ more “demographically representative” of the county, where Asian students are about 20 percent of the population. Yet rather than fixing their long-documented failures in educating black and Hispanic students, the board and school officials are simply dropping the academic bar for admission to TJ — and instituting new discrimination.
Like children with special needs, “gifted” is a legally protected class of learning because these students, too, are at-risk for bullying and dropping out of school. Nowadays, they are the target of ridicule and attack by educrats and activists from the ideology of “critical race theory” that claims “systemic racism” if there aren’t equal outcomes based on racial demographics.
For parents like Jackson, watching school officials gut gifted education in Fairfax County, Va., eliminating the very programs that uplift students isn’t the answer. He is working with the Black Student Fund, a nonprofit based in nearby Washington, D.C., to support and advance the talent overlooked in black and Hispanic communities with a STEM tutoring program that offers small student-teacher ratios, financial support, and wrap-around support beyond academics, to build the pipeline to schools like TJ.
Like so many minority parents, Jackson doesn’t want the academic bar lowered. He wants school officials to start doing their job and educating all students at the highest levels possible. Later this month, he’ll tune in again to the Fairfax County court proceedings to support one objective: education, not ideological activism.