May 25, 2012

Once upon a time, President Ronald Reagan visited Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology to celebrate the creation of a school for students likely bound, by interest and aptitude, for productive lives as scientists, engineers and mathematicians. The president heralded Jefferson as a sign of the nation’s renewed commitment to excellence in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

From the outset, the Jefferson admissions policy was controversial. Rather than being open to all students by lottery, as some might expect and others might demand from a school supported with public funds, the process was designed to match students with high aptitude and interest in STEM fields with a demanding STEM-focused curriculum. Located in an area with one of the highest concentrations of PhDs in the world, there was sufficient number of students with truly “nerdy” interests and demonstrated readiness to support such a specialized school.

Over the years, Jefferson attracted promising STEM students and their families from around the region, the country and the world to Northern Virginia. The school also came to attract exceptional teachers, many of whom had PhDs in math and science fields.

For more than a generation, three critical elements of Jefferson remained intact:

●A coherent community of students with an interest and aptitude in STEM.

●An independent, adaptive curriculum targeted to that community.

●A teaching staff dedicated to providing a deeper start in STEM areas than is generally available to U.S. teens.

Above all, what made Jefferson special was the extraordinary learning environment created by assembling a critical mass of truly prepared students.

But that was the old Jefferson. Today we have a new Jefferson. At the new Jefferson, students are no longer selected primarily on the basis of their promise in science, technology and mathematics. One-third of the students entering Jefferson under the current admissions policy are in remediation in their math and science courses.

Teachers are spending more time figuring out how to get students over challenges universally conquered at the old Jefferson and less time adapting the program to the changing world of STEM.

At the new Jefferson, a premium is placed on conforming to the methods and structures of the Fairfax County Public Schools system. And at the new Jefferson, some of the most promising middle school math students are routinely passed over, this being just one consequence of an admissions policy more typical of charter schools, where a large portion of admissions decisions result from random selection, albeit from a pre-screened pool.

Make no mistake, admission to the new Jefferson is still highly competitive. But Jefferson students are now selected using an admissions process that is highly random, subjective, and devoid of measures that distinguish students with high aptitude in STEM. This process that is more about memory, language skill, motivation to be successful in college admissions, test prep and just plain luck than the best available indicators of promise as a future scientist, engineer or mathematician.

Jefferson’s teachers are in the process of adapting to the new spectrum of students, but a fundamental shift has occurred. The old Jefferson was never a route to increased STEM achievement in the general school population. 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.

If the success of a school is measured by accomplishments of its alumni, then the old Jefferson was a blazing success. Alumni of the old Jefferson have been creating wealth in the country’s top research universities, technology companies and labs for nearly two decades. Today the hand of Jefferson alumni can be seen making significant contributions in virtually every major STEM field. Some members of the local educational establishment and media have celebrated the passing of the old Jefferson, but elsewhere around the world the manifest efficiency and ­wealth-creation effect of the old Jefferson are well appreciated, leading to adoption and extension of the model.

But for all the teenage nerds in Northern Virginia whose brains are itching to find a community in which to start their journey building the future: Most certainly and, sadly, the old Jefferson has left the building.

The writer has taught physics at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology for 23 years.