The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Another revered high school sacrifices excellence on the altar of DEI

President Barack Obama and students after speaking at the Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia in September 2010. (Tim Sloan/AFP via Getty Images)
4 min

PHILADELPHIA — In September 2010, President Barack Obama came here to the nationally acclaimed and locally revered Masterman School, one of this city’s five selective magnet schools. He called the “culture of excellence that you promote at Masterman” an example “that I hope communities across America can embrace.” Today, Philadelphia no longer can embrace it.

According to a meticulous 51-page report written by a multiracial group of Masterman parents, the school is being “systematically dismantled.” It is being sacrificed on the DEI (“diversity, equity, inclusion”) altar. For decades, it and other selective schools coexisted with neighborhood schools in educating the city’s children. Admission to the selective schools was by merit: grades, scores on Pennsylvania’s standardized test and attendance records.

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These metrics produced the excellence Obama praised, but not the racial composition of the student bodies that progressives fancy. They chose to diminish excellence in the pursuit of equity, understood, in this age of identity politics, as student enrollments at the selective schools reflecting the school district’s racial composition.

The lottery instituted in the 2021-2022 school year was supposed to minimize demographic disparities by tempering randomness with automatic acceptance of students from certain Zip codes. This Zip code prioritizing is, however, an unreliable DEI generator in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. According to the report, teachers say that the academic effort middle schoolers expend has declined as the lottery has eclipsed achievement in assignments to high schools.

Philadelphia’s 21 special admissions high schools have various specialties — music, drama, science, liberal arts, etc. Sherice Sargent, a Black mother, is not amused that her daughter Skye, who thrived at Carver Engineering and Science magnet school, was assigned by the lottery to a school with a different specialty: farming. Really.

Masterman began what became the middle school in 1959 and added a high school in 1976, offering an eight-year pathway of continuity in excellence. Post-lottery, however, the connection of the middle school (with its rich menu of clubs: debate, robotics, chess) and high school has been severed.

With most ninth-graders coming from other, less exacting schools, the parents’ report says, the high school must now “ask less of, and deliver less to, a group of Philadelphia’s most promising students.” This has diminished Masterman as, the parents write, “a symbol of the inherent good of intellectual development and aspiration.”

The eighth grade’s ambitious language course has been dropped as inequitable because students coming from other city schools to Masterman’s high school would not have had access to it. The school’s vocal and instrumental music programs have been devastated by interrupting the pathway from eighth to ninth grades. The advanced math track, in which White and Asian American students were disproportionately represented, has been ended. The lottery was adopted after a decade of rapid growth of Philadelphia’s Asian community.

In September 2022, the school dropped its mission statement about engaging “academically talented students in grades 5-12 in advanced intellectual study.” In six subsequent iterations, Masterman’s motto — “Dare to Be Excellent” — disappeared from the school crest. For the 2022-2023 school year, according to the parents’ report, admissions criteria were significantly lowered, and the promise of a middle school accelerated curriculum was dropped.

For DEI enthusiasts, these might be prices worth paying for “social justice.” Here, however, is another trade-off: Student attrition rates are the highest in the school’s history.

Teachers and administrators at Masterman and comparable schools are under what is, effectively, a gag order from the school district whose policies are so divisive. This year, however, politics will guarantee conversations about education.

Philadelphia last elected a Republican mayor in 1947, the year before Kim Il Sung began his family dynasty’s uninterrupted rule of North Korea. This year, former councilman David Oh, a Philadelphia-born Korean American, will try, as the Republican nominee, to break his party’s 71-year losing streak. Democrats have a 7-to-1 registration advantage but, concerning schools, an annoying, largely anti-merit agenda congruent with national progressivism.

In 2022, Masterman’s lingering momentum from pre-lottery days enabled it to produce 19 National Merit Scholars, the parents’ report notes, three more than all other Philadelphia schools combined, private as well as public. Four of the other 16 had attended Masterman in middle school. Lottery enthusiasts are presumably content to say farewell to merit-based preeminence.

Masterman is two miles from Independence Hall, where Thomas Jefferson’s pen launched this Republic’s mission to live with the tension between equality and excellence. Jefferson, in his remarkable “Notes on Virginia,” the only book he ever wrote, chose to describe an ideal school system in which “the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish.” Forgive his indelicate language; do not forgive those who resent the fact that the Masterman School once was a rake.