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I Have A Problem With The Nation’s #1 High School

While this post features TJ, it is by no means specific to TJ.


Almost two years ago, I graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. In another two years, my younger brother will do the same.

Me and TJ, we’ve got history. TJ is where I had my first slow dance, learned to drive a car, and once got chased down the chem hall by an eleven-year-old supergenius with a roller backpack and the blessing of Satan. TJ also happens to be Newsweek’s #1 high school in the United States of America. I know, right? You’d think an institution like that would learn to keep its child prodigies in check.

Anyway, I have something to say about this school:

Something is wrong.

Something is very, very wrong.

And it’s not getting better.


Flash back to my freshman year. I’m volunteering at Techstravaganza, an annual STEM activity fair for elementary- and middle-school folks. I straighten up, having just explained the concept of a thaumascope to a boy who’s got his left index finger jammed halfway up a nostril, and find myself under the intense scrutiny of his mother. She looks sort of like a rutabaga. And when she opens her mouth to speak, it turns out she also sounds sort of like a rutabaga.

Woman Of The Rutabagas: So how did you get into TJ?

Angela:

Woman Of The Rutabagas: Like, which prep class did you take? See, my son’s in third grade, and I’m wondering when I should get him signed up.

Angela:

Angela: Well maybe you should first get that finger out of his nose because it’s approximately 1.2 millimeters away from making contact with brain tissue which will probably cause irreversible physiological damage sometime after he graduates THE THIRD GRADE (?!?!) but idk that’s just me.

Okay, so I didn’t say that. Whatever an angry rutabaga looks like, I figured it couldn’t be pleasant.

But guys.

TJHSST was founded in 1985 to provide a safe haven of sorts for bright, intellectually curious kids who got a little slack-jawed and weak-kneed at the idea of STEM. It was a place for students with specially tailored minds to find specially tailored educations. They didn’t tack on the “for Science and Technology” so we would suffer from Scantron-induced carpal tunnel syndrome and lowbrow mockery at local sporting events. It’s there because that’s what Thomas Jefferson is. A school. For science. And technology.

Originally, kids applied because of passion. Today, kids apply because of reputation. And that, my friends, is where everything goes to shit.

Let’s return for a moment to TJ prep. Sure, it discourages kids who don’t have the means to access prep classes, but that’s an argument for a separate post. The issue in the frame of this blog post is that TJ prep defeats the purpose of the test itself. If you need a prep class to pass the TJ test, is TJ really the right fit for you? (Update 1/7/17: I didn’t take TJ prep, and only now am I hearing how the situation varies sharply from student to student, company to company. Naturally, so does the applicability of the following.)

Consider a theoretical company called Tryna AF. Tryna AF offers a prep class for first dates with, I don’t know, famous attractive investment bankers who can sing, dance, make $130K a year, and talk to cats. Tryna AF teaches you how to say hi, sneeze, and drink water in a fashion that will most certainly secure you a second date. In fact, Tryna AF even provides fake famous attractive investment bankers so you can practice your first-date skills. You block out an hour each Saturday to have a date with a fraudling, then reflect upon your experience and improve for the next time around. And then you finish Tryna AF’s course, make a Tinder account, and hunt down your target. You secure a first date with Flavius the Third. (Flavius the Third’s gender is a Schrödinger’s cat scenario.) Thanks to your training with Tryna AF, you secure a second date. And BOOM NEXT DAY YOU’RE MARRIED AND YOU’RE HAVING A BABY NAMED FLAVIUS THE FOURTH AND YOU’VE SCORED THE LIFE OF YOUR DREAMS AND IT DOESN’T GET ANY BETTER EXCEPT-

Being married to Flavius the Third means a lot more than saying hi, sneezing, and drinking water. Suddenly this is a lot more work than you expected. Suddenly it’s a lot more work than you can handle. AND. Flavius the Third snores like a goddamn hippie didgeridoo convention.

(That very last part is largely irrelevant to the metaphor. I just felt like Flavius deserved some more character development.)

Would you marry someone solely because they’re ranked the #1 Spouse in the United States of America? How would it turn out if you did? Just because something’s ranked #1 doesn’t mean it’s YOUR #1.

I’m not above this mindset, because here’s the truth: when I decided to attend, I too heard that squawky gnarly voice in my head. It’s Number One! Such is the way society has raised us, and such is the way society tortures us. But I was lucky enough to see the light halfway through my freshman year, so I never felt any academic pressure during my high school years. I followed my own values and did my own thing. This post is a reaction to what I’ve seen and heard in the community. If you’ve got a firsthand point of view to add, please feel free.

So people apply to TJ for its reputation, get dragged through a prep course because of it, and get into the school only to find they can’t manage the workload or don’t enjoy the classes. And then they take more prep classes . . . for their actual classes.

Yup. My mom told me this as I was eating a piece of cake, and I dropped it on the floor in horror. I still get a little emotional when I think about it. (Especially the cake part.)

Prep for APs. Prep for summer chemistry. Prep for BC calculus. Prep class after prep class after prep class. Introducing . . . The Transcript Race. In which kids take BC calculus freshman year, or AP bio and AP chem concurrently sophomore year, or whatever. Rack up those challenging courses! HUH! Plump up that GPA! HUH! Get into a good college! HUH! HUH! HUUUUUcakeUUUUUH!

Listen, I respect you if you’re taking challenging courses because you can handle them and you enjoy them. I do not respect you if you’re taking them because you’re aiming to slap a name and a number on a transcript. If you are a slapper and you are in denial, WAKE UP. You could drop dead or get ingested by man-eating kangaroos at any second. Moreover, you’re going to drop dead by the end of the century anyway. Do what you love. Don’t waste your time bullshitting around. On your deathbed, the only person you’ll wish you had impressed was yourself.

Overall, these prep classes are not the underlying problem, but a mere symptom. They’re also an effect. You see, the problem with our nation’s #1 high school is its culture, and its culture forms a vicious cycle. Of test scores, contests, and the constant urge to do morefastermorebetter. If you made a rat poison out of it, it’d snuff out an entire colony of rabid, six-foot-tall mutant rodents. Culture’s some strong stuff. Even the sanest of kids can get swept in and digested. Then they get pooped out again, except they are no longer humans. They are just stress.

Brief Interlude

Cheat (v). act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage, especially in a game or examination.**

**Usually a direct effect of stress.

Okay, so these prep-classes-for-actual-classes aren’t dishonest. But they are unfair. And they definitely provide an advantage. The kids who don’t take them begin to wonder why they’re “not as smart.” So many people I’ve talked to from TJ have felt incompetent. My best friend. My little brother. Christ, it hurts me to see.

And of course, we all know about real cheating. Kids claiming admission to Ivy League colleges. Kids scanning Sparknotes and plagiarizing Google searches. Kids straight-up lying to their teachers, stealing answers from their classmates, and taking cellphones into exam rooms. IMPORTANT NOTE: Cheating is not the problem, but a symptom. The culture is the problem. It is a culture of Race To Nowhere, when it should be a culture of passion and learning.

All this talk of cheating leads me to a scandal of sorts going on right now, involving the Siemens Competition for Math, Science, and Technology. In fact, it’s been going on for quite some time, but no one’s made a fuss about it until this year. It has to do with a lowkey company run by a single woman. If you Google it, you will find a simple, skeletal site advertising a youth scientist program for high school students. Stuff about scientific research, computers, brilliant minds, Ivy Leagues, the likes. From what I’ve heard, kids are paying up to $10K for this 10-week program, during which they are spoon-fed an extremely high-level scientific experiment. They submit this project to the Siemens Competition. They win and progress to the next round. Toot toot!

So is this an unethical pay-to-win situation? If you’re interested, or if you have run out of exciting things to do with your life, there’s a discussion on Reddit with arguments from both sides. But for the sake of this post, I’m going to disregard the ethics and withhold my opinion. For the sake of this post, this is simply another symptom of exactly how sour TJ’s culture has gone.

The purpose of the Siemens competition, I assume, is for students to explore and develop their passions in math, science, and technology. Paying cash to be handed a research topic seems to contradict the notion of passion, disregarding any ethical ramifications. And you know what’s really interesting about this whole scenario? A guy in the program said he didn’t even want to participate. His mom made him. And she paid for it.

That’s right. Who’s shelling out that $10K? Not the kids, that’s for sure.

Which brings me to my concluding point. Parents.

Dear Parents: I understand it’s important that your kid has a strong, financially stable future. Whether you truly care about their well-being or you’re greedy for something to brag about—that’s your business. Just know that if you harass your children about grades, force them into prep classes, and build their lives around reputation and riches, I’m sickened. That vision of success is hideously narrow. This is life. Not a ladder. Not a game. Fine, make it a race if you’d like. Caveat: it’s a race to nowhere.

I urge these parents to reconsider what makes a life one that is well-lived. I know it’s hard to see past your own childhood and lifelong values (I’m looking at you, Asian community). But consider the observation I’m about to share.

Some parents, mine included, were very lax during our high school years. They let us explore our interests. They told us grades don’t matter; effort does. They encouraged us to choose a college where we’d be happy. And what happened to us? We’re enjoying our homework, befriending professors, starting and leading organizations, pursuing unique opportunities. We are not afraid to do what we love, and do it to the max. We attend good schools. We know what it feels like to fly.

The parents who molded their kids into robots who graduated with a 4.9 GPA, 15 AP classes, 6 competition grand prizes, and 11 Ivy League acceptances? (I am making numbers up at this point.) These students, I’ve noticed, are killing it academically. But they’re stressed out. They view college as work. Their primary focus, still, is homework and a couple side activities. They have not developed the independence that comes from being motivated by passion. They may go on to become CEOs or multimillionaires or cardiovascular surgeons. But maybe they will never become someone bigger. And believe me: in the scheme of things, a lower middle class schoolteacher in some hick town in Iowa can most definitely be someone bigger than the world’s richest corporate leader.

Which version of success is real success?

That’s not up to me to tell you. Also, I’m some 20-year-old dingo who binge-eats carrot muffins and shudders at the idea of popping out a fetus. So, like, parenting. Not my thing.

Anyway, I lied earlier. Here is my actual concluding point.

An Open Letter To All Current TJ Students, Past TJ Students, Non TJ Students, Rutabagas, Wasted Cake Slices, Investment Bankers, And Any Remaining Humans (But With An Emphasis On Current TJ Students):

(I) School is for curiosity, growth, and learning. I hand-picked these three words very carefully, so read them again like I have made them out of clay and am lobbing them one by one into your eyeballs. CURIOSITY. GROWTH. LEARNING. This is our one and only chance to devote ourselves to the simple, pure act of gaining knowledge unfettered by the burdens of adulthood. Chances are taken to be relished.

(II) Stress should not come from doing things that you do not love. Stress should not be so extreme and consuming in high school that students cheat, take Adderall, feel depressed, or contemplate self-harm. For that stress to result from academics at such a young age is unacceptable. I spent all of high school writing and climbing trees and hanging out with my family, and I still got into college. You’ll be okay too.

(III) Self-worth is based only on one thing: self. It’s based on how good you are at being you. Self-worth is NOT based on how you compare to others. Please, believe in yourselves. Believe that you are more than numbers and letters and resumes. I promise you that, even if you’re not the smartest or more accomplished of the lot, you can still become someone wonderful. We are ALL born with greatness. This greatness is the ability to be passionate about something. Passion is passion. There is no ranking.

(IV) Be who you want to be. People can tell you otherwise, but it’s up to you to fight for yourself. No excuses.

A Final, Final Concluding Statement: My Problem With The Nation’s #1 High School

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology was not founded to be the #1 school in the nation. It was founded to fuel the passions of kids who love science and technology. We have replaced a beautiful, pure goal with one that is shallow and stressful.

Yes, there is a problem.

Stop avoiding it.

Start addressing it.


If you agree with this post, please share it with family, friends, teachers, pets, your 7th-grade crush, and the Internet. I’d appreciate it to the stars and back.

This is not just TJ’s problem. This is everyone’s problem.


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75 thoughts on “I Have A Problem With The Nation’s #1 High School

    1. This is so important! My mother, grandmother, and aunt wanted me to go to TJ. Individually the pressure from one of them was fine. But all together it was insane. I was so stressed I was getting sick. Then I realized stress like this would continue if I got into TJ. Not taking the test was not an option, so I failed it on purpose. It sounds like an amazing school but I know how much stress it could have potentially put on me. I’m glad I did because I don’t think I would still have my awesome group of friends and boyfriend. I’d also probably be at Georgetown University which would have made it more difficult to come back home when my mom was dying. So overall, I made the right choice. If TJ is the right choice for you, awesome! But if not, don’t force yourself to go.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Congrats! It took me more than 30 years to figure that out. It only took you less than 20. You have saved 10 years of your life comparing to me. But you don’t need to compare to me, or anyone. You just need to compare to, you. Are you satisfied? Life is NOT about happiness or comfort. Life is about fulfilling something. That something could your life mission, could be a dream, a task or a house depending on who you are. TJ gives some kids an opportunity more than just growth, curiosity or even learning. It’s giving some kids an opportunity to free themselves from the well defined “world” we live in. You most like won’t need to struggle like most of us, financially, emotionally and spiritually, if the balance is struck right. High paying CEO can be a trap for certain people, or a chance depending on what the person choose to do. Don’t be so friendly with the “WORLD”, instead be a friend with yourself. Talk to yourself if you are making a right decision. I can tell you from my own experience. I am dealing with people just like you said “Race to nowhere” at work by faking it. No one is expert, but everyone is faking to be one. But we are getting paid by faking it. This is the “world” we live in, no matter where you go. But how I deal with the situation will change my lifestyle or my life. But let’s not give up the fight before it starts, or you or someone else will end up faking more than the person would like, and start hating. And that’s when things will go wrong. Really really WRONG. The bad news you hear are all the results you hear on the news. Don’t be one of those. And encouraging others not to be those. To TRUE to YOURSELF. Submit to yourself before you submit to someone else.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. High School is for teaching students the basics about science, technology, mathematics, history, arts and economics. Thus preparing those students interested in learning for higher focused learning and a productive future career.

      Like

    4. I think it’s also TJ’s responsibility to structure the tests in such a way that they get the kind of students, this insititute was primarily founded for. Parents and students will always be looking for the ‘best’, acknowledging that ‘best’ is a relative term. But it’s the school’s responsibility to find out what it’s looking for, in a student ; which is beyond grades, beyond that essay and beyond this intense competition. I think only then the process will change.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I pray all current and prospective TJ students will read this–and then read it again. You speak an important truth. Learning should bring joy not tears of anguish. Math and science were a source of frustration and a colossal waste of my time when I was in high school. Teachers and counselors told me I’d be “sorry” one day when I refused to take a course in either subject beyond those that were mandatory. Today I have a master’s degree and have taken double the required courses for a Ph.D. just because I was interested in a subject. No one in the work world cares where individuals go to high school–or college, for that matter. The only question employers want answered is, “What are you going to do for this company?” Stay happy, Angela. Do what brings you happiness.
    Best wishes on your journey.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. This is a BEAUTIFUL and well written article. You bring up a lot of points that highlight the problems of the education system we have today, such as “the race to nowhere” and taking courses that only impress yourself. As someone who’s truly passionate about the education, to some extent, I valued this article as I was personally someone who held academics in highest prestige. However, I soon realized near the end of high school and first year of college that it’s a huge sham, IF you’re not loving the education anymore.
      As much as I loved some of your points, I would also like to address some. As a first generation asian student, it’s important that our academics are valued in our lives. Okay… that sounds like something a lot of people would criticize immediately, but let me explain…

      There will be some first generation students/Asians that come to America because they are wealthy. Sure, they worked hard, and they might have the luxury of letting their kids explore life because they always have the safety net of wealth. This first gen assertion isn’t necessarily true by the way because there will be those families who pressure their kids still nonetheless poor, rich, LGBT, etc. But to those who read this, please understand, a lot of first gen asian parents or just first gen in general put a lot of pressure on their children, even though they shouldn’t, because they understand that they only want the best for their children. Once again, this is not universal, but it is for a lot of us. Parents understand that it might have been hard for them to come to America. Our generation had the luxury of being born/raised here, so we must try our best to improve our lives so that one day we can take of ourselves AND our parents. Because honestly, if we failed, we’ll have a hard time living, and soon enough our parents won’t be there for us anymore.

      I know it’s hard for everyone. TJ is hard. No exceptions. But as a first gen, I also went to another magnet school that was compared as the “TJ” of our area. Even so, I had to help my parents as a “permanent” translator, pay the bills, take care of my grandparents, and honestly help run the family too. I recently lost my academic passion because of the stuff you referred to in your article, but it has returned back recently. It’s scary because I basically have to pay for my own college tuition rn, which kinda sucks. lol I actually personally know the stresses of “hard parenting” too because my sister ran away from home because she had enough. :/ But sometimes, you just have to know that being hard is rewarding to us. It’s literally pushing us to our limits. I, at times, hated my parents. I had to force myself to be outgoing because my parents never let me spend time with friends. This created a weird extrovert/introvert (esp at home) dynamic in my life. Basically, I’m just trying to say that in general, the public shouldn’t criticize the stereotypical “hard parenting” of first gen’s, etc. Sure, it’s not right to MODEL your child after a genius, but it’s dangerous at times to give your kids too much leeway in their decisions in life. A common theme in my family is the balance between raising your children and no academic/life freedom.

      Also, straight up, I hope everyone understands that a “safe haven for kids passionate about academics” rather than a school built on rank is great and all, but let’s not be naive here. We live in a capitalist world built on competition. Without the money from sponsors, you wouldn’t have your incredible labs or revenue to expand the school. I know that you all may not have the “prettiest” school ever, and that it may be better back then when it was more passionate, but realize that the passion is still there. Just focus on that light. Also, there will be students with parents who can’t go to TJ because of distance and/or income, so being the #1 school does drive for better talent at times. Is it worth it? Maybe not. But talent does drive other as much as passion inspires others. People also love boasting about how their school was #1, too. I know that shouldn’t be the drive for students, but it is. This is our world, unfortunately.

      The best thing you and your friends/alumni/students could do is to keep on telling TJ students taht they should just enjoy their time there vs. make the best grades. IF they are happy, then they will do well. I know there will be some parents that won’t really allow kids to do it, but that’s the parents fault. I do like how this is an “open letter” to them as well. ***Once again, I am not trying to argue against your article. My goal is to try to bring another side to this post.*** But once again, let’s go to TJ and change the system. Okay. Now it’s a place where students can just learn for joy. 🙂 Great. But sooner or later, there will always be someone or a group that gets super competitive, which ruins the experience. I’m just saying the main drive for your school is hard to fix and kind of shouldn’t. TJ can be a case study for other schools in the future, even if it’s just TJ reflecting upon itself. Alex Tan once said, “Perhaps our eyes need to be washed by our tears once in awhile, so that we can see life with a clearer view again.” Take this figuratively or physically when the AP Physics results get back, lol. Sadness and tragedy spurs true change, even though it may take time.

      I’m glad you had a great time, but like you said, others didn’t. I personally had a fantastic time in high school, overall. I’m going to a university where a ton of TJ peers attend as well. They enjoyed the non-academic portions as well, but as a casualty, a few became the victims of heavy drinking and foolish actions that risks their lives because they want to swift away how bad their lives are because of TJ, at times.

      My open letter advice overall is to take TJ as a lesson. When you become a parent, don’t push your kids too hard. What happened when humpty dumpty got pushed and fell off a wall?… he cracked. *Joke to relieve the intensity*…. but all in all, respect and be appreciative that you had this great opportunity to attend a FANTASTIC school, a family that supports an education program that they believe will foster your growth, and a life WORTH LIVING. If you don’t ever believe that, I DO. Realize that after your four years at TJ/any similar academic program in the world, you’re done. Work at McDonald’s, be a stay at home mom, attend university, etc, you make your own choices in life from then on, hopefully.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Did you even *read* this post? Because that’s not what she’s saying, int hes slightest. She’s not saying the school is hard. Nor is she saying she had it tough. In fact, quite the opposite. She enjoyed her time there, but noticed that most of her classmates didn’t, because their parents pushed too hard for success in fields where their children were unskilled.

      Liked by 4 people

    2. I don’t think that’s what she’s saying. I think she is talking about a large problem in our society that is prevalent in education but reaches far beyond schools and colleges. She’s not being a whiner in my view, but shining a light on the need to let children and young adults explore both the world and who they are, to learn by trial and error, to take chances and make mistakes. I think she is saying that these precious experiences should be everyone’s privelege.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. This is a beautiful post, and as a TJ student, I agree with you 100%. But as a student who loves physics, I was hoping you could fix the spelling of “Shrodinger” to “Schrödinger.” Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I largely agree with your article, but I also have some issues with it. Here are my thoughts –

    Why is taking a preparation course unethical or “wrong”? The TJ test is not some unbiased measure of intelligence – it is a test. If there is a test, one can prepare for it. Someone can have great mathematical aptitude, but just be a poor test taker and need a few practice exams to see what type of skills/knowledge areas need to be honed. I see no problem with engaging in deliberate practice and preparation for something that is important to you. I take issue with your idea that “you don’t deserve to be in TJ if you had to study for the test”. That’s like saying “if you had to study for the board exam to become a doctor, you didn’t deserve to be one”. What kind of argument is that? Preparation is good, and we ought to encourage young students to be organized and diligent in pursuing goals important to them.

    I do agree that if you applied to TJ ONLY because of reputation or because your parents made you (rather than a sincere interest in math/science), that is a REAL problem. I remember taking a TJ practice test and preparation course before taking the test. I had (and still do have) an honest interest in math/science, and I wanted to MAKE SURE I got in. Getting a TJ education was important enough for me that I was willing to work hard for it through practice and preparation, so the TJ prep course was great option for me. I will concede that many middle school students I meet today applying to TJ have a questionable interest in STEM, but are still being herded into prep classes. That being said, I would also like to add that it is very difficult for many kids who are 12 years old to truly KNOW if they have an honest interest in something. Does a 12 year old kid really have a “well developed passion” to really know what he/she wants in life? I doubt it. Therefore, I have no problem with admitting someone to TJ who is not being sure if they REALLY like math/science and giving him/her the chance to explore.

    Another issue that you raise regarding AP classes is also a bit tricky. Say a student wants to go to Duke for college to study biomedical engineering. He knows that Duke is a competitive school, and that he needs to have a stellar CV to get in. How can he get in? If 20,000 people apply to duke for 2000 spots, that means you have to outcompete 18,000 students. Furthermore, admissions officers compare students from within the same school. Even if a student ONLY has the desire to study biomedical engineering, and they are only interested in taking 5/30 AP courses offered at TJ, they may feel compelled to take 10 because they want to be perceived as competitive in the large applicant pool, and within the TJ applicant pool. Imagine if you have 5 APs on your resume and all 20 other people applying to duke from TJ have 10 APs on their resume? You’re toast! You can’t pursue your dream! This is a classic case of scenario where someone must do something they DON’T want to do, in order to achieve something he/she does want to do. Theoretically you could circumvent the AP course hurdle by doing something else that is exemplary to stand out in the applicant (like doing a kick ass research project or writing a novel such as yourself), but such things often don’t end up panning out, or they give inconsistent results in terms of college applicains.

    I admire your purist views on education, and I wish one could go through life doing ONLY what one wants to do. But this is not how life works.

    To close, I will agree that the pressure cooker environment that TJ has become is not conducive to learning or growth of students. It is developing and rewarding all sorts of wrong traits as you suggest in this article. Society overall has to change for the TJ problem to change. We as a society have to start changing our values. The problem doesn’t necessarily lie with TJ, TJ just happens to be a reflection of societal values/views on education, prestige, happiness, and what is important in life.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I believe your arguments are correct if they originate from the student’s own initiative. However, for example, the preparation is being forced on the students by their parents. When you say “Therefore, I have no problem with admitting someone to TJ who is not being sure if they REALLY like math/science and giving him/her the chance to explore” is it the student who wants to explore or the parent who wants the student to succeed? In the case of AP exams, the other people are being compelled to take 10 AP exams for the same reason. For that reason, I think it’s fair to say that there is something a bit off at TJ as you yourself note. I’m all for students exploring, learning, and wanting to succeed, but once wanting to succeed or being forced to want to succeed outweighs the first two as priorities, something’s off.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. I get your point about taking prep classes to make sure you get in because you want to get in, but I think what the original post is talking about are those people whose parents have forced them into prep classes in order to increase their chances of making TJ, when the students in question have little to no desire to go to TJ and may not have what it takes to make it in TJ. I get that some people may be brilliant and poor test takers, but currently “TJ prep” has extended beyond just “a couple practice tests” to “pounding kids with practice tests and writing essays so that they will write what TJ wants to see in order to get in”. And if you’re a poor test-taker, then that’s a problem that will extend your entire life. School is made up of tests. Taking a weeks-long prep class for one test will not solve your test-taking problem.

      Liked by 2 people

    3. First, many 12 year olds know that they have an interest in STEM. I did when I was six. But if they don’t know, why would they need to explorer that at TJ? They can explorer that anywhere!

      That’s the whole point, they shouldn’t explore it at TJ, because if it turns out they aren’t interested they will be miserable and if they are they can explore that anywhere!

      It’s the “what if they are and they didn’t go to #1 school for it” mentality … and that’s the race to nowhere right there!

      Like

    4. The issue described by the blog author was that parents actually spent money and “forced” their kids to sit in “TJ test prep” summer camps for like months during the summer prior to the test:( Poor kids:(

      Like

  4. (TJ ’11)

    The sad thing is that this conversation isn’t particularly new. There was a bit of a brouhaha back in c. 2009 about the 3.0 rule, which stipulated that students needed a 3.0 to stay enrolled at TJ. Now, I have no idea whether the 3.0 rule persists to this day, but I do know that there was a discussion eerily similar to this one.

    I was also a person that explored my interests at TJ relatively free of stress. I ended up taking a load of non-sci/tech courses that helped me become a more well rounded person. Sports were a huge part of what I did at TJ. Even though I ended up graduating with an engineering degree, the non-sci/tech courses/sports helped me grow as a person.

    I like your phrase “race to nowhere,” but for a different reason. I feel that a major surge in prep class malarky was right after the big push for STEM. Now, over ten years later, there needs to be a reevaluation of what the point of all of it is.

    First things first, STEM is not really STEM. Nowadays, S and M have been pretty much relegated to secondary status, especially from a career perspective. That leaves us with TE. But so effective the STEM push has been, that we’ve essentially oversaturated the market for engineers (I am experiencing this firsthand). Furthermore, the goalposts have been slowly moving for a lot of TE jobs. No longer is it the case that a BS is enough. I’ve seen “entry-level” engineering jobs want an MS. Suffice to say, even the E in STEM isn’t that viable anymore. The only thing that seems to still hire reliably without much goalpost moving are programming jobs, but that feels like another tech bubble.

    All of this is to say that the ‘school is for jobs’ mentality has made an indelible mark upon TJ. The idealized vision of it seems to have disappeared with the construction of the new building. There is a real panic to make it into TJ and a mania of doing better because reasons. It’s a cruel academic arms race and a race to nowhere. Asking TJ to renounce this is to reverse years and years of work. I feel, at this point, that the romantic version of TJ you desire is impractical to attain. It’s too deep in the quicksand pit of its own ideology.

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  5. This is not a TJ problem, it’s a universal problem. The classic “what do I think I want vs. what do I want”

    You will see many of your college classmates struggle w/ the same question, and many of your friends in adult life struggle w/ the same question. Trust me. I have had this exact convo w/ too many people too many times. TJ is but one (relatively) insignificant context of this issue.

    Good on you for following your own path. Keep trusting yourself and continue doing it.

    Best of luck in your journey.

  6. Sounds like even after a decade the problems are still the same.

    Julie Lythcott-Haims, a previous dean at Stanford, has some great perspectives on these students that she has dubbed as checklist children. Sometimes it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond. I recommend checking out her Ted talk.

    Great post. Well written. Best of luck in your endeavors.

    TJ ’04

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    1. I’m there with you about the whole “big fish in a small pond.” I went to a school like TJ and I was pretty much that before high school. If I had gone to the one I originally was supposed to, there is no doubt I would have been in the top 25% but that wasn’t the case at my high school. Everyone excelled at such a high level that I was little more than average with a school that would have put me way higher at a normal public school. That’s one thing parents might want to consider when applying to a school like TJ.

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  7. It seems to me that the only solution is to stop ranking high schools and to make it so that other schools get the same sort of funding that TJ gets. (This is coming from a TJ grad) It’s not fair that private companies and organizations get to donate and sponsor a high school that is technically public.

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    1. That’s not a solution. I know plenty of high schools in Fairfax county even where the funds would essentially be flushed down the toilet. Fair isn’t everyone gets the same. That’s socialism. In my humble opinion fair is meritocracy, but merit isn’t always earned with integrity or through equal opportunity, which is what I believe is addressed here.

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  8. I agree with a lot of what you say because, like you, I value curiosity, growth, and learning (what a perfect set of words, by the way. Will refer to them as CGL). I think that if you want to go to Buttmunch University purely for its reputation, that’s shallow. BUT – if that’s what someone truly values, that’s their dream and who am I to tell them they’re wrong. If that’s what someone wants and they undergo all this stress to try to get there, yes that conflicts with my values, but it’s their life to live. Of course I don’t like that society requires you do certain things to get certain places, and of course if a parent’s forcing something on a child that’s awful. Of course if you tryhard for a college for its numbers and then you write on your application about how #passionate you are that’s a big fat lie. But if you do “impure” things with pure intentions, I have to respect that.

    In high school, I tried to flit around like a butterfly, pursuing CGL and resisting whenever someone would try to make me do The Things You Are Required To Do To Get Into A Good School. Yes, I was “free.” **But it came at the cost of achievement.** My interests unfortunately didn’t align with the ones that got you awards, and you bet I felt insecure when people started winning things and I didn’t. I had to come to terms with valuing CGL more than I valued being resume-successful and “on par” with my peers. Being a shallow tryhard like you advocate against comes with a cost, but pursuing CGL means giving something up as well.

    RIP Angela’s Cake Slice.

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  9. This is so true. At my (public) high school, you were nobody if you didn’t apply to the Governor’s School for STEM. I was a high-achieving, mostly AP student involved in leadership for many organizations, but I had no interest in STEM (I wanted to be a journalist then and still do), so I did not understand why I needed to apply for this program. In general, there is too much focus on STEM. You’re not smart if you’re not in STEM. You don’t have a future if you’re not in STEM. These were the messages broadcasted to me and my fellow humanities nerds. Yes, TJ is an excellent school- if you love STEM. And STEM is great! It’s just not for everyone, and whether or not you take and get an A in AP Calc as a freshman should not mean you are smarter than a student that excels at writing but can’t get beyond Algebra 2 or 3. This is an excellent essay, and you are an excellent writer.

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  10. This article was recently shared with the student body at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, where I think it struck pretty true with many of the students. The school is a pressure cooker, because the expectations for high schoolers are becoming more and more inflated each year. As colleges get more expensive, middle-class students who can’t afford college, but also can’t get need-based aid have to aggressively over-commit themselves to every opportunity at NCSSM.

    Thank you for writing this article, because something needs to be changed.

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  11. I currently coach at TJ, and while I absolutely love the kids I coach, I have a problem with TJ. Being a high-intellectual human being is encouraged – being well-rounded is not. Getting the highest grade possible is encouraged – being innovative is not. I’ve coached high school basketball for 11 years, and the single most important part of my job is not developing excellent athletes – it’s not directing kids academically – it’s ensuring student-athletes perform at their best, and continue to believe they can grow in every aspect of life. The academic side of TJ (for the most part) does not support this – and it’s infuriating. Growth occurs in the classroom AND in extracurriculars. TJ admin needs to start appreciating and supporting those extracurriculars. Once that happens, TJ is going to change in incredible ways.

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    1. Thank you for the post! I agre with you as a TJ parent of a child who loves her sport. The school does nothing to encourage sports, even varsity sports that take a considerable amount of time. Of the kids that decided to leave TJ after freshman year, there were many who played sports and couldnt balance both at 14 years of age.

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  12. Totally agree with you. As a class of 1990, we were not the number 1 school in the nation. We could focus on academics but also balance with sports and music. Most of us didn’t take prep courses and were able to develop our character and expand our interests. Now with 26 years of life experience post TJ, an Ivy League education, medical doctor degree, and parent of two middle school kids, and hearing what it has become, I would not send my children to TJ there. I am not even stressing an Ivy League education for my kids. I want them to enjoy and experience life to the fullest and pursue their dreams. They play multiple sports and enjoying learning at school. They’re not in the top math class and we’re ok with that. I have plenty of friends and colleagues who are not happy after achieving a societal success making 7 digits and divorced. Life is too short to waste trying to succeed on a road to nowhere. Success is about happiness, relationships, and helping others making a difference in the world.

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  13. As a long ago early 90s graduate, when things were slightly more sedate, the level of actual cheating was still insane. Copies of a test would be floating around as soon as the first period ended. I gave up on going for perfect grades, and got an after school and weekend job to make money, as my parents didn’t have much for me.

    I don’t consider prep courses cheating, but disturbing. As a high IQ person, I considered the courses there mostly too easy in terms of content, but way too much useless busy work. I spent most of my time in class doing homework. I refused to do the AP Chem problem sets at home because I didn’t like carrying the huge book, and they were the same tedious thing over and over again, but the brainless teacher banned me from having the book open in class, so I didn’t do them. I got the highest grade on the the test, but the lowest grade in the class. I later found out people were trading the answers.

    They should run the school more like a college- no nightly homework, grades mostly from tests given to all classes at once. Very intelligent kids will still be bored there by the endless repetitive assignments, insulted by the infantilizing environment, and hurt by the cheaters who are dealing with the excess level of work.

    We can push the blame to our stupid college admissions system which demands mysterious levels of excess, with bonus diversity points, in order to be admitted.

    We do this in support of status signalling, and the work world which often treats someone with a Princeton degree like they are Einstein. Most places don’t do employment testing, so they depend on the university degree to signal who is smart and hard working.

    So, in a sick sense, all of that cheating was worth it. The world is stupid and obsessed with status, and people can trade on their name brand degree for years, so long as they are smart enough to fake it.

    If you’re looking for a different approach, a couple of TJ grads started a small private school called Ideaventions. It fixes a lot of this.

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  14. Brilliant, honest, true – thank you so! Great writing style too(: As the mom to a brilliant son with nonspeaking autism who fights daily to be taught a formal education – TO LEARN, to CHALLENGE, TO INVESTIGATE, – so frustrating to see parents/students who only see education as a means to an end. Still, must admit had same issue with other students in college – and that was over three decades ago(: thanks again!

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  15. Yes yes yes. I attended a similarly high-ranked (STEM) high school and then a similarly high-ranked college, and while my parents were wonderful about my education and did not pressure me into anything, I know so many of my peers are not so lucky. I have seen in them the stress and unhappiness the competitive culture of do-or-die, sink-or-swim can cause – from middle school to graduate education.

    Even during the Q&A session of a badge-earning event for Girl Scouts hosted by my college’s Society of Women Engineers, we had 8-year-olds and their parents asking “How do you get into [University X]?” Please, whoever might read this, if you are a parent or might be someday, please do not start your kids planning for the college application process in elementary school.

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  16. Great read! My daughter graduated from TJ in 2013. I agree with you. The one question that makes me want to directly punch someone in the throat is this: How did you get her into TJ? Wth? I got that question so often that I started to be offended by it. At one point, I told someone that all you have to do is give it up to the admissions committee…..I think she believed me..lol

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  17. “Stress should not come from doing things that you do not love. Stress should not be so extreme and consuming in high school that students cheat, take Adderall, feel depressed, or contemplate self-harm. For that stress to result from academics at such a young age is unacceptable.” — what an insightful comment. I’m a TJ grad from the early years, but it took me about 20 years to learn this lesson (and I’m still not so great about implementing it). Worship of achievement and status brings misery, destruction and paranoia in the end. Trying to raise my kids differently.

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    1. Did you even read this? The whole point of the post was that while the writer loved TJ, many students are forced to push themselves to unnecessary limits to fit into a school they shouldn’t be. Not every kid has the same passions as the writer and attend for the name and rank alone. Part of the problem is test preps that are these elevating students who would have no desire otherwise while keeping out some of the more truly interested perspective students.

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  18. As a poolesville SMCS student I will forever be jealous of you TJ kids, but this post is the truest piece of literature I’ve ever read. #exposethem because sometimes this magnet school stuff is total bullshit.

  19. I graduated from High Technology High School last year. Hths, to those unaware, is also in the upper echelon of STEM high schools. My parents never pushed me, in fact the only pressure I felt was put there by myself. My father never really thought grades mattered all that much (good thing because I am not a genius, prodigy, and my grades were NOT hot). Simply, I never took prep courses because I felt if I needed a prep course then I shouldn’t be at that school. There were three types of students in my graduating class: Geniuses (lets call them VN), people who thought they were geniuses (Lets call them SK) and students like myself. One of the most important lessons I learned from hths was not from a teacher, but from peers. I learned to be humble. I had to learn this, but the VN and SKs didn’t HAVE to. Many of the VN were also the most humble. Some weren’t, but most were. The SKs never learned this. Many times this isn’t the students fault, but the parents. They start their child on a course that may sound good, but sometimes isn’t right. They push and push and some succeed. Some go to Cornell, MIT, and Harvard. Then others don’t. They are still highly intelligent, but the are not humble. They think they are better than everyone else. My opinion is simple, if you want your child to succeed, then give them options. If they have the drive all by themselves, then help them. But if they don’t, don’t make them. The SKs will be successful, but their lack of humility will hold them back.

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    1. Although I know you are making generalizations here, I completely agree. As a TJ alum, so much of what I learned was from my peers. I was inspired by their enthusiasm for learning, and excited to hear about their projects and passions. Those who are not passionate have less to teach, and those who are not humble are less likely to share their knowledge (for fear of competition).

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  20. I am a TJ graduate who has become a middle school teacher watching children navigate this prep course landscape. This is a great piece! I will share it with my students and their parents.

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  21. So, like you said at the start, the intention of providing a “TJ” education, is similar to a “gifted and talented” or “advanced academic” program for elementary age students. What happened is this, all students take a test, which is a baseline test. A good indicator for where a student is in his/her academic development. We’re talking 2nd graders… so 6 or 7 year-olds. Some of these kids had off-charts scores, and public education, (back in the late 60’s-early 70’s) decided that it was only fair to offer an appropriate education for these kids, which statistically speaking should be somewhere around 3% or less of a student population. Fast-forward to today… kids are taking tests to score better on these 2nd grade aptitude tests at the behest of their parents. What ends up happening is this, these classes become over-crowded, filled with kids who don’t want or shouldn’t be placed in them. Anxiety ensues, on all fronts…

    We need to keep this discussion going. We are fighting the one-size fits all education model, and then expecting that ALL students go to college… isn’t that some sort of irony?

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  22. My science-loving kid decided to apply to TJ a few years ago. When she didn’t get in, she shrugged her shoulders and moved on with her life. Several of her friends enrolled there, and they seem to have gotten through over the years. Over the summer, I overheard this bunch comparing the schoolwork they had to do over the summer. When my daughter shared the nature of her summer workload, one of her friends sneered at her. “Well,” her friend said, “You just go to X HS. *I* go to TJ.” And proceeded to belittle my daughter. The other TJ friend jumped into the chorus. Later, I asked my kid why she didn’t respond to their mock-teasing disses. “I’d rather have balance. I’m getting a solid education at my school, but I don’t have to deal with that sort of crap. I have a life, and I like that.”” A proud moment in my life, though it made me a little sad. TJ has veered from its initial purpose. You hit the nail on the head.

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  23. I’m a student at Stuyvesant High School, another well-ranked school in America and the top-ranked “specialized” high school in New York City. This piece reflects so many of my feelings towards my experience in my own school. Like TJ, we had to take a test to get in and prep for that test is widespread across the city. I feel like there’s been a straying from receiving a real education and stimulating intellectual curiosity towards a more test-based, GPA battlefield. We are pushed to rank ourselves in terms of how well we do on tests, care more about grades and which classes have the best curves than the actual curriculum, and I feel like it’s not uncommon to lose the real reason behind going to school. I think it’s really important to take a step back and put yourself first and pull everything into perspective, and this piece really resounded with me 🙂

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  24. FCPS teacher here. Good for you! TJ is great in many ways, but it isn’t for everyone. I know parents mean well when they push their kids to excel, but many parents need to back off some. YES, teens sometimes need a push. But if constant pressure is needed, then something is wrong. The truth about being older/more experienced is that we can see that doing XYZ may help in ways that a teen cannot understand. But we also need to remember that getting into Duke or Harvard is only ONE path to potential success. We can’t all go there, nor should we – and valuing the path that you ARE capable of and willing to follow is just as important.

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  25. Eh, this strikes me as a great big bunch of hooey. TJ was difficult, and very stressful. But life is hard, unless you don’t want to accomplish much, then it can be really easy. Take your pick. Just don’t criticize TJ for being to high stress, or the admissions process for being artificial or something like that. If you graduate TJ, as I did in 1989, you know that you can pretty much do anything if you just keep at it. And that self confidence based upon actual toil and accomplishment cannot be gained in any other way.

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    1. Wasn’t going to comment as I did not attend a STEM or other magnet high school … but you, Shawn, have missed the mark. Toil and accomplishment can be found in many places, not just one high school in the whole world, and that’s part of what this person is trying to say. If the only accomplishment you have in your life is attending that high school, that’s pretty sad. (We’re not far apart in age.) I had the option of attending such a school, but for personal reasons chose not to. STEM isn’t my field, though I could have qualified and probably succeeded. My sister and several friends did go to such schools, and flourished, and I am proud of them and for them. But even they will tell you, it’s what they did after that matters, and the things they learned about themselves while being at the school, more than the actual classes, that were truly important. (I could go on, but I won’t … I tend to go on ADD-rambles, and that’s annoying. 🙂 But please tell us you did more in life than just succeed at high school.)

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      1. Oy vey, I did not state that toil and accomplishment can only be found at TJ. I said that toil and accomplishment are the only solid foundation for self confidence. Less rambling and no virtue signaling should be your goal for the New Year.

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  26. Graduated in ’95. It was an amazing environment and culture. 8th period for student activities and plenty of options with electives to explore topics, concepts, and see if curiosities became passions. Back then the issue was grade inflation where if you ended up getting a few B’s you would no longer be in the elite 4.0 or higher category. Cheating happened but not nearly to the extent it apparently has gotten to. It is a shame that a school developed and maintained to be focused on cultivating and deepening interests in STEM has become so obsessed with results, outcomes, and not so much about developing passion for learning.

  27. I agree. This constant competition to be the BEST is interfering with real learning and finding your passion in life. It’s also creating elitism even in our children at an early age. Success is not defined by your intellectual prowess or where you attend school. Success is deemed by if you feel fulfilled in your life. Way down deep inside ourselves we know if we’re happy with ourselves and what we are doing. I’m in my 50s. My role in life has changed over the years. What brought joy and fulfillment in my 20s would not be satisfying to me in my 50s. Learning is important but finding joy in learning is more important. Life’s work is important. Finding joy in your life’s work is more important. Follow your instincts and that small voice that speaks to you deep down. It’s never wrong. Great piece. Thanks for writing it.

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  28. After reading this, I’ve got to say: I’m incredibly glad I studied in Europe where high school was fun, exciting and where I got to experience and enjoy life and not only get trapped in this vicious school-cycle I’m reading about here. I got to study at Uni I wanted (STEM field) and even to get a PhD. I think this whole school system you have in the US is totally messed up. When are people going to enjoy life if not in the crazy teenage years? Also not to mention the costs and your debts after graduating… Jeez. Like I said, I’m glad not to have studied in the US.

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  29. I feel like you’re driving at two things: Authenticity and Meritocracy.

    Authenticity:
    People play the Status Game all throughout life. In New York, it starts in kindergarden (or earlier, in a 2s or 3s program) – you have to get into the right/a “good” kindergarden to make sure you get into the right high school, to make sure you get into the right college, to make sure you wind up at the right tech company/best law firm/hedge fund/whatever. Then, they can live in the right suburb, make sure that their kids go to the right school, retire to the right retirement community, and get buried in the right cemetery.

    For some people, that’s their whole life, and they deserve our pity. However, at times, everyone does this a little. Status matters and names open doors. The dumbest kid at Harvard may have an easier time getting a job than the valedictorian at Radford. So, let’s not pat ourselves on the back too hard for being the only authentic, true people around. And is it really reasonable to expect people to commit to a STEM career at age 13, anyways?

    I don’t have any great ideas on how to police/fix this as applied to TJ, and I doubt you do, either. Maybe admissions could place more emphasis on interviews and the personalities of the 8th graders, and less on their test scores and grades. Maybe they could focus more on diversity, racial as well as socioeconomic. Maybe there should be more public magnet schools in NoVA, for arts and humanities.

    I’d encourage you to find general solace in the fact that human beings, regardless of their intelligence or subject expertise, are somewhat decent at figuring out when people are being fake or careerist, and are pretty quick to hold it against them.

    But generally, a life well-lived is its own reward, and immiserating yourself to climb the US News & World Reports college ranking so that your parents can brag to other parents at dinner parties is its own punishment.

    Meritocracy:
    In part, you observe a microcosm of what is happening in America today. Intergenerational economic mobility is at multi-decade lows, the gini coefficient is at multi-decade highs. The rich have more and more, and they make sure that their kids win all the prizes.

    But insofar as your concerns are specific to TJ, I’d say, first of all, that whole Graphene lab thing sounds super sketchy and probably a local newspaper or the WaPo should do some digging.

    As far as the rest of the integrity concerns (cheating, etc), I haven’t really seen any evidence, but wouldn’t be shocked. I’d be a little surprised if it was pervasive and consistent enough to have much of an effect (like can you really cheat your way into Harvard from TJ, being a C student who constantly cheats in all classes to get As?) but sure it’s bad.

    It’s a little bit funny, because your first complaint is that people are focused on the College Status game, and your second complaint is that the rules of the College Status game aren’t being properly enforced.

    On the one hand, they could institute an honor code, mandatory explusion back to base school for anyone caught cheating, have unique, in-classroom tests for everyone with no take-home component. This would be a lot of work for the teachers and a lot of kids would hate it.

    Or, TJ could do what Yale Law does, and make everything Pass/Fail. Maybe let the teachers give out one High Pass per ten students per semester or something.

    Anyways, good luck out there. The world is a mess, and nobody’s gonna fix it for us.

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  30. I did not go to TJ. I went to public school in upstate ny. That school was not ranked and is not today gold, silver, or even bronze by us news, let alone being a top 10 school. What w e had was a well rounded experience with excellent teachers who cared about developing good, cooperative humans. i could have graduated a year early, but a wise Mom once told me, “What is the rush?” I ended up staying in highschool and graduated top of my class, but also was captain of the wrestling team, Marching band, chorus, even was in some musicals, competed in Olympics of the mind, taught myself computer science, was active injunior classical league and Explorers(visiting GE, ALCAN and other companies meeting engineers). I found the extracurriculars were as important, perhaps more so, than only the academics. I didn’t need a ranked school, I only needed my own motivation, and drive. I got into VA Tech, earned a bs ee (electrical engineering) worked for IBM through college as a coop student after my freshman year, later went to lawschool at George Mason and became a patent lawyer, worked at latge firms and now have my own. I believe there is a misguided overemphasis on sports at most US schools and a misguided overemphasis at academics at most stem schools. I was once encouraged at IBM to think of my life as a bicycle wheel, to have a smooth ride, you can’t have different length spokes, they must be in balance. Think of life as a bunch of spokes, keep each of the spokes equally balanced. I used to coach soccer, now I coach high school robotics teams (currently 3 vex, 1 ftc, 1 frc) and assist eading a bsa scout troop. I see kids devastated for not making it into TJ. I tell them trust me, you don’t need TJ. They don’t believe me often. The parents are a big issue as you guess, putting too much pressure on their kids. You only live once, enjoy life. Most of your life you will work, don’t start too early; there is a reason child labor is outlawed in advanced societies, take the time to enjoy your youth while you’ve got it. No need to join the rat race, too early.

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    1. I totally agree Ralph. I have 4 kids. NONE of them took AP classes in high school. All of them went to “regular” high schools. All of them were in extra curricular activities and all had part time jobs in high school. They all went to college. None went to BIG name schools, yet they all graduated. They all obtained jobs and all have careers they enjoy. They’re living balanced lives with plenty of time for fun, travel, social activites, and several starting their families. Two were run of the mill average students in high school. But both had extra curricular activities that they excelled in and it was those extra curricular activities that gave them their confidence and ability to tough it out in college. I am VP of a non-profit called Payton’s Project. This organization formulated a year ago after the suicide death of a young lady in our neighborhood in PW County. We are looking at the mental health crisis in our young kids today and trying to help change the culture in schools. Kindness campaigns are beginning in our schools here. Buddy systems when new kids enroll in the local high school. Making kids aware of the warning signs of depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation and giving them the tools to know where to get help and how to stay “in balance.” Supporting things such as meditation and yoga. Training in anti-bullying. Creating small peer groups across elementary, middle, high school and college of kids who have experienced or currently being bullied to assist one another through that experience. Getting couseling for kids who bully so they can get to the root cause of why they are behaving in this manner and hoping to show them another path. Helping children see that failing a test or having to drop out of AP to take a “regular” class doesn’t mean they’re a failure for life. And in the grand scheme of life, it’s a tiny little blip. We have begun a scholarship program for every high school in Prince William County. One senior from each high school will earn a $1000 scholarship to any post high school education of their choice. Could be college, but doesn’t have to be college. The ONLY criteria of earning this scholarship is exemplifying kindness/inclusiveness in their daily walk. Or overcoming bullying in their life. The young lady who committed suicide — bullying was part of the reason for her death. Life holds so much variety. We can’t all be PERFECT at everything nor should we aspire to be. A smorgasboard of activities in your life makes you well rounded and also more interesting as a person. It gives one broader perspective and just more life experience. You learn more skills. Life is a journey. There are so many nuances. Live it to the fullest and follow that tiny voice within. That voice is usually “spot” on. Suicides are at an all time high in Northern Virginia. Check out the stats. Too many kids checking out and feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. Truly check out the most recent stats. In VA between 2013 and 2014 there was a 34.5% rise in suicides between ages of 14-17. (These are the most recent stats posted as of now.) There have been a number of suicides in both Loudoun and Prince William County high schools over the last two years. I don’t know the Fairfax stats, but I’m sure they are similar to PW County and Loudoun, possibly more due to the higher population of that county. It’s becoming an epidemic and we need to turn the tide. Thanks Angela for writing this blog. It’s important coming froma recent graduate. It is very timely and what we have come to realize at Payton’s Project as we have been researching this topic for the last year. If anyone wants to learn more go to Freeze Bullying for Payton facebook page. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  31. Completely agree. I went to a school that was in the top ten and you could see it. My grade had the highest dropout rate in history because people applied to my school for the name and the recognition. Once they saw how work and studying had to be put in to maintain a decent grade, many of the left. A few openly admitted to only coming because their parents had made them.

    My mother is pushing my brother to go to the same school, putting him in prep classes and begging me to prepare him for the exam, but what about after? He is far behind where I was at his age and staying there took way more work than my brother is willing to put into school. He doesn’t love it the way I did and I don’t want him to feel bad about not being as “smart” as the kids around him.

    Part of me wishes that I had gone to a regular school because mine was specialized and we didn’t have any sports. I know from experience how stressful the race to be the rest is and how difficult it is to be there when 90% of your grade is in the high A range. Going to a school like TJ has it’s advantages in name, rank and everything else that comes with it but it’s not for everyone. Just because you’re smart doesn’t mean a magnet school is for you which is something a lot of people don’t get.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. Perhaps instead of telling our students, “You’ve got to get in to the #1 HS in America,” the message should be “You’ve got to make your HS #1 in America.”

    (Idiocy of believing there is such a thing as ‘#1 HS in America’ at all aside, of course.)

    Liked by 1 person

  33. This article wonderfully articulated a lot of what students at my high school have been discussing. I go to another “top” regional magnet high school in Richmond, and we’ve recently been struggling with a lot of these issues. As our administration has chosen to emphasize rankings, test scores, and college acceptances, students have suffered. The school was designed to be a safe haven for students with a genuine passions for the humanities (as opposed to STEM), but it’s become a pressure cooker where students mindlessly take ap classes they don’t enjoy and participate in extracurriculars they don’t care about for an arbitrary resumé boost, all in the hopes of one day achieving society’s version of success. There no meaningful culture of learning or intellectualism, just students who push themselves to the point of exhaustion and mental/physical collapse. We praise “the best” students, we strive to be the ones accepted to ivy leagues– but at what cost? It’s clear (to some of us) that this outlook is detrimental to students, but it’s less clear how any of it is going to change without more meaningful advocacy and involvement on the part of students. Thanks for writing this piece– these things need to be discussed if anything in the system is going to give.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. I turned down TJ for years because I knew I would not fit in with my sarcastic sense of humor. I began dropping out of my AP classes one by one at Robinson, and finally dropped out altogether because I was bored. I was a homeless hitchhiker for a few years. I now own my own company and also have an engineering position, as well as a daughter beginning college at 14. Not every puzzle pieces fits where you want, people. Maybe what you really want to finish your perfect puzzle completes an different picture altogether?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Scott, you need to tell your story to struggling high schoolers. Not every size fits all and we need to offer our kids many different approaches/paths to learning. College life is not for all kids right after high school. They need to see there are success stories with adults who have taken many different paths. I’m so happy you found yourself and what made you happy in your own walk. Your story needs to be shared!

      Like

  35. i went to a similar high school, then an ivy, then grad school, only to realize i was on a path heading far away from my actual interests. i can’t agree enough with this post. good on you for having figured this out at 20; i wish i had, and i wish other do, too.

    keep writing, keep following your heart, keep binge-eating carrot muffins.

    love, an old millennial

    Liked by 3 people

  36. I love this. As someone who went to a former #1 public school that was culturally destructive, and is now even far more stressful than in my ye olden days (because top colleges want racial and geo diversity), I totally relate. And as a parent of young kids, I am passionate about finding a great school, but not “the best” school. I was jealous of my friends from less-great schools because there they shined and were appreciated for their passion and hard work, rather than whipped for not being “the best.” I like your style and if you ever are looking for a job, be in touch.

    Liked by 1 person

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