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Most schools celebrate standout students. This one sabotages them.

Heather Hopp-Bruce
This is an excerpt from Arguable, a Globe Opinion newsletter from columnist Jeff Jacoby. Sign up to get Arguable in your inbox each week.
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Public school administrators have gone to some outlandish extremes in their pursuit of “equity” and “diversity” at all costs. They have abolished grades of D and F, ended programs for gifted students, weakened merit-based admissions to exam schools, and eliminated proficiency in reading and math as graduation requirements.

But when officials at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., secretly adopted a policy of refusing to notify the families of top-performing students that they had qualified as National Merit Scholars, they went beyond a misguided attempt to engineer racial justice. They committed outright fraud.

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Asra Nomani, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Network, exposed the deception in a report last month for City Journal. She learned that two senior administrators at the Thomas Jefferson school — principal Ann Bonitatibus and Brandon Kosatka, the director of student services — had for years deliberately withheld notifications of National Merit awards from the students and their parents, most of whom are Asian. By suppressing that information, they denied those students the ability to include the awards in their college applications. Worse yet, they prevented them from applying for the many financial scholarships made available each year to students who earn National Merit awards.

At most schools, Nomani reported, “principals usually celebrate National Merit scholars with special breakfasts, award ceremonies, YouTube videos, press releases, and social media announcements.” But at Thomas Jefferson, officials kept the students’ achievement a secret from their families and made no announcement in the school.

This was not an oversight. Apart from sending a notice to a little-used e-mail account, the administrators said nothing about the students who had achieved National Merit status. According to one parent, Kosatka later said that they wanted “to recognize students for who they are as individuals, not focus on their achievements” — a nonsensical distinction. He also reportedly said that he and the principal didn’t want to “hurt” the students who didn’t get the award.

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So in September, when the National Merit Scholarship Program sent a letter to Bonitatibus commending 240 students for their top-tier performance on the qualifying test, she sat on it for weeks. The cover letter to the principal noted clearly that the letter of commendation would be the students’ only notification and requested that the school make sure students received a copy “as soon as possible.” But the information was kept under wraps until Nov. 14, two weeks after the early-application deadline for colleges had passed. At that point, “teachers dropped the certificates unceremoniously on students’ desks,” Nomani wrote. Nothing was mentioned to their families.

A student enters Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandra, Va., on Feb. 7.Kenny Holston/NYT

Nomani learned that her own son, who graduated from Thomas Jefferson in 2021, had been among the students singled out for achievement by the National Merit board the year before. “But the principal, who lobbied that fall to nix the school’s merit-based admission test to increase ‘diversity,’ never told us about it,” she reported. “Parents from earlier years told me that she also didn’t tell them.”

It is hard to overstate the outrageousness of this betrayal, but it reflects the school district’s stated determination to “produce equal outcomes for every student, without exception.” Taken literally, such a policy by definition requires the dumbing-down of classroom expectations to the lowest common denominator. It means that high-scoring students must on no account be encouraged to excel.

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As the liberal writer Jonathan Chait lamented in New York magazine last spring, this approach is part of a “progressive attack on academic achievement.” The hostility to exemplary student performance reflects a worldview that is “especially popular among education schools, teachers unions, and the network of advocates allied with and often funded by them,” wrote Chait. Some adherents of that outlook, he emphasized, make little effort to hide their conviction that political and racial indoctrination are more important than reading, writing, and arithmetic:

Last year, the president of the Los Angeles teachers union defended school closing by blurting out: “It’s okay that our babies may not have learned all their times tables. . . . They know the words ‘insurrection’ and ‘coup.’” This may have sounded like nonsense, but it’s a familiar worldview on the left. The idea is that traditional academic content is overrated and that the real purpose of schools is to instill social values. Hence, it’s okay for kids to lose a year of math or reading, because they’re gaining the social and political education that matters more.

Thomas Jefferson High School illustrates where this thinking leads. Along with her policy of minimizing the attention paid to high-scoring students in order to pursue “equal outcomes,” Bonitatibus in 2020 implemented a move away from standardized testing as part of the school’s own admissions process. The goal, she said explicitly, was to admit more Black and Hispanic students. That goal was achieved — but at the price of dramatically shrinking the percentage of admitted Asian students from 73 percent to 54 percent. Some ideologues may regard that as a step toward “equity.” In practice it is indistinguishable from anti-Asian racism.

Just like the school’s practice of blocking any mention of the National Merit Scholars in its classrooms.

What Bonitatibus and Kosatka did in deliberately swindling their own students was beyond the pale. For behavior so reprehensible, they should pay with their jobs.

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Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit https://bit.ly/ArguableNewsletter