Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Left brainers as sacrificial lambs for "diversity"

In their attempt to make gifted programs, selective high schools, and top colleges more diverse, more and more influential people are promoting policies that discriminate against left-brain students.

I've already talked (here and here) about Robert Sternberg, provost and senior vice president of Oklahoma State University and the author of College Admissions for the 21st Century. Sternberg has designed both an alternative to the IQ test used for deciding admissions to gifted programs, and an alternative to the SAT test.  Sternberg's tests replace analytical questions with open ended ones of the sort that totally stymie many left-brainers, such as:
Number 7 and Number 4 are playing at school, but then they get in a fight. Why aren't 7 and 4 getting along?
Use one of the following topics to create a short story: 
a. The Spam Filter
b. Seventeen Minutes Ago 
c. Two by Two 
d. Facebook 
e. Now There's the Rub 
f. No Whip Half-Caf Latte 
g. The Eleventh Commandment
One of the virtues of such tests, Sternberg argues, is that they "virtually eliminated the admissions edge enjoyed by some ethnic groups."

As for selective high schools, consider Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virginia, perhaps the most selective high school in America. As Joanne Jacobs recounts in a recent post, Jefferson no longer seeks out top math students. Rather, as Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews, cited by Joanne Jacobs, reports in his latest piece on the school:
On the first page of Jefferson’s letter to teachers writing recommendations, in boldface type, was the school board’s new focus: It wanted to prepare “future leaders in mathematics, science, and technology to address future complex societal and ethical issues.” It sought diversity, “broadly defined to include a wide variety of factors, such as race, ethnicity, gender, English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), geography, poverty, prior school and cultural experiences, and other unique skills and experiences.” The same language was on the last page of the application.
Recommenders are required to assess three qualities: intellectual ability, commitment to STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] and whether the applicant’s background, skills and past experiences “contribute to the diversity of TJHSST’s community of learners.”
Particularly upset by this new policy is Vern Williams, one of the top math teachers in the country, the recipient of two national awards from The Mathematics Association of America, and a presidential appointee to the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, who, for 25 years, has prepared middle-schoolers for admission to Jefferson: 
Last year, he said, Jefferson rejected one of only two eighth-graders in Virginia who qualified to take the Junior USA Math Olympiad test, six scary problems to be done in nine hours. At the same time, “students who had very little interest [or] motivation in math and science were admitted,” he said. “Some admitted students had even struggled with math while in middle school.”
Why is it left-brainers in particular who as the sacrificial lambs for diversity? Is it all part of a vast, right-brain world conspiracy? Or perhaps it's simply that left-brain skills tend to be quantitative skills that are less easily manipulated for the sake of desired outcomes than are soft skills like "creativity" and "leadership."

Either way, Vern Williams, who is "familiar with the failings of math education for low-income minorities," and who himself is African American, "doesn’t think rejecting top math students is the best way to make the school more diverse." Rather:
The solution, he said, is to “get rid of all warm and fuzzy math programs at the elementary school level and teach real academic content to all students.”


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your article. However, if you review the Office of Civil Rights records, the issue of concern at TJ is their treatment of the disabled. Indeed, the only case the FCPS Board can recall where the OCR required reimbursement to the family and mandatory training regarding 504 was TJ in 2009. I know many left-brained,right-brained and both-brained students at TJ. I see the discrimination, but not towards left-brained students.

From....married and in live for 25 years with a "left-brain" man.

Katharine Beals said...

"Left-brain" is not an official category, and "left-brainers" aren't a protected group, so one wouldn't expected any OCR action here. At a science and technology magnet, however, one would expect a preponderance of left-brainers--unless left-brainers are being discriminated against on some basis that is irrelevant to scientific and technological aptitude.