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By Howard Greyber
Prominent graduates include Eric Holder, US deputy attorney general, and Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffman, a professor of chemistry at Cornell University. Two other Nobel laureates—the famous geneticist Joshua Lederberg and the distinguished economist Robert Fogel—also graduated from Stuyvesant. It was not the magnificent new Stuyvesant building (finished in 1993) which promoted these achievements.
When Lederberg, Fogel and Hoffman attended, the school was located in a decrepit, very crowded building on the lower East Side in Manhattan. The library was inadequate, the books tattered, the labs far out of date, and the teachers average. No grassy suburban campus, just dirty concrete sidewalks on a narrow crowded street. Neither were there school buses; students had to use public transportation; most traveled over a dozen miles daily from the outer boroughs.
Yet Stuyvesant was regularly tops or very close to the top of high schools in New York State, and in the number of students being awarded the prized New York State Regent's Scholarships for college.
The basic stimulation for achievement came from the creative interaction and friendly competition of a critical mass of bright, intensely curious students, and from the rigid, tough standards, such as the Regent exams, which set challenging goals.
Success in learning mathematics was aided greatly by a longtime custom in New York of forming math teams in all high schools which met and competed against each other. Peer tutoring is a productive technique, well known and used in the 19th century, but unfortunately forgotten or ignored by today's educational dogma. Kids will accept harsh criticism from another kid, which might devastate them if it came from an adult teacher. Such clubs and teams, competing with other high schools in all the academic subjects would help all students achieve.
Research has found that McGuffey's Readers, standard textbooks in the late 19th and early 20th century, use vocabulary three or four grades ahead of those used in textbooks today. Our textbooks have been dramatically dumbed down.
New York City public schools in the 1930s were generally regarded as the best in the nation, but no more. Tracking of students was done back then in every grade, yet today educators oppose tracking. Teachers then were happy to skip brighter kids ahead to a higher grade. Today educators oppose skipping grades. Are not these educators partially responsible for the general drop in student performance? When kids are bored, they tend to misbehave.
The perilous state of elementary, middle and high school public education is obvious to all. Many reports have been issued, such as "A Nation at Risk" in 1983, but while various dubious changes have been adopted, it is fair that impartial markers for academic achievement like SAT and PSAT scores have shown no significant improvement since then. It is a fact that when foreign visitors arrive in America and put their children in our public schools, they discover their children are two or three grades ahead of ours in most subjects.
In science and mathematics one finds that American public high school kids rank last among 16 industrialized nations. [Ed. note: This refers to results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) released in 1998, and can be understood as reflecting the fact that US high-school students take much less science, especially physics, compared to students in other countries. See Michael Neuschatz,The Science Teacher 66, 23-26 (1999).] Even more shocking is that while Asian children, who excel, do not feel they compare well with other nations, American children think wrongly that they are doing quite well. We badly need capable American workers who know basic mathematics and science for our modern, technology-intensive economy. Expensive private schools for bright kids are springing up costing up to $20,000 per year, per child.
One scintillating facet of American public high school education, shining amid the generally dismal vista, is the outstanding success of high schools of science like Stuyvesant and the Bronx High School of Science. Very few of them exist to serve our huge society of over 285 million people. Where they do exist, like the public North Carolina High School of Science and Technology, they quickly attract interest from the majority of the surrounding high technology companies. High tech companies extend assistance, equipment, visits and offer summer and part-time employment, hoping for fresh, bold ideas from the young people.
My suggestion is to revolutionize American public education, i.e., for our Federal government?in cooperation with the states and local government?to fund and to build 435 high schools of science, like Stuyvesant, over the next seven years, one in each Congressional district and locally controlled. The cost is quite reasonable. Building 63 such public high schools each year, at a cost of $3.8 billion per year, means the total cost to the federal budget is less than $27 billion over seven years?about half the cost of the Apollo Space Project when one corrects for subsequent inflation. The cost could be shared by the Education Department, Commerce Department, National Science Foundation and NASA budgets. It could be called the Second National Defense Education Act.
E.G. Sherburne, Jr. once pointed out, "While many people think that a 'genius' will thrive without any encouragement, studies tell a different story." Each year hundreds of thousands of bright American students of all skin colors are lost to science for lack of the proper challenging education. The high standards of these proposed nearby federal science schools would exert a strong positive influence on all public education, as parents of kids in the feeder elementary and middle schools in the area demand that courses in those schools be improved to give their children a chance to pass the exam to enter the local science high school.
The federal science high schools would provide student tutoring, special facilities and demonstrations to nearby schools. As President John Adams wrote, "The preservation of the means of knowledge among the lowest ranks is of more importance to the public than all the property of the rich men in the country."
A former wartime lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Howard Greyber is a PhD astrophysicist, a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, and a member of the International Astronomical Union. He lives in Potomac, Maryland.
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