Science Talent Search winners do not a great school make

Over on Facebook, my Alma Mater and long time employer, Stuyvesant High School seems to be making a big push to up it's Regeneron Science Talent Search game. For those of you who aren't familiar, that's the latest incarnation of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search from back in my day.

It seems that Stuyvesant hasn't had that many semi finalists, finalists, and winners over the past few years and isn't happy about it. The result is a bunch of social media reminding us of old winners and trying to raise funds to get us back to the glory days.

I'd rather they spent there time, energy, and money elsewhere.

When I was a young teacher, I was enamored with those types of results. When my kids did well on a USACO competition, for example, I felt pretty good about myself.

Then one day, I had an epiphany. I was looking over the results of a big USACO competition. My kids came in 4th, 5th, and I think fifteenth. I was feeling pretty good about myself but then I realized that Dan, Evan, and Jon - my three top scorers would probably have done just fine without me. Sure, I do believe that I was able to help them in their growth as both computer scientists and as people but they were already off the charts smart.

The same is true about the Science Talent Search (STS) winners. A friend of mine ran Stuyvesant's math research class for a number of years. He had a pretty impressive string of finalists and winners. How did he do it?

  • Identify Stuyvesant's top talent - the ones already most likely to succeed in the STS.
  • Pawn them off on a lab or professor.

The Stuy class, by and large, did little or nothing for these kids yet we would hold them up as shining examples of how wonderful we were.

When I had my epiphany, I started designing my intro class and focusing my efforts on the whole school population. The results? Scores of people succeeding in tech who never would have considered it otherwise.

While my super high achievers have indeed gone on to successful lives and careers, some of my most successful graduates, by any number of measures have been the students who would otherwise have gotten lost in the crowd at Stuy.

The truth is, many of Stuyvesant's STS winners would have been STS winners regardless of where they went. We may or may not have helped them along the way but STS results are not the measure of a great school.

Improving a school, any school, for all its students might not help in those bogus national ratings but that really should be what we're about.

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