Skip to main content

C'est la Z

On Prestigious Competitons And High Schools

The ACM recently announced this year's winners of the Cutler-Bell Prize in High School Computing. Over on his blog, Alfred Thompson noted that the winners were either from independent or magnet public schools. Alfred also noted that most of the winners of prestigious science competitions like the Regeneron Science Talent Search (nee Intel, nee Westinghouse) were from public magnet schools. In his post, Alfred ruminates on this and wonders "how to we add the flexibility and support to more students at more schools?"

As someone who spent over 25 years at Stuyvesant, arguably the granddaddy of these public magnet schools, I wanted to share some thoughts. I can only share my experiences from Stuy along with what I know from a few other schools but I still hope this is worth a read.

The Regeneron competitions under it's various names is the oldest and most established of these competition so it's pretty easy to get some data. Stuy is at or near the top of the list in terms of Regeneron finalists and semi finalists. The Wikipediapage lists Stuy as second to Montgomery Blair with 22 finalists to 40 but the data only goes back to 1999. I personally know of at least 7 more finalists from my early years at Stuy, 4 more from the early 90s, 8 more listed under the page's "notable" entries and who kows how many from the 80s and earlier.

Stuy had a strong run of finalists in the early 90's and the early 2000's but there has been a fall off in recent years.

Let's look at what makes Stuy "special" and then at the fall off.

In terms of money, Stuy gets a basic budget similar to other NYC public schools plus some extra due to the extra graduation requirements (other schools get extra money for an assortment of reasons). I seem to recall that the Parents Association raises somewhere in the low to mid six figures and the Alumni Association has been historically dysfunctional as a fundraising body.

So, it's not money.

Flexible scheduling? That's something that Alfred mentioned. Stuy kids have super packed programs. Some kids take 10 classes a day with no lunch so that's not it either.

Teachers? Stuy gets its teachers the same way as other public schools and just like other public schools they have some terrific teachers and some absolute disasters. Stuy also gets a slice of a particular class of teacher that starts their career at Stuy, never learns to teach because the kids figure it out but thinks they're gods gift to teaching.

So, no, it's not the teachers, at least not on the whole.

So, what does Stuy do?

It collects talent and this is the same thing that the other magnet schools and the elite private schools do as well. Get a bunch of bright, hard working, motivated kids together and good things happen. It gets high achieving students from a combination of entrance exam, reputation, and location [fn::That said, students have also been drawn to Stuy for the CS program which is fairly unique and also for a couple of specific math teachers.].

I'm not arguing against this – I think there is a need for public magnet schools like Stuy but I think it's important to recognize that this is a major contributor to competition results and doesn't necessarily say anything about the school in terms of leadership or instruction.

It's similar to a college coach who gets the best recruits. Are they really a great coach? Can they develop talent or are they just getting the best talent and getting out of the way. Who's the better coach? The one who gets all the 5 star recruits every years and frequently wins it all or the coach who gets 3 star recruits, doesn't win as much but develops those 3 stars to a point where they can compete against the 5 star programs.

That's the starting point but then there's the targeting of the top prospects. Stuy had a run of finalists during the early 2000s. At the time, a friend of mine ran the math research program. His strategy? He would scour the school for the kids most likely to win the competition, get those kids into his class, and hook them up with professors with the most promising project potential. It worked more often than not. Contrast that to what I did when I ran our CS research program. I didn't take the program seriously for a variety of reasons but my job was to give EVERY kid in my class the opportunity to explore some aspect of CS. I had a few semi-finalists which is neither here nor there but never the stream of winners that my friend had.

Looking back to Stuy's earlier success, we had a Bio Chair who ran a similar program. I knew people in that program from when I was a student. The top talent was recruited and nurtured, the rest, pretty much ignored. Makes a school look good but not really the hallmark of a great school

Other schools had a similar strategy. Back in the '80s Cardozo - a neighborhood high school in Bayside Queens had a great run of Westinghouse results but that's because the science chair at the time had a similar program - rope in the top talent early (sophomore year) and nurture them. After a while the school got a reputation and would then attract more "science talent."

Stuy's had a falloff in finalists in recent years and I believe that's due to not having anyone focusing on recruiting kids specifically for results. Personally, I think this is a good thing but others disagree. A school with one finalist is perceived to be better than a school that gives a great research experience to every student but produces no finalists. In recent years, there's been talk of "what can we do to get more winners again." I think that's a shame, the conversation should always be "what can we do to improve the educational experience we offer all of our students."

None of this is to take away from any of the winners of any of these competitions. All the finalists and winners I've known have been exceptional intellects and top people in their fields. This is just a commentary on what role a school does, should, and shouldn't play.

In my early years at Stuy, I worked with our top kids on CS competitions, The kids would place very well in the USACO competitions throughout the year. One year we entered the ACSL and I realized that I had a choice - focus on the top handful of kids to make a winning team that could compete for the title or focus on all the kids but not expect that great single result. I realized that the top kids would probably be alright without that extra attention.

I still think I did right by those kids but that realization also led me to design my intro class, hack required CS into Stuy and probably end up positively affecting far more students than if I just focused on the top percent of a percent.

comments powered by Disqus