Friday, October 19, 2007

Alec Klein Interview Part II

Here's the continuation of the interview. If you haven't yet read it, I strongly recommend you start from Part I, particularly the insightful comments offered by our readers. I invite others who have thoughts about the issues of gifted education and schools like Stuyvesant HS to share their reflections and personal experiences.

In part II, Alec gets into issues of teacher quality and his own personal experiences at SHS. He also recounts how the book came to be and how a journalist views his role in telling a story.

MN: MathNotations
K: Alec Klein
SHS: Stuyvesant HS

We'll overlap a bit from Part I for continuity...

MN: Oh, I read all about that and I was very impressed that Mr. Jaye is a very special person.

: He is. He's one of the great educators and he's also one of the secrets that made SHS so successful, precisely because he didn't follow the rules. Instead, he found a way to break the rules to get the students the kind of education they need. In the case of Milo, he let him in the school even though he hadn't taken the entrance exam and let him take precalculus. He hired a math genius who did not have a degree because he recognized that this individual was also a gifted teacher.

Right, and now he's left and taken this guy with him to Bergen Academies.

That's correct and, in fact, I just saw Danny Jaye, and his school won a major award, I think it was from Intel, for being one of the most, if not the most, innovative high schools in the country. And Danny Jaye is the principal of that school now and it goes to show what happens when you put great educators in great roles.

I agree. Alec, let's run down some of these questions. If you could have done some things differently, would you have reconsidered some of the chapters or do you feel you might have shifted your focus somewhat?

That's a good question. In any writing that I do, I always feel like there's always something I could have done better, something that I could have done differently. There's no such thing as a perfect book.

Oh, of course. I mean, were there chapters that never made it to the final cut?

Oh no. I was going to say, having said that, I strongly believe this is the best thing I've ever written and it's the best piece of journalism that I've done. I think it probably took about seven years off my life - I worked so hard on it. It was a magical experience in the sense that I worked hard on it but everything came together in terms of the reporting and the chapters all kind of coalesced and it was just fortuitous that it happened that way. But it was actually a smooth writing process because the individuals who I spent time with and focus on in the story are just so amazing. In many cases, they're larger than life, whether it's Danny Jaye, the math chairman, who breaks all the rules or Milo, the 10-year old prodigy who is just off the charts as well as others. They were all so compelling in their story lines that it was just a joy to both interview them and to write it. In that sense it was one of the most satisfying assignments for myself.

Let me tell you why I'm asking this question. I never imagined I would be doing journalism at this stage of my life. Part of the blog that I'm doing now is interviewing luminaries in mathematics, the change agents for math education as well as the mathematicians. I interviewed one of the architects of the NCTM Standards and his views are controversial. I went out of my way not to editorialize at all, in fact, no follow-up of his comments. I let them just stand out there and I allowed other responders to carry on the debate. I'm bringing this up because I think you went pretty far to remain objective in this book and your background as a journalist enabled you to do that, and I admire you for that. Was it hard for you not to take a position and express views?

That's a good question. Actually, it was not hard. I've been a journalist now for almost 20 years. It's almost second nature and, when I'm reporting, all I'm focusing on is the individuals whom I'm interviewing, the information I'm trying to understand, the questions I'm asking, the story line I'm trying to follow. The primary concern is the story and, frankly, I don't think anyone really cares what my opinion is and I think that's appropriate. As a journalist, I think my job is to gather a story if you will, put it out there and let readers and policymakers and educators and others decide what they will of the story. When it comes to telling a story it's important you tell the whole story because, otherwise, if you leave something out, all you do is damage the credibility of the story. So, in that case, I wanted to make sure that I told both the good and the bad about SHS and it is a good and bad story in the sense that you have, on the one hand, these great achieving students who are really amazing, but there is sort of a dark side to a place like SHS, that includes rampant cheating, parental pressure that goes to some extremes, drugs can be a problem, issues of racial segregation within the school -- these are all things I covered in the book. I also go into issues of teacher quality. There are obviously a great deal of wonderful teachers in SHS and in fact I've really come to admire teachers. I'm just so thoroughly impressed by the job that they do. Like in all schools, not all teachers at SHS are the best and I address that. So the story for it to be true and accurate needs to show both sides and I made it very clear that from the beginning of the project that my intent was to tell a true and accurate story as I saw it and not to editorialize and not to shape it the way I wanted to but to let it shape itself.

MN: But, ultimately, Alec, you made the choice to take the entrance exam and go to SHS. What drew you to that school?

I think, back then, when you think about it, getting into SHS was almost like a lottery ticket. If you get into SHS, you are getting a free elite public education. If you don't get into SHS, your alternative was to go to a neighborhood public high school that maybe didn't offer the kind of education you wanted, or you'd have to pay to go to private school, which, as you know, is incredibly expensive. I don't know what the going rate is these days. Then as it is today, there was a lot at stake for the parents who are trying to get their kids into schools like SHS. If they get in, they save quite an educational bill. Now, back then when I took the test to get into SHS, I'm not really sure that I gave a whole lot of thought to the alternatives. I think I probably took the test assuming I was going to get in, not because I was so confident, but I don't think I really gave it another thought -- I would take it and get in! I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't gotten into SHS. It would have been a tough question for my parents because there are a lot of schools in New York and also, for that matter, a lot of schools that need a lot of work.

MN: What about Bronx Science and Hunter and Brooklyn Tech?

K: Those are other great schools and in fact in the book I note there are a lot of other great schools throughout the country. San Francisco has Lowell HS and Virginia has Thomas Jefferson HS, which is a fantastic school, and there are some schools that are not even exam schools that are also known to be among the best like New Trier outside of Chicago. There are some really good public schools and there are really some rotten ones too.

But you didn't characterize yourself as a math-science nerd in those days, in fact you're an English person, right?

K: Well the thing is that when I entered SHS I was probably better at math than I was in English. I was truly better at math, pretty quick when it came to math. But I had the good fortune of having a lot of good English teachers who really encouraged me to pursue writing. Dr. Bindman and Frank McCourt, before he became a literary phenomenon. But he was a great encouragement and so were the other English teachers I had. Unfortunately, I had some bad math teachers at SHS so it didn't inspire me to continue in that direction. Who knows what would have happened if I had had different teachers.

MN: Teachers make a difference, Alec?

K: I think they're huge difference makers and don't get the credit for it they deserve. ... we don't pay teachers what they...

There's no merit system.

K: In other societies, teachers are held in much higher regard. I'm thinking of countries like Japan for instance, and it would be nice if we could adopt a little bit more of that in this country. Unless you see them up close doing what they're doing, you don't really appreciate just what a commitment it is to be a teacher, the hours, not just teaching in the class, but after school and it's really heroic work, I think.

Perhaps an appropriate place to stop for now. We have now reached the halfway point of the interview. To be continued...

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