Saturday, October 27, 2007

Alec Klein Interview Part III - The Final Chapter

It's been awhile but here's the final installment of the long phone interview I had with Alec a couple of weeks ago. If you need to refer back to Part I or Part II or the preview for background, click on those links. For those visiting for the first time, Alec is the author of the recently published and critically acclaimed book, A Class Apart, about Stuyvesant High School in NYC, a highly exclusive specialized public school for talented math and science students. Again, I wish to emphasize that Alec responded extemporaneously to these questions, most of which I prepared ahead of time. I enjoyed the spontaneity of the dialogue but I'm not sure I would use the phone interview again, considering the arduous task of transcribing each single word. The following is an excerpt of the last half hour of the interview. Alec's responses are reproduced as accurately as I was able to pick them up.

Key: MN: MathNotation K: Alec Klein SHS: Stuyvesant HS

I'll start by backtracking to Alec's last remarks from Part II:

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.

Beginning of Part III

MN: I recently spoke to a Korean mother the other day and I asked for her opinion about her child going to SHS and what the other mothers have been discussing. Mothers make these decisions in the Korean culture. Here was her response -- she said some of the parents really want their children to go there, they help them prepare for many years, but many now are concerned about the pressures, the cheating, the drugs, and all of the other pieces they feel are negative. Do you feel this situation has been exacerbated in the past 20 years since you went there? Do you see it as escalating?

K: Yeah, I do. I think high school has gotten a lot tougher, a lot more competitive, there's a lot more pressure. I think that being an adolescent is a lot more complicated. There's an increased emphasis on, for instance, standardized tests in today's world than when you and I went to school and, as a result, these kids are spending enormous amounts of time taking tests, preparing for those tests. It's sort of an unending battery of tests they have throughout high school and on some level that is just a fact of life that's changed and I think that beyond that it seems that it's just tougher. It seems that there are more kids vying for fewer spots, whether it's to get into SHS or to get into colleges, but it seems a lot tougher.

MN: Ok, I agree with that. One of my fellow bloggers teaches in another specialized high school in the city. I asked him for some ideas for questions I might ask you. Two of his colleagues graduated from SHS and the only question they had was this: ""Is there something specific to the culture of SHS that makes the pressure and cheating greater than other specialized high schools or is it basically the same all over?"

K: Well, I think that the pressure at SHS is pretty intense. It's hard for me to say whether it's exactly the same at Bronx Science or other schools but clearly when you create a school that only admits 3%, you're beginning right there with a population of students who are already quite motivated and whose parents, in many cases, are very involved in their lives. It's not surprising that it becomes a pressure cooker in that environment because they're all used to being the star from their middle school days, then, suddenly, they're in a high school full of stars, so the pressure can be pretty intense. I think that even the students say that the cheating problem is in large part a result of all that pressure they feel to get ahead, to stand out, to be number one, and it's an unfortunate problem they are constantly wrestling with -- how do they deal with this cheating problem. I don't think they've come up yet with the answer at SHS. I think cheating is a problem throughout schools and, on some level, I blame the parents because it starts at home. If the kids have the kind of right grounding, they will come to understand that it doesn't pay to cheat, they're not getting anything out of that. By the time they get to high school that kind of foundation should be in place.

MN: Let me talk about the pressure, Alec. Pressure comes from many sources. From my own personal experience in my life as well as in the students' lives with whom I've worked, there is intense pressure to succeed, to compete, all of those same things you're talking about. How much of this is their feelings of self-worth, and how they feel that acceptance and love from mom and dad are tied up with their grades?

K: It's a really good question. I came across several examples where the problem wasn't the student, it was the parent who was putting so much pressure on their children to be perfect. Teachers told me about receiving telephone calls and emails from parents, asking them "What happened with my child's grade?" The teacher would say, "What do you mean, they got a 97," and the parent would say, "What happened to the other three points?" I also witnessed a student who faced the burden of incredibly high parental expectations. There's one student who came home with a report card grade of 94.86, her overall grade point average, which incidentally is a pretty good grade point average, but it was slight drop from 95.29, less than half a percentage point, and she was punished, even though the drop to 94.86 didn't actually count for anything since that report card was an interim report card which didn't count toward her overall grade point average on her transcript. It was a progress report. To me, that begins to get to the question of where does this come from and where do they begin to feel that pressure. I think it begins at home. There are shades of gray here. In the case of Marina and other students, they are the products of immigrants who have come over to this country in pursuit of the American Dream and they see their children as a key to that future, through education, and so a lot is expected of them. It becomes easier to understand that pressure when you understand that, in many cases, these are folks who came to the United States with pennies in their pocket and are trying to establish a better life.

MN: I'm going to read an excerpt of Anna's review on Amazon. She graduated a couple of years ago from SHS:
"It is true that at SHS, teachers go out of their way to help and encourage their brightest students. This is apparent in the wide array of course offerings and the abundant resources and support offered to those who excel in math or science. Brilliant students are rewarded as they should be, particularly at a school like SHS. That's part of SHS's promise and to a select few it delivers. Let's not forget that this is a school equally obsessed with its own image as it is obsessed with its most talented and successful students. But what about those students who are mediocre in chemistry. There are some you know. Ok in Physics, decent in Calculus. Teachers at SHS rarely reach out to a student unless the student is at one of the two extremes, either soaring or failing. Students who receive marks in the 70's or 80's are sometimes chided but mostly ignored. Without top grades many are discouraged from pursuing higher level courses even if the student shows a strong interest that doesn't necessarily match his or her GPA. This is a school that emphasizes success not learning."

So, I read that and I feel this is a young lady that may have a little bit of a chip on her shoulder but I don't want to discount her point. Are you surprised by that or do you feel, like in most schools, the kids in the middle don't get the attention.

K: I sense that's a heartfelt response and I don't want to discount it either. You know, I think she makes some good points. Number one, that there are students who fall through the cracks at SHS. It's a big school, there are 3000 students in a 10-story building. I would say though that the book that I wrote includes those same students as well, not just the high achievers. I'm thinking for instance of Jane who was not a high achiever, at least in terms of her grades at SHS. She's obviously a gifted individual and very talented but who did fall through the cracks and suffered from a debilitating drug addiction, and whose grades were mediocre. She's one of the central figures in the book. So the point of the book was not to only highlight the Romeos of the world and Romeo was one of the most gifted students I encountered and he was one of the central figures in it as well. The idea was to show some of the range of different kinds of students at a place like this. I think that SHS is a tough place to navigate wherever you are, precisely because it's big, big in population and big in physical size, and there are all these kids jostling for attention and seeking the best teachers. It's not an easy place. I think it's a difficult place and I would agree with that. I would say that's something I tried to incorporate into the book as well.

MN: You did and I think Jane is a perfect example of that.

K: It's such a tragedy when kids like that fall through the cracks. It's unfortunate, it's a fact of life in any large high school, gifted or not gifted. You know, high school's not easy.

MN: She also talks about the teachers, Alec. She thought that the best teachers teach the best classes. She also felt the top classes were only for the top students who had to make a cutoff grade, but not for the others, so those didn't get the best teachers.

K: You know I think there's some truth to that but not completely. There were some amazing teachers who were just beginning their careers at SHS, so therefore had some of the very basic courses and they were really gifted. Then there were other teachers who were known to be great teachers, the students really vying to get into those classes. So I think it's a mixture. At SHS, like any other school, there are good teachers and bad teachers. At SHS, they draw from the same pool as the other schools in the system, so you get a pretty wide range. But it's true that to some degree the school draws some teachers who want to teach students who are willing to learn and then there are some teachers who are thinking it's going to be a vacation because the kids are so motivated to learn - they don't even need to teach them. You're going to get both. I think most of the teachers are pretty darn good.

MN: I want to get to my last couple of questions because we're coming up to an hour. Do you believe, and this is central to the whole issue of gifted education, that the prizewinners, the scientists, the leaders who've graduated from SHS would have gone as far as they have if they had not attended a specialized high school?

K: I've actually received emails and notes from people who've graduated from SHS over the past 60 or 70 years. I got one today from a graduate of 1939 and he said, and I'm quoting his email:
"I would never have gotten the Ph.D. in Physics were it not for the challenges at SHS."

It's not uncommon in that people have expressed to me the fact that their experience at SHS propelled them in a positive way and I think the achievements of a lot of the alumni, the four Nobel laureates, and many others who have been trailblazers in science, medicine, public service, industry are pretty amazing actually. I don't think it's an accident.

MN: I appreciate that. That's a great answer. Alec, do you believe that deep down the parents are more attracted to SHS by its name and prestige and increasing the chances of their child getting into the best colleges, or do you really believe that many want their children to have the challenge?

K: I think it's a little of both. I've certainly encountered parents who were drawn to the brand name that SHS represents and I think there is sort of a frenzy among the parents to get their kids into brand-name colleges like Harvard and I think a little bit of it is misplaced. I've come to the conclusion that, even though I myself went to an Ivy League, I don't think it really matters where you go to college. It's what you do after that, how you apply yourself, whether you chase your dreams. I think that a lot of the parents are caught up in that. I've also met a lot of parents who really believe their children will get the best education at SHS because the standards are high there, it's tough and rigorous and the curriculum is designed to be so and a lot of the parents are drawn to the school because of that promise.

MN: A couple of more, Alec, and thank you for staying on. Do you believe that the existence of specialized schools is more of a reflection on the quality of local public schools or that children who are uniquely talented deserve a unique education?

K: Well I think that's one of the key questions: Is it a good idea to have a school like this. As I've noted, I don't think I'm in a position to make that call. As I said, I'm a journalist, I'm the generalist who's an observer in this area and I think it's up to the educators to try to work that out. I would just add that the irony about SHS is that it was founded a century ago as a manual training school for boys, meaning that it was designed for boys to learn how to do carpentry and, in fact, I went back to the old yearbooks in the archives to the beginnings of the school, in the early 1900's and, in the yearbook it says the school was obviously not intended to prepare students for college. The idea was to help boys to use their hands. Obviously that is no longer the case! Now SHS is viewed as a vehicle to get into the very best colleges. Almost every single student goes to a 4-year college and about 1 out of 4 gets into an Ivy League school. Aside from that, it's co-ed, which is not the way it was founded. So it's sort of an indication of about how the ideas in education have changed and evolved from generation to generation. A notion that there are these specialized high schools for the gifted and talented is not really necessarily in vogue at the moment. What is in vogue is something quite different. As I understand it, there's an emphasis on schools that perhaps may have a focus on a particular subject but the admission is not usually based on a single test as it is for SHS. I think SHS continues to exist and prevail because of the success it has achieved over the decades and as long as it continues to do that it will probably stand the test of time. But it's not necessarily a popular thing now to have schools like it.

MN: Well, Alec, I know that as the journalist you don't want to take strong positions, particularly you don't see yourself as an education specialist. However, I did certainly come away from reading the book feeling the positives far outweighed the negatives. Is that a fair evaluation?

K: I think that's fair. My experience last year, working on the book, I felt that it was a good place, SHS. To go beyond that, it's a special place. But I am troubled by the practice of segregating kids by whatever is so-called measure of gifted and talented. I'm just not sure that's the way to go, but, on the other hand, I'm not really sure what the alternative is to that and I'm sure it's something that will be debated for years to come.

MN: Well, the Academy in Hackensack, NJ, does have an entrance exam which is fairly rigorous, but they also interview students I believe and they look at their record in school as well. They also have to be recommended by a teacher.

K: That's actually gotten a lot more attraction in education circles because it takes into account other factors. Some schools also factor in diversity. It sounds like that's been gaining more adherence than what what SHS does.

MN: Interestingly, I'm thinking of contacting Terence Tao. He's won the Nobel Prize in mathematics. They don't actually call it Nobel, they call it the Fields Medal. He, at the age of 8, entered high school and was taking Calculus by the time he was 10 or 11 and got his Ph.D. from Princeton by the time he was 21. He is now a full professor at UCLA in his twenties, and he's considered one of the greatest mathematical minds of this generation. I mention that, because I'm really interested in asking him if he went to a specialized high school. I believe he comes from Australia, so there might not have been a SHS there. I'm going to be following up on this, I just want to let you know.

K: I'm curious what he'd have to say.

MN: Yeah, I'm curious about his opinions about whether he believes these talented kids deserve special programs. Alec, again, I want to thank you. Of course, I wish you the best with your book. I personally enjoyed the book greatly -- it struck home with me, because of my own personal background.

K: I appreciate that. I know you understand a lot of these issues more than most people.

MN: Alec, take care. I'll be in touch...


mathmom said...

Thanks for doing that interview. I haven't read the book, but I found it interesting.

If you are looking for details on Dr. Tao's education, there's an article about it here. It doesn't look like he went to a specialized "gifted" HS, but rather was radically accelerated, and started taking HS classes at 7yo. So he got lots of flexibility from his HS.

"Deserve" is a very loaded term. I think the question isn't so much what gifted kids "deserve" as what they need to develop their potential. And what the costs and consequences are for the kids and for society when gifted kids aren't given the opportunity to develop to their full potential.

Anonymous said...

Well done, Dave. I am going to send links to this interview to a few people who don't ordinarily read the blogs. I think you've brought out some interesting points in a very readable format.

Dave Marain said...


I have looked at Terence's bio. I was recalling the details from memory, which, in my case, is not always reliable!
I agree that 'deserve' is less politically correct than 'need', but one could argue that exceptional children should be entitled to certain accommodations and I mean entitled. The term exceptional does have more than one connotation here.

After talking to other knowledgeable educators, parents and students and reading your comments and others, I am convinced that we certainly can and should do more for the youngsters who have special gifts in math and science. I'm not convinced that SHS or the Academy near me is the answer however. I'm beginning to like the idea of magnet schools or academies housed in the same building as the regular public school. This seems to enable the best of both worlds. Students with special interests and talents can spend part of their day with like-minded students and the rest of the day in the mainstream, so to speak. I'm far from convinced however that this would really suffice for gifted children and it certainly doesn't address their needs K-8. Acceleration is still the most common solution, although you have suggested more enrichment and in-depth learning. You know I lean in that direction but programs such as these are hard to come by. I really feel that most public schools simply don't have the human, physical or economic resources to provide for these children. I doubt that there are simple answers to such complex questions. Alec expressed similar reservations about the exclusivity of schools like SHS, but I can't argue with his point that there really isn't a much better solution out there, at least none of which I am aware. I know that some locales like Boston and out in CA have Math Circles for such youngsters and there are MathCounts, AMC and other similar opportunities. This is a step in the right direction but it doesn't constitute a national commitment to these children. National commitments are tied to national priorities and education isn't always at the top of the reward system, and gifted education is given far less consideration. There is still the prevailing feeling that these kids will reach their potential without our investing more and therein lies the problem.

Thanks for commenting. I've been getting the feeling that my readers are not that interested in the issues of gifted education.

Alec's book is exceptional and I do recommend it strongly. You, in particular, would enjoy it and appreciate it.

mathmom said...

There is still the prevailing feeling that these kids will reach their potential without our investing more and therein lies the problem.

Yeah, big problem. Even acceleration is not very common in many places. I hit an absolute roadblock when I wanted to have my son skip 4th grade even though he had completed most of the school's exact 4th grade curriculum in 3rd grade. They wanted him to repeat all that same content again. I argued that if he were a year older and had successfully completed that material as an official 4th grader no one would be asking him to repeat it, but that fell on deaf ears. That was why we left the public school and moved to the private school my kids are still in.

Thanks for commenting. I've been getting the feeling that my readers are not that interested in the issues of gifted education.

As a parent of gifted kids, it is clearly an issue of personal interest to me.

Alec's book is exceptional and I do recommend it strongly. You, in particular, would enjoy it and appreciate it.

I'll take a look for it. I read another book about an exam school about a year ago called "School of Dreams" by Edward Humes, which was based on Whitney High in CA.

It's a shame that those schools become such pressure-cookers for the kids. It seems like a slightly dialed-back version of those schools could really be ideal. I personally wouldn't want to put my kid in such a high-pressure school, but I'm not convinced he's getting what he needs out of the honors classes at his current high school either. He is doing math competitions for more challenge, so that's something... but academic peers are hard to find in a school that doesn't cluster gifted kids from a wider area.

Anonymous said...

Acceleration is part of the solution in my opinion, and I am unclear why some school systems are not open to it. In our case, we were lucky enough to have a school system and principal who worked with us and moved my kid to 4th grade halfway through her third grade year. There are issues now, in high school, when all my kid's peers are able to drive and she isn't, but overall, it was a good thing.

The magnet schools provide a good trade-off. You can have more advanced instruction for some subjects (such as math & science in my kid's case) but with the general student population for other subjects (such as English, History etc). The social aspects seem much better in such an environment.


mathmom said...

It seems that a lot of school administrators (and some teachers) are opposed to acceleration based on somewhat suspect conclusions made from personal observations of a few instances of accelerated kids.

Quite often what happens is that a teacher sees an accelerated child who is socially awkward among the older kids, and blames the acceleration, when in fact it is quite likely that that same child might have been just as socially awkward, if not moreso, with agemates. Any well-adjusted grade-skipped kids that they see don't stand out so much in their minds, and tend to get forgotten or discounted.

My husband skipped a grade, I did not. He blamed his social awkwardness on the skip. I blamed mine on the lack of a skip (or lack of a gifted program where I would have been with more geeks like myself). Finally we both realized that we were probably both doomed to be socially awkward either way. We both found that we "fit in" better in college than in HS or middle school!

Pretty much all the evidence suggests that kids who skip do better, not only academically, but also emotionally and socially. But some administrator will see a socially awkward kid arriving via the road less traveled, and assume that he would have been better off taking the long way. For any particular kid, maybe he would and maybe he wouldn't, but without a crystal ball, we'll never know. But I think that it's an erroneous and dangerous assumption that many people make that makes all acceleration seem radical and ill-advised, which hurts lots of students. IMO.

Unknown said...

Are teachers not held in high regard here? The salaries are not great (understatement of the year, I guess), but is the general feeling among educators that they are not respected/appreciated?