Monday, October 15, 2007

Educating Our Best and Brightest: Alec Klein Interview - Part I

Note: Part II is now posted.

As previewed earlier, Alec Klein, author of A Class Apart, agreed to an interview with MathNotations on Fri, 10-12-07. The interview was quite long, so I will break it up into parts. Alec gives our readers a detailed view into one of the best of the specialized high schools in our nation, Stuyvesant HS in NYC, a school so exclusive that only 3% of the students taking the entrance exam actually make it in. Several other outstanding schools are noted in his book as well.

This interview touches on the controversial issues regarding the educational needs of our nation's best and brightest math and science students. Alec raises many important questions in his book, eloquently and fair-mindedly presenting both sides of the debate. He does this while telling with sensitivity and compassion an essentially human story of exceptional students, teachers and administrators. He leaves it to the education policy makers to resolve the equity/excellence issues. The following is excerpted from our phone conversation.

"MN:" refers to questions or comments from MathNotations and "K:" refers to Alec.
"SHS" will be the abbreviation for Stuyvesant HS.

MN: I just wanted to start by thanking you. How are things going with the book and the tour and everything else?

: It's been great. It's been received well. Quite good reviews and, from the editor, Simon and Schuster, sales are going well.

: And you can tell from Amazon that more and more people are writing and reading these reviews.

: That's good to hear. It's always good to get feedback about the book and it's been overwhelmingly positive and that's encouraging.

: Oh, overwhelming! I do want to talk about Anna's review. I thought it was interesting, only because it's the exception to the others. But that's later.

: Alec, what motivated you to write this book about SHS, knowing that your main focus had been the business sector, the AOL issue?

: I think it was a project of passion, it was something that I personally felt strongly about. I think it was a labor of love, to use the cliche. And on some level the idea for the book, the seeds of the idea, came about a few years ago when I was invited back to the old school to participate in a panel about corporate scandals which was the subject of my first book, Stealing Time. I had not been back to high school for about 20 years and I was sort of flooded by memories of the place and it also reminded me what a strange place SHS is and the fact that it's a public school basically packed with driven, high-achieving students many of whom are nerds and being a nerd is a badge of honor at Stuyvesant. It's kind of the alternate universe of high school, not your typical high school where your football captain is necessarily the popular kid. This is a school where students are actually proud of the fact that they study hard, that they do well academically and I thought that on some level it was a relatively unique school and yet it also tells the universal story of high school in the sense that many of the same issues that unfold at Stuyvesant unfold at schools across America, whether it's peer pressure or parental pressure, drugs, issues of intimacy, cheating, any number of issues. All those issues play out at SHS, so I think it has sort of this dual draw, a unique school but also universal in many ways. Apart from that, I thought it would just be a compelling narrative, a compelling story about the individuals in the school, the students and the teachers, and my hope was to be able to document that. And, while it's true that I am an investigative business reporter at the Washington Post, I like to think of myself as a writer and a journalist. I graduated from Brown University with a degree in English Literature so I'm not really sure if I was destined for business coverage exclusively. I think a good story is a good story whether it's about business or about high school or about anything else and I thought that was a good story.

: Alec, I've personally had the experience of teaching in some high-performing New Jersey high schools and privileged to teach both basic skills and the highest levels of advanced placement courses, computer science, calculus and so on. I'm only mentioning that because I have personally worked with a lot of students who are pretty close to the kind of students whom you're describing. Now, they may have more opportunities to be well-rounded with athletics and other extracurricular activities that SHS might not offer (although SHS does offer a lot of extracurriculars), but I did have the 'nerds' in my class and large Asian populations, representative of Bergen County where I live. My thoughts were that someone from a high-performing high school, not even a specialized school, might react to your book by thinking "What makes him feel that SHS is so special. We've got AP kids here, International Baccalaureate programs in this school, we have some of the top students in the state." Is it that Stuyvesant is more one-dimensional compared to these other high schools? What made you feel that Stuyvesant stood apart?

: The first thing to say about this is that I think that there are gifted students throughout school systems, not just at SHS. In fact I interviewed a lot of kids who did not get into SHS, you know, who took the entrance exam and fell short. I came away from those interviews convinced, without a doubt, that those students were just as capable, just as gifted, in many cases, as the kids who did get into SHS. The difference in many cases was that students who got into SHS spent a great deal of time and resources to prepare for that test, not everyone, but a number of students. In fact, I met many students who had spent years studying for this one test, literally years. In many cases they attended private academies or went to tutoring to gear up for this one test. There's a lot of pressure to take this all-or-nothing test, but, in fact, these students did do that and, in many cases, the students interviewed who did not get into SHS, by contrast had not studied at all or they'd studied a day or a week and naturally in many cases they didn't score as well. To me the entrance exam was more a function of whether students had actually prepared for the test. It's also a function of whether the middle schools prepared the students for the test with the kind of math and English that it requires. I think that's a variable that has to be looked at because there are clearly some schools that prepare students better than others.

MN: I agree, I completely agree and the irony for me, Alec, is that I have taught in one of these academies where students go after school until late in the evening and all day Saturday, for example, to prepare to get into the Bergen Academies as well as for SATs. And I think it's remarkable that these students are willing to give up the hours to do this. At the same time, it's expensive, so there is an economic factor here.

: Yes, I think that's true. In fact, one of the things that intrigued me about the story was the kind of undercurrent of this question about elitism in public education because SHS is a public school, it's a $150M building, one of the most expensive schools ever built, it's a privileged place to go, yet it's funded by taxpayer dollars and 3% of the students who take the test get in. So it's incredibly exclusive in that sense and so there's naturally a good question about, "Is it fair to teach students in this manner, to separate so-called gifted and talented students from the rest of the school population?" When you talk to educators and policy-makers about this, there's a good deal of debate and controversy because many of them say that by separating these high achievers from their regular schools they are depriving these school of the kinds of students that help to raise the performance of the whole school through peer pressure or peer role models. Further, what are you telling students who don't get into those schools like SHS. You're telling them "you're not good enough" when, in fact, that's not the case. And are you sending the wrong message at a time when these kids are so young and their potential is just beginning to emerge. I was interested in that question and it's explored in the book and it's also kind of pervasive in the story line. In coming up with a title for the book, A Class Apart, I was kind of playing off a couple of ideas. The idea that these students are considered the cream of the crop, that they're considered the best and the brightest and thus they've been separated into this one school. But, the title, A Class Apart, also touches on this other idea that they've been separated from other students and it creates this kind of different class if you will.

MN: Define class there, Alec. Are you talking about some socioeconomic or some psychological distinction?

: Well, it is partly economic in the sense that those who have the resources to send their kids to these tutoring and private academies have an advantage. But class in the sense that they're also creating separate classes, they're literally creating a different track for these students who get into SHS. Having said all that, there's no question that if you spend any time at SHS, you realize very quickly that what makes the school so special is in fact those students. That they are incredibly bright, incredibly driven, gifted and talented in so many ways. It's a special place in that sense. So I think it's the sort of question I struggle with. What's the best way to educate the gifted and talented. I think of students like Milo who is profiled in the book. I spent time with him, he was 10 years old, and he was already beginning to master precalculus and I didn't take precalculus until I think I was in my senior year at the age of 17 or 18. What is the best way to educate students like Milo? If you don't give him a different track to learn the kind of math that he's prepared for and you put him in his 5th grade class, which is where he was before, he would literally cry ever day he had to go to that 5th grade class where he was not being challenged. But he was thrilled though when he went to SHS and could begin to understand and learn precalculus and I think there has to be some way to address the needs for the gifted and talented to learn. You know they are largely ignored when it comes to policy debates about education in America today. Most of the emphasis focuses on students who are struggling and I think that's a good thing. We should be focused a lot on kids who need the most but I think there should be more attention paid to the kids who are on the fast track, educationally speaking, and who can really make a difference in the future when they'll be in positions of leadership.

MN: Now why did Milo choose SHS as opposed to just accelerating in another high-performing high school? Could it be that he might have been more accepted at a place like SHS where the kids all feel unique anyway?

: Well, Milo does fit in well at SHS because there are other prodigies like him, maybe not quite like him, but who are very advanced in many ways academically. So he clearly fits in and I don't think that would have been true at a lot of other high schools where students don't necessarily put a premium on academic achievement. But part of Milo's story is a matter of serendipity. He had a neighbor who was a babysitter when he was a little boy and that babysitter happened to be a math teacher at SHS later. That teacher suggested that Milo try taking some math classes at SHS given his incredible intellect and it just so happened that the math chairman at that time at SHS, Danny Jaye, was the kind of educator who didn't really care about the rules. You're not supposed to bring in a 10 year old who hasn't even taken the entrance exam. Danny Jaye, the math chairman, didn't care about that. He cared about the fact that there was a 10 year old who was ready for that kind of math.

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 ways to break the rules to get the students the kind of education they need.

To be continued...


Unknown said...

My experience has been that many schools may not offer the right kind of enrichment/advanced classes for the gifted students, at least at the middle school level. Or, there are significant hurdles to be overcome to recognize advanced ability.

My daughter had essentially finished Algebra 1 by the middle of 6th grade ( via an online course offered by a university). However, her 6th grade math teacher refused to recommend that she take Algebra 1 at school in the 7th grade, the reason being that my daughter was still making numerical mistakes in some of her 6th grade math work.

Luckily (for us), my kid got into a magnet school wherein they were more receptive to us, allowing her to take Algebra 1 and Geometry in the 7th grade. With such a schedule, she has since finished AP Calculus AB/BC with a 5 on the AP exam in the 10th grade.

Schools like SHS play an important role for the talented.


Dave Marain said...

I'm with you, tc...
If we could find a way to meet the needs of these youngsters in the 'mainstream', then there wouldn't be a need for these 'special' schools. But it's very hard to do while attempting to meet the needs of all the children.

On the other side, I recognize these kinds of schools are pressure cookers for adolescents, more than other high-performing schools. The competition, expectations of parents and the internal drive to succeed are extremely intense. This may increase the likelihood of releasing that pressure in unhealthy or even dangerous ways. On the whole, I do feel the positives outweigh the negatives. Alec has more to add to this. Stay tuned...

Jackie Ballarini said...

Dave & TC,

I agree that many schools do not offer the proper enrichment for gifted students. I also think that many don't worry about this as "they'll be alright no matter what we do". I find this very sad.

I'm looking forward to the rest of the interview.

mathmom said...

I think there is something to be said for "concentrating" a lot of gifted kids in one school. Some kids never meet an academic peer in their mainstream high school, and no matter how much enrichment and teacher attention you give them, there's nothing like being in a class with other kids "like" you. The very top kids in any HS, even a very good one, are unlikely to have that kind of experience, which is a shame.

The best thing about my college experience was being among so many other brilliant gifted students. I can definitely see the appeal of an environment like that in HS as well. I went to a good HS, had challenging classes, good teachers, etc. but it was nothing like the experience of being in classes where there were so many other gifted "kids" asking great questions, friends to discuss homework problems with as equals, etc.

I don't like the kind of "pressure cooker" environment that schools like SHS seem to have become, and I would never send my own child to one for that reason, but I wonder if a magnet HS for gifted kids could be possible without putting so much pressure on them.

Anonymous said...

i teach at a high-performing private school that enrolls some of the best students in a top-20 american city. so i've had my crack at some of the very same types of kids.

here's my argument for why it's a good idea to separate the gifted students, and i haven't seen this argument much before:

the majority of well-intentioned students (not the slackers) in a math (or probably any other) class look to the highest-performing students for their cues about how to behave. if the very top students are mixed in with average students, then the vibe they send out is one of "i don't have to do the work to succeed, so why work?" and that in turn makes the other students resentful that they have to work to succeed, so they don't work as hard. i think that to some extent, the 'average kids are deprived of seeing strong students' argument against separating the gifted kids has it backwards: the last thing we want our average kids to see is a bunch of geniuses who don't have to do any work and ace all the tests anyway.

Dave Marain said...

Excellent point, Poly! That has definitely been my experience as well. However, education policymakers who are NOT in the classroom draw very different conclusions based on theory, not reality.

Another point: Although I made a conscious effort to challenge my very best in AP or Honors by asking more profound questions in class and giving many extra credit challenges (outside of class) and bonus problems on tests, I know there were times when the top students were not being pushed to the max. This often occurred when I was explaining a concept or doing a derivation. The gifted student could see how to get from point A to point D mentally without having someone explain intermediate steps, whereas the rest could not skip those steps. The gifted student could also devise innovative ways of solving problems which I might never have thought of. That sounds like an argument for keeping them in the class so they can share these insights and the others would grow from seeing these. But you know that's not necessarily what happens. More likely they see these advanced conceptual methods and think something like: "Well that's nice, she's a genius, I'm not, I don't think like that, and if I'm not responsible for learning that way can we move on now..." Now of course I've had some exceptional students who had great work ethic and were role models for others. One was ranked #1 in our state back in the 80's based on his AHSME (AMC) score and other state math contests and he was truly unique. He was always the LAST to turn in his test (he would re-take it 2-3 times to check for accuracy!), he didn't have an arrogant bone in his body and was accepted by all of his peers. His explanations of some of his methods were brilliantly clear and often superior to mine, so I cannot say others didn't listen or benefit from him. I know I benefited from having him in my class! (Rob, if you're reading this, stop blushing!) Could he have developed his potential even further at a school like SHS? We'll never know. He certainly developed from being in a highly competitive university where, of course, he did fine. That would seem to suggest that it all works out in the end. But that may not be the case for other gifted students who lose interest early on and are not as well-adjusted as my student was. By the way, he is now a full professor of mathematics.

Alec will have much to say about these students in later parts of the interview. It's taking me forever to get through the transcription of his comments, but Part II should be ready shortly.

mathmom said...

That would seem to suggest that it all works out in the end. But that may not be the case for other gifted students who lose interest early on and are not as well-adjusted as my student was.

Indeed, other gifted students may become underachievers, drop out of school (between 18 and 25% gifted students drop out)or even become depressed and suicidal.

Never assume that "it all works out in the end". Sometimes it does, but sometimes it doesn't.

Dave Marain said...

I don't really believe it "all works out in the end." That's why I qualified it with 'seem to suggest that. The links you provided are enlightening. Although many of these youngsters have issues in addition to their giftedness, there's no doubt that their special abilities create special problems. Whenever one feels different from the norm, I believe there's a higher risk of depression and feelings of isolation. These youngsters need the support of those who truly understand their needs.

Anonymous said...

Having friends is a very important part of being human. SHS and Bronx Sci and Brooklyn Tech, these schools are there to provide *friends* for the kids too, social acceptance, someplace to feel *normal* and not a weird kid who doesn't need to study. Everyone deserves to work at their level and be challenged and feel that amazing rush when learning something new in an exciting way with friends in an accepting environment. It is not elitist to want for our children and ourselves what other children are getting in their local "normal" schools.

mathmom said...

The friendship point, I think, is a very important one.

If you have a high school with 1200 kids, if a kid is in the top 1%, there are maybe two other kids at or above that level in an entire class of 300 kids. If a kid is in the top 0.1% (still not in way-out-there prodigy territory, but one-in-a-thousand) there's probably no one else "like" him/her in the entire school.

When you cluster together the top kids from a much wider area, then these kids all have a much better chance of being among both academic peers, and kids with whom they have enough in common to form true friendships.

And they have a chance to work hard at something and succeed, which is far more satisfying than just getting 99s (or more!) without ever having to think.

Anonymous said...

I can't help wondering how much the difficulty of getting into Stuyvesant is just that it isn't big enough to hold all the kids who could benefit. Surely some of it comes down to chance, just as with Ivy League admissions? I don't think it's the case that any given student who's capable of working at that level *will* get in if they study enough, or *won't* get in if they don't study enough.

mathmom said...

What about Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science? Do you suppose that between the three of them, they do manage to admit at least the vast majority of students who really need a "gifted" high school?

I think you're right that some of the admission decision must come down to luck. But generally with the ivies, the thought is that a kid who is at that level will probably get into at least one, but it may be kind of random which one(s) it is. So, I'm wondering if that works with the 3 exam schools as well?

No admission process can be foolproof. No matter how many places, there has to be a cutoff, and if you had too many places and a substantially lower cutoff, that might result in kids being admitted who really weren't up to the level of the coursework and who would then suffer a great deal more stress trying to keep up.

It would be interesting to know what the total number of HS students in the feeder region is, and how many get into each of the exam schools. That would give us an idea what percent of kids get into these schools.