Saturday, January 24, 2009

Intel Science Talent Search – NYC Schools’ Collapse Continues, and the Silence at the Times, Daily News, and NY Post Is Deafening

On January 14, the Intel Science Talent Search, indisputably our country’s premier science project competition, announced its 300 semifinalists for 2008/2009. First, for the good news: NYC public high school garnered 24 of those coveted spots, including ten students from Stuyvesant High School, nine from Bronx High School of Science, two from Brooklyn Tech, and one each from Townsend Harris, Edward R. Murrow, and Forest Hills High School. Three students from private high schools also captured Semifinalist spots. Well-deserved congratulations to all 27 students and their respective teachers and mentors.

Now for the bad news. Once again, as has been the case every year since 2003 when Chancellor Joel Klein effectively began his “save the public schools” regime, the numbers for NYC are abysmal by the standards of the six years immediately preceding Mr. Klein and mayoral control. The six-year average number of NYC public school Intel Semifinalists from 1997-2002 was 45.83 students; for the six years from 2003-2008, just 24.33, a drop of 46.9%. If we look at just the last five years, from 2004-2008 (considering that Intel participants in 2003 had already started their projects before the Klein-inspired ravaging of our high schools), our “Education Mayor’s” policies have resulted in a five-year average of just 21.8 Semifinalists, a decline of 51.1% from the average of the preceding seven years.

The numbers are down everywhere you look. Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, and Staten Island Tech in the last six years are each substantially below their prior six-year averages. Combined, their Semifinalist numbers are off by 34.9% in 2003-2008 compared to 1997-2002, and by 39.2% if only the period 2004-2008 is included in Chancellor Klein’s database of shame.

Even more shameful is the impact Klein/Bloomberg have had on the balance of the city’s high schools, those not classified as science high schools. From 1997-2002, an average of 5.67 different schools per year chalked up an average of 18.2 Intel Semifinalists. From 2003-2008, an average of 3.3 different schools have claimed just 6.3 Semifinalists, a horrendous (and truly tragic) drop of 65.1% in the number of such award winners that constitutes nothing less than the virtual abandonment of high-level science research work outside of Stuyvesant and Bronx Science (the drop is 69.9% if 2003 is shifted into the pre-Klein column). In the last three years, non-science high schools have claimed 16,7%, 15.0%, and now just 12.5% of the City’s public high school Intel Semifinalist pool; in no year before that, back at least to 1997, was their share ever less than 25%.

One might think that all this bad news might be worthy of note in our local press, but one would apparently be thinking wrong. The NY Times barely bothered to write anything about Intel beyond a generic release (in its Business section, from a press release obtained over Business Wire!) that failed even to mention NYC schools or students, the Daily News took a complete pass on the Intel announcement, and the NY Post offered a miniscule article under the too-cute (and misleadingly feel good) title "Kids Are All Bright" that simply cited the NYC total number of Semifinalists (incorrectly stating 26 instead of 27) and the numbers from Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, as if those numbers standing alone, independent of their downward trend, were nevertheless some sort of DOE triumph. One year ago, a reporter at the Times actually expressed interest in a posting on this blog site about the “de-Klein” in the City’s Intel numbers, but no story resulted. This year, Intel Semifinalists in NYC were apparently not even worthy of mention in our “newspaper of record.”

Lest anyone think that the NYC Intel “de-Klein” is reflective of a Statewide phenomenon, think again. The six-year average number of Intel Semifinalists in NYS went from 155.8 (1997-2002) to 133.5 (2003-2008), a drop of 22.3 that almost exactly matches the 21.5 average Intel Semifinalist drop in NYC public high schools across those same two time periods.

How is it that a 50% decline in the number of Intel Semifinalists in NYC public schools, corresponding precisely to the effective impact years of the Bloomberg/Klein DOE, does not attract both news reporting and alarm? Where are our missing media on this story? Lacking another “happy news” press releases emanating from the DOE P.R. machine, did they simply fail to notice? Or is another DOE performance failure simply too hot to touch in this decision year for mayoral control? Whatever the case, it seems that our local MSM (mainstream media) have once again failed to inform the NYC public as to what mayoral control (and NCLB) has really meant to their schools.


Ceolaf said...

This is an interesting story.

Now, what does it mean?

First, let's be clear here: It does NOT mean that the city schools are getting worse. Nor does it even necessarily mean that exam schools are getting worse. It does not even necessarily mean that the elite science programs are getting worse.

So, with that out of the way, let's begin to figure out what it DOES mean.

1) We are only talking about a tiny elite groups of kids here, 300 in the entire country. I believe that less than 5000 kids in the ENTIRE COUNTRY even submit entries. In fact, more students get into Harvard or Yale every year than even enter the Intel Science Talent Search.

2) Most of the world students do on these kinds of science projects are not even done at school. Rather, they are done with outside mentors in outside labs. Yes, schools have a lot to do with this, as they can help arrange the kinds of programs that lead to these relationships, and schools can help students learn to write up their work in an appropriate form for the contest -- a really imporant aid for interested students. Understanding the decline in New York, therefore, should not focus on in school academic programs.

3) The number of semi-finalists has not grown in at least 20 years, and probably longer. However, the number of students has grown, and the number of exam schools outside New York has grown. There have been population shift towards others parts of the country, as well. All of thise would predict a rise in the number of semi-finalists elsewhere, coming at the expense of traditional powers, like Bronx and Stuy.

This one is especially a problem if NYC schools were already doing everything they could to help students with this, and others just began not that long ago -- which I believe actually is the case. This year's top school (an exam school in the DC suburbs) only had a small handful of semi-finalists 20 years ago, and has spent a long time learning how to have a strong program. Others around the country have also started to take this competition more seriously.

Let me put this one another way. Not that long ago, NYC had something like 1/6 of the semi-finalists, with more like 1/30 of the student population. Would you really think that that is sustainable in the long run?

4) There is a legitimate question about the degree to which schools should focus on the top students, how much on the average students, and how much on bottom students. The NCLB paradigm shift focus very strongly towards those near a pretty low bar. It is no surprise that elite and/or G&T programs might suffer in that kind of environment.

However, exam schools actually should be a free from this kind of effect, as every student in them are far above that low bar. And it does not explain why New York's lead in this contest has dropped, as NCLB is a national force. So, it's probably not an NCLB thing.

5) The big thing that Koss points out is the RAPID drop that does seem to coincide with the Bloomberg-Klein era. However, it also coincides with the Post-9/11 era. Could it be that labs around the NYC area are less likely to be open to having non-employees in, generally, since 9/11? That doesn't seem like a great theory to me, but given how small a group of students we are talking about here (i.e. contest entrants), we really should look for a more specific cause for this drop than Klein.

6) How many entrants did the NYC schools have, in the past? Has it dropped? Is that the cause? This contest does not recognize regular school work, so it's possble that fewer students have been interested. Or, fewered have had the resources to do this. Where was the actual decline? Fewer started projects? Fewer completed projects? Fewer actual entries? Lower quality entries? Or was it just more competition (i.e. point #3 above)?

7) Do the schools in question have other programs that they have been shifting students to? Are these schools able to point to other indicators that show that this elite level of students -- and I mean just a small slice of these already elite schools -- are actually being better served overall? Or, are other programs also showing a decline (e.g. debate teams)?

I'll stop here, but there are plenty of other questions to be raised here.

While it is true that papers have been quiet on these issues, the Koss'd alarm is not justified without far more investigation combined with far more informed thinking.

Anonymous said...

Ceolaf --

I agree that those are interesting questions -- and ones that a real reporter (if there were many of those left) would ask and report about.

I came upon this posting via another education blog and as a parent in an urban district also being treated to lots of reform-minded change that flows only from the top-down.

I believe there may well be a story here and it's one that may be seen in different forms in several "reforming" districts.

Steve Koss said...

To Ceolaf:

First, let’s be clear hear – nothing in my posting said that city schools are getting worse, that exam schools are getting worse, or that elite science programs are getting worse. I made no attempt to generalize from the Intel STS results other than to suggest that there has been a huge drop in NYC students’ achievement since mayoral control and Chancellor Klein arrived on the NYC public school scene. I did, however, intimate that this is just one further aspect of an overall decline in the city’s public education system resulting from Chancellor Klein’s (and NCLB’s) relentless emphasis on (and applied pressure on principals and teachers with regard to) standardized test results.

With regard to your specific comments as to “what it DOES mean:”

1. The number of Intel STS entrants runs from 1,500 to 1,700 annually. In 1997, there were 1,581 entrants; in 2007 and 2008, the numbers were 1,602 and 1,608, respectively. The fact that roughly 20% of them, 300 per year, are selected as Semifinalists does not in any way diminish the fact that NYC’s success rate has declined substantially. The magnitude of the numbers is irrelevant, since they have stayed relatively constant other than the NYC decline. In addition, this “elite” group is just one type of elite, a science-driven one. Does this group’s falloff in NYC signal similar declines among other “elites” in English arts, history, debate, the arts, etc.? I don’t know, but the trend makes me wonder.

2. The notion that schools are not the precipitators of science research projects or the motivators for most Intel projects is absurd. Schools whose students participate in Intel STS are most often the ones who begin with introductory 9th or 10th classes in science research principles and reading/writing articles in science journals. Those schools pave the way for students by creating interest, facilitating topic selection and finding mentors, and sustaining students’ involvement through direct encouragement and providing an environment of peer student support.

3. If population shifts mattered, NY State excluding NYC would not have been able to maintain its 1/3 share of the country’s Intel Semifinalists (the NYS/non-NYC average from 1997-2002 was 103.5; from 2003-2008, 103.0). Virtually the entire drop in NY State’s share of Semifinalists came from the decline in NYC’s public high schools. Furthermore, your argument about the school in the DC suburbs actually supports my point – it takes a long time to learn how to have a strong program. It takes a lot less time to lose that knowledge and focus, and nothing in the current NYC DOE incentive system rewards creating or sustaining it.

4. The problem with NCLB is not how it affects the best students themselves. The problem is the pressures that are now placed on principals and teachers to focus on standardized test results for the lowest performing students. Resources that are increasingly scarce are now directed at extra classes, tutoring, pull-outs, and the like for the lowest performers. Schools and teachers are rewarded and even given cash bonuses for raising the bottom end. Exam schools are not the issue, either, since the biggest percentage falloff has come from schools other than NYC’s specialized (science) high schools.

5. To say that I won’t even dignify with a comment the notion that 9/11 is the cause is already comment enough.

6. I don’t have statistics on the number of NYC Intel STS entrants, but even if there has been a decline, isn’t that in itself a cause for concern and worthy of exploration as to its cause? The cause is not more competition, as noted in #3 above, but otherwise more investigation is needed (and more explanation as to what and why).

7. This last question relates directly to the question as to where the NY Times, Daily News, and NY Post have been on this story. The numbers tell us something is going on that doesn’t seem positive on its face, but it needs a reporter with entrée to these schools to uncover possible explanations. Instead, we went from standard coverage last year to barely any mention whatsoever this year.

In closing, I certainly don’t dispute that more investigation is needed; that’s precisely the point of my blog posting (hence its title). More information from those who have the resources and opportunity to obtain it would be welcomed – we could all engage in “more informed thinking.” My hope is that someone whose job is to gather the appropriate information will do so and help lead us in that direction.

Anonymous said...

It takes at least one full time research teacher at a school to produce an intel candidate. That teacher must have close connections with research facilities in the area that are willing to sponsor a high school student. The necessary connections don't just pop up over night, but take years of development. These days there are fewer and fewer veteran science teachers due to early retirement buy-outs, high turnover, flight to the suburbs, focus on development of small schools and the DOE's generally adversarial relationship with experienced teachers. Students need teacher support, but there isn't the mutual comittment and loyalty between the DOE and science teacher that there once was.

quotidiana said...

Agree with Loren. The decline could have to do with turnover in the sciences at the "science" schools. This is the case at Bronx Sci, where my daughter is a student and in the relatively new Soc Sci ressearch program. To his credit, this year the teacher who supervises this research class had 3 soc sci finalists. But it's true that the process of finding mentors relies strongly on the teacher's relationships and connections.

Students do indeed work with an in-school mentor, and the preparation is not "largely done outside of school," as one post suggests. Students enroll in a research course, and in addition to learning about research methods in school, they work outside of school with a mentor on a research project and check in with their in-school mentor.

I'm sure some city schools do not offer a research class from which the students can launch their Intel project. In that case, entering the competition requires an extraordinary commitment from both student and teacher.

If "not getting worse" means the science departments are still there, then Ceolaf is correct.

However, classes are full to bursting, teacher turnover since 2003 has been extremely high (not only in the sciences), and the relationship with the principal is strained. There is a sense of low morale among the teachers.

So yes, things at this elite science program are getting worse by several measures.

Anonymous said...

Certainly an important factor to investigate, which may have contributed to or caused the decline in NY STS participation, are a series of alterations in gifted identification criteria in the NY Public schools. Didn't the schools recently replace predominantly objective, test-based criteria (Stanford-Binet testing) with a known weaker test (OLSAT)and potentially highly-biased subjective observation criteria?

This could be starving the science high schools of their most vital raw material: profoundly intellectually gifted youth.

Remember, for the purposes of the Intel Search, we're not concerned with unverifiable "multiple intelligences" or "everybody's gifted" notions. What's required is a totally objective, scientific selection of the most generally intelligent youth: those who score in the 140s or beyond on reputable IQ tests, like the Stanford-Binet or the WISC.