Although Some Cynics Call Them Elitist, Math And Science Magnet Schools Flourish

Two decades after the bold concept of these specialized high schools was hatched, they are demonstrating their worth By now, the gruesome statistics have made it clear that primary and secondary science and math education in the United States is in bad shape, with youngsters manifesting what many officials consider an ominous combination of ineptitude and disinterest: * The nation ranks 14th among developed countries in terms of students' ability to perform advanced algebra. * Korean school

May 11, 1992
Susan L-J Dickinson
Two decades after the bold concept of these specialized high schools was hatched, they are demonstrating their worth
By now, the gruesome statistics have made it clear that primary and secondary science and math education in the United States is in bad shape, with youngsters manifesting what many officials consider an ominous combination of ineptitude and disinterest:

* The nation ranks 14th among developed countries in terms of students' ability to perform advanced algebra.

* Korean schoolchildren solve complex math problems four times faster than do U.S. pupils.

* A survey of college-bound U.S. high school students revealed that a mere 1 percent were planning to major in math or the physical sciences.

* Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation, in a controversial report, has predicted that within two decades the U.S. will be suffering a shortage of more than 600,000 scientists.

Such statistics have convinced Massachusetts state senator Arthur E. Chase that--especially in a state known for its high concentration of technology-based industry--something must be done to alter the bleak predictions for the scientific future of the U.S. His response will take shape in September with the opening of the Massachusetts Academy of Mathematics and Science, a state-funded public high school that will be located on the grounds of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Chase has designed this magnet school with the help of a wide range of concerned educational groups, and, with unanimous approval by the state board of education in hand, he is confident that the bill establishing the school will pass the state legislature in June and the school can open in September.

A 1990 study conducted by the North Carolina School of Science and Math (NCSSM) on the occasion of its 10th anniversary covered some 900 alumni from the school's first eight classes (1982-1989), and revealed the following statistics:

* 99 percent of NCSSM students attended or were attending four-year colleges, vs. 58 percent of all students nationally and 39 percent in the state of North Carolina.

* 64 percent of NCSSM students majored in science, math, or technology, as compared with the national average of 40 percent of students in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Perhaps more significant were the results on women and minorities: 61 percent of NCSSM alumnae and 70 percent of NCSSM minority alumni reported majoring in science, technology, or mathematics, vs. 26 percent and 29 percent of the top 10 percent of students nationally, respectively.

* 77 percent of NCSSM alumni either plan to pursue or are pursuing graduate degrees, more than double the 38 percent national figure.

* Of special interest to the taxpayers of North Carolina, the study determined that two-thirds of NCSSM graduates attended college in North Carolina, and that more than half of the respondents who were employed full-time worked in their home state.

A less statistically oriented survey conducted by the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) paints a similar picture. One hundred thirty-two members of IMSA's graduating class of 1990 were compared to 77 seniors enrolled in summer math and science programs for academically talented students. Both groups were surveyed as college freshmen, and the results revealed that:

* More IMSA alumni either have declared or intend to declare majors in science, mathematics, and engineering.

* More IMSA alumni either have declared or intend to declare double majors, often combining science and math with art, humanities, or social science.

Overall, Shelagh Gallagher, former director of assessment and research at IMSA, reports that "IMSA students were significantly more likely to be independent thinkers, tolerate ambiguity, look at multiple perspectives, and accept the fact that not all questions have absolute answers"--many of the personality traits that are associated with good scientists.

--S.L-J D.

Although this program incorporates several facets of other, established "magnet" science high schools across the country--such as the Bronx High School of Science in New York and the Durham-based North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM)--Chase believes that his plan, based on a public-private partnership with a large dose of community outreach built in, may be the best yet.

"This is different and unique," says Chase. "We're going to establish this program at a fraction of the cost that most other states have spent, and we're getting more for our buck." Chase says the school will cost taxpayers roughly the same amount per student as other Massachusetts public schools and about half of what some magnet schools cost.

High costs, up to three times as much as those involved in running regular public schools, are one of a number of criticisms being leveled against magnet schools; others are that they are unnecessary for the type of students they are targeting and that they are elitist and foster elitist attitudes.

Complaints of high cost and elitism notwithstanding, magnet high schools--so called because they draw the most talented students from a broad geographical area--are enjoying a growing popularity. Thirty-six public schools currently belong to the National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools of Mathematics, Science, & Technology, and two more have applied for membership already this year. And an increasing amount of statistical evidence supports the schools' advo-cates' contentions that the magnet programs are a fair, successful, and, arguably, cost-effective means to excite the most talented kids about--and give them a solid basic training in--the sciences (see accompanying story).

Added to that are testimonials from students who have graduated from the schools. "It was more special than just having the opportunity to take advanced courses," recalls Adam Falk, a 1983 alumnus of NCSSM who received his Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University and is currently a postdoc at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. "It was the teachers they hired, the fact that they put them with talented students, and allowed us to find our own way to learn."

The programs across the country come in a variety of formats and sizes. Those belonging to the consortium range in size from 60 to 4,000 students and consist of a panoply of residential schools; day schools; two-year, four-year, full- day, and half-day programs; and those located on their own campus vs. those operating within a "normal" high school. But their similarities are more numerous--and distinctive-- than their differences.

Each of them is publicly funded by the state or a local school district. Each has rigorous admission standards; at the Science Academy of Austin, Texas, for instance, director Suzanne Sinkin-Morris looks at eighth-grade test results, report cards, two teacher recommendations, and the results of the academy math admissions test before granting an interview with applicants for the ninth-grade class.

But, most important, all of the high schools steep their students in science and math--all the while maintaining a normal offering of courses in the arts, humanities, and foreign languages. Austin, for example, gives the kids a two-hour bloc of science every day in ninth and 10th grade, and then requires two more years of less-intensive science, four years of math, and some computer science. And this year the North Carolina School of Science and Math is offering its 550 juniors and seniors a total of 22 math, 16 biology, nine chemistry, and nine physics courses from which to choose.

These schools not only require more science, but also teach it in a more creative, interactive way than do most traditional programs, their advocates say. Many classes are small, and teachers are able to conduct them in seminar, rather than lecture, style.

Teachers at several of the schools report that the independent research projects are by far the most popular science courses. At NCSSM, for instance, students spend an entire year reading about and defining a problem of their choice, conducting experiments, and then writing up and presenting their results.

One of NCSSM biology teacher Marilyn Link's current students is working with a local power plant to address the problem of biofouling--bacteria in the river water that block and corrode the pipes of the plant. Researching at the difficult organic-inorganic interface, he is growing bacteria on metal plates, and then adding a variety of enzymes to the water to see if any will help kill the bacteria.

A national list of student's proj-ects from the consortium schools includes the following titles: "Enzymatic Reductions: Inductions of Chirality at a Remote Site," "Effect of Spin Reduction on the Launch Angle That Maximizes Range of a Baseball," "New York State Woman Suffrage Amendment (1915, 1917): A Statistical Analysis of Voting Behavior," and "The Relationship Between Stress Level and the Tendency to Abuse Alcohol Among Medical Students."

One of NCSSM alumnus Falk's most vivid memories of high school was of a mentorship program that placed students in university and industrial laboratories located in the Research Triangle Park area near Durham. He says his experience--which, he claims, he didn't get as much out of as others did--taught him a fundamental fact about being a scientist.

"You really didn't know what kind of situation you would get into," he recalls. "But the school's attitude was to take the chance and see if it would work out, rather than worrying up front about everything being planned perfectly."

Of course, high school students involved in projects such as these do not represent the typical teenage science student. "Kids who are willing to leave home for a really rigorous schedule that potentially goes from 8 A.M. to well past 11 P.M. are obviously pretty self-motivated," says NCSSM's Link. And herein lies one of the main criticisms of the magnet schools: Their student body represents the high schoolers who are sufficiently talented and motivated to succeed anywhere. "Sometimes it is harder to see progress here, and to know if it is your influence or these kids would have done it, anyway," Link acknowledges.

Such concerns have been voiced by a wide range of interested parties--from teachers and parents to community leaders and legislators--who worry that children of certain ethnic or socioeconomic groups will be excluded from such opportunities. Another bone of contention is the expense involved. Though the variety of program configurations translate into great disparities in cost, there is no disputing that more tax dollars are spent educating a child in a magnet school than are spent on one enrolled in a normal public school.

The cost per student at NCSSM, for example, is currently $13,225, vs. $4,517 in Durham's public schools. And Sinkin- Morris reports that the Austin school board budgets an extra $1 million for her to run the Science Academy for 620 students.

Finally, and perhaps most damaging, are the charges of elitism that are frequently leveled against the magnet schools. There are many facets to this issue: the fact that a great source of motivation--for both teachers and other students--is removed from schools when the highest achievers are taken away; the worry that it is a system that sends a message of superiority to the talented students; and the concern that the magnet schools will not produce well- rounded individuals.

Efforts have been made by the magnet schools to address claims of elitism and avoid possible problems along those lines through the institution of outreach programs, which come in a variety of forms. The Bronx High School of Science, Kalamazoo Area Mathematics and Science Center, Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, and the Science Academy of Austin are just a few of the schools that sponsor workshops to train public school teachers from elementary through high school and help them design and implement curriculum changes within their own schools.

Several schools also involve their students in the outreach goals: Austin students, for instance, conduct a "Physics Circus" at local elementary schools to expose young students to fun physics principles. For Sinkin-Morris, not only is this program educational for her own students, but also she hopes that it will help her increase minority enrollment in Austin's Science Academy: The 18 percent black population at the magnet school is representative of the 20 percent black population throughout the Austin public school system, but she is able to report only a 19 percent Hispanic population, contrasting sharply with the 34 percent district-wide statistic. "The biggest problem is kids not wanting to leave their peer group," she says. "And many of the kids hate science by the eighth grade, so the damage has already been done." She hopes that outreach programs will help to counteract this problem.

With the benefit of nine years' perspective, Falk portrays the elitism issue in a different light. He says that, because of peer pressure, he had never felt comfortable exhibiting his talent or interest before arriving at NCSSM. "A lot of students come from situations where it isn't very cool to be smart or to be interested in science," he says. "I went to a very small high school; for 10 years I had been the nerd, and it was nice not to stand out in that way anymore. I didn't get the impression that people [at NCSSM] felt that they were better than other students. Rather, they were very happy to be in an environment where they could spread their wings a little."

Link agrees. "These kids all have at least 10 years in school with a representative group of their peers, and have already developed some pretty set values of what other kids are like along the way," she says. "All they are is two years early in being with kids who are no longer that average bell curve."

Moreover, she adds, "we've got some kids who may never have had to take notes before, but are struggling here for the first time in their lives. I think there is some value in doing that at their current age. It gives them a reality check."

In Massachusetts, Chase and his staff have considered the issues raised in this national debate over magnet schools, and believe that they have designed a program that will encounter little difficulty when put to a vote by the Massachusetts legislature in June. Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a private college, will design and run the program for a per-student charge of "approximately the same average cost--$6,000--that Massachusetts spends on every public school student," according to Chase.

WPI will use some of these monies to recruit public school teachers to tutor and team-teach--along with the WPI professors, who will be the permanent teachers at the academy--for one to two years, during which time they will be required to take advanced science and math courses at WPI themselves. At the end of their stints, the teachers will be sent back to their own schools. The plan also calls for academy students to tutor children at middle schools and neighborhood centers, in an attempt to attract minorities and women to the field of science.

"We're counteracting charges of elitism and cost and, by forming a private-public partnership, are getting an awful lot for very little," Chase says. "One of our hopes is that the program could be picked up at other universities in the state."

Susan L.J. Dickinson is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.