NYC HS Success in Intel STS Continues Its Post-2002 "De-Klein"

One of the more disturbing educational trends in NYC public schools under Bloomberg/Klein has been the precipitous “de-Klein” in the city’s success in the Intel Science Talent Search (STS), the high school science fair equivalent of the World Cup. Last week’s announcement by STS of its three hundred 2010/2011 Semifinalists brought the unhappy news that NYC public schools’ share of that winners’ pool had shrunk yet again, this year to a dispiriting, all-time low of just fourteen students representing a mere three schools: eight from Bronx Science, five from Stuyvesant, and one from Townsend Harris. The table below illustrates clearly this post-2002, downward trend (click on the graph to enlarge it).

Founded as the Westinghouse STS in 1941, this national science competition was for decades so outrageously “owned” by NYC public schools that local schools like Cardozo, Midwood, and Francis Lewis could each routinely rake in double-figure counts among the STS’s annual 300 Semifinalists. As recently as 1988, the NY Times could headline its story, “122 New Yorkers Are Chosen in Science Talent Search.” That wasn’t 122 NY State students; that was 122 NYC students! In addition to Stuyvesant (47 Semifinalists) and Bronx Science (20), city high schools represented in the 1988 winner’s circle included Cardozo (11), Francis Lewis (6), Erasmus Hall (2), and James Madison (2), Aviation, John Adams, Grover Cleveland, John F. Kennedy, W.C. Bryant, LaGuardia H.s. of Music and Art, and Herbert H. Lehman (1 each).

Although high schools around the U.S. gradually caught up, a relatively stable pattern had established itself by the late 1990s; in the six years from 1997 to 2002, NYC public schools still averaged 46 Semifinalists annually. However, in the eight Klein-led years 2003 to 2010, that number suddenly dropped drastically, averaging just 22 for the entire period. In the most four years 2007 – 2010, as the full fruits of the mayoral control era are now being reaped by the latest generation of high schoolers educated under Klein’s leadership, that average has plummeted to just 18. During those same periods, the number of public high schools represented each year by Semifinalists dropped from nine (1997 – 2002) to about 5.5 (2003 – 2010), and to just over four in the most recent four years.

Supporters of mayoral control might offer counterarguments, such as an increase in the number of STS participants nationally. Indeed, there has been a modest 6.5% increase, from a 1,550 average per year (1997 – 2002) to a 1,650 average since 2003. Not nearly enough to explain NYC public schools’ fall from pre-eminence. It is worth noting that NYC private schools have held a fairly steady rate of Semifinalist honors, averaging 6.5 annually in the six years before 2003 and 5.75 since. Additionally, the impressive non-NYC NYS share has also held fairly steady at 98 Semifinalists per year since 2003 compared to 103 per year from 1997 to 2002. (Nearly all of the full NYS’s 19% decline in Intel STS Semifinalist success in the past decade and a half is directly attributable to just one source: NYC public schools.)

What HAS changed is the participation levels of NYC schools and students, as shown in the accompanying table. Data from Intel STS recently made available to me by the NY Post’s Yoav Gonen tells that story in unmistakable terms. From 1997 through 2002, NYC public schools averaged 424 Intel STS student submissions annually. From 2003 through 2010, that number dropped to 364, and in the past four years (2007 – 2010) just 277 per year, a startling drop of almost 35% from the pre-Bloomberg/Klein years.

What also HAS changed is NYC students’ success rate among those who participated, as shown in the accompanying table. While Stuyvesant and Bronx Science have nearly maintained their pre-2002 success rate (12% of their combined project submitters became Semifinalists in 2007-2010, compared to 14% from 1997-2002), the city as a whole has tumbled from a 10.8% (1997 – 2002) average success rate in projects being selected as Semifinalists to 6.6% in the most recent four years. Thus, it appears that NYC public schools are not only submitting fewer projects, but those entered are being judged of somewhat lesser merit.

This collapse in city students’ involvement and overall success rate corresponds indisputably with the advent of mayoral control and the accession to the schools’ chancellorship position by Joel Klein. Could it be that the Klein-led, test-driven emphasis on the pre-high school NYS Math and ELA exams has minimized science instruction, or dumbed it down, or led students to believe it’s not interesting or important? Or could it be a budgetary issue, a lack of funding or facilities? Or that high school principals get no bonus or performance credit for such “extracurriculars” on their school report cards? Or that the types of senior teachers willing and able to organize school-level science research programs have left the system, or are no longer sufficiently incentivized, or are too distracted by the relentless emphasis on school report card metrics? Or that with all the new small schools, there are fewer schools with the resources to create and supervise research-driven science curricula?

Why have schools whose students were formerly actively involved with Westinghouse/Intel simply disappeared from participation: Bayside, Cardozo, Fort Hamilton, John Dewey, Leon Goldstein, John Bowne, William Bryant, Newtown, Susan Wagner, Tottenville? Why have other elite, selective schools like Hunter HS, Brooklyn Tech, and Stuyvesant seen precipitous drops in the number of students participating?

Why, under the Bloomberg/Klein/Black program to elevate NYC schools’ performance, have NYC public schools virtually fallen off the map of the nation’s premier science talent competition? Once the mecca of high school science achievement, NYC public schools are now a mere shell of its former science fair self. Under mayoral control, the fall has been devastating, and given Cathie Black’s background, a turnaround seems unlikely. Science education, especially at the elite performance level, will likely just continue to be one of those unfortunate “Sophie’s choice” victims.

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