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Punishing Hard Work: Entrance to Specialty STEM High Schools Should be Based on Merit

Regional High School Science Bowl team from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology

One of the best Kurt Vonnegut short stories is “Harrison Bergeron,” which pictured a dystopian future in which social equality was achieved by handicapping the more intelligent, athletic, beautiful, or capable members of society. Ballerinas had to wear lead weights, and the most intellectually gifted had to wear headphones that played distracting noises every thirty seconds, carry three hundred pounds of weight strapped to their bodies, and wear distorting eyeglasses designed to give them headaches. It was only then that true equality could be achieved. Just like the Handicapper General in Vonnegut’s story, whose duty it was to impose handicaps so that no one would feel inferior to anyone else. Is America going down this same road? As my colleague Stephen Ezell and I argued in our new book Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage, America has “developed a perverse egalitarianism and anti-elitism that bodes ill, for it means that efforts to enable excellence—whether it’s private toll lanes or high schools for those gifted in math and science—are branded as antidemocratic and elitist.”

Math and science education is critical for our nation’s future. As we noted in our book, only 41 percent of students who enter STEM majors in higher education end up obtaining a STEM degree of some kind (certificate, associate’s, or bachelor’s) after six years. And in 2009, U.S. colleges awarded more undergraduate sports-exercise majors than electrical engineering majors.

One promising strategy for helping more American high school students graduate with expertise and interest in science is to expand high schools explicitly focused on STEM education. As ITIF wrote, there are only about one hundred of these innovative math and science high schools in the United States, but their graduates pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM fields in relatively greater numbers than graduates from traditional high schools. These elite math and science high schools – like Thomas Jefferson in Northern Virginia andin New York – do a great job of accepting young people who have the intelligence and capability of doing science and engineering at a high level and giving them a great education so that most can go on to get B.S. degrees or more.

But the existence of these kinds of schools raises a fundamental question that as a nation we need to answer: what is the purpose of these schools specifically, and the goal of STEM education generally? For many, STEM education is seen as means to enable broad scale social opportunity. Since STEM jobs pay more than non-STEM jobs, the thinking goes, it’s critical to enable disadvantaged groups to get the best STEM education possible so they can get the high paying STEM jobs. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, they want to “Ask not what you can do for STEM, but what STEM can do for you.” But if we are to ensure a prosperous future for all Americans, the right statement is “Ask not what STEM can do for you, but what you can do for STEM.” For STEM education is less about providing opportunity to individuals and much more about providing the fuel that can drive the future U.S. innovation economy. Making sure that the approximately 6 percent of the workforce who are in STEM jobs are the highest qualified and smartest is critical to driving U.S. economic growth and competitiveness. The racial, ethnic or sex composition of these workers is should be a secondary factor.

Unfortunately, the “what can STEM do for you” forces are making a concerted effort to lower the quality of STEM high schools in the name of equal opportunity.  Two cases in point: The New York Times wrote this past weekend of a complaint filed by civil rights groups challenging the admissions process at New York City’s elite public “Specialized High School.”

The groups argue that “The key pathways to opportunity in our society, such as those provided by the Specialized High Schools, must be open and accessible to good students from all communities. Ensuring all young people a fair shot to succeed is in everyone’s interest.” Likewise, a similar civil rights-based complaint was filed against Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson high school, complaining that there are not enough black and Hispanic students enrolled. In fact, they filed their complaint “because they felt longstanding concerns about diversity at Thomas Jefferson have been drowned out in recent months by a new worry: that the admissions process is failing to identify the brightest math and science students.”

One advocate says he doesn’t want racial quotas for Thomas Jefferson but “would like the school system to consider geographical quotas as a measure to boost diversity.”

Wow! We wouldn’t want one of the best math and science high schools in the nation to admit the brightest math and science students because this might not result in equal admission by race and ethnic group…

The reality is that the majority of young people who do well on the admission test in New York and on the other requirements for Thomas Jefferson are Asians. In Bronx High, for example, 63 percent of students are Asians, with fewer than 10 percent African American and Hispanic. At Thomas Jefferson there are similar numbers.

And one key reason for this is that these students work incredibly hard to do well in math and science. And yes, they probably work harder than a young person from an average Caucasian, Hispanic and African American family. So if we want fairness maybe we should pass a rule preventing Asian young people from working more than one hour a night on homework. Then they’d stop excelling and we’d get more equality. This would make Handicapper General proud.

The reality is that it’s time to stop looking to STEM education as a path to equality and recognize what high-quality, specialized STEM education is really for: ensuring future economic prosperity for the entire nation and all citizens who will benefit from high levels of innovation and globally competitive U.S. establishments. STEM is too important to America’s future to let social issues distort STEM education at selective, high quality specialty math and science high schools. The best students should be the ones who get in, regardless of race, ethnic group or sex.


Image Credit: Jefferson Lab News.

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