In his State of the Union address, President Obama called for further Federal efforts to help states and localities “to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy... and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering and math...”
Mr. Obama was hardly the first President to make such a proposal.
Indeed, it was shortly after I entered the first grade at Enon Elementary School that the Federal government began sending substantial aid to the public schools. In that year, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first human-made satellite, into orbit.
The primitive, basketball-sized satellite shocked America. Suddenly, we realized that we were in a Space Race, and that we were behind our potent rivals in the East.
For the next twelve years – almost exactly the period of my public school experience – America’s schools focused on improving education, particularly in the areas of science and mathematics. At the end of that time, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon, signaling our victory in the Space Race.
In the meanwhile, we had educated a generation of young people – including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and other bright young men and women who were to propel us into an unforeseen, but remarkable, future.
Since 1969, America’s schools have largely lost their way. The clear, focused mission of the Space Race gave way to the competition of an enormous variety of special interests, each attempting to impose its agenda upon public education. In the process, a great diffusion of energy – and an enormous waste of human and financial resources – replaced the clarity which had characterized education in the ‘60s.
It would be difficult to imagine that, in today’s polarized politics, the United States could regain that sort of focus – at least, from the top down. But mechanisms exist for rapid progress on a local and regional front, if only Chesterfielders – and those from their neighboring localities – could grasp the moment to build for a better tomorrow.
In coming weeks, I will propose a series of innovations which could enable our county – and our region – to become leaders in public education. I will begin with one which could, within a few years, put us on the map.
Chesterfield County should – in partnership with neighboring school divisions – create a new Governor’s School for Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology. It should do this by combining the best ideas from Virginia’s existing Governor’s Schools with the recognition that - at the highest levels in these disciplines – the brightest students tend reach intellectual maturity earlier than those in other areas.
At present, Virginia’s full-time governor’s schools are high schools, serving exceptional students of traditional high-school age.
In our region, the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School was created with a focus upon government and international studies, though it has gradually morphed into a school for outstanding students in all disciplines.
The Appomattox Regional Governor’s Schools was created for students in two fields – technology and the arts. It remains to be seen whether ARGS, a very new school, will be better able to retain its initial focus than has Maggie Walker.
But whatever the future of these two schools, neither was designed to deal exclusively with students of exceptional promise in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – the disciplines included in the inevitable educational acronym “STEM”.
A new school should do exactly that.
Like other governor’s schools, a Richmond-area STEM school should be small, focused and selective. Unlike them, however, it should be designed to attract and serve not merely the gifted, but the truly exceptional. In order to do this, it would have to be organized upon somewhat different principles.
To begin with, a STEM governor’s school should be open to students as young as ten or eleven. Precocity in areas such as mathematics and science often appears very early – and geniuses in these fields often achieve their greatest successes before their thirtieth birthdays.
A traditional governor’s school, which operates on the enrichment model of giftedness, assumes that its students will graduate at around eighteen and then go on to college.
Such a model, while useful in some fields, would simply waste many of the most productive years in the lives of math and science whiz-kids.
A STEM governor’s school should be based on the widely-recognized alternative model of giftedness – the acceleration model. It should accept students as soon as they begin to demonstrate extraordinary ability; help them move forward as quickly as their abilities, interests and maturity allow; and send them off to university as soon as they are ready.
The success of such a school would be measured – not in graduating a class of brilliant eighteen-year-olds – but in placing its students in the world’s best universities at ages as young as fourteen.
I’ll pick up this exciting theme next week. Please stay tuned...