KAMSC Closing Down?
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The Kalamazoo Area Mathematics and Science Center (KAMSC) is a school in Kalamazoo which "gifted" students who attend high schools in the surrounding communities can come to for half of each school day in order to receive a better education in the fields of (you guessed it) mathematics and science.
This seems like a good idea, right? If the "smart kids" who want to learn a lot about math and science can go to KAMSC and do so, what's wrong with that? Well, nothing is wrong with it for them. However, KAMSC has nowhere near enough seats for every student in its district who could benefit from its programs. It doesn't even have anywhere near enough seats for every student who wants to attend it.
In order for me to write the rest of this article, I am going to need to talk about students with different levels of intelligence, interest, and aptitude for learning, so let's get a few things straight and a few terms defined. First of all, we are going to have to acknowledge that some kids are better students than others. (That might sound like common sense to you, but in many public schools, the notion is absolutely verboten.) This notion does not at all mean that those kids who are better students are better people, but it simply cannot be denied that some people know more facts than others, learn new things more easily than others, are more interested in learning than others, see connections more quickly than others, and study harder than others. And of course math and science are not the only important subjects in the world, nor are they the only indicators of "intelligence". But, since this article is about the math and science center, I will primarily focus on those subjects in it. So that I will not have to repeat them later, let's establish a few definitions. In this article, when I refer to "below average" students, I am referring to those students whose in-class behavior and academic performance are around the lower 50% of students in an average class. By "average and above average" students, I am referring to students who typically do not have behavioral problems, and whose academic performance is generally between that of 50 and 85 percent of a typical class. Finally, by "highly advanced," I mean those students who are in the top 15% of all students in the class, academically speaking.
If KAMSC admitted only the most qualified students - those who were the "best" in the district (by some objective measure) at mathematics and science, this could theoretically result in a somewhat workable situation. In this situation, all of the highly advanced students, and the upper-level "above average" students would attend KAMSC, where they would receive a wonderful, high-level education in the subjects taught there. Then, the science and math teachers in the public high schools would have a "smooth" continuum of students to work with - starting with the above-average students who didn't quite make the KAMSC cut-off, and ranging on downward.
In actuality though, KAMSC's admissions process appears to "pick and choose" students from the pool of those who are above-average or higher, with the bulk of selections coming from the middle to upper ranges of the "above average" group. This may seem to some people more fair than picking only "the best" students, particularly at first glance. It obviously allows for a wider variety of students to attend KAMSC than would occur if only the top students were admitted. I could certainly speculate, but I don't know what types and severities of problems (if any) this policy causes for the students who attend KAMSC, since I did not do so. However, I am intimately familiar with the problems that it causes for the students attending the science classes in the regular public schools.
I attended Kalamazoo Central High School, part of the Kalamazoo Public School District. Although I only have direct experience with this one school in this one district, I suspect that much of what I observed there applies to other schools and other districts that send students to KAMSC. One of those things that I observed is that it is extremely hard to teach a science class when the set of students which KAMSC admits has been removed from that class. Instead of a "smooth curve" starting at the highly advanced students and going down from there (as in the case where no students from the school attended KAMSC), or even the above-described smooth curve which would result if KAMSC only admitted the "best" students, teachers of these classes are left with many below-average students (who often are disinterested in school, not motivated to learn, have behavioral and/or psychological problems, are disruptive in class, and so on), a fair amount of students in the "average" range (who tend not to cause behavioral problems in class, but might not be very interested in or previously knowledgeable about the subject matter), and a couple of extremely bright students, but very, very few moderately-above average students. This can lead to several problems, since a large group of moderately-above average students typically forms the "core" of a good class.
This is a big problem, because now, to whom does the teacher tailor the class? Should the teacher cater to the educational needs of the two extremely advanced students, which would confuse the above-average students, and completely ignore the rest of (and the majority of) the class? That's not very fair. Should the teacher instead tailor the class to the four or five above-average students, which would bore the exceptional students somewhat, and still leave the majority of the class in the dust? That doesn't sound very good either. So maybe the teacher should tailor the class toward the below-average students, since there are far more of them in the class than anyone else. Well, that may be more fair to the majority of the students in the class, but it really sucks for the moderately and highly talented and motivated students in the class who would actually like to learn the material that the class was supposed to teach.
This lack of the mid-range and above-average students actually harms the teaching of the class in two distinct ways. First, the mid- to upper-range students in a class, if present, provide a good basic target for a teacher to aim the class toward. If there is a moderate or large number of these students, as there would have been at KCHS had KAMSC not been in the picture, then this plan reaps immediate benefits as the relatively large number of students toward whom the class is specifically targeted can obtain the maximum benefit from the class. Also, when a teacher is teaching a class at a "moderate" level, it is then possible to shift downward or upward momentarily during the class in order to provide extra assistance to some below-average students that are struggling with or losing their grip on the material, and also to provide extra information and knowledge to the higher-level students who are interested in and can easily understand this additional material. Second, a large group of moderately talented students who are moderately interested in the class (or at least interested in getting a good grade in the class) can often inspire some of the lower-end students in the class to learn and achieve at a higher level than they might otherwise have. The peer-pressure created by a large group of interested students no doubt helps to encourage some of the less interested students to engage the class material, and in many cases the lower-end students tend to relate to the average students a bit better than they might relate to the one or two science nerds in a class (and vice-versa).
So, the science education prospects at KCHS may currently be rather bleak. But, with KAMSC in existence, at least some students can get a good math and science education, which is better than nobody getting one. But this obviously doesn't help those students who are stuck in the regular public schools. Would the science education in the public schools improve if KAMSC were no longer in existence? I believe it would, between the improved pool of students, and the motivation that would return for some science teachers who currently lack it since they believe that "all the smart/interested kids go to KAMSC anyway." (Of course not all science teachers believe this.) But, would the level of science education in the public schools rise to the level currently offered at KAMSC? In certain classes with certain teachers, it may approach it. In general though, I highly doubt that it would. It's true - I still find it irritating that I received a substandard education in many respects while others in the same school district received a wonderful one. Even so, the big picture must be seen - it is certainly better for some students to have an opportunity to receive a good education than for everyone to receive a mediocre one. So when all is said and done, would we be better off without KAMSC? Many people think so and many people think not. I, however, simply do not know. As with many things, it's not particularly good the way it is now, but it might not be any better the other way.