I am a product of the NYC public school system.
Throughout my elementary and junior high days, I was placed
in a “SP Program”, where my classmates and I had more challenging classes and
higher expectations put upon us.
For example, in junior high everyone was enrolled in one
elective, usually home economics where students (mostly girls) learned to bake
cookies and a metal working/carpentry/repair shop where students (mostly boys)
learned how to fix air conditioners.
Being in “SP”, my classmates were educated in law and we
created our own student court system complete
with lawyers, judges, and a jury composed of students throughout the different
classes. At 13 we were taught tort law, were expected to speak in front of the
whole court house. We didn’t only need to understand the definitions of the
standard courtroom objections, but actually use them when representing our
clients (students who were picked on by bullies, or had their power ranger
action figure stolen etc.) in front of a student judge.
I caught up with some of my friends from my junior high school
SP class and chatted about what our classmates were doing now. Everyone was a
professional or doing an advanced degree. Bankers, medical students, lawyers,
engineers; I was the token marketer.
Over 90% of the students from my elementary school went on
to their zoned junior high school, and about 80% of the junior high students
went on to Lincoln High School, the zoned high school.
Like most of the students in the SP program, we didn’t go to
their zoned school, but went on to a different high school with tighter
I spoke with friend with whom I studied in the same schools all
the way from kindergarten to junior high. He wasn’t with me in the SP program,
but we would always chat together in the cafeteria. He told me was one of the handful
students from outside the SP program to graduate high school without a GED. Out of a class of 150—only a handful of non-SP
According to Wikipedia, just one or two generations prior,
Lincoln High School graduated some of the world’s most incredible talents,
· Paul Berg, class of 1943, won Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1980
Karle, class of 1933, won Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1985
Kornberg, class of 1933, won Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1959
· Mel Brooks, actor, writer, director, and comedy producer
· Larry Namer,
class of 1966, Founder of E! Entertainment TV network
Miller, class of 1932, author and playwright
· Neil Sedaka,
class of 1956, singer
Heller, class of 1941, author of Catch-22
· Marv Albert,
class of 1959, television sportscaster
Today, about half of the students who enter Lincoln High
School ever leave with a diploma.
The same friends I ate lunch together with were arrested for
driving stolen cars, are addicted to drugs, have joined gangs or got pregnant
at an early age. What went wrong?
We have a crisis on our hands. But is it a crisis of
education or expectations?
Everyone in my junior high school was given roles and expectations
to live up to, based on how educational bureaucrats viewed their test scores.
Being in SP, my teachers expected me work harder and my
family was proud of me and nudged me to do better and work harder. I was
educated to think for a living and the people around me enforced that
In the post-industrial
economy (whatever that means), our system of education can no longer divide the
student population into domestics, factory workers and professions. We all need
to be trained to think for a living.
What can we do to give our students, colleagues, employees
and greater community a higher expectation to live up to?
One of my heroes, Mohamed Yunus, winner of the
Nobel Peace Prize for his paradigm shifting micro-credit bank whose
model has taken tens of millions out of poverty, said this in an
interview with Charlie Rose:
"In a way, human beings are like bonzai trees. You
cut the seed from the best tree and plant it in the flowerpot, and it
grows only way high. Human beings and poor people are like bonzai
people. There is nothing wrong with the seed. Only society disallows
them to grow. If the society allowed them the soil to grow, they would
be just as tall as anybody else. Poverty is created by the systems that