While I would prefer to be lazy and assume my readers know what everything I say refers to, unfortunately not everyone in the world who might read this blog lives in New Jersey. So here is the “selective” summer program in question.
Sparing the barrage of criticism that ought to come with their negligent use of this horrid relic from Web 1.0 and the poor web page design, their actual program applications ( .pdf) themselves (which require the applicant to go through the torture of launching the slow, disabling, burning pile of haphazard code that Adobe calls a “Document Reader” to view) are most alarming. There are three such “Governor’s Schools” open for application by current high school juniors: School of Engineering and Technology, School on the Environment, and School in the Sciences. While hosted by different universities and with differences in application procedure, the general flaws remain in each and every application. For the sake of familiarity I will attempt to illustrate my point with the application( .pdf) for the School in the Sciences, which I attempted to apply for upon being notified of its existence.
While the program itself appears fairly attractive with its no-cost 3-week residential program on campus (read: 3 weeks of free food), and reasonable selection criteria (high class rank, devotion to the pursuit of science/math, “outstanding” standardized test scores, extracurricular achievements/honors), the selection process itself has a prerequisite that would come to haunt many prospective applicants:
“To apply for a New Jersey Governor’s School program, a student must be nominated by his or her high school.”
Now why does this sound suspiciously like the prerequisite of another program notorious for skewed representation of students? There is a reason why decent prestigious summer programs almost never demand nominations as a prerequisite for applying. (TASP nominations only really mean that nominees get a free copy of the application in dead-tree format in the mail.)
It would not be much of an issue if a school could nominate as many students as they wanted; after all, if a student excels acedemically and mentally, there would be no reason to deny the student a school nomination. But wait!
“If the high school’s junior class contains at most 325 students, only one student may be nominated for each Governor’s School program. If the high school’s junior class has between 326 and 650 students, two students may be nominated for each Governor’s School program. Three students may be nominated only if the junior class comprises more than 650 students.”
Ouch. Tough luck for folks over here at AAST where over 9000 USAMO qualifiers (Note: hyperbole) came from in 2009. Only one person in the entire school of excellent students (you pretty much had to demonstrate aptitude on the level of Gauss to get in) can be nominated to the NJ Governor’s School in the Sciences due to their small class size. And then we have schools like West Side (no offense intended) who probably have trouble filling their two nomination slots with competent students. Of course, the actual selection from the pool of nominees is merit-based, to its credit (despite The Governor’s School boasting a 25% acceptance rate for nominees, ever single student in my high school who was nominated for any of the Governor’s Schools had always been accepted, as is bound to happen when there is fierce competition between outstanding students for the limited slots and every one eligible has credentials likely in the top 0.1 percent of the population. Ostensibly, the 75% of rejected nominees must therefore come from the less-than-prodigous communities.)
Aside from the fact that adolescent Einsteins might not even be nominated while a fairly average student might receive a nomination just for being in a low-tier high school, there is also the issue of actually securing the nomination within the school itself if many students compete for this scarce resource. But who actually nominates the students? Who decides between the pool of students and say “We should nominate him/her!”? Do math and science department heads confer to select the best of the best? Does the school guidance office call on its counselors to evaluate the students on a case-by-case basis? Do teachers recommend students directly and their testimony weighed? The application states that “nominating committee[s]” in each high school choose the students to be nominated, but do such mythical congregations actually exist?
Of course not. In the bureaucratic scheme of a high school administration, creating such committees would take tremendous effort (and dead trees), thus often a much simpler, albeit much worse, shortcut is taken. With this method, one and only person makes the decision, just to avoid the troubles associated with a hierarchical decision-making method. Who might it be?
Why this choice of personnel is obvious and why it is simply putrid should become evident in a moment. A school, in principle, should nominate students based on individual merit. The people who know the students best are therefore most qualified to make the choices. But a high school principal does not personally know the students whom he must manage (aside from the ones who constantly pop into their offices for compulsory visits, who would most likely not be considered for nomination to such Governor’s Schools), and so he (assumed to be male WOLOG) is forced to pick one or two students out of maybe tens of people who sent in their applications to the school, none of whom he is familiar with to any meaningful degree.
This, of course, leads to several very disturbing possibilities.
1. He chooses the students with the highest GPAs, completely voiding the entire point of a nomination and reducing it to a “pick the biggest number” problem that requires no substantial intellectual capacity to carry out.
2. He chooses the students representing minorities over the rest, which would turn it into a classical scenario of “affirmative action ruins child’s life”. (On a separate note, Asian-Americans are not considered a “minority” in affirmative-action decisions whereas African-Americans are. This is an intriguing definition, considering that African-Americans comprise a greater proportion of the population than Asian-Americans in every single state of the US except Vermont; so either the guy who defined “minority” sucks at math, or he just lived in Vermont. Or he just hates Asians very, very much.)
In any case, it remains an issue that the principal has no reliable way of nominating the “best” candidate for this summer program with the limited information and contact he has had with the students, and quite often they resort to options 1 and 2 without much thought. There has been an extreme bias towards female students in NJSP and NJGS nominations within my own school district over the last few years, even as far as to nominate relatively unnotable students over other active and promising candidates due to sex, but that is a topic for another day.
The million-dollar question remains; why is this restriction even in place? Why must this decidedly unfair and illogical step of nomination be present in the application process for what is supposed to be a summer program for gifted students? Should the students not be selected based on personal achievement and not the fortune of being nominated in an unreliable and probabilistic process? The governor’s school is meant to be a summer program for talented and outstanding students receiving admission based on merit, NOT a lottery to be played by the unfortunate who happened to attend a high-tier school. By all means, erase it. Remove it. Eradicate any traces of its existence. Recognition is not the loot from a lucky roll of dice: it is a trophy earned by the distinguished and exceptional, and nothing ought to take away the right of students to be recognized for their merits.