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CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein Announces Plan to Improve American Students’ Math & Science Performance

By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

High school students nationwide got a C-minus on their universal report card when the recent Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) revealed that they lag far behind their international counterparts in math and science performance. The study—which placed US high school seniors, including our most “advanced” scholars, at the bottom of the international barrel—sounded a penetrating wake-up call to our nation’s educators.

CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein has taken our domestic educational failure to heart, becoming an eloquent spokesperson for improved math, science, technology and engineering education in our schools, combined with career development for the best and brightest. “We are losing our competitive edge largely because we are not getting as many people trained in these disciplines at the highest level,” decries Goldstein when interviewed in his book-lined office atop CUNY’s east side administrative complex. Goldstein, who holds a doctorate in mathematical statistics and has co-authored three books on statistical analysis, has offered up an innovative proposal to reverse American students’ relentless global decline in the skills needed to sustain our nation as a world power. In a nutshell, Goldstein recommends identifying talented math and science students at a young age (perhaps as early as sixth grade) and nurturing them in their indigenous home and school environments. Once accepted into college (“they’d be invited into CUNY’s honors college” among others), they’d be simultaneously guaranteed a spot in a top Ph.D. program in math or science, provided they met acceptable performance milestones during their undergraduate years, if Goldstein’s proposal were to become a reality.

As evidence that his idea could work, Goldstein points to the seven year joint BA/MD program, whereby talented students are admitted to baccalaureate programs with the guarantee of continuing into medical school if they achieve according to predetermined standards. Extending the BA/MD model to the Ph.D. math and science arena, adds Goldstein, “creates an incentive for a student to do very good work and stay in the field…and it creates a sense of value that [students] now believe in themselves because they have been validated by some extraordinary institution that says, ‘We think that you, at age 17, have such potential we’re going to guarantee you a spot in a Ph.D. program.’”

Goldstein admits that there are obstacles to putting his idea into practice. For starters, there is a shortage of math and science teachers in the United States, in part because college graduates who have majored in math and science can earn more money in other sectors. Moreover, the American liberal arts tradition resists early tracking of students in specific fields of study; but that’s precisely why Goldstein believes we need a dramatic change: “There’s a tradition in Asia and Europe to track students at a very young age. We don’t do that in the United States. We are not getting students at an early enough age to get them excited about science,” he argues.

While he’s the first to acknowledge that the details of his proposal will require fine-tuning, Goldstein contends that we must seek pragmatic solutions to America’s educational shortfall now. “Economies across the world on a going forward basis are going to be very much determined by what we would call the innovation economy. It’s largely going to be an economy of goods and services that will be determined by those companies that can provide a work force that is trained in science and technology” he explains, noting that a failure to produce technical talent in line with other countries could lead to a weakened economy and ultimately social discord between those people being trained and those who have little to offer our work force. Consider this alarming statistic: close to half of the recent US Ph.D.’s that have been granted in engineering, computer and life sciences are to foreign born students, according to the National Science Board. “If you go into just about any science laboratory at a university, it is dominated by non-Americans…many of these students stay, but many now want to return to their own countries…we’re making a huge investment and we’re not getting a return on that investment,” Goldstein adds ominously.

If anyone can lead the charge to improve America’s math and science education, it’s Goldstein. An avowed advocate of high standards, Goldstein has been executing a methodical plan to raise CUNY’s admissions standards since he was named Chancellor in 1999. Goldstein recently put a new proposal on the table, recommending that CUNY ratchet up its requirements for students to qualify for select college-level courses, with higher cut points for SAT and placement test scores.

Goldstein’s bold ideas could go a long way toward closing the achievement gap in the inner cities. “There are lots of parents out there who have very smart kids and they can’t afford private schools,” laments Goldstein, who was himself a CUNY graduate in the sixties. “In the public schools, we need to have more opportunities for these bright kids to pursue,” he concludes. As he makes his mark on the nation’s most prominent urban public university, Goldstein leaves little doubt that he will accomplish an even grander vision for improving the education that American students will need to sustain our country’s position as a global economic leader.#



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