Letter to the Editor from Kelly McQuighan in the Washington Post

April 27, 2008

As a 2002 graduate of the science, mathematics and computer science magnet program at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, I feel strongly that my unique educational experience there fostered my intellectual curiosity and developed my skills as a scientist. I credit the magnet for the fact that I majored in physics in college (rare for a woman) and for the fact that I am now a high school science teacher. So I was grieved to learn that substantial budget cuts to the magnet program will make it virtually unrecognizable from what it was when I attended ["Montgomery Students Protest Cuts to Magnets," Metro, April 22]. If I still lived in the Washington area, I would have been among those protesting the cuts last week.

As an educator, I now fully appreciate the pedagogical rationale for the structure of the magnet program. A major buzzword in science education is "inquiry" -- essentially the idea that students learn science best by doing science. In practice, however, I have found that too much inquiry can be frustrating for scientifically inclined students -- like those in the magnet -- who want to learn as much content as possible as quickly as possible. The magnet program's structure gets around this problem by having a separate research course that is integrated into the "content-driven" courses. This research program requires students to design, analyze and report on their own experiments and culminates in an optional summer internship allowing magnet students to work with real scientists, in real laboratories, on real scientific problems -- a program that has led to the magnet's phenomenal success in the Intel Science Talent Search.

Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry Weast asserts that his budget cuts will not change the magnet program, because they "only" increase the magnet teachers' course loads to five courses per year -- the same number as most county high school educators -- rather than the current four. Such a perspective underestimates the time and effort magnet teachers put into teaching the integrated science-research program.

When I attended the magnet program, my science teachers did not merely teach four sections of science; they also helped supervise four sections of research projects. They not only prepared for their own classes but they also coordinated an entire integrated curriculum. Reducing magnet teachers' preparation time can only degrade the quality of the magnet program.

I teach at an independent college prep school rather than in the public system. How can I justify teaching in an independent school when I am a product of public schools? My school has the private funding to decide what our program will look like, and to tailor it to the needs of the students. And my smaller course load allows me to collaborate creatively with my colleagues. It is unjust not to foster the intellect of our brightest math and science students unless they pay thousands to attend a private school, and it is unwise to remove an incentive that keeps the type of teachers such students need in the public schools.

-- Kelly McQuighan

Milton, Mass.

The writer teaches physics and chemistry at Milton Academy.