Testimony of Louis Wasserman before the County Council

April 8, 2008


My name is Louis Wasserman. I'm a senior in the Montgomery Blair HS Magnet program, which has given me some of the best education in the country. Next fall I'll be attending one of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvey Mudd College, the University of Chicago, and the University of Maryland Honors Program. I was one of forty finalists nationwide in the Intel Science Talent Search, where we met with public officials including President Bush and Rep. Van Hollen; I was one of thirty individual Regional Finalists nationwide in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology, and last year I was one of only 16 high school students nationwide invited to the USA Invitational Computing Olympiad in Colorado. I am far from the first Magnet student to do any of these things.

I am here to tell you that I find the planned budget cuts to the county's Magnet programs, and especially the program at Montgomery Blair, to be deeply shocking and indefensible. It is my belief and the belief of the supporters arrayed here today that the Magnet program is faced with changes that will result in a severe decline and eventual loss of the program's ability to produce young scientists and mathematicians of the quality that has been its trademark for decades. The 2006 Program Framework directs that "The Magnet Programs provide students with interdisciplinary instruction in the areas of science, mathematics, computer science and research that reach beyond the MCPS program of studies," and this is what the Magnet has done for decades. But those very ideals are the ones at stake in the planned MCPS budget.

We understand that the county is in severe financial straits. But we cannot understand why, according to Dr. Heath Morrison, of $3.4 million in total cuts to the 88 school-based programs in MCPS, the Blair magnet program alone is taking 10% of the cuts: $350,000 dollars, or 3.5 teaching positions. Surely the flagship of this education system, that has gained us so much national and international recognition, should not be the first on the chopping block.

Magnet classes, and the efforts of Magnet teachers, are dramatically unlike those at any other school in the county, in several ways. In the range of extraordinarily advanced electives available to Magnet students, no school even comes close. Quantum mechanics, biochemistry, discrete mathematics, complex analysis, mathematical physics, all of these courses reach a level of depth comparable to the first semester of courses at the best universities in the nation. Magnet classes on a regular basis move at twice the speed of comparable AP courses with an increase in depth of material. This is possible, every day and every period of the Magnet program, because of the exceptional qualifications and daily preparation of the Magnet teachers, the intelligence, ingenuity, and dedication of the students, and the school system's recognition that a program of this quality requires teachers to do planning above and beyond what is required for standard classes.

But perhaps the most critical difference between Magnet and non-Magnet courses that I've heard reported -- by singularly excellent teachers who have recent experience with both -- is that in regular and Honors courses, a teacher with a good grasp of the material need never worry about being asked a question they can't answer; in AP courses, a teacher might occasionally be faced with a difficult or unusual question; in Magnet courses, it happens every day of every class. I've had this experience myself while teaching Blair's world-class Computer Team every week.

One of the key traits of a Magnet teacher is that no matter how long they have taught, no matter how well they understand the material, not only do they accept that they don't know all the answers, they openly admit it to the students -- and work with them to find the answer. They explore the question themselves. There are no other teachers in these subjects to ask questions; these are totally unique courses for which the teachers must design their own curricula, exams, and lessons. But the spirit of questioning and discussion that I've watched Magnet teachers foster for the past four years has generated students of unmatched quality for decades. I have seen that same spirit of questioning reflected in my own students, and in my own efforts to answer their questions, they have become some of the best young computer scientists in the country. Last year Magnet students made up three of the top sixteen high school computer scientists in the nation. I know from firsthand experience that the effort Magnet teachers put into fostering this inquisitive spirit, by such strenuous preparation for their courses, by mentoring and inspiring students with a wide range of needs but a uniformly relentless quest for knowledge, takes a significant investment of time.

This is why Magnet teachers have had additional release periods for the history of the Magnet: because what they do with that time is absolutely essential to the success of the Magnet program. Teachers who sponsor multiple critical extracurricular activities such as the Physics Team, Robotics, or the Math Team will be forced to choose which they can support, and which they simply can't have time for. Activities such as these will suffer tremendously as a result of the scheduling cuts, as teachers are forced to use every scrap of their free time to maintain the classes they work so hard for. In already exceedingly strenuous and accelerated classes, the loss of lunchtime mathematics help and afterschool computer lab availability will severely curtail the ability of Magnet teachers to effectively work with their students. The release periods Magnet teachers have used for these past decades of the Magnet haven't merely gone to good use: they are absolutely critical to the program's success, and nonnegotiable.

The results of Magnet teachers' mentorship of these students are well known and have gained this county a national and international reputation for unparalleled education. Over the past 11 years, since Intel began sponsoring the competition, Blair has produced 25 Intel STS finalists -- 67% more finalists than any other school in the nation. Every year the Magnet program boasts an enormous quantity of AP Scholars, National Merit Finalists, and other awards far too numerous to list. The Magnet has a record of excellence on AP exams, the USA Mathematics, Physics, Computing, and Biology Olympiads, the Siemens and Intel STS competitions, and other national standards of excellence that rank it among the top educational programs in this entire nation.

It is a fallacy that talented students will succeed no matter what education they are given. It takes tremendous, long, hard, effort from a team of talented educators to unlock students' talent, for I have seen students without those opportunities atrophy in isolation. It has always been the highest calling of educational systems to aim for the best model for students' needs, and not just assume a generic model will always be effective. It is the responsibility of this county to realize just how precious that calling is, and to provide Magnet teachers with the resources and time they need to provide a program of such unmatched quality. I beg you, with the very force of purpose that has drawn me to teaching and the wisdom taught me by four years of truly exceptional teachers, to fully fund the MBHS Magnet program, and the county's other specialized programs, for the next year and the years beyond. Pressure the Board of Education to reprioritize its funding, or add earmarks specifically for the Magnet programs' continued success, but please, I beg, ensure that we do not cripple the programs that make this county as special as it is. Do not place some of this nation's best teachers in an untenable and unworkable position, do not risk the long-term assets that make the Magnets as successful as they are, and do not leave this county's most talented students with nowhere to reach their full potential.