05/31/2012 06:06 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2012

Educating for Democracy: Nobel Prizes Are Not Just Surprises

The Nobel Prize is awarded annually in recognition of the highest achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, economics and peace. With all of the criticism of public education in New York City and the movement toward charter schools and vouchers with an increased emphasis on "privatization," it would be instructive to realize how well the public schools of this city have performed since the first New York City educated Nobel Laureate, Isidor Isaac Rabi, a graduate of John Jay High School, received the Prize in physics in 1944.

According to a New York Times article commemorating the dedication of a statue in honor of New York City Nobel Laureates:

It is not just the universities and research institutions -- like Columbia, Rockefeller and New York Universities -- that can list their Nobel laureates. New York City's public school system has produced more than 25, according to data from the Board of Education. Bronx High School of Science has produced at least six, while its rival, Stuyvesant High School, has produced four. Far Rockaway High School, DeWitt Clinton and James Madison have produced two apiece. CUNY has 12 graduates who have won the Nobel.

In the past almost seventy years since Rabi was awarded the prize, no less than twenty-six Nobel Laureates have been educated in New York City schools: only three were products of private schools -- two from Townsend Harris, one from Rabbi Jacob Joseph -- and although the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant have produced the most, Lincoln has three, Brooklyn Tech as well as Dewitt Clinton, Far Rockaway, James Madison and Walton have had two each and one each has graduated from Martin van Buren, John Jay, and Seward Park. These thirty distinguished New York public school graduates represent over 3% of all Nobel laureates world wide -- quite an achievement for a single public school system.

Some critics of public education might point out that many of these Nobel winners were probably educated in the "good old days" before World War ll. But although ten of them received their awards before 1976, the other twenty have most likely been a product of a post-War high school education with among the most recent, three who graduated in the mid or late 60's. Half of all these NYC laureates were awarded the prize in physics. Yet today, less than half of New York City high schools offer courses in physics and nationally only 1/3 of high school physics teachers have a degree in physics.

If the Bloomberg Administration is concerned with improving the quality of education for all young learners, this lack of physics instruction is certainly a deficiency in our educational system that should be addressed. But if the schools are going to have a chance to thrive, they must be unshackled from the Mayor's number-crunching approach to education. If fewer students are being educated in physics, if the numbers of students who are able to take physics from well-educated physics teachers continue to decline, then that important "critical mass" of students that end up producing one genius will also continue to decline to the loss not only of the city schools but also to the nation and the world.