A Sky Without Stars

Hello all -

As I’ve been filling my usual CD addiction I’ve noticed, as I have each of the last three years as a coach, both the enmity as well as admiration for those teams who are considered elite teams. As I’ve been reading, something has been nagging at me - a familiarity of this discussion with another that we’ve been dealing with as a country for the last few decades.

My school is a bit different than many that you may attend. While we are in an suburban area, our population is an interesting mix of inner-city and suburbia. Many years ago, during the years of desegregation and strife, our system decided to invest heavily into two programs - magnet schools and our gifted and talented program. While I love these programs on one hand, it also creates problems.

Most of our brightest stars in the district end up going to the magnet schools or into large gifted programs at schools other than those in their area. As a result, our school is largely populated by the low level students, the mid level students, and the upper-mid level students. My team GPA hangs at around 2.5 or so each year.

In truth, it seems that our society at large has tried to dim the stars of our generation - hiding them through under-utilization, separate schooling, or other methods. The first thing that I notice about this entire process is that most people, without stars, easily find comfort in complacency. If no one else is shining, I find no need to shine. If no one else is striving, why would I strive? My school is filled with complacent students with very little drive to succeed. Even in our smartest kids - those that are gifted/talented/AP class taking students - there is little motivation to be great because most of our stars have been removed from us and placed in silos of learning far from their peers.

But now there is robotics. I cannot express how much having HoF teams helps my team to grow. We are in a city not yet populated by robotics stars yet we can look to our north, our west and our east and see them rising. We have mediocre seasons filled with disappointment and years where awards are dreams but we can see - sometimes close enough to touch - teams that have found their way into the sky.

I’ll be honest. I don’t care if you got there through sponsors or through machine shops or through mentors of extreme caliber. In the end, I am glad that you are stars. I need them. I think if most teams are honest, they will agree. Without stars who needs rockets to reach them - why the need to dream? So while we discuss the merits of Hall of Fame and the realities of being a more mature and well financed team, lets remember that most of us would not be competing save for these teams who in the end inspired at least me to see where I am going to be.


I completely agree and it is one of the reasons I have been with this program for so long. I believe that many students (if not all) have the ability to do well and excel in school or life. Unfortunately, someone has not turned the light on for them. I was one of those students, struggling with average grades, no idea where I was going, etc. I found my own reason as a senior and then in expanded in college. I don’t know what started it but it worked for me. I think back on those times and wonder how much a student could accomplish if only that spark was received at a younger age. First does deliver that spark. Whether in FLL, FTC, or FRC (even VEX, BEST and the other programs as well), a student can find something of interest even if it has nothing to do with a robot. That little spark, working as a team, working towards a common goal, having some direction, getting some satisfaction out of completing a project will pay off later on. My goal is not to build a winning robot, it is to get students to see what is possible by building a robot. My rewards are watching as each student gets the acceptance letters from the colleges that they hope to attend. One of my best ever moments in FIRST took place at the Midwest Regional when a student received an email on his phone that he had been accepted to MIT. You know that Target commercial that is running now where they show students getting the word, well that was what it was like in the pits that day. Everyone was able to participate in his success and were there to congratulate him. That is what we should live for.

On the issue of magnet schools, I teach at one so I feel somewhat qualified to comment. I know the traditional schools have a feeling of “they get all the god kids and we aren’t left with any” and I don’t have any real rebuttal to that, but there is another side to the story. At the magnet school I have seen successes that are leaps and bounds ahead of a traditional school. My students here are able to do things that just wouldn’t work anywhere else. The whole educational process is smoother and more efficient.

I would speculate that high performing students perform even higher when surrounded by other high performing students.

So, in some sense, wouldn’t it be a disservice to the high performing students to slow and diminish their education by placing them in schools with low performing students? Would this strengthen the weak or weaken the strong?

I’m not saying that low performing students don’t deserve an equal chance, but there is reason to believe the potential of top performing students could be limited if placed in the wrong environment. When companies hire employees, they take a wide pool of applicants, and select the top performers. Is it wrong for a school district to do the same?

Not trying to start a debate here, I just wanted to present the positive side of magnet schools.

This is a great thread topic.

The quote above is exactly why I think the competition aspect of FIRST is so important. Students that are complacent need something the shake that complacency out of them. There’s nothing better for that than first being on the receiving end of a serious whoopin’ in a competition, then deciding you aren’t going to let that happen again, and finally seeing your efforts pay off. That really helps prove the point that serious motivation has a larger effect on outcome than any other factor.

The trick is to get from the whoopin’ to the winning, which isn’t always easy. But if you can do it, it sure is powerful.

Our team this year had a rather disappointing season. We had some serious motivation issues within the team all year that was frustrating to a lot of us. Complacency is really the best word to describe it. Myself and another mentor had a discussion on Saturday morning in St. Louis, and the result was we thought that it would be better for our team to not get picked for the eliminations. Yes, we would have played had we been picked, but we thought that sitting out Saturday afternoon would provide us some much needed motivation for the future. As it turned out, we didn’t get picked. That resulted in our team doing some soul searching, and it has me thinking that we will not have the same motivational issues next year. I’m very much looking forward to turning this into a positive experience for our students - one of those great life lessons about how your level of achievement is directly proportional to effort, and that is one lesson that is hard to teach without a competition environment.

Could I recommend an amazing book that you can get in audio form for free?

Just remember to remind them of how they felt that day, next season. Memory can be tricky.

Good post Coach. I agree, we all need that spark, that inspiration. One can argue both ways as to whether magnet schools are better or worse for society overall, but inspiration can come in many flavors.

One of my favorite quotes is “smart and rich, dumb and poor: which do you want to be?”. Sure, every once in a a while, someone who is dumb gets rich, but that’s definitely the exception. Even the “dumbest” kid gets it.

If only magnet schools were simply about taking “the most gifted”.

The research, and history, shows there is a lot more to it than that, primarily related to parents’ education, affluence, and expectations for their kids.

It doesn’t mean magnet schools are “wrong” or “bad”, any more than it means that private schools, or religious schools are. Parents, with the motivation and ability to do so, reasonbly seek out the *perceived *best opportunities for their children. Those same parents also tend to be the most able to bring funding, support and other strengths to their children’s schools.

One of my favorite studies (wish I had the citation here…) showed that students in magnet schools had higher average academic success than those in non-magent schools. But the district they studied had fewer spaces in magnet schools than they had applicants, so they conducted a lottery to see which students would get in to the magnet schools. When they compared the success of the students in the magnet schools, to those who had applied for admission to the magnet schools, but been denied entry, they found almost no difference in academic success. They were able to argue, convincingly, that being in a magnet school made very little difference to a student’s academic success… but having a parent who wanted them to be in a magnet school and was able to co-ordinate an application, and was prepared for the extra cost of transportation to get to the magnet school, was a HUGE factor in the student’s success.

That can create challenges for schools that loose student and parent leaders to the magnet schools. Good, bad… right, wrong… hard to say… but, like so much in education, a complex issue with lots of grey areas.

It’s great that you are able to use robotics as an enrichment activity to draw the best out of your students.


This post is spot on. Thank you for posting this.

This is precisely my workplace. However, I am not knowledgable on any data comparing applicants who were accepted or not accepted through the lottery. It would be an interesting thing to look at here.

Thank you for this post.

As a public school teacher in an area with a raft of “magnet” schools, I empathize with your feelings.

Schools should be axes of their communities, blending young citizens with each other in a host of cooperative activities such as music, theater, sports, community service activities, as well as the classroom.

Going back to Brown vs. the Board of Education, those students just wanted to go to the school in their local community. The upshot of this decision ended up creating the opposite effect. Students were bussed to schools almost an hour away from their homes, effectively removing them from the extracurricular activities that would weave a strong community fabric.

Here in Connecticut, we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars duplicating school facilities that diffuse our communities and undermine the local school’s function as a center of organization to build a greater whole.

That being said, our team has incorporated as a non-profit and accept students from any of our surrounding schools, including magnet and technical schools. We go with what we got.

Magnet schools polarize communities.

“A Sky Without Stars” is an excellent phrase to describe this issue and the OP is spot on.

I take solace and do FIRST because it provides a path to ameliorate what I believe is the deleterious effect of these “magnet” schools.