Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Letter to Bill & Melinda Gates

The following includes a letter that I wrote to Bill & Melinda Gates (which includes the forward of a letter that I had written to an elite group of American scientists) and the response that I received back from a representative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In my letter, I refer to the "Linus Pauling Academy of the Physical Sciences" (L.PAPS), which was the original incarnation of what I renamed "NASA Academy of the Physical Sciences" (NAPS). L.PAPS and NAPS are identical, except in name.

I have deleted below the various contact information (e-mail addresses, street addresses, and phone numbers) that is present in the original e-mails. Otherwise, everything below is an exact copy of the correspondence.

Steven A. Sylwester
June 13, 2007

* * *


Dear Mr. Sylwester,

Thank you for contacting the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Your letter to Mr. and Mrs. Gates has been forwarded to me for reply.

We appreciate your interest in the U.S. education system, and thank you for sharing with us your proposal to reestablish leadership in mathematics and science instruction in high schools nationwide.

The foundation's Education initiative seeks to improve high school graduation and college readiness rates so that all students graduate prepared for success in college, career, and life. In pursuit of this goal, the foundation supports schools and policies that set high expectations for all students and provide the support they need to meet them. Our Education initiative also works to provide children with opportunities for quality early learning in Washington state and funds scholarship programs that reduce financial and other barriers to higher education for low-income and minority students. Please note that the Education initiative does not accept unsolicited proposals.

For more information about the foundation's Education initiative, please visit

We wish you all the best.


Stephanie Jones
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

-----Original Message-----
From: Steven Sylwester [mailto:]
Sent: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 09:10 AM
To: Info; Steven Sylwester
Subject: To: Bill & Melinda Gates at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: An Obama Initiative: Linus Pauling Academy of the Physical Sciences (L.PAPS) >> A proposal to reestablish U.S. leadership in math and science at the high school level

May 13, 2009

Dear Bill & Melinda Gates,

My name is Steven Sylwester, and I live in Eugene, Oregon. I am a committee of one championing my own proposal to reestablish United States leadership in mathematics and science instruction at the high school level among nations worldwide.

I have created a simple solution that can be used as a universal model for similar sites across the nation. My personal challenge was to neatly fit into the established university-level prerequisite stream for mathematics, computer science, chemistry, and physics instruction by creating a straightforward, scaled-down, efficient curriculum that directly uses the teaching resources of U.S. public research universities to educate high school students who are gifted in mathematics and the physical sciences. I have succeeded to the best of my ability. Now it remains whether others can improve on my solution.

My solution neither favors nor disfavors economically advantaged students, but it does favor students who are gifted in mathematics and the physical sciences by creating three-year public high schools with academic merit-based admission standards. Though it might be more common that children of affluence are academically gifted, it is certainly not the case that all academically gifted students are the children of affluence - not at all. Additionally, given the rigors and the sacrifices that are unmistakable and unavoidable in what I propose, many poor children will strive and rise to the challenge while many affluent children will shirk away.

It is completely wrong-headed to imagine that my proposal creates a special advantage for those who are already advantaged. In truth, our public school system is sometimes punishing to those who are academically gifted in mathematics and the physical sciences. Sadly, where advantage might have grown and flourished in some gifted students through their being challenged by skill level-appropriate instruction, what sometimes results instead is the lasting disadvantage that can be born out of the discouragement caused by the forced under-achievement of potential during the long years of high school.

You will find my proposal attached to this email. I have included the below forwarded email to demonstrate that I am aggressively going public with my proposal. I have also emailed my proposal to select U.S. senators, select U.S. representatives, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (for many years, an outspoken advocate for the need to improve math and science instruction in U.S. public high schools), select public school district superintendents and public high school principals in Oregon, the presidents of Oregon's three public research universities with undergraduate programs, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and The Walton Family Foundation.

I send my proposal to The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with this encouragement: Please consider implementing a working model of my proposal at two public research universities in the Northwest, either in Washington and/or in Oregon. Originally, I developed my proposal as a local solution for a local problem. Then I pushed my thinking to the Oregon statewide level. And then, after listening to President Obama's inaugural address, I finally concluded that my proposal could (and should) be done nationwide.

Dreaming big dreams is grand, but proving that the solution is good and workable in real life is something else entirely. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has both the resources and the good intent to make my proposal happen on a working model basis, and so I ask you to consider that possibility.

If you have any questions regarding my proposal, please either call me or email me at your convenience.


Steven Sylwester
(address deleted)
Eugene, OR

P.S. My youngest daughter was a 2007 graduate of North Eugene High School in Eugene, Oregon, which is a Small Schools site funded by your foundation. Fortunately, she graduated the year before the Small Schools initiative went fully into effect. She is a 2007 National Merit Finalist who entered her freshman year at the University of Oregon with 100 credits already on her university transcript, which means she entered her freshman year with junior status by credit count. My daughter had traveled across town to attend NEHS, because such an academic achievement as that was possible there - before the Small Schools initiative happened.

For many years, NEHS was the best-kept secret in Eugene. Improbably, the smallest, economically poorest, and most blue-collar of Eugene's four public high schools awarded more Advanced Placement credits per student per year than any other Eugene high school - and it did so by quietly maintaining a phantom "small school" within the framework of the whole school. Though the "small school" did not actually exist in any formal sense, it naturally manifested because NEHS had steadfastly maintained a four-period school day while also refusing to let International High School (IHS) through the front door. The consequence was that the best students had no place to go but together, and so most of them quickly migrated to the available A.P. classes.

It was a magnificent stage for excellence! Because of the long class periods, an entire year of instruction was accomplished in half of a school year. As a freshman, my daughter took a year of chemistry during the first half of the school year, and a year of physics during the second half. During four years of high school, my youngest daughter took math through A.P. Calculus, three years of chemistry (including A.P. Chemistry and high school Organic Chemistry at NEHS, and Advanced General Chemistry Laboratory at the University of Oregon), two years of physics (including A.P.-equivalent College Now Physics), and A.P. Biology.

Well, the Small Schools initiative funded by The Gates Foundation killed the best "small school" Eugene ever had. The principal at the time your foundation got involved was new to NEHS, and he was determined to change things. He opened the door to IHS and so added the extra class periods the IHS program required - and the goose laying the golden eggs got weakened until the Small Schools initiative just killed it. Fortunately, my two daughters got through before the end came.

My proposal (Linus Pauling Academy of the Physical Sciences) is contrary to what I understand your thinking to be. However, I will strenuously argue with anyone that my idea is better.

I volunteered at NEHS everyday for half of the school day for 3/4 of a school year as a Read Right reading tutor, and some of the high school sophomores and juniors whom I tutored were reading at a beginning first grade level when I began working with them - they were functionally illiterate! By comparison, my oldest daughter had her reading ability tested by the local public school district during her first month of first grade when she was six years old, and was judged at that young age to be reading at an adult level BEYOND high school level!

When my youngest daughter was a junior at NEHS at the beginning of the transition to Small Schools, the decision was made to have all NEHS juniors take A.P. English, because some misguided teachers thought everyone was capable of high academic achievement. The decision was made to purposely separate the best students from each other by distributing them equally among the different class sections while also doing the same equal distribution with the worst students. The whole bad idea was an utter failure that no one would own up to in the end, and was a complete waste of time for my daughter and her honest A.P. peers.

Know this: The students who were functionally illiterate when I started tutoring them were reading well six months later. Some who began at a second or third grade level were actually reading at a ninth grade level or better just six months later. That is what is possible. That is what I witnessed with my own eyes and ears.

But what impressed me the most was the kindness, gentleness, and patience that these poor-performing students had for each other when they were in the non-threatening environment we had created for them in the tutoring classroom, and how honestly encouraging they were to each other as they struggled to learn how to read. It was at once both heartbreaking and wonderful. More than that, it was a very rewarding experience that revealed much about the difficult divide that confounds effective education reform. Why? Because the classrooms I had grown up in and that my daughters excelled in were places of intense intellectual competition where something so simple as kindness was not always present. It is no wonder to me now that the poor-performing students fall behind, and that they eventually give up - they don't stand a chance.

But there is a solution, and it is to be found in the simplest and most amazing of simple observations, and I can tell you with certainty that it is absolutely true. If you want to solve the problem of educating the slow learners who become the poor students who become the drop outs, you MUST start with this scientific fact: Every brain has a discernible brain speed at which it functions while learning; brain speeds vary from person to person; brain speed functioning is negatively impacted by stress; and slow normal brain speed can slowly be sped up to the point of classroom speed with no loss of skill, proficiency, and comprehension if both personal competency and personal confidence can be demonstrated by the brain to the brain (meaning: the slow learner drops the "slow" from his/her identity and simply becomes a learner who approaches learning with calm self-confidence).

How do I know this? My father is Dr. Robert Sylwester, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon. He is a world-renowned expert on current developments in brain research, and the implications of those developments for education. He has had a relationship with Scientific Learning for many years, and writes a column for their website ( The Scientific Learning story and its many discoveries are told here ( But, in layman's terms, it is essentially what I have described above referring to "brain speed."

The problem going forward is the problem of capitalism, which is the profit motive that controls intellectual property rights. In the case of Scientific Learning, the copyrights and patents have to do with computer hardware and software. In the case of Read Right, the copyrights have to do with materials describing the tutoring procedures, defining the reading libraries, and providing the progress tally forms. But everything my father told me about the scientific discoveries made by Scientific Learning using elaborate computer set-ups is true, and is plainly observable with the naked eye in a four-person tutoring group if you know what you are looking for. In fact, it is all as plainly visible as a snow line is on pavement as you drive from rain at low elevation to snow at high elevation - it is that undeniable: starkly plain and sharply defined. And what you are witnessing when it manifests so clearly is the brain speed of the learner.

It is a truly remarkable phenomenon to behold, and it borders on miraculous what can occur in learning how to read if the "brain speed" reality is made the guiding light. Students fight it at first as you insist that they slow down, sometimes way down - sometimes slower than they have ever talked before. But then suddenly it happens: you find their natural brain speed >> and they can read! It is startling for a high school kid who has been stuck in Special Ed for ten years with a dunce cap on his/her head to suddenly be able to read. I preached confidence when I tutored (as in: "I know you can do this"), but my spiel was not according to the copyrighted abracadabra terminology I was supposed to use. Against the plan, the kids needed confidence, and so I gave it to them in heaps - and in straight talk. Thinking back now, it was these three things: calm down, slow down, and you can do it. And they could.

Read Right had this simple belief: If a person can engage in meaningful conversation, that person can also read with comprehension. By what I have witnessed, I absolutely agree with that conclusion.

But there is another obstacle in the way of successful education reform - and it is horrific! Sadly, it too is about "the profit motive," and again the slow learner is the one who is potentially harmed. Remarkably, it is not a capitalist corporation doing harm by legally withholding effective learning tools and processes if its products are not purchased, it is the school system itself doing harm by holding students in an official Special Ed classification who no longer belong there. It is a fox guarding the hen house situation: slow learners have become a huge revenue source in the education finance equation because the site school and the site school district are paid significantly more by the government for educating students who are classified Special Ed than they are paid for educating normal students - so significantly more that deciding to do the wrong thing can be judged the right thing to do!

I witnessed this twice firsthand.

In one case, a girl I tutored was as close to being a zombie as anyone I have ever encountered; she was emotionally unreachable - she was a walking dead person who was unreliable to follow even the simplest procedure. I was completely stymied by her, so I begged my supervising teachers for any privileged information they could possibly give me to help me understand the girl. I found out the girl was adopted, and that her adoptive parents were an older couple with no other children. Also, I found out that the girl's biological mother was alcoholic. The girl was long-term Special Ed. All of that did not help me one bit. What finally helped was the gentle kindness of a boy who was also in her group of four. Every morning, the boy greeted her, even though she never responded back. And every morning, before we started the tutoring session, the boy told a funny story of what he had done the previous day, and eventually - finally - the girl smiled one day. And then one morning out of the blue, the girl wanted to tell her own story of something she had done the previous night. And the boy was all ears, and was genuinely interested in hearing the girl's story. And thereafter the girl actually started participating, ever so slowly at first. When that girl began her tutoring, she literally responded to books like a kindergarten student if she responded at all - it was weird. But once she actually started reading, her progress was faster than anything I ever witnessed as a tutor. Before five months was over, that girl was reading Jack London books out loud near flawlessly at first read (maybe one word error per page), including dramatic readings of odd dialect story conversations with unique phonetic word spellings. It was a stunning thing to behold (the Jack London books were at the twelfth grade level, and have very sophisticated complex sentences with challenging vocabulary throughout). We actually contemplated how to possibly make that girl a tutor's aide to legitimize keeping her around, because she had surpassed any need at all to remain in the program. Yet that girl was kept in Special Ed afterwards, and away from the standard curriculum. Imagine that. How do you explain something like that without contemplating evil?

The other case had a different twist. The girl was Special Ed since the beginning of her schooling, but was full of life and very talkative. She started at maybe a second grade level, and was very labored in her reading, though she was willing to try when it was her turn. Through the girl's story telling, it became obvious that she ran with a gang of troublesome losers, and that she submitted herself to the rule of the boys in the gang. As it happened, she was originally assigned to a tutoring group that included one of the boys she was subservient to. When that became apparent, we separated the two into different groups, and I kept the girl. Even so, the girl plainly felt the need to subordinate herself to boys by never excelling a boy who was in her company. One day I had had enough, so I excused myself and the girl from our group, and I took that girl out of the room into the hallway where I very seriously scolded her, and told her in no uncertain terms that she was better than any of the boys she was hanging around with, and that she needed to immediately and forever stop giving herself and her potential away. Wow! That girl changed thereafter. All she ever needed was permission to be all that she could be. She became determined. She wanted it to be her turn more frequently and longer - and she wanted to excel! Through dogged effort, that girl got fully to her own grade level with reliable competence and joyful, proud self-confidence. Her turnaround was so complete that one day I finally sprang the ultimate question to her without first talking with my supervising teacher. Even though a new term had already started and even though that girl had always been in Special Ed, I asked her if she would be willing to enter the standard curriculum classes at NEHS if I could open the door for her. Her response was an enthusiastic and very confident "Yes," and she was willing to start immediately, even knowing that she would be behind when she started. I made her ask her parents for their permission, and she eagerly ran home and ran back with permission in hand. Well, the NEHS teachers who should have then opened their classroom doors to that girl would not do so, and the administrators would not intervene - and I was done. In my mind, it was criminal that that girl was held back in Special Ed, and I could no longer in good conscience teach someone to read who would then not be allowed to learn to his/her fullest potential.

One other tutoring story is revealing. A big sophomore boy was one of my students. He was a mess, and he was just plain dumb - a functional illiterate. He was always late, always eating something, and always confused. Slowly, I got that boy to focus, but it was two steps forward and only one step back if I was lucky. Finally, it kicked in: calm down, slow down, and you can do it. Suddenly, the boy could read a four-word sentence made up of one-syllable words - and for him that was an accomplishment! The boy was African-American (which is rare in Eugene) and likable, and he wanted to learn, but he was defeated academically - just broken. He needed hope. When that boy finally got just a glimmer of hope, he became like a bull in a china shop. The Read Right program has a multitude of procedures that I more-or-less ignored, both because they were silly and because they worked in spite of themselves due to their luck-on to the "brain speed" phenomenon. In the case of this boy, I quietly abandoned Read Right altogether. More than anything, that boy simply needed to read to the bottom of the page, and then feel the supreme accomplishment of turning the page - and I was not going to deny him that accomplishment, no matter how many errors he made getting there. It was wild. He wanted to advance faster than he deserved to advance, and I let him to a point. When I quit volunteering as a tutor and had to come clean with how I had made him a special case, I argued with the supervising teacher that she should maintain my strategy with the boy. She refused, and placed him back where he belonged in the program. It saddened me greatly, because I feared the boy's spirit would be broken. After I left and the supervising teacher came to appreciate what I had done with the boy and why I did it, she eventually followed my lead and set the established procedures aside like I had advised. At the end of his senior year, that boy graduated from NEHS and received an academic award for being the most improved student during his four years in high school. More than that, that boy is now happily employed in a child daycare facility as a caregiver.

Back to the point: It is wrong to ever put students like my daughters in the same class in the same high school classroom as students like the three examples I have just described from my experience as a high school reading tutor. It is unconscionably wrong at both ends of the spectrum - absolutely so - unquestionably so! To think otherwise is to be ignorant of all applicable facts, and to have never known either a truly brilliant child or a child in desperate need of a reading tutor. Furthermore, children at both ends of the intellectual spectrum are children at risk, and I sincerely mean that in every literal sense. The easiest and best way to raise the low end into the general population is to get the high end out - not by ignoring them and/or dumbing them down, but by advancing them to educational opportunities that will fully challenge their potential.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Steven Sylwester Date: Thu, Apr 30, 2009 at 2:17 PM
Subject: An Obama Initiative: Linus Pauling Academy of the Physical Sciences (L.PAPS) >> A proposal for the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences

April 30, 2009

This letter and attachment is simultaneously being sent to thirteen officers and councilors of the Council of the National Academy of Engineering, the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academy of Sciences, and all seventeen members of the Council of the National Academy of Sciences.

I am an American citizen with an idea that was inspired by President Obama's inaugural speech, and by the experiences I had while parenting my youngest daughter through high school. When my daughter was a freshman in high school, my wife and I discovered to our surprise and great challenge that she was incredibly gifted in the sciences, especially in chemistry. Hers was not just a gift in deep understanding and ability; my daughter found she also truly loved both chemistry and physics, especially the laboratory work. As a high school junior, she took Advanced General Chemistry Laboratory (CH 237, 238, 239) at the University of Oregon, a notoriously difficult three-term sequence course that almost exclusively enrolls UO honors college students. My daughter entered the sequence at winter term without the benefit of ever having taken fall term, and she earned an "A-" grade winter term and an "A" grade spring term. The course professor told me during that spring term that my daughter was easily in The Top One Percent of all the university chemistry students he had ever taught during his 25-year career to that point, including the students he taught while earning his Ph.D. at Princeton - and my daughter was then a high school junior. He noted that a former student of his is now a NASA astronaut, and that my daughter was farther along and more skilled at the same age than the now astronaut was. My daughter is a 2007 National Merit Finalist, meaning she was academically in the top one half of one percent of all high school graduates in the U.S. in 2007.

Though my daughter's high school chemistry, physics, and calculus teachers were all truly superb, especially the chemistry teacher, I came away from it all knowing I had been blessed, but also knowing I was exhausted - and that my daughter would not have had the opportunities she deserved and thrived from if I had not strenuously advocated for her throughout those four years. When I nominated my daughter's high school chemistry teacher for a national award, the teacher told me that I had convincingly demonstrated her own need to advocate for her own children during their time in the public schools - and that teacher is a first-rate career public high school chemistry teacher!

I was especially inspired to write my proposal because my daughter's childhood best friend - a girl who was smarter than my daughter according to the PSAT test they both took as high school sophomores - ended up dropping out of high school and earning a GED at a local community college because her parents and various school officials let her fall through the cracks. In my opinion, our public school system does not serve the needs of its best students unless strong unrelenting advocacy from those students' parents literally forces the issue. This should not be the case.

My proposal puts some shared responsibility onto the public school system itself to identify the best mathematics and science students during the middle school years, and to then offer an extraordinary and deserved opportunity to those students during the high school years. My solution is a nationwide solution that would eventually certainly benefit all of us by creating a Linus Pauling Academy of the Physical Sciences at 150 different public research universities across the country.

You will find my proposal in the attachment. If you printed it out, you would find my proposal to be nineteen pages long. The first two pages are a preface introduction, and the following two pages are an overview with stated premises. Then there are seven pages that describe The First Model: The Linus Pauling Academy of the Physical Sciences at The University of Oregon. Following that are two pages of class schedule charts, and an appendix that is six pages long. It would be helpful to print out the class schedule charts and have them as a quick reference while you are reading The First Model.

I certainly hope some of you will find the time to read my proposal. Something like what I propose needs to be done, and an endorsement from your groups would certainly get things started. My proposal is written as if it were being described in an oral presentation. It does go full circle, and it does answer all necessary questions before it concludes. With the strictest discipline, I forced myself to simplify everything that could be simplified, and to strive for the most efficient elegant solution possible that could be most easily replicated as a universal model at various sites across the country. Ultimately, a careful read of the prerequisite streams in math and science education as found in the University of Oregon Course Catalog were defining of what could and should be done in my opinion.

I am happy to answer any questions, and to receive any suggestions for improvements. Please feel free to share my proposal with anyone.


Steven Sylwester

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