It’s always inspirational when a hometown native makes good-and it’s even more inspirational when that hometown hero solves a local problem.
This week, the Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to Professor Alvin Roth, a Queens native who attended Martin Van Buren High School.
A rather unconventional man, he dropped out of Van Buren, but started taking weekend classes at Columbia University where he eventually became a full-time student.
He graduated with an engineering degree in 1971, then earned a master’s and doctorate from Stanford. After teaching at the University of Illinois and University of Pittsburgh, he joined the Harvard faculty in 1998.
Earlier this year, Roth accepted an offer from Stanford, where he began teaching as a visiting professor last month and will join the faculty in January.
As recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Roth was honored for his ground-breaking research on decision-making. Among other things, he helped design the high school matching system in New York City to match approximately 90,000 students to high schools each year, starting with students who entered high school in the fall of 2004.
He also helped re-design the matching system used in Boston Public Schools, adopted for students starting school in September 2006.
Up until Roth’s designs, applicants to New York City public high schools were asked to rank their five most prefered choices, after which these preferences lists were sent to the school. As with all bureaucratic agencies, the students choices became very complicated and as a result, about 30,000 students per year ended up at schools they had not listed.
Students getting ready for high school in New York City today owe a debt of gratitude to Alvin Roth for helping them get a fair shot at getting into the school of their choice.
In Boston, his design has been described as a “leap forward” for parents and students, and allows students to pick the school they really want without worrying about being penalized by the system that was in place prior to Roth’s model.
Roth is in good company from his days at Van Buren. Frank Wilczek also a student at the school, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with others in 2004 for their discovery of asymptotic freedom in theory of the strong interaction.
This dynamic Queens duo join 42 other graduates of New York City public high schools who, over the years, have been awarded Nobel Prizes. There were eight from Bronx Science, four from Stuyvesant, three from Townsend Harris and two from Brooklyn Tech. The other 25 laureates attended neighborhood public high schools-such as Van Buren, which the city recently tried to shut down-that didn’t have stringent entrance requirements.
To borrow from the city’s official anthem, these accomplishments prove that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
As for continuing to support all city public high schools in order to produce even more Nobel laureates … well, that’s up to you, New York, New York.