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Students must participate in new K-12 initiatives

I was pleased to read about the report of the MIT Council on Primary and Secondary Education ["MIT to aid grades K-12," Nov. 22]. This report was timely for three reasons: First, the weaknesses of the current K-12 education system are now receiving unsurpassed attention. Second, this issue is central to a set of others now under discussion at MIT:

O+ The success of K-12 programs will influence the international competitiveness of this nation and of its leading academic institutions, particularly MIT.

O+ The task of preparing college students for real life, addressed recently at the "Teaching in a Research University" colloquium, is complementary to that of preparing K-12 students for college and motivating them to consider non-professional graduate studies.

O+ Preparing K-12 students for college and motivating them for graduate school are part of the long-term response to stagnating academic diversity and lingering socio-economic disparities along ethnic lines.

Third, the K-12 issue itself is on the minds not only of council members and public service activists, but also of MIT administrators at large and a number of Corporation members. It is a national problem. Competitiveness and prestige depend on technological ability, familiarity with other cultures and adaptability to rapidly changing world conditions. Several studies have traced decreased productivity and standard of living to the decline in quality of K-12 education. Student involvement can help significantly.

A national problem should be addressed at a national level. For private enterprises, there seems to be little motivation to invest locally in K-12, since possible returns are diluted. Many disapprove on the risks involved in completely rebuilding K-12 education. Different initiatives measure success differently: some may aim at improving SAT scores, while others may just be trying to keep students off the streets. If programs enjoyed some form of mutual cooperation, they could share resources and learn from each other's results. A likely form of unification would be a national communication network of associated initiatives.

Achieving full potential for underprivileged groups as well depends on a triad of interdependent factors. More money must be spent on overcoming inadequate curricula and facilities. New initiatives must be encouraged. Students and teachers must be individually motivated to make the programs succeed.

College and graduate students can be important sources of motivation, since they are generally knowledgeable and mature, are enthusiastic about their areas of expertise, have solid academic foundations, have had or can benefit from some teaching experience and are still students. They must get involved; most students will remain in the industry or academics, and will have to teach, train or supervise those now entering K-12. Student organizations active in K-12 programs could create opportunities for future cooperation on other issues. Additionally, such groups can take more aggressive political stands than colleges or universities.

I look forward to seeing graduate and undergraduate students participate in K-12 programs developing from these premises.

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Furio Ciacci, a graduate student in the Department of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, is president of the Graduate Student Council.