Friday, March 31, 2006

Schools Cutting Back on Science Education

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law has, for the past three years, put the focus of public education squarely on reading and mathematics testing. Schools are under intense pressure to shoot for high test scores, or face being put on watch lists and lose funding over time. One of the consequences, which comes as no surprise at all to educators, has been the lost time all other subject areas have encountered, especially in the primary and middle school grades. For instance, here is an excerpt from a recent NSTA email bulletin:

"A March 26 New York Times article reports that a survey to be released later this week on narrowing the curriculum finds that since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001, 71% of the nation’s 15,000 school districts have reduced the hours of instructional time in history, science, music, and other subjects to open up more time for reading and math. “The intense focus on the two basic skills is a sea change in American instructional practice, with many schools that once offered rich curriculums now systematically trimming courses like social studies, science and art,” writes reporter Sam Dillon.

A New York Times editorial by Thomas Friedman titled “Worried About India's and China's Booms? So Are They” finds that one of the most frequent debates in most countries focuses on education and the common premise that they are falling behind. From the U.S. and Great Britain to India and China, every country is struggling with its own set of challenges. Friedman points to a “global convergence in education” that will spur growth and innovation. The challenge, he states, is for countries to find the right balance between creativity and rigor."

It is this last sentence that has worried me over the years since NCLB became law. High standards and rigor are essentials in any class and every grade level. But as I have written about in the past, the power of the American education system has been the variety of courses schools commonly offer, which span over all disciplines. In many schools there is some level of opportunity for students to explore creative subjects in the arts, physical education of all types, physical lab opportunities in science classes (unlike in other countries that focus on fact-based curricula, which works well for testing), community service and leadership opportunities, and so on. Students have had some chance to figure out through experience what they enjoy and where their strengths are, and then from that moment on can pursue them; it is their choice. In my opinion this is a fundamentally important educational structure and system that needs to be maintained at all costs, and, even with all the problems and challenges that face public education, it has largely been a major part in the U.S. position in the world as the only superpower.

Friedman is correct that we must not tilt things too far away from enjoying some amount of creativity in our education system, for that is where we begin to encourage younger generations to develop new ideas and inspire them to have some dreams that can still be realized. Any chance at equilibrium between rigor and creativity has clearly been lost the past few years as nearly 3 out of 4 districts have cut back on the topics where creativity is important for progress in those fields. I am convinced this is not where we want to continue to go. Especially those who believe there is some relevance to Gardner's multiple intelligences, we are seeing further erosion of important sections of our public education system at a time of growing pressure from global competition.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Why Choose Math in High School?

Check out 12 reasons why high school students should want to study math. Kudos to Mike at Teach and Learn for finding this.

Difficulties Attracting Best and Brightest to Teaching

In an earlier post a couple days ago, the looming shortage of bright students going into the sciences, math and engineering and future implications was discussed. If the U.S. is to get serious about addressing the potential problems and issues associated with the current trends, it will almost necessarily begin with getting more and highly qualified teachers into the middle schools and high schools around the country. However, there are some problems with this.

Probably the most pressing issue has to do with the one entity that drives most things in life, money. There have been surveys done that show teaching is now, on average, the lowest paying job among all professions. Also, a NEA analysis shows how pay for college-educated teachers has differed over time from non-teacher college-educated professionals. The results are quite telling:

Male College-Educated Non-Teacher Pay Compared to Male Teacher Pay
Year % Non-Teachers Earn More (or Less) than Teachers
1940 -3.6%
1950 2.1%
1960 19.7%
1970 33.1%
1980 36.1%
1990 37.5%
2000 60.4%

Female College-Educated Non-Teacher Pay Compared to Female Teacher Pay
Year % Non-Teachers Earn More (or Less) than Teachers
1940 -15.8%
1950 -11.2%
1960 -12.7%
1970 -3.1%
1980 -3.7%
1990 4.5%
2000 16.4%

While teacher salaries have just been keeping up with inflation for the most part, more lucrative opportunities have presented themselves to highly educated men and women. Teacher pay has fallen behind dramatically over the past couple of decades, and one cannot blame today's students from thinking twice about going into teaching, which is consistently rated as one of the highest stressed jobs in addition to one of the professions with the least amount of financial reward in the near term. Historically, teaching has been dominated by women, but as the number of female professionals has increased tremendously since the 1950s, more lucrative business, legal, medical, and technological career opportunities have allowed highly educated women to have many more options for employment.

Teaching has certainly become an unattractive career in part because of salaries that cannot compete with other professions, and I've been told this by many friends and acquaintances over the years. This is also the likely driving force behind the phenomenon of about half of new teachers leaving the profession within their first 4 years or so. It is a demanding, time-consuming job where many feel the money is not adequate enough to stay in the field; so why not take on a less stressful job for more money? Makes sense.

Then there is the stigma attached to teaching. The old saying goes something like, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." I was reminded of this by an email I received from a former student who is studying physics at Stanford. She is leaning towards becoming a high school physics teacher. She is amazing at physics, as shown when she was selected as a member of the U.S. Physics Team while in high school and now sets the curve in one of the elite physics programs in the world. She is taking heat for her interest in teaching, because why would one who can do physics ever want to 'waste' it by teaching. There is a seemingly widespread lack of respect for teaching as a career as well as for teachers. Our best and brightest grow up hearing and seeing the lack of respect, and the low level of public regard for the profession, and there is some level of peer pressure to avoid making the move to teaching. My own experience reflects all this as well, both from friends and family members. Why would I, with a Ph.D. in physics from a top ten program and the premier particle accelerator lab in the world, and author or coauthor of one hundred published journal articles (certainly a benefit of working with a large experimental collaboration!), ever waste myself on high school students? Supposedly I've shown I can do physics, and I now choose to teach. I certainly felt pressure to pursue postdoctoral offers rather than a job in a Chicago public high school, but for me it was the right choice because I wanted to make a difference in kids' lives, and hopefully I've done that every now and then over the past 11 years. And I must say I've met countless teachers who 'can do' their areas of expertise (many with master's degrees and beyond in their field) and would be productive professionals in academia or the private sector if they chose that path, but they love working with kids who need the guidance and assistance to prepare for life.

For those who may be considering teaching over some other profession, one way I look at it is it is possible to make a bigger impact on your field than some of those who are in the field. What I mean by this is the following: The odds of making a real difference in a field through a major discovery/contribution is small, especially now as collaborations continue to increase in the number of members. However, over the last 8 years or so, I have taught some 500 or so high-end students, with a majority of them going into some field of science (including two or three dozen who have gone into physics), engineering, or math. From their kind feedback, I played some role in keeping their interest high and motivating them to pursue these fields as majors in college. I like to think I am making another valuable contribution to the fields of physical science and engineering by doing this, because progress tends to happen when lots of good minds work together on tough problems, and the more minds the better. Pre-college teachers are the first step in making this happen.

While I can give all the pep talks in the world, in reality the problem will continue until there is a more attractive financial reward and more societal prestige associated with teaching high school science and math, as well as all other subject areas. If nothing happens and the trends continue, the U.S. will continue to see gradual erosion in its scientific and technological lead over the next couple of decades. Numerous countries are making rapid and significant progress in their attempts to become competitive with the U.S. in research and technology development, and we cannot afford to become complacent just because we have the lead at the moment.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Write Your Representative for Science and Math Funding

My last post deals with low numbers of students going into science, math and engineering research as well as education. If you share my concern over the long-range implications of the current situation, please write to your U.S. Representative. There are two 'Dear Colleague' letters being circulated in the House we can get our representatives to sign, and build momentum to funding science and math programs in the Department of Education as well as full funding of the National Science Foundation (which provides numerous grants that drive our research programs around the country). Here are some details, courtesy of the NSTA:

"The deadline has been extended for U.S. Representatives to sign on to the two Dear Colleague letters in the House urging appropriators to provide increased funding for science and math education programs at the U. S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation.

73 Members of Congress have already signed the Dear Colleague letter ( sponsored by Representatives Ehlers, Holt, Udall, and Biggert seeking $562 million for math and science education programs at the U.S. Department of Education.

111 Representatives have signed Ehlers/Holt/Inglis/Lipinski letter ( supporting $6.02 Billion for FY2007 programs at the National Science Foundation.

It is very important to get as many lawmakers as possible to sign these letters, as they are often barometers of support for a specific issue or funding request, so please take a minute to call or e-mail. Call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121, and ask to be connected to your Representative’s office. To send an e-mail, go to, and link to House of Representatives (link is located on the left hand side).

In your e-mail message, you can send the Dear Colleague letters to your elected Representative and ask him/her to sign on to these letters. If you call, ask to speak to the education aide and request that your Representative sign on to the Ehlers Dear Colleague letters for increased funding, then forward him/her the letters.

To view the list of Representatives who have already signed on to each letter, visit "

Disturbingly Low Numbers of Students Going Into Science Education

There is a growing concern about the low numbers of American students who are going into science and engineering majors, yet alone science education. To demonstrate how bad it is, here are some data from Maryland (coming out of the latest NSTA Express updates)"

"In the March 15 edition of Education Week, Nancy Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools for Maryland, states "America has dropped the ball on science, mathematics, and technology education. Our nation has ignored science and math education for far too long, and a serious investment in technology training at all levels is overdue. We need more physicists, mathematicians, chemists, and other technically skilled people in the pipeline, and we need to recruit more prospective teachers in those disciplines. That process begins with a new emphasis on mathematics and science in elementary and secondary schools.”

Grasmick brings attention to the disturbing statistics in her own state where “only one student in physical-science education graduated from a higher education institution last year. Just 13 students in chemistry education graduated from a Maryland college or university, and 11 graduated in physics education.” At the same time, she notes that Maryland schools needed 12 physical-science teachers, 59 chemistry teachers, and 29 physics teachers. “We need to interest students in math, science, and technology at a younger age, spark their curiosity, and help them understand how they can become part of a future that desperately needs their skills.” Grasmick served on the committee to develop the recent National Academies’ report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm. "

It is hard to believe that only 25 students in the Maryland university system went into physical science education. How and when can we turn this around? What will the effects be for our next generation of scientists? Answers to these questions are critical to the American way of life, for literally our economy, place in the world, national security, and standard of living depend on science and technology.

We have to find a way on a large scale to get more students interested in math, science and engineering to remain competitive in the long run. We have some advantages over most of the world, including China and India, due to our university research system, our funding, and the technology infrastructure that has been built up since WW II. This will continue for possibly the next twenty years, but if we do not have the talent available to take over for our current research base (who will be retiring in large numbers over that time period), what is next? It starts with teachers in middle school and high school, to get students engaged and interested and enthusiastic for science and research so they may go on in college.

Some say it will take another Sputnik moment to energize the country on a large scale, when the masses in the 1950s saw a need to keep up and surpass the Soviet Union when they beat us into space. And yet, in 2004 we graduated less than half the number of physicists from college than the year before Sputnik (and in the 1950s we had a significantly smaller population). This is a complicated issue, and it will take some dramatic event or some new incentives to draw our brightest students back to the sciences (such as salaries and recognition in society that can compete with those of lawyers, doctors, investment bankers, and so on)...we clearly are not near that point at this time.

Babies and the Words They Learn First

I Just heard about this new study. Babies begin learning words fairly fast, by about 10 months of age. It turns out that the words are of objects that are of the most interest to the baby, and not necesarily words that parents are trying to get them to say. Below is a part of a summary article from Yahoo news.

"Though they are learning words at 10 months old, infants tend to grasp the names of objects that interest them rather than whatever the speaker thinks is important, a new study finds.
And they do it quickly.

The infants were able to learn two new words in five minutes with just five presentations for each word and object, said study leader Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University. Importantly, the babies paired a new word to the object they liked best, regardless of what object the speaker referred to.

"The baby naturally assumes that the word you're speaking goes with the object that they think is interesting, not the object that you show an interest in," Hirsh-Pasek said.

The result is not too surprising, Hirsh-Pasek said in a telephone interview. She says interest drives learning for older children, too, and even adults.

She cites six-year-olds she's heard talking knowledgably about baseball players' batting averages. "How in the world do they get it? They're not going to do decimals until 7th or 8th grade."

"Ten-month-olds simply 'glue' a label onto the most interesting object they see," said Shannon Pruden, a Temple doctoral student in psychology and lead author of a report on the findings in the March/April issue of the journal Child Development."

Thinking of my own children, this does make a lot of sense. When they began saying "mommy" and "daddy" early, that is good know they were interested in us. Then came things like the dog and ball, and so on, which were the objects they wanted to interact with the most, even if we tried to get them interested in other toys. This does make great sense when you think of the types of information you can recall and remember easily, which is information about topics you are interested in; at least there is data that support what may seem to be a common sense type of result.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

To-the-Point Tutorial about Chaos Theory

For a simple, purely conceptual online tutorial about chaos theory, which leads into complex systems and beyond, check out this U. of Texas site.

More on Warming Oceans and Hurricanes

As residents on the Gulf coast continue to struggle to clean up and rebuild after last year's devastating hurricane season, experts continue to find evidence that warmer ocean surface temperatures contribute to stronger hurricanes. The trend over the last forty to fifty years has been for stronger hurricanes, and not necessarily greater numbers of hurricanes, and many scientists have predicted this should be expected due to global warming. Prior to last year's storms, reports were out predicting record strength hurricanes because of continued global warming trends. Of course, there are critics and skeptics, as there should be and needs to be in science, who develop alternative explanations and theories, and there may very well be some legitimacy to natural global climate fluctuations. Certainly there have been numerous global climate shifts throughout earth's history, long before people inhabited the planet. However, a new statistical analysis of the data suggests that only ocean surface temperatures can reasonably explain the trend in increasingly strong hurricanes as global warming continues.

The new study was published this past week in the science journal Science, and is summarized on the Scientific American website. Information theory was used in the analysis, which looks at statistical links indicative of the amount of information various data share, and the only variable that can be linked to hurricane strength is ocean surface temperature. Obviously scientists will continue to test other variables through these statistical models as well as computer simulations, which increasingly are being fine-tuned as time goes on and more global climate data comes in, and all of this does not spell good news for regions susceptible to hurricanes...and hurricane season begins in only a few months.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Differing Perceptions of Student Preparedness for College

An interesting study just came out in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Two companion surveys were given to high school teachers and to college professors all across the nation, and the surveys asked about the level of preparedness for students leaving high school and entering college. There is a significant difference of opinion when the two surveys are compared.

For instance, 44% of college professors believe incoming students are not well prepared for college-level writing, as opposed to only 10% of high school teachers, while only 6% of college professors say students are well-prepared versus 36% of high school teachers who feel high school graduates going to college are writing at the college level. As for math preparedness, 32% of college professors believe students are not prepared for college matematics, compared to 9% of high school teachers. Only 4% believe the typical high school graduate is ready for college level math, while 37% of high school teachers are well prepared for college math. These are very different sets of opinions. A staggering 84% of the professors surveyed believe incoming students are not at all prepared or only somewhat prepared for college.

There are numerous questions and statistics for subject specific preparedness, and the summary article for the study shows taht teachers and profesors agree that students are, on average, becoming increasingly less motivated to study and learn and have poor study skills. There is a shared feeling overall that larger percentages of students are becoming satisfied with just doing minimal work while expecting high grades. This translates into high school teachers giving less homework because they don't expect to ever see it returned, as well as shorter writing assignments. Many more professors will give assignments for papers of 5 or more pages much more frequently than high school teachers, and this likely is a factor in the large discrepancy noted above between the two groups when it comes to writing skills; many students who go to college are not ready to handle longer papers because of a lack of experience. I suspect that many students are also unable to find larger amounts of relevant data or supporting evidence for the theses of longer papers simply because of a lack of experience while in high school. As one may have guessed, there are large differences between the groups when it comes to the preparedness and ability of students to do more advanced analyses of data and
the development of strong, logical arguments in their writing.

As I think about countless discussions with more senior colleagues, with 20-30 years of teaching experience, every teacher said that the level of rigor they have students work at is lower than what they taught 20 years ago; I honestly cannot recall a single teacher who said they are able to get students to work at a higher level than they traditionally taught in the past. This is especially true for teachers of honors classes, who complain that the level of study is noticeably lower than what they used to do 10 or more years ago. One potential reason for this is that significant numbers of counselors and parents push students who are not ready for or capable of doing true honors work into honors classes because they know this is what colleges want to see on a transcript. Many at my school, for instance, believe there is a negative stigma attached to 'regular' classes, and that one cannot make it to college if they take such a class. I suspect these are generally true on a relatively large scale in high school, and contribute to the professor's responses in the survey. In my opinion, there also seems to be the sense that expectations are being lowered for high school students, and academic excellence cannot be reached if teachers and students alike do not believe that the norm should be to constantly push yourself to higher and higher levels of critical thinking and problem solving and writing to communicate thoughts to others.

Check out the article and survey statistics if interested.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Statistics 101: Uncertainties in Surveys

In my previous post, I showed the results of a MIT survey on Democrat and Republican average opinions of when the U.S. should use force. One thing bothers me when I see survey data like this - most of the time, survey results are shown without stating eiher the sample size that was used or the standard deviation associated with the data. In my mind, these are mosre important than the results that are shown, because the sample size and standard deviation (which is calculated from the sample size) tell us if the results are significant or not.

Suppose someone publishes a survey before an election. Suppose all that is given is 51% of Americans, on average, will vote for Bush, and 49% will vote for Kerry. A reader, the vast majority of whom likely know nothing about statistics, reads this and must conclude that Bush will have the election won. But here is the part many polls do not present, or if they do this information is usually in the fine print that many people miss. What if the sample size used for the poll is 100 likely voters? Statistically, there is an uncertainty in results that must exist when one is using a subset of the population to draw conclusions for the entire population. The range of likely results is determined by the standard deviation, which in a counting experiment such as a survey, is found by the square root the sample size, N. If N = 100, then the standard deviation is sqrt(100) = 10. The percent uncertainty is then 10/100 = 0.10, or a 10% spread. All of the sudden the results look much less significant in the poll: 49% for Kerry versus 51% for Bush with a 10% uncertainty means one can draw no conclusions at all, that the results predicting who will win the election are insignificant.

For the MIT survey, I would want to know what the sample size is in order to get a feel for how much of a difference really exists in some of the categories the survey addresses. For example, the results for coming to the defense of an ally if the ally is attacked is 91% for Repblicans, and 75% for Democrats. But if the sample size was, say, 100, a 10% uncertainty suddenly means there is no significant difference between the two parties since the results overlap. Now, if 1000 people were surveyed, sqrt(1000) = 31.6 and sqrt(1000)/1000 = .0316, or 3.16% for a percent difference (or percent margin for error). The Dems could be as high as 78% and the Republicans as low as 88%, so the fact that there is no overlap means that there is a statistically significant difference between the two parties. But we will not be able to determine this unless the sample size is reported.

I am not a statistician, nor do I have experience with polling experiments, but this is a basic statistical method for determining the range of uncertainty in polling data. The point is to not take survey data too seriously unless it is possible to make statistically significant conclusions from the data.

Interesting Survey on the Use of Force

Thanks go out to Zenpundit for emailing the results of a MIT survey taken last November. Below is a copy off of the American Future blog:

Democrats (percent expressing approval)
1. To protect American allies under attack by foreign nations: 75.7%

2. To help the UN uphold international law: 70.5%
3. To destroy a terrorist camp: 57.3%
4. To intervene in a region where there is genocide or a civil war: 55.6%
5. To insure the supply of oil: 10.2%
6. To assist the spread of democracy: 6.5%
Average: 46.0%

Republicans (percent expressing approval)
1. To destroy a terrorist camp: 94.8%
2. To protect American allies under attack by foreign nations: 91.9%
3. To intervene in a region where there is genocide or a civil war: 61.4%
4. To assist the spread of democracy: 53.2%
5. To insure the supply of oil: 40.9%
6. To help the UN uphold international law: 35.5%
Average: 63.0%

It is not at all surprising to me that there are these differences between Dems and Republicans, although the magnitude of the spread in some categories is perhaps something to note. As a Democrat myself, in this day and age I would have to agree with Republicans when it comes to destroying a known terrorist camp, and I'd have to agree with trying to assist if there is genocide. For something like a civil war, however, there are many possible scenarios one would have to consider, and to generically say 'Send in our troops' is irresponsible without having specific information.

I am surprised there is still a majority of Republicans who agree with using U.S. military might to spread democracy, although I'd like to see the results if this survey were repeated now instead of back in November of 2005. With a Bush approval rating in the low 30% range and a growing majority of Americans thinking the effort to spread democracy in Iraq is not working, I would have to guess that these numbers would change. We are learning the hard way that one cannot just go into a country and force democracy on them.

A society is a complex system, with the inclusion of at least pseudo-chaotic characteristics. That is, with small changes in initial conditions, vastly different results take hold for a given disturbance to the system. The West obviously has a poor understanding of the effect religion has in the Mideast, and the simplistic way of thinking Bush likes to use on everything, in this case that all people think the same when it comes to a democracy, is flawed. MANY other factors come into play when human beings are concerned, and treating social environments as a deterministic system is not the correct approach. Sometimes it is appropriate to think about things in detail and not go by a 'gut feeling,' as some of our leaders prefer to do.

My next post will be about surveys in general, and will look at one aspect that most people either don't know about, ignore, or forget about: the statistical validity of surveys.