Friday, March 27, 2009

Disspelling a Myth - Public Schools do Better in Math than Private

A study coming out of my alma mater, University of Illinois, concludes that public school students perform better in math on standardized tests than students from private schools. Check out a Science News article outlining the results.

This is a comprehensive study that used data from 270,000 4th and 8th grade students from 10,000 schools, so the results are significant with little in the way of statistical uncertainties. The researchers looked at five factors to see which correlated more positively to achievement. Those factors are parental involvement, school size, class size, teacher certification and instructional practices.

School size and parental involvement did not correlate significantly with achievement. However, small class sizes do correlate positively with achievement, and small class sizes are more prevalent in private schools. Certainly, the general public perception of private vs public schools is that everything private tends to be better, with the possible exceptions of the elite, wealthy public schools (such as a New Trier or Stevenson in the Chicago area) or magnet schools in urban areas, such as Walter Payton Prep in Chicago. But typically the strerotype is private is better in general.

So if small class size is more typical of private schools, how can public schools end up doing better than private in mathematics? It lies in the quality of the teachers and in the trend to adopt research-based, modern curriculum. Many private schools apparently still adopt traditional "back to basics" methods of learning mathematics, built around rote memorization and 'drill and kill' problems. Newer curricula are built around understanding concepts, problem solving and applications of math. Private schools also do not require or are mandated to have certified teachers, and tend to offer smaller salaries that are not competitive for top teachers. The research suggests these are the two driving forces that lead to better achievement, at least in mathematics.

Like anything else, though, there are outstanding private and public schools, and there are other schools that are in dire straits. This is an interesting study that not only concludes something that goes against common perceptions, but I think it more importantly gives insights into factors that make for better learning experiences for students. The evidence that curriculum and teacher certification and expertise are significant drivers for learning supports efforts among school districts for robust and focused staff development programs and collaborative efforts between universities and school systems for continual development and improvement of data-driven/research-based curricula. One other piece of this puzzle is, in my opinion, using cognitive science research in larger capacities with the development of curriculum as well as in-class practices, where we provide more ideal environments for students that are literally targeted at students' brains, and how our brains make the inner connections that lead to learning. This includes understanding differences between male and female brains and how they are 'wired,' where genders learn differently. There is still much to do, and hopefully both public (where 90% of our children go) and private schools use such research to better educate our children.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Geothermal energy production costs on par with that of Coal

A new study suggests that the energy production costs coming from geothermal sources is now on par, and perhaps even cheaper, than the costs associated with energy coming from coal burning plants. This is important in this day and age of multiple billions of dollars from the stimulus package being destined for alternative energy sources. A summary can be found at Scientific American online.

Power production through turbines and generators is based on running pressurized steam through the turbine, which in turns spins loops of wire inside a magnetic field, thus inducing alternating voltage and currents. This is then brought into your town or city through the power grid. I don't think there is any doubt from any groups associated with the energy sector of the economy that the power grid needs serious work, and that there is a need for the U.S. to expand its energy portfolio. But how to go about reforming the energy sector is under intense debate from competing industries and other stakeholders. I am glad to not hear the "drill, baby, drill"groups on TV every evening, because that is not the answer long term. A well-balanced portfolio is necessary, and the dominant source of power will likely be based on local abundances of fuel or energy source. The south and southwest will likely have, in the next couple decades, a much higher percentage of its power coming from solar technologies relative to the north, and the north will likely have higher percentages of its portfolio using nuclear or wind. Certain areas of the country will make use of local geothermal or hydroelectric resources, and some may still rely more on fossil fuels.

One idea I would like to see researched is tidal power and the use of ocean currents to power generators. At some point, when drinking water becomes one of the major issues for certain portions of the U.S. and other countries, that same tidal or oceanic power is used by desalination plants along coastlines. This would certainly be cheaper than extending the power grid out into the oceans. It is an upsetting time for many as they consider the large increases in energy on a global scale, as China and India continue their march to becoming industrial and economic giants, but at the same time there is such an amazing opportunity to expand energy sources and see what some creative thinking will develop in the next 10-20 years. I do think Pres. Obama got it right to include some financial resources for new energy development in the stimulus bill, because in time the energy sector should be a major creator of good, technical jobs in the U.S. This all ties into national security and economic development, as well as manufacturing revival of some factories that will be needed to build the massive amounts of new infrastructure that the U.S. and most of the rest of the world will require as energy production expansion continues at rapidly increasing rates that match population increases globally. It is also a necessary step in protecting the environment and addressing global climate change. A good portion of the U.S. and global economies will, in fact, be 'energy economies' as we hear the president say so often.