The Problem with Public Education

Wow I’ve been away from here for a long time. But things have been crazy for me. Not that they’ll be getting any simpler in the future (more on that in a second), but going forward I want to make posting on here a much bigger priority than it has been in the past.

Starting next year, in addition to teaching full time, I’m going to be working on a doctorate in science education. After all, who needs sleep anyway? The reason I decided to go back to school was because I, like many people, think the American public education system isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be—what it could be. And, like many people, I see that the current measures proposed to fix it simply won’t work.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m somewhat ambivalent to Common Core, the newest education reform initiative to be unrolled in the States. I think spiritually it’s actually a good idea. Unfortunately, as is often the case when large bureaucracies are involved, many of its fatal flaws are in its execution.

But that’s not even the worst part. Common Core will fail, or at least it won’t accomplish what those who proposed it want it to. And the reason is simple: Common Core is an attempt to fix our education system without addressing any of the things that are actually wrong with it. It’s like trying to treat a cold with a tourniquet.

But I only had a runny nose (Getty images)

Let me start this by saying that I believe in the public education system. If I didn’t then I wouldn’t be a part of it. I wouldn’t be going back to school in the hopes that I can make my voice heard and change it for the better. However, it is clear to anyone watching that we need to do things very differently if we want to get the kind of results we desperately need. And we do need to fix this problem. Toying around with education is gambling with our future and, as anyone who follows the news knows, the need for creative and intelligent thinkers has never been higher.

I’m going to post a lot about what I think we’re doing wrong in public education and what I believe can be done to fix those problems, but here I think I’ll start just by explaining why I think we let things get so bad; why there is such a need for deep, systemic reform. So thanks for sticking with me through the introduction, let’s get to the heart of the matter.

 

WHY PUBLIC EDUCATION IS SUFFERING

 

There is only one thing I should have to tell you to make you see that what we’re doing in our schools is wrong, and that is the fact that we haven’t significantly changed the mechanics of our education system since the 1840’s. Yes, we’ve undergone cosmetic changes and many “reforms” since then, but if you ask any modern student what the staples of their education are, you’ll find that the list you get has changed alarmingly little for over 150 years. We may have changed what a classroom looks like by including iPads and SMARTboards, but we haven’t changed what a classroom is, at least as an institution.

But why should we have to change it? As the old adage goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” People could argue that the reason certain elements have persisted in education for so long is because they are fundamentally valuable to the learning experience. But none of them are. I’m sure I’ll go into each of them in more detail in other posts in the future so I’ll leave that alone for now and use a more general argument here.

We most often relate evolution to biological systems, but it is in fact a universal truth. Everything—animals, people, societies, institutions, even ideas—need to adapt and change as the climate around them shifts or risk fading into insignificance. Think about the samurai of Japan, a once dominant class that failed to adapt to the arrival of new technology in the form of western guns. Look at newspapers, which either move more and more into online distribution or fold under the weight of antiquated printing costs when no one (under the age of 30) reads print newspapers anymore. This is just the way of the world: things change; either you change with them or you become irrelevant.

None of this is even to mention the fact that our education system is the spiritual successor of a Prussian model designed not to educate but to instill obedience; made to produce workers, not thinkers. The fact that we haven’t allowed it to change in any significant way is really the least of our worries when the original system was so far off what true education should be.

But why, if as I suggested above institutions must evolve or be left behind, has education almost alone been able to remain fundamentally unchanged for so long? The answer is simple: we need it.

The fact that education in this country has stagnated for so long is a direct result of the way we view education. In America, as in a lot of other places, we see the availability of quality education as a fundamental human right. Education as a resource is something that everyone should have access to.

And don’t get me wrong, I completely agree with that. Education is the strongest weapon against the many inequalities that still plague the modern world. It’s essentially a requirement for social reform.

The problem is exactly that: the institution of public education has become a requirement. And once something is necessary, once its value is determined not by how well it achieves its goals but by the mere fact of its existence, it no longer needs to evolve or change. Because no matter how broken, bloated, or ineffective it becomes, we will still support it because we need it. The exact same thing has happened to our government as a whole, but that’s an issue I really don’t want to touch on here.

Exempting any institution from the need to evolve in order to ensure its survival is the surest way to make it ineffective. If you don’t have to change, why would you? That takes effort. It’s hard and uncomfortable. Other businesses take that risk because if they don’t, if their competitor does first, they lose their customers. But there are no competitors to a public education system, no one to step in and force them to move forward or be left behind.

As only one of many example of this, let’s talk about summer vacation. As much as we love having that solid chunk of time off, any teacher you ask will agree wholeheartedly that having an extended summer vacation the way we do is bad for education as a whole. Kids come back from having that much time out of the classroom with heads full of mush. It’s not their fault. We’re creating an unnecessary and detrimental division between time spent as a student and time spent as a kid. Everyone who has studied this issue agrees that if we took time away from summer vacation and strategically relocated it throughout the year so that the amount of vacation days didn’t change, our educational system would benefit.

Do today’s students even know why summer vacation exists in the first place? So that kids could help out on their parents’ farms during the busy season. That’s it. Does anyone still use it that way? Yes, it is a time for kids to get “summer jobs” and internships, to build work experience and learn some responsibility, but those things could easily be worked into the school year itself if we weren’t so fixed on taking the existence of summer vacation as a given.

So, if summer vacation is so detrimental to our schools, it no longer serves its original purpose, and a solution is readily available, why do we still have it? Because politics. It’s the same reason pennies still exist despite being more than useless. None of the people who are in a position to make this decision feel like it’s in their best interest to change it. No one wants to be that guy who abolished summer vacation, and if he was his odds of being re-elected would probably be pretty slim.

Arguably, summer vacation has taken on a new purpose—to give kids (and teachers) time to recover from the stressful environment of school. But that to me just indicates that we’re doing school wrong. It shouldn’t be some torturous experience that kids have to suffer through until they get their shot at freedom. If schooling were done correctly, kids shouldn’t want to leave. It should be an energizing experience, not a draining one. Yes there should be breaks and times for families to go away together, but if kids really need three months to recover from a year of school, then we are doing things seriously wrong.

In summary, the fundamental problem with public education is that the system has no incentive to improve itself. Public schools will always exist almost regardless of what they do inside their classrooms. Unlike almost any other business or institution, they don’t lose by refusing to adapt to the changing demands of our modern world.

Only we do.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think about this issue below.

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Why Does Helium Make Your Voice Sound Funny?

In my class we just began learning about waves, and so today I figured I’d write about one of my favorite demonstrations. I’m sure you’ve seen this somewhere or another, whether in a classroom or at a party. Someone swallows some helium from a balloon and suddenly they sound like Alvin the Chipmunk.

Have you ever wondered why that is?

Plenty of physics teachers love this demonstration. And why not? It’s eye (or ear) catching, funny, and has a lot of powerful physics behind it. Unfortunately, it’s almost always taught incorrectly, at least from what I’ve seen. Here’s how it’s usually taught, why that’s wrong, and what’s really happening when you swallow a balloon full of helium.

[At this point I should probably include a disclaimer about doing this yourself. Swallowing helium directly from a pressurized tank should never be done by anyone under any circumstances. However, swallowing helium from a balloon is perfectly safe…provided you don’t swallow too much or too quickly. The helium displaces the air in your lungs, which means if you do this too quickly or for too long your body will asphyxiate for lack of oxygen. When this happens you will pass out, and can injure yourself by collapsing. It’s not fatal (helium is so light that it’ll all leave your lungs while you’re unconscious and you’ll be able to breathe again), but can be dangerous if you hit your head on the way down. I recommend you always have someone watching you while you try this.]

HOW IT’S USUALLY TAUGHT

Most teachers use this demonstration to illustrate the fundamental wave equation, the formula shown below (warning: Maths ahead)

(Speed)=(wavelength)x(frequency)

Since helium is less dense than air, the speed of the sound waves produced when you speak is higher with helium in your lungs than with air. Since speed increases, something on the other side of the equation above must also increase. Most teacher will then have their students conclude that when speed increases, frequency increases.

WHY THAT’S WRONG

This is a horrible misconception to be perpetuating in a classroom. The frequency of a wave is like its fingerprint or DNA. Once a wave has been created, nothing can change that frequency. If it did, it would be an entirely different wave. And it’s not the gas in our throat and lungs that is creating the sound of our voice but our vocal chords, which function the same way regardless of what we’ve been breathing. Combining that with the logic and equation above, we see that it’s not the frequency of our voice that changes when we ingest helium but its wavelength.

SO WHY DOES THE PITCH CHANGE?

In order to correctly explain this phenomenon, you need to realize two things:

  1. The human voice is composed of more than one frequency. When we speak, our vocal chords don’t just vibrate in a single mode but in several, creating harmonics of different frequencies all at once. This is why two people singing the same note sound different from one another.
  2. When people speak, our throats function in a very similar way to a pipe organ. The source of the sound is our vocal chords, which transfer their vibrations into the air in our lungs as sound. This is equivalent to the strings hidden within an organ. From there, our throat takes over, which serves the same function as the pipes in an organ: Amplification. Both the organ pipes and our throats accomplish this amplification through resonance. When a sound wave with a wavelength matching the length of the tube/throat passes by, it gets amplified.

Now we can begin to make sense of this. First, the frequencies of sound (the pitches) that we produce are exactly the same regardless of what is filling our lungs at the moment. Those frequencies depend only on how we vibrate our vocal chords. Changing the speed (and thus the wavelengths) of those waves does not change the frequency or pitch we hear.

However, it does change which frequencies get amplified via resonance in our throats (because remember that does depend on wavelength). After swallowing a less dense gas like helium, our throats selectively resonate the higher frequencies among the range that our voice always produces. Similarly, if you were to ingest a denser gas [this is far more dangerous than swallowing helium as denser gases will settle in your lungs, producing a much higher risk of suffocation], your throat would selectively resonate the lower frequencies among that range, making you sound more like Darth Vader.

When Politics get in the way of Education

This is my first post of the new year, and I’m pissed off.

In case you haven’t heard, New York City public schools just lost 250 million dollars in state aid. That’s not what bothers me. What bothers me is why we lost this funding. You’re sure to get a different opinion on this depending on who you ask, with everyone pointing fingers at someone else. But here are the undeniable facts: a school system with around 1.1 million students just lost 250,000,000 dollars of aid because a bunch of politicians couldn’t reach an agreement.

And what exactly was the divisive issue for which we lost all this funding? Was it about what we’re teaching in our classes? About how it’s supposed to be taught? Nope. Those would make too much sense. The issue that just cost our public schools 250 million dollars was how we should evaluate teachers.

Are you freaking kidding me?!

I’m not even going to get into whether the methods we currently have for evaluating teacher effectiveness in the classroom are useless (they are) or whether the proposed methods were better (they were). That’s not the issue here. At this point I don’t even care about that.

What I care about is that 1.1 million students are going to suffer now because the “adults” who are supposed to have their best interests in mind couldn’t get their shit together and think about anyone other than themselves for just a few hours.

The problem is that all of the people making the decisions about education are too far removed from the classroom. Whether they were classroom teachers in the past or not, they’re politicians now. Neither of the parties involved in this negotiation care one bit about the students. The UFT (United Federation of Teachers) only cares about protecting teachers (whether or not they deserve to be protected) and Bloomberg and the DOE only care about the budget. With people like this in charge, is it any wonder that public education is collapsing?

Regardless of who is “responsible” for this monumental failure (both parties share the blame), I have to say I’m disappointed in the Teachers’ Union. I’m disappointed because they’re supposed to represent us teachers, yet I find every single thing they do revolting. How can they possibly represent us when their interests are so drastically different from our own?

If the UFT really wanted to represent teachers, they would do whatever they had to in order to keep this funding. Because if the UFT really wanted to represent teachers, they would care about our students as much as we do.

But the biggest reason I’m disappointed in the UFT is because they’ve betrayed us. By refusing a deal that would make ineffective teachers responsible for their actions, they’ve cost our schools 250 million dollars. And what’s the first thing that’s going to go now that we’ve lost that funding? That’s right, teachers.

Way to protect us, UFT.