Friday, May 6, 2011

-Problems with education

It is clear to many people that primary and secondary education in the US is not as good as in other developed countries (Finland, Korea, for example). You have probably heard or seen in the news that people in education are trying to implement different changes aimed to improved the system.

Michelle Rhee, in Waiting for Superman argues that the biggest problem is that a lot of teachers are bad and there's no accountability and punishing framework for those teachers who underperform. Wisconsin is going against unions, in order to remove collecting bargaining rights. Others argue that salaries and on-the-job welfare of teachers are under par in the US when compared to countries that in which the schools perform better and that that leads to a high turnover rate and low recruiting standards for new teachers.

If you divide the problem into its four working parts you get: the education administrators, the teachers, students and everything else. Rhee and Wisconsin's governor blame the poor performance on having bad teachers; Eggers and Clements Calegari blame the administrators for not having good work conditions. Maybe the two feedback into one another: bad working conditions lead to good teachers leaving (or never entering the field) which opens the door to bad teachers taking those jobs. The main issue I have with these two camps is the lack of data supporting their statements. You can quote the info presented in Waiting for Superman, but to me, that wasn't hard data. That was an opinion formed by a group of people based on a limited (an biased; will the administration ever blame itself for the low performance? will the teachers?). On the other hand, while it is clear that teachers' salaries are low and benefits might not be great, they have other advantages (e.g. summers off, "tenure", etc). Nobody, as far as I know, had looked at the other two parts and the effects that they have on a kid's education. But that's until now...

Michael Marder, a physicist from the University of Texas at Austin, has done some work in this area too (click here for an interview). I think it's good that someone that's close to the problem but not from within is looking at this stuff, mainly because his approach is based on data and, as a good scientist, he's opened to peer-review and/or rebuttals of his claims:

"There's a flood of data. The schools have been gathering an unprecedented amount of information about what students are doing every single year, particularly in reading and mathematics. [...] Everything I'm showing you can be obtained from the web with downloads. Now, the data sets are typically too large to be put into Excel, and so, my background in nonlinear dynamics helped me because I'm used to processing large data sets from experiments and that meant I had software tools available to me that although free, are not available... easily available to everybody. [...] and I encourage everybody to check the claims that I'm making because it's extremely important that as we go forward in this country we base the decisions on what the data tell us"

So, what does he find?

That poverty levels matter a lot. You can see from the video interviews the graphs that show how the higher the poverty concentration (defined as the percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch) the lower the test scores. It's also clear that there is a correlation between being a minority student and poverty level.

He also looks at the performance of charter schools and finds, that at best (in most cases), they do about as good (or actually, as bad) as comparable public schools.

Are these results striking?

To me, yes and no. Anyone who thought (or thinks) that poverty levels do not matter in the performance of kids is either completely misinformed or plain dumb. There are plenty of documented examples from different countries in which kids from lower income families perform worse than their middle class counterparts. I am actually surprised that it requires a physicist to put it into a graph for it to gain traction.

The charter school results are somewhat surprising though. You can see that in most cases, charter schools are actually worse than public schools. If you watch Waiting for Superman you'd think that charter schools are the solution to the educational problem, but this goes to show that just because someone in the position of "power" says something is the problem it doesn't mean it is. It may well be that for D.C. schools, charter schools and/or better teacher accountability is the solution, but to go to the federal area and push for policies to that end without having data is ridiculous. On the other hand, you can see that most charter schools have a high poverty level. This argues against the idea that bad teachers alone are the problem, and supports the idea that the learning conditions both inside and outside of the classroom are more important parameters.

Is there anything really surprising?

YES! The fact that a lot of people (including many politicians in office) completely dismiss poverty as a factor. It's much easier for them to blame the teachers, and for teachers to blame the administration, than to admit that social conditions in their cities and states are bad and are affecting education.

How do you fix the problem? Marder says:

"The schools are going down, the schools that serve poor children are not doing well, and I believe, that the fundamental problem just like the cracks in the airplanes, is that poverty introduces flaws into the system of schooling that cause the schools to crash. We have to solve that problem. Now, there are theories for how to do this right now, but I think they are as mistaken as the theories that the British were using as the Comets went down, and I think that the data show it. So, what I urge everybody is, look at the data. If you think that accountability by itself; that improving teacher quality... by itself; and that neglecting the influences of poverty and saying that other reforms will help, then I think the data have a lot of things to tell you that say that you're not right."

I find this extremely courageous. Since he has no stake in it, he can really look at it from other angles and speak out. I guess having tenure at UT Austin, and your job not depending on political appointments, can put you in a position to stand for what you think is true and right. Of course, using hard data and objective analysis to reach your conclusions cannot hurt either.

Now, will the people believe what a physicist have to say? I guess we'll have to wait to know the answer...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

-Applied science.. I like this idea

I stumbled upon this article.

This is a great example of the applicability of science to make lives better. It won't solve the energy problems, especially in underdeveloped countries, but it can certainly help an individual person/family and all you need is kids playing ball for 15 mins.

I have always been a fan of this type of technological developments; I appreciate the cleverness of the ideas, but more importantly, I think it makes the general public appreciate the positive impact of science on our daily lives.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

-Why I am not surprised?

I should've seen this coming. Of course, that's a much better solution than actually passing state laws with climate change in mind.

Oh well...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

- Are we doing a disservice to science?

ZapperZ has a recent post about a comment by a former US Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott, about the 4 years of pre-college high school science and math that he took were just a waste of time, waste of the teacher's time and a waste of space. You can check my opinion on taking 4 years of high school science and math on the comment section of ZapperZ's post, and I won't talk about that particular point here. What I want to talk about is a related topic, and that is that everyone in the US, regardless of the major, has to take science classes as part of their undergraduate degree.

The standard answer (tipically from faculty) behind this practice is that everyone must know a little bit of science or otherwise that person is an ignorant. There are already a few science books out there meant for future administrators or politicians (for an example, click here).

Here are the problems with that answer:
1) Why is it that not knowing science makes you an ignorant, but not knowing finance, simple business administration, political science, or being monolingual is something acceptable?. I know plenty of science professors that would benefit a lot from some basic organizational skills that anyone could acquire from a few courses in the business school. And what's up with tons of American professors only knowing English? And don't hit me with the purist's view of science being something fundamental, our current modern lifestyle depends as much on scientific/technological developments than on the ability of politicians and administrators to maintain a healthy economy that allows for science funding. Is it arrogance?

2) The idea that people can learn enough science, from a couple of college classes at most, to make "smart" decisions when they are in positions of power is fucking ridiculous. It isn't like 100% of the people that actually finish an undergraduate degree in a scientific field know enough to make those smart decisions.

3) Even if the syllabus of two or so courses were enough for material for someone to acquire significant knowledge of science, it would require great instructors. Unfortunately, Physics would still suffer because the number of good professors in the physics departments's files is quite low. Chemists and biologists wouldn't necessarily do good either, but I think they generally do better than physicists. I once was the TA for a physics course for liberal arts majors at a top research university. The professor was one of the best in the department, at least based on many years of being top rated when teaching physics or engineering majors. The problem was that he lectured the liberal arts majors the exact same way as he'd lecture the science or engineering majors. By the last month of the course, roughly about 60% of the students in the class REALLY hated physics. You could tell they had had it with it. I could only imagine how they would vote on science-related bills if they were ever elected to some kind of office. It really wasn't like they came into the class with a great passion for physics; they weren't excited about it from the get go, but for them to go from being indifferent to hating it cannot be good for the future of science. And I know this was not an isolated event, it happens quite often. And if it happens at the college level, I don't even want to think how bad it could get at the high school level where you might have an unprepared and unmotivated teacher.

I could agree with you if you believe that any person who obtains a bachelor's degree should be a well-rounded person and as such, non-STEM students have to take science courses, as long as you also believe that courses in non-STEM areas are of equal value to STEM students. But, if we really want to do a service to science by educating everyone on it, we better put our greatest effort into the teaching of those courses. We cannot afford to alienate the ones that can end up with the power of funding more science.

Monday, April 4, 2011

-Excuses, excuses

This ranks as the most ridiculous thing I've heard in the last few weeks:

A public objection to the Daylight savings time change because losing that one hour of sleep to move the clocks forward will cause health issues and inefficiency at work.

HAHAHA, nice one people! You should be comedians.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

- My thoughts on the 2011 APS March meeting

This was my first APS march meeting and I have to say: Wow! I had never seen so many physicists roaming around and enjoying life! I liked the fact that it is a great opportunity to catch up with your old friends (undergrad, grad school, postdoc, etc), I saw people I hadn't seen in many years! I don't think I have complaints about the social part of the APS meeting, except maybe that there isn't (or at least I couldn't find it in the program) a big party with music and drinks for all attendants. Maybe the women-to-men ratio is just to small to have a good party, but I don't think physicists would notice the difference :)

My comments on the scientific side are different. Not everything was good. For one, I am not sure approving a talk for pretty much everyone who submits an abstract is that good. It leads to too many bad talks, and while each one is only 10 mins long, the chances of having back to back bad talks is high enough. On the other hand, allowing a student present in front of an audience is a great experience for us. I just wished the feedback time was longer than 2 mins. I feel like that's not enough to really learn what you did right and what you did wrong as far as presenting.

In addition, having 10 mins talks means that there is likely no time to give an introduction for the non-expert. Most talks are only valuable to people working in that field, which is good for people in the field, but not so much as an educating tool for people in different areas. Maybe a little background info, or at least a well-stated question or reason for the research could go a long way as far as making me, the non-expert, understand where your field is going.

As far as location, Dallas is a great city, but downtown Dallas kinda sucks. There aren't many places to eat at around the convention center, and at night it can be somewhat scary if you're walking alone and you go a few blocks off in the "wrong" direction. There wasn't any tourist attraction (at least I couldn't find one) in the neighborhood either, typically cities that hold conferences have something "nice" by the convention center but not this time.

Next year it looks like it'll be Boston, I hope I can go. That sounds like a cool place to spend some time!

Monday, March 28, 2011

-When does it become lying?

One of the things that bother me about scientific progress these days is that survival is so dependent on research grants, and competition for these grants is to fierce, that some scientists are willing to twist around and play with the interpretations of the data to such extents as to state their view as true even when they don't have data that supports that view.

In my particular field, there is one scientific question that has remained unanswered for more than 10 years and which is the purpose of my dissertation. The idea is that when we look at the system of interest, we observe certain features (let's call all of these, X) of it and the general consensus is that there's a mechanism that controls the system and gives rise to those observed features. After many years of research, the field has narrowed it down to 2 possible options (let's say A and B), but no one has conclusive data for either one of them. The problem with figuring it out is simply to state. The two remaining potential mechanisms can explain the observed features, therefore, looking at the features alone cannot tell you which one it is. It's like having different engineering designs for, say, clocks. All of which look the same from outside, but are very different inside and in order to figure out which one it is you kinda have to open the clock and take a look at the components.

Most people in the field believe that the mechanism that controls the system is A, mainly because it would make more sense based on other things we know about the system but because we're scientists we remain open to the other possibility since we have no experimental data to support either one. Recently though, a small group of strong believers of mechanism B have published a series of papers "supporting" their mechanism. I write supporting in quotations because the first paper of that series was a computer simulation that showed that mechanism B could indeed work. Notice the difference, showing that it could explain what we see does not, in any way, imply that it is what's there. From there on, their subsequent papers refer to the first one and usually write something like:

It is thought that features X arise from having mechanism A at work. However, mechanism A has not been identified to be true in this system. On the other hand, features X can arise from mechanism B (refer to our simulation in the first of our papers) and since it's our proposal we will assume it is true.

I don't have a problem with them stating there's no direct data in support of A but that's the same case for B, but why not be equally honest about that? There's gotta be a point where misleading becomes lying. Where's that line? Does not having experimental data for nor against your idea give you the right to state your idea as the real deal? Who is supposed to be watching out for this sort of stuff? I thought journal referees would catch this kind of stuff, looks to me, the system has failed but I am opened to be proven wrong! :)