Monthly Archives: October 2013

Talk from IOP

Here’s the talk I gave at the Institute of Physics Higher Education Group meeting last week. It was delivered via Blackboard, so the sound is not amazing and it only captured the slides rather than all the video – I think next time I’ll run my own sound/video capture at the same time so that I can get a better version to upload. The talk is just under an hour including some questions at the end.

Additional questions are welcome!


Temporary Hiatus

This blog is going on another hiatus, perhaps a month or so this time. Just wanted to let everyone know.

Cops in Schools

Oh, for the love of God. And they even went and interviewed the NRA, who basically said “Shoot The Bad Guy” like they usually do, when that’s clearly not the only way to do things.

Where are they going to put them? $45 million for 356 officers? There are, as of the 2010 census, 13,809 school districts in the United States, with 132,656 schools. Even if you just look at the public ones, this provides just a single officer for just 0.38% of all the schools in the USA. Which ones? Do you have a list of the 300 worst schools in the USA? 300 Schools In Worst Neighborhoods, not that that makes much of a difference? Do you have a list of the 300 Schools Most Likely To Have A Shooting? Or is this going to the 300 schools with the students most beloved by their parents?

This is a weak token gesture that spends $45 million to no effect, either positive or negative. It shouldn’t have even been brought up as a possibility. The only thing I can be happy about with this right now is that, thanks to the government shutdown, this won’t go anywhere for a while.

Strangely, I have no problem with having a cop around your school all the time. It’s infinitely better than giving guns to teachers, and it could be decent PR for the police department if they had an officer who could connect with the students – no easy feat in this day when our examples of the police are less than stellar. The officer would probably get pretty bored and distracted, which is a hazard in and of itself when you’re surrounded by unhappy teenagers and carrying a firearm. But this?

This is pure theater.

SAT Alternative

People send me lots of stuff from the Times, it seems.

The headline is flippant and kind of annoying, honestly, but it’s not wrong.

I’m always a fan of having multiple ways to do something. (Except when it comes to XML. Don’t get me started.) I think the idea that you can turn in a couple college-level papers (or math projects, or a music composition) to prove that you can do well in college makes a ton of sense.This is Bard’s core curriculum and it makes sense to test specifically on that.

Clearly, however, the expectations here are off.

Their response to the cheating issue is clearly either bravado or a total lack of preparation for the question. Cheating is rampant in both high school and college; all the way up through grad school. Solid statistics are hard to find, but the fraction of students who have cheated is typically over 50%. Not running the essays through a Google search and TurnItIn isn’t trust, it’s avoiding due diligence.

The amount of work is also substantial. It’s effectively on par with taking an SAT prep course, and it’s also the sort of work for which one can be coached. In fact, it’s the sort of work that you could have someone else edit. (This is quite reasonable – when I wrote 10-page papers in college, you better damn well believe I had someone else edit them!) If you’re from a low-income family that can’t afford SAT prep classes, you also can’t afford the writing tutor and editor that the rich kids can afford. You might not even be able to afford the internet access you would need to bring up the resources that the school is thoughtfully providing.

There’s really no cancellation of background factors going on in this new process. It’s not even designed for that – I’m not honestly sure that it was designed at all. I still like it. I like the fact that it’s available, and I think they’ll get some great applicants, but if it does what they say it’s going to do (that is, level the playing field), I’ll eat my hat. I mean, I should find an edible hat, just in case, but I don’t think I’ll need it.

Women in Physics

It’s a long article on a very important subject. I very much encourage you to read the whole thing; there’s good stuff all the way through to the end.

“People said, ‘Oh, that might happen in the Midwest or in the South, but not in New England, or not in my department — we just graduated a woman.’ They would say, ‘That only happens in economics.’ ” Male scientists told Handelsman: I have women in my lab! My female students are smarter than the men! “They go to their experience,” she said, “with a sample size of one.” She laughed. “Scientists can be so unscientific.”

… Nor was she surprised that the bias against women was as strong in biology as in physics or chemistry, despite the presence of more female biologists in most departments.

I’ve mentioned before that women (and basically everyone but white men) are underrepresented in physics. It is deeply depressing that the same “girls never go on in science and math” sentiment that this author talks about – an author who got her BS from Yale in the year I was born – is still alive and well today. I’ve heard the same phrase from essentially every woman in science, including from many who are now in biology because they loved science but were told that physics was still a boy’s realm.

There’s a substantial societal effect here. We tend to forget that society is made up of individuals. In this case, clearly, it’s individual misogynists.

One of my old bosses was good enough to admit his bias. He knew, when he was involved in hiring decisions, that he made awful calls in the past when it came to not hiring women. (I believe his phrase was that most of the women who he voted against and were later hired ended up being exceptional teachers and physicists.) He didn’t know exactly how to counteract this bias, either – you can’t just decide to hire every woman who applies, and his internal measure of how good someone would be at physics was clearly skewed. He also couldn’t exactly recuse himself from every hiring committee involving women. What to do? Not only did he not want to be seen as a misogynist, he genuinely didn’t want to be one.

I’m getting into anecdotes more than I’d normally like to, but I think there’s some value here. Regardless of your beliefs about anecdotes and data, I think there’s still some value in the case study. John Clement once suggested to me that a case study was sort of like a dissection – it told you a lot about that one animal, and if you did it right, it would tell you a lot about that type of animal as well.

Subjecting yourself to a case study is difficult. Kudos to him for making the first step.


Holding a Useless Line

Yeah, keep holding that dress code standard regardless of the reason. Or even, regardless of reason at all. Fools.

Online High School Issues

Sooooo things are not going so well in the land of online high schools. It might be connected to a general issue with large-scale education right now.

You see, MOOCs have a very high “dropout rate.” It takes 10-20 registrants to get a single student with a certificate. Even when you have a fairly well-focused demographic (e.g. teachers), the majority of would-be students leave before the end of the second week.

The general assumption is that most of the registrants are just there to check things out, maybe watch a few videos or try a few questions, but not really to do work. And make no mistake, learning is work, so most people are going to drop out of the course and not learn anything from it. There’s no serious reward for staying in besides your own education. If your education is not currently a priority, you don’t stick around.

Now read this:

Let me give a quote:

…when researchers from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder evaluated academic achievement at every one of the more than 300 online schools in the U.S., they found “serious and systemic” problems throughout the industry.

UC Boulder is a very well-respected institution when it comes to education research. They have one of the best groups for physics education research in the country. When they say you have serious, systemic problems with the way you teach your students, they ain’t kiddin’.

The question is now why. Is this an issue of motivation – are teachers in public schools able to motivate their students more effective, or parents able to motivate their children better when they visit a physical school? Is it one of materials quality – are these for-profit schools skimping on their handouts and videos, leading to things that are flashy but not educational? Is it one of personal interaction, where being able to see your teacher and talk to your fellow students in a high-bandwidth environment (i.e. in person) makes for a more compelling environment? Is it a question of priorities, or of cheating, or of some other option? What is causing this issue?

We are faced with two apparently different parts of education: college-level courses aimed at the general public, and high-school-level courses aimed at a specific set of students in a particular state. I think that figuring out what the problem is with one of them, even if we don’t solve that problem, might give us a lot of insight into what’s going on with the other. Certainly there will be room for debate, and it’s probably not just a single issue that’s creating either problem… but even getting some good ideas will let us start doing testing.

There are certainly enough people failing in both environments for us to start figuring out what’s making them fail. This is, sadly, not a small-numbers problem. Maybe if we can figure out what makes people drop out of these online courses, we can also understand what makes millions of students every year fail out of high school in more traditional classrooms.

How Not To Be Principal

If you’re the assistant principal, and you’re looking to never ever become principal, here is how to accomplish that goal:

The equivalent situation in the analog world would be you finding out that two kids are walking around school with masks of you, saying dumb things, and you react by calling the cops. Moreover, you react by somehow genuinely expecting the kids to be dragged away to jail.

I can understand being upset or insulted. I can understand wanting to do something. What I don’t get is how that escalated into the event that actually happened. At some point, someone involved with the affronted assistant principal should have said, “You know what, maybe this is going a little overboard.”

As a teacher, I learned that being able to laugh at myself – and to laugh at people who are making fun of me – is somewhere between mindblowingly vital and utterly essential to my job. There’s a great line from Hyde that says, “Take your job seriously, not yourself.” After seeing this, I think I’d have to add, “Any time you think someone’s belittling your job, they’re probably just not taking you seriously.”

As teachers we owe it to our students to open our lives and minds to them. We can’t afford to get defensive about ourselves.