BY LIVIU POPA-SIMIL, Ph.D.
Los Alamos Academy of Sciences
Of course, we like to brag that we are the best of the best, our institutions are world class, our students are the smartest, and our scores are the highest. But, in most of the cases, the reality does not support our statements, and we do not like to lie ourselves for free. Of course, a little moral lift and self-esteem matters, and we are good to go until we are confronted with reality, and with a world-class competition.
For those who really want to know the truth, they may look at:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Programme_for_International_Student_Assessment#United_States and the things do not look good at all. It is not about money and education investments, but something more profound and complex.
Figure 1 – Shows the rank of the United States obtained in PISA test since 2000 for the subjects above. Relative to the average obtained for the 73 participant countries. It is seen that the US ranks below the average while Asian countries occupy the ranks one to five. Western Europe is above the average while the US is trailing the average with a decline tendency, except for science, that got a little growth by 2015 on the background of decline in Math and Reading.
Not the same may be said about our near by northern neighbor Canada, that occupies a position among the first 10, from rank 3 to 9 on all tests. Even Russia is above the average. Singapore, China, Japan are the champions!
These countries have so smart kids and steal our patents??? Or this is just politics, and the truth is again against us – our enemy? That was true up to 1980s, but since then the things changed and we just do not want to see them.
“The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study performed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in member and non-member nations, intended to evaluate educational systems by measuring 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading. It was first performed in 2000 and then repeated every three years. Its aim is to provide comparable data with a view to enabling countries to improve their education policies and outcomes. It measures problem solving and cognition.”
The 2015 version of the test was published on 6 December 2016. The results of the 2018 data collection will be released on Tuesday 3 December 2019 (we have to wait and see).
Table 1 – PISA Test scores of American students sorted by race.
As the table shows for the US, Asians are performing the best, followed by white of different ethnicities, and those of Hispanic and black descent are the most disadvantaged.
At a simple uneducated look, it seems that the attitude towards work of Asians dominates over that of whites in spite their higher welfare, while deep, inherited, poverty of black and Hispanics has real consequences on kids’ results due to family background. Be aware that the statistical distribution of students changed year by year, and is correlated with complex social factors such as 9/11, economic crises, visa restrictions, jobs market, etc..
Making a brief analysis after GDP per capita and house hold income in 2016 one may see that is a correlation between the relative curves of performance in education and family welfare, and average performance in education is obtained for middle class families with –5% under the average house hold income that means of about $50k/year and 70% over the average at about $80k-120k/year. Kids from rich families with few exceptions trend to perform worse than kids from middle class, because probably suffering from afluenza, does not give the necessary attention and importance to education knowing that using money and relations they will be just fine, without a great degree, inheriting the family business and they may hire educated people to work for them. We can ignore them because demographically they represent less than 10% of the students’ population.
At the other extreme, are the poor families representing more than 50% of the population, where because of poorness, kids are busy in after school hours, and in an homework intensive education system, conceived like this to hide average class teachers, they do not perform well and here is the real loss of the society.
Note: The fit function is a polynomial one and is prone to a large margin of error.
Los Alamos schools are placed at +50%, and more and good results are due to the family attitude towards work and education, but this condition is not frequently met in many other locations in US.
Quality and preparedness level of the teachers is hard to evaluate, because the complexity of the problem, in spite is a fundamental issue, most of the criteria used today for such evaluation are bogus.
It was thought that information provided that is unwanted, or unasked for, will not be appreciated, would be ignored or not understood; the real learning process occurs only if somebody is interested in finding the answer to a question or a problem that they consider to be important, and to which they pay attention. In order to have that, one needs to generate in the minds of students a state of affection, interest, and need for a certain subject, where the student will pay attention to the information and store it in his/her brain, and operate over it, to find its various aspects.
Is that the case in US education?
Most probable answer is NO.
This is a hot subject among educators, parents and politicians, everybody is asking for change, but no one knows what to be changed and how. A wide range of ideas and proposals are formulated or imposed without a real scientific base.
The most frequent change is the managerial one, where the new manager changes everything his predecessor made, making the system bounce in disarray, based on empty rhetoric.
On the other side, the volume of knowledge a High School graduate is growing every year, and if we look to a student leaving his high school aiming college, to his knowledge, as to a shuttle launched in space, we have to see something like this, at its minimum:
The picture also shows in rings the accumulation year-by-year, grade-by-grade from the core knowledge, in kindergarten (K), to grades 1-12. Each subject has its motivation.
Unfortunately, our schools are unable to provide this spectrum; what they do is very formal and theoretical, and that minimizes their usefulness in life.
The actual model for the good students is this: learn by heart, give the show, and forget. That fact minimizes the usefulness of education and learning in the first years.
One reason for this is that the students do not have all the “knowledge foundation bricks” in place when a new “brick of knowledge” is added, and that has to float in thin air, because the CLASSES SYLLABI ARE NOT SYNCHRONIZED, and do not rely on each other.
For example, a subject taught in science is not related to subjects in mathematics or language, to be used as base and operational tools.
See for example in 7th or 8th grade science: they learn about “genetic programming”, but they had no idea what an amino acid is, nor nitrous acid, nor ammonia, and they started solving puzzles with letters…and of course 2 weeks after that was over they forgot everything, and that time and effort was simply lost.
Another correlation that is most often is between Math and Physics, where physics relies on math not yet taught to students.
More physics is taught based on theoretical developments, instead of being correlated with the practical world, and the students are missing the most elementary notions from nature, that transforms physics in a bunch of blah, blah…nothing useful for life or with practical applications, therefore they graciously forget all the formulas they learned by heart, and they do not correlate the notions and work with them.
The problem here comes from the teachers, who 20 years ago they were taught this way, and from manuals made by university professors based on theory more than practice, making those scientists some parrots of science, and I will come with some examples:
Once, in a university I was working, a famous electrodynamics professor, who knew all Maxwell equations by heart, and was making excellent lessons on electrodynamics, came in my accelerator room near by a HV power supply, triggered my attention and I asked him to step back and he asked me offended: “What kills? Voltage or Current?”, initially I took it as a joke, and laughed, but seeing him seriously concerned, I got worried and I tried not to offend him with a simple Ohm law explanation and biologic effect of the current, so I answered him: If you have doubts on that is better to stay away from both!
And as he stepped back we changed the subject of discussion…
As a proof of my statement, I challenge the science teachers, students and community members to solve the problem in the picture below, taken from normal life, because I believe that very few of them understand it and can solve it, and therefore it is not possible to transmit this knowledge to students.
For those most advanced there are two extra questions:
4 If the Cy=0.5, the lateral surface is 5 m2 and cross wind is 20 m/s, in Los Alamos, what will be the movement of the vehicle accelerating forward after x direction.
Cx, Cy are the aerodynamic coefficients for movement of air, x is forward, y is lateral and z is upwards, g=10 m/s2.
5 What power is reasonable for the vehicle and how it have to be applied in order to minimize the acceleration time?
A competition will be organized, and a $200 will be paid for the first place, $100 second place, $50 third place, and 5 honorable mentions (gift cards) will be given to first qualified participants (K-12 students and educators only).
Please send your solution by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org with title “Car movement, insane acceleration, solution” no later than 1 mo. after publication, the results and prizes will be given after 2 weeks from deadline, and will be published.
In my opinion, US education is missing the practical applicative education that creates the foundation bricks able to support the advanced theoretical knowledge.
In computer literacy, the problem is even worse, because 99% of students do not understand computers, how they work, and become hostages of different programs and computer brands, performing complex operations outside of their control and knowledge, because nobody taught them the basics – such as Boolean algebra, numeration bases, logical gates, and fundamentals of programming.
In a test applied to GATE kids in a Los Alamos school, some fundamental questions about computers were asked, and the kids provided 200% of the answers, proving that they heard almost anything about, the only problem was that they did not know which was right and which was wrong, and were to apply that answer correctly, proving that their knowledge was dangerously superficial.
There are many initiatives in education, (for example Mrs. Obama had about 7) which briefly are: The need for post-secondary education; The necessity of school counselors; Girls’ education; Education for African-Americans; Arts education; Healthy school lunches; Fashion education, that is a mixture of everything and I’m not convinced that these are her original ideas, but some of them are meant to apply correction to the results observed in PISA tests.
For example, the healthy food school lunches come in contradiction with kids’ appetite for junk food, which was induced for many years via all commercials, and as our current president showed recently, “fast food” is more appreciated than a natural healthy food.
The sad truth behind the fact is that Hispanics, blacks (African Americans) and others coming from very poor families, are fighting for survival in the American dream, which for them is a nightmare.
We have to learn from the experience of communist countries which at school were providing food, after-hours education and bedroom, for poor kids for free and on payment for the rest of the kids, and which gradually turned them towards healthy food, not only junk fast food. I said junk fast food because not all fast food is junk, and not all-organic food is healthy…and schools have to move out from the realm of commercial advertisement, beyond lying, and develop their own menus, loved by kids and healthier.
There are many others, such as “Inquiry education”, “Play and learn”, STEM literacy, etc., but while the US education is 80% based on homework, and most of the kids find something better to do after school, all these are prone to failure, in a society that misses incentives for higher education.
The first step is to understand what the top PISA countries are doing in order to improve our local system, and not to change it with a radically new system with flaws that we will only learn about after 20 years of failures.
In my mind, a spiral of progress consists of an education where one learns, repeats, redoes, improves oneself, is active, with a drastic reduction in homework, but based on fundamental knowledge mixed with practice, where the students will be able to understand and apply this knowledge in life, and where laboratory practice will match the theory and gradually upgrade, via repetition.
An important component is the psycho-affective component, where a student picks a subject or a domain he thinks he likes and fits his/her future aspirations and model of life.
An important role in this children selection is the models offered by society and how the society appreciates and rewards work, knowledge and honesty. Unfortunately US society does not appreciate hard work, honesty, science and math, and that is why the school makes desperate efforts to stimulate STEM. In the past 50% of college students in science departments were foreigners, mainly Asian kids, now these departments are under populated. Most of the American white (Caucasian) kids who graduate High School are looking for faculties that put them in a making money position after that as law, medicine, and business and very few are going into science.
The novel chino-phobia, ruso-phobia political inspired propaganda made less and less foreigners to apply for higher education in the US, while the autochthones are deterred by the arrogant manner US suffering of some afluenza, is treating its scientists, and do not find themselves bound in a such a future.
The thieving classes in US are lawyers, politicians, businesspeople, (honest or not, does not matter if they are rich), artists, sportsman, physicians where the most appreciated skills, are talking and human skills of hanging together in packs of connected people, and that are the raw models provided by our society, followed by the young generation.
The kids see and understand this and then, why to bother for science?
Social propaganda dominated by Hollywood and other movie houses, is doing more harm than good to education, promoting violence and sex, apparently these being something most of American market understands and likes to see, people paying for. The main characters are appreciated for other virtues than education, and where the US is always the good guys no matter what damage and pain they inflict to others, giving masses a false image of reality.
This grim picture is completed to the masterpiece by computer games which bring an eulogy of violence, or are based on minimal skills, hand eye connection avoiding brain cognitive areas, and getting the users psychologically used with ugly violence scenes where harm is inflicted to others, so called “bad guys”, terrorists, ignoring the fundamental truths of the history written by various nations where the “terrorist” of an aggressor is the “hero” of the aggressed part, and the truth has lots of shades of gray.
Another toxic ingredient in society is mass media, where the most appreciated people are the artists, politicians and rich business people, almost all drop-outs from school, these are the guys judging others, and telling the society how to think because these people have the most access to these media, else when and ordinary person wants to make his point, has to commit an atrocity, because only these bad achievements are going public.
In the last year schools were a magnet for atrocities, mainly mass shooting, because a mismatch between the individual needs of a troubled person and the kind of assistance and stress school were providing.
In the grim picture I have provided above, is transparent that the good model for life the kids may get in the most crucial period of their life is shadowed by the cacophony of information in a distressed society.
These are very difficult obstacles in front of US education, and this is one of fundamental causes for US students to trail the PISA average, and produce lack of interest for science, math, anything based on hard work, because the kids are smart and want to maximize their life standard, and efficiency of reaching those positions by minimizing their effort.
That is why I have said in the title that there is no easy solution, like “pay teachers more”, “bring more police”, allow “recreational marijuana”, “allow vaping”, “ teach more”, “give more food”, etc., the command and control system for optimal education looks like a sound equalizer with more than 128 registers, where each of one have to be set in the right position in order to obtain the overall harmony that to lead us towards the best education in the world, bluntly reflected by the “superficial” (because tests just 3 main skills) PISA test.
Another important factor are: the educators who are the product of the society in the last 50 years, and they have the quality and level the society succeeded to give them, and that plus the stresses of the moment (low wages, lack of respect from leaders and students, excessive school rules and restricted, ignorant comfortable policies, politically fairness, etc.) will reflect in the education they are further delivering to the young generation.
My purpose is to bring light upon this subject and start a discussion where foreign nationals coming from China, Canada, Europe, Russia will share their expertise and understanding and allow us to gradually improve the education system, until we will succeed to compete successfully with Shanghai kids.
I do not know if the authorities in education indoctrinated by their previous experiences and projects, pressed and stressed to keep their most often ignorant political management happy, will give a crap about this, but in order to heal a system in pain is better that first to identify and recognize the disease, be allowed to speak freely about it, and than select and optimize the cure.
Your opinion and experience matters; please share it, even if you disagree, or want to praise the US education and democracy as the best in the world. I think the readers have enough sense of humor, as our president, who at the UN world leader gathering, when touting his great achievements, made a hilarious moment that relaxed the atmosphere, making the world leaders acknowledge that US is the most viable, world class laughing stock.
Hopefully, the deciding factors in education will hear and understand, and will be able to improve the system.
Meanwhile, let me see how many of you are able to solve that problem, and I will be happy that you to prove me wrong, in spite I took a higher risk for that, because being in Los Alamos, a oasis in the US with the highest concentration of PhDs per square meter, the probability that there will be few people to know how to solve this problem is much higher than outside a 10 mile radius. The best 3 solutions will be sent for publishing together with extracts from other solutions meant to “revolutionize” the physics.
The purpose of this paper is to trigger a more active debate on how to improve education, in order to reach the highest performances and to be customized on the local customs, needs and aspirations, using the support and input from the community.
NOTE: Because Los Alamos is such special place, some of the comments and conditions described may not fit totally or in part the local realities, that is why the reader has to apply weighting factors to match a local reality. This is a kind of disclaimer, but in fact is another variability in education that makes the application of a certain set of corrective measures more difficult.