Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Opportunities lost

My introduction to the American education system was only at the graduate school level. That still exposed me to some of the systems in place for undergraduate education, and the university system in general, and I marveled at the choices and sheer flexibility that the students had during their education. So, even though I had no exposure to the school system here, I made the assumption that the school system would be as flexible and innovative and accommodating as the university system. I thought a school student here in the US would have as many choices, options and variety that a college student had.

It turns out though that while the university system here remains the envy of the rest of the world, the school system is a far cry from the university system. It is as bureaucratic, static, dogmatic, rigid, uninspiring or banal as any other system anywhere else. This is a story I recently heard from an acquaintance I run with. She studied in one of the (better) public schools in the Dallas area. Now, my friend was a pretty good student, and what is quite atypical is that she really liked math. She wasn’t exceptional at it or anything. She just liked it. It was her favorite subject. Usually, in most schools (especially in the US) it isn’t cool to actually like math or science. She did, and so did another friend of hers.

Anyway, somewhere in 7th or 8th grade, they had to take some tests, which would determine if they took some more advanced math classes, which would then introduce them to calculus and high school AP math. Both she and her friend did only modestly in that test, and were marginally below the required score to be allowed to progress to AP math in high school. But they both liked math so much that they wanted to take those advanced courses over the next few years, including AP math.

They actually wanted to take those courses.

So it seems perfectly reasonable (to me) that they should have been encouraged to take those courses, or at least been given some option to retake that 7th or 8th grade test (to see if they could qualify for AP math later on). Usually, students are forced to learn something. Here they wanted to learn something themselves. Anyway, her then math teacher flatly told the two of them that since they hadn’t made the required grade in that standardized test (which they had missed by a whisker), they would not be allowed to go on and take calculus in high school. These two begged and pleaded, and even had their parents write to request that they be allowed to take those math courses and study more, or at least be retested in order to see if they could qualify for those courses.

Close, but no cigar. The teacher stuck to her guns (and rules) and declared that they would not be allowed to take those math courses in high school, since that is what the rules said. So finally the two of them had to go sleepwalk through “simpler” high school math curriculum without calculus, which were too boring and too easy for them, and did not challenge or inspire them in anyway.

Finally, when this girl ended up in college, she thought she’d try to take more advanced math courses. Because she hadn’t taken AP math and science, she didn’t get into her first choice colleges, and had to settle for a “lesser” state university (which was a good one though, in my opinion). But still, she thought she could now take some more interesting math courses. She registered for a few, only to find that the college curricula assumed substantial prior knowledge of lots of math that she’d never had (and not for lack of interest). She also found that most of the other students in that course had taken AP math/calculus in high school. So she spent a frantic semester trying to work twice as hard to learn things that the rest of them found quite basic. In the end, it turned out to be too hard to catch up. She didn’t want to take a big hit on her GPA. So instead of finally majoring in chemistry/biochemistry with a math minor (what she wanted to do, and which required quite a bit of math and calculus), she ended up with a developmental biology major. The story of her friend from school is a little different. He also struggled with some math courses in college, but he was more resolute (and loved math more), so stuck it through some very tough courses. After a few tough semesters, he finally became good at it, and eventually majored in mathematics. He loved math so much that he even went on to get a masters in math, and now works as an analyst for some company.

So the decision of a bureaucratic, uninspired teacher from 7th or 8th grade possibly changed the entire career of this girl, who now feels bitter at being denied the opportunity to learn and do what she wanted to and liked to do. Had she just been encouraged to retake a test in 7th or 8th grade, or had been allowed to take calculus in high school, it is quite possible that she would have gone on to a college of her choice, or at least majored in the subjects she wanted to, and liked the most. One single decision not made by her potentially changed her life.

And while this is a story of one particular teacher, it apparently is quite reflective of a lot of the school system here. An excessively bureaucratic, rule-obsessed system, with a huge amount of pressure on teachers to make sure the maximum number of students go through high school and get their diplomas, even if they do not learn as much. What this is doing though is two things. (i) It produces a number of students who go on to college (and are interested in college), but are ill equipped to handle a lot of college courses (which they might be interested in) and (ii) it also potentially produces an even larger number of students who, thanks to diluted educational standards, will never be able to go through college at all.

It is a shame though that a university system that is exceptional overall has to be fed by a school system that really leaves so much to be desired. The university system (particularly advanced or graduate education) is therefore partly forced to rely too much on imported foreign students (the school system alone isn’t responsible for so many foreign students, but I believe it does play a big part in it). Secondly, it isn’t fair to burden the university system (which by definition should strive for excellence) with teaching students basic subject concepts that should have been handled in high school or earlier.

And if we flash to the current presidential election, both candidates have only given lip-service to the educational system, and promoting “science and math”. Look deeper, and both of them have no ideas or real desire to really try to fix anything (or perhaps Barak does, but then focuses too much of his plan on hiring more teachers, and very little on educational standards and educational choices themselves).

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Remembering Zion

The Zion national park in Utah is breathtaking, by every definition of the word. The red cliffs and mountains rise rapidly all around you, and the Virgin river looks placid enough, but was in fact responsible for those massive canyons and “narrows”. The place is absolutely perfect for some spectacular hikes, on trails that cling tightly to one side of a mountain, while on the other side there is a few thousand foot vertical drop. This place is not for those with an uncontrollable fear of heights.

The hikes were fantastic, the river was wonderful, the water icy cold, the rocks were picturesquely jagged, and the wildlife plentiful. And the place is far out in the southwest, with the nearest decent airports hours away in Vegas or Salt Lake City. So it was a little surprising to find the place filled with visitors. Sure, it was Labor day, and there were plenty of Americans, and plenty of adventure seeking foreign nationals who live in America (such as yours truly). But what really surprised me were the number of European and Japanese tourists in the park. On the trails, the languages most frequently heard were German, German, German, English, Japanese, more German, Italian and Spanish. The Germans (and I’m including the Austrians, Swiss and sundry here) were everywhere. Break out a few kegs, and you could have early Oktoberfest.

Why Zion National Park, and why not any place else? Is there some tourism agency somewhere in Berlin or Munich or Frankfurt telling all Germans to head out to America, and while there, to make it a point to get to Zion national park?

And not surprisingly, at the more scenic view points at Bryce and at Zion, away from the harder hikes, there were plenty of Indians around, as we discerned voices in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali and Punjabi as cameras clicked away.

Zion and Bryce canyon were very contrasting in many ways. Sure, Bryce had some more impressive geological formations that ice and water (and some wind) had carved out, not least the abundance of hoodoos and natural bridges, but to me Zion had a more “intimate” feel to it. Hiking up steep peaks or wading through the river towards the narrows seems like a timeless pleasure. But after a while of looking at gargantuan grand natural amphitheaters or massive canyons, you can actually tire of them. I love the Grand Canyon, and was suitably impressed by it, but have tired of it after a couple of visits. Bryce gave me the same feeling. But I cannot say the same of Zion. It is a place well worth visiting repeatedly, with something new to discover each time.

The National Park Service was at its best at Zion. The park was as well maintained as could be (given the sizeable number of tourists), and the shuttle service around the park was great. I can only imagine the nightmare the cars that crisscrossed the park before the shuttle service was established must have caused. Now all you need to do to get around the park is to hop on a shuttle and head out towards the next sight or hike. But what was really impressive was the design of the visitor center. It blended perfectly with the mountains all around. Importantly, it had been designed to minimize its energy requirements and consumption. The building had large cooling towers on all sides, which would cool air as it brought the air in, hence keeping the building cool (and it can get pretty hot down there). For heating during the cold winters, the long, south facing roof panels could trap solar heat, and warm the inner rooms. And the building maximized natural lighting as well. The landscaping around the park avoided lawns and water-pools and instead used only native plants. That meant that most of the landscaping around the visitor center needed little or no care or watering, but the plants thrived in the unique climate of the region. “Appropriate” can be used as a dull and boring adjective. But in this case, the visitor center was appropriate, and anything but dull. Since conservation is at the core of the park service, it was gladdening to see the message being implemented, and so elegantly at that.

We discovered that great pizza can indeed be found in pizzerias in the unlikeliest of small towns, even if they are not called Papa Del’s or aren’t located in Urbana, Illinois. The little town of Springdale, right outsize the park entrance, is about as touristy as it can get. There are some delightfully eclectic stores or historic inns amidst a mix of outrageously overpriced restaurants and souvenir stores. While wandering around looking for some decent and affordable food, we came across the uninspiringly named Pizza & Noodles (a pizza and pasta bar), and entered it expecting pizza mediocrity. Instead, we found an outstanding assortment of gourmet pizzas, and our taste buds exploded as the crust and toppings touched our tongues. The pizzas were superb, and there were more vegetarian options here than I had ever seen (perhaps catering to those eco-conscious vegetarian Germans?). It was well worth our time and money (cash and check only, no credit cards please).

This is more a general observation than anything else, but why are national parks filled with people who are mostly white or Japanese (with a smattering of Indian or Chinese visitors)? In most national parks I’ve visited across the country, there seem to be a few Hispanic visitors, and fewer African-American visitors. Any conspiracy theories out there?