01/19/2012 05:31 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2012

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

I read with amusement the post by Shaun Johnson "Instead of Complaining About Teachers, Become One." I am in the parade of critics of what is happening in our public schools, although my banner does not focus on the teachers. My modified take on the article is "In addition to complaining about education, I became a teacher."

There were multiple perspectives from which I embarked on this journey. I have taught college
physics to successful high school graduates unprepared to succeed in science and engineering. I
have worked with exemplary public school teachers whose daily experience was to circumvent
the stream of barriers put in front of them. I have worked with uninspired, semi-competent
educators who fit right into the education system. Diverse anecdotes, systematic research, and
long standing relationships placed me on my soap box. A year teaching in a typical urban public
high school put me where the rubber meets the road.

It was a great struggle getting my students to think, problem solve, or even turn in homework.
I gave everyone more and more time, more and more chances, and more and more help. I made
the homework easier and easier, more like the "fill in the blank" type that they were used to. In
other words I pandered. I lowered academic standards. Eventually, partly in frustration and partly
to make a point, I decided to include the following question (verbatim) as one of the problems:

A car moves with a constant velocity of 9.5 m/s. What is the velocity of the car?

To Lakeeta, school meant being told what she had to know. It meant being given the explicit
terminology and procedures needed to answer questions, regardless of understanding. Lakeeta
was able to do much of her homework this way, but she sought me out for this problem about the
car. "I could not do this one because I do not know which formula to use." Lakeeta solved her
homework problems with strategies that I saw my college physics students use. Which formula
had matching symbols? Which of the problems in the book had comparable surface features?
Lakeeta's struggle with the car question was not a quirk or an exception. It was a representative
outcome of the way students approached school.

Lakeeta was not alone. Tommy was asked how far a car with initial speed of 16m/s goes in 4
seconds. After some ill-advised calculations he answered "24 seconds." George demanded that
I show him how to convert 35 grams to kilograms because the examples that I showed with
45g and 173g were different. Working together, Lisaura and Lisa averaged 36 and 38 and got
57. They wrote this in their lab book and moved on without the slightest concern. Students
used their calculators to multiply a number by one. They were unfazed when a calculation of
the temperature of water yielded a value bigger than that of the sun. They used mnemonics
(successfully) when they had no idea what the science was and skillfully navigated reference
tables when they had no idea of the meaning of what they were looking up.

My work in college focuses on the middle 80% of high school graduates. Lakeeta, George,
Tommy, Lisaura, and Lisa fit in the middle of this group. They will go to college having
succeeded in a school system that emphasized high-stakes, low-level tests. They will not
be prepared to think critically in college. They will not even remember the very things they
memorized for those tests. Most will struggle. Those that succeed will do so despite their
education, not because of it.

I wanted to title my book about my experience teaching in high school Your Child Left Behind
or The Complete Idiot's Guide to Not Creating a Generation of Complete Idiots but I was advised
against it. Instead I went with "An Inquiry Into Science Education: Where the Rubber Meets the
." The "become a teacher" idea was perfect for me. Problems and solutions abound. What
better place to get a window into them than the classroom?