EO Report - Spring 2004

Bernard Khoury
Announcer, Vol. 34, Iss. 1

Public Policy and The Physics Classroom

The ideal arrangement, one perhaps only imagined by most physics teachers, is that the classroom door is closed and the teacher has an opportunity to work magic by inspiring and informing a group of interested students. This utopia has no one constraining what is taught, when it is taught and how it is taught. This utopia has supportive and unobtrusive parents, unfettered access to books and other resources, dedicated administrators, a capable teacher, talented students and a reasonable budget.

The reality is that many of us teach in highly constrained environments. Many of us, especially those in public institutions, constantly deal with rules, regulations, expectations, external accountabilities, and dwindling resources.

The further reality is that classroom activities are embedded in a public policy environment that continually buffets our â??pristineâ?? teaching environments.

At the national level, science standards have been developed and promulgated by the National Research Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences. At the state level, legislators and regulators have sometimes adopted science standards that conflict with the nationally promulgated standards. Teachers and textbook writers somehow need to navigate these shoals.

The scientifically developed topics of evolution in the life sciences and cosmology in the physical sciences are threatened by local and regional efforts to eliminate these concepts from curricula and textbooks or to insist on non-scientific alternatives for these ideas.

While physics education research has shown the effectiveness of engaged and hands on learning, the state regulatory apparatus in California is threatening to exclude textbooks that â??overemphasizeâ?? hands-on inquiry. This pressure to revert to â??direct instructionâ?? is likely to be felt in other states.

While professional development opportunities are valued by most teachers, limited time and diminishing resources make access to such programs problematic. Participation at national meetings with peer teachers, such as provided at the annual AAPT meetings, are often made difficult by similar limits on time and financial resources.

At the post secondary level, especially at the graduate level, matriculation of non-US students is impeded by the strangling apparatus now surrounding visa requests. In a bizarre manifestation of regulations gone amok, scholarly publications written by some foreign scientists are being suspended because the editorial correction of spelling, punctuation and syntax is being construed as undercutting the security of the nation.

The national legislative policy, No Child Left Behind, promises a qualified teacher in every classroom and a set of examinations designed to assess student learning. Somehow the system is supposed to bootstrap itself with no added resources and with a bottom line focus on â??accountabilityâ?? seemingly detached from the real world faced by many teachers.

Yes, teaching in the classroom, the activity that excites all of us for our opportunity to â??touch the future,â?? is increasingly embedded in a public policy miasma. Numerous forces are attempting to tell us what to teach, when to teach and how to teach. Would that we could merely close the door of the classroom and face a group of respectful and interested students prepared to be guided by our shared insights, knowledge and wisdom.