Look at foreign schools for best practices


Michael D. Ricciuti

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

There is much concern about the quality of education offered by public schools. I am a former U.S. Navy research scientist with advanced degrees, including a PhD from Yale in engineering and applied science who, upon retirement after 22 years of service, became a high school teacher certified in Connecticut for physics and science.

I first taught physics, math, science and chemistry at a New Haven magnet school for three years, next taught physics and math for 13 years at Xavier, a Middletown all-boys Catholic High School, and lastly taught introduction to engineering, statics and dynamics for three years as an adjunct professor at a Middlesex Community  College in Connecticut.

At Yale, my class of 35 had only six U.S. students. The foreign students were and are the competition for high-technology jobs.

What follows is a summary of my observations during my research and teaching careers. I was very fortunate to be rapidly promoted to deputy directorate head of surface ship warfare at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Connecticut.

A significant responsibility was surface ship combat operations and training for naval officers and enlistees. The $2 billion training facility, the Land Based Integrated Test Site, replicated the interior of a U.S. warship including the sloping floors. External objective evaluations concluded our training was very good.

Lesson learned: if it isn’t broken don’t try to fix it. My Directorate was hiring about 200 new college graduates. Graduates with a 4.0 grade-point average from a nameless university applied for positions and they did not know the basics of engineering. All future applications from that university were discarded, clearly showing futility of grade inflation.

During my teaching career I made observations about inner-city students and the impact of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. My classes had a mixture of about two-thirds of some very intelligent students and one-third who were drug pushers and destined for a criminal career. That one third didn’t belong in a high school, but were there by law, and ruined many classes for the good students.

My next employment was at a Catholic high school (Xavier) that admitted students on the basis of an entrance exam divided into three categories: honors, advanced, and college prep. I had the privilege of teaching mostly honors students, and Xavier offered freshmen an honors physics class.

I taught these freshmen very advanced and some college-level physics who were limited only by their lack of calculus. I should mention that my last physics class in 2013 took the senior AP exam, before it was “dumbed down” in 2014, and their average score was 4.3 out of 5. Xavier could also expel students that violated school rules.

My last teaching was at Middlesex and I did have enthusiastic students but their high school preparation was poor and during my classes I would provide remedial mathematics.

The legislation, No Child Left Behind, had the unintended consequence of denying a rigorous curriculum to the outstanding students. And the follow on “everyone passes” will lead to rampant grade inflation.

The best classes are taught by academically highly qualified teachers who also have an ability to capture their student’s enthusiasm through interesting, sometimes humorous and realistic examples. The construction of “pretty schools” and the introduction of computers, iPads and a host of other electronic devices into every classroom can be a waste of funding and do not improve the quality of education.

A good textbook and a competent, innovative teacher will have much better success teaching students. Do not underestimate the level of subject difficulty that students can master. Freshmen can excel with college-level lessons. Private schools have the advantage of local administrative control over their policies and curriculum. Thus public schools should go private and reduce the bloated state and federal bureaucracies.

Lastly, U.S. high school and college graduates compete in a global market for skilled employees. Rather than look at other U.S. schools for guidance and examples, look at foreign schools (German and Japanese). That would be more fruitful, and foreign schools usually do not have distractive competitive athletics.

Michael D. Ricciuti


Editor’s note: The author is an educator seeking a position either teaching physics and/or math at a local high school, or as adjunct professor teaching engineering classes at a local college.