Our Problem with Gun Violence is #NotNormal

“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

Last month, one of my former students from Newark asked me the following question:

Mr. Paulsen, “if teachers were given the option to carry guns, would you?”

My answer? 100% absolutely not.

While traveling abroad throughout this semester, I have been asked versions of this question time and time again. People from Japan could neither understand the epidemic of gun violence in the United States nor the guns laws in our country. When I travelled to South Korea during the Olympics, people asked me why teachers are given weapons like police officers. And in Taiwan, I am asked almost daily about school shootings. As a proud pacifist, it is incredibly difficult to offer any possible explanation as to why our country is so obsessed with guns. After all, domestic mass shootings are a uniquely American problem that happen literally no where else in the developed world.

What is perhaps most frustrating is that, to some fringe groups, advocating for common-sense gun laws instantly declares you un-American. Are we proud of this value? Are we proud that owning a lethal weapon makes one a patriot? Are we proud that citizens of other countries fear visiting the U.S. because of our problem with gun violence? Take this following video, for example: imagine if the words were exactly the same, but instead of NRA branding, it was branded with an ISIS flag (complete with the timer and all).

Would we tolerate literally any other group using this type of rhetoric? These videos are akin to encouraging domestic terrorism, which unfortunately serves as seductive propaganda to some of the most vulnerable communities throughout our country. I honestly believe that if more Americans travelled internationally, our country would soon realize what it is like in literally every other first world country. Perhaps fellow Fulbrighter Martha Infante put it best:

“It never occurred to me just how much I have internalized and to an extent, normalized the violence in our society. How does one explain the dramatic rise in poverty we have experienced over the last few years, and the vast wealth inequality that has existed for much longer? How do I explain that our society values the protection of gun owners’ rights over the innocent lives of children? Mercifully, my Finnish audiences were kind enough to not push the matter as they must have seen how painful these questions were to answer.”

To be clear, I am not necessarily anti-gun. I have used a shotgun, a handgun, and a rifle (including the infamous AR-15) numerous times throughout my life. Although I have never used it, I did have a hunting license in New York State at one point, and my family is full of police officers and veterans. I am not advocating that we send the military around to every household in America and forcefully confiscate every weapon in the country, as some conspiracy theorists often put forward. Rather, I think we should look to other countries to inform best practices, allow our CDC to start researching gun violence, and completely reform our background check system. In this post, I look to debunk some of the vicious rumors that are often perpetuated by the NRA, and then offer my own solutions to the massive epidemic of gun violence that permeates our great country.

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“One child is holding something that’s been banned in America to protect them. Guess which one.”

Access to Guns

It is estimated that the United States has more guns in circulation than people. Think about that for a second. The OECD suggests that gun homicide rates are 25.2 times higher in the US than in any other high-income country. Gun-related suicides are eight times higher in the US than in other high-income nations, too. Last year, 43 toddlers shot someone with a gun. 43 TODDLERS!! Did you know that our Federal Government banned the sale of Kinder chocolate eggs due to the danger they pose to kids? We currently live in a country where it is easier to purchase a weapon of mass destruction than it is to buy a piece of candy.

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Mental Health

Recent analysis suggests that only 23% of perpetrators of mass shootings showed signs of a mental illness before committing their atrocities. Our country absolutely needs mental health reform, including improving access and removing the stigma around getting help. But our problems go far beyond mental health, include an aura of toxic masculinity that has become deeply ingrained within our culture. After all, what does every mass shooting have in common? Almost all of them are all carried out by males (and typically young men). The U.S. does not have a monopoly when it comes to mental health issues; other countries simply do a better job at serving those that need help and preventing them from purchasing a firearm. Please stop blaming mental illness for our fundamental problem with guns; it only adds to the negative stigma and discourages people from reaching out for much-need professional help. It should be noted that America does not have a problem with crime, either; it has a problem with guns.

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“Guns don’t kill people; People kill people!”

Yes. Agreed. I guess we could say the same thing about car crashes, too: cars don’t kill people, people kill people. But we have made cars significantly safer over the years, starting with seat belts and air bags. We have achieved this end by studying car crashes profusely and spending a lot of capitol on research and development. Currently, the U.S. Congress bans the CDC from even studying gun violence. If people are adamant that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” why not let the CDC research how we can make gun ownership safer in this country, just like we did with cars for the greater part of the past century? Research overwhelmingly suggests that states with higher gun ownership rates have higher gun murder rates—as much as 114 percent higher than states with lower gun ownership rates. Also, why are there so few mass casualty events in other first world countries? Sure, someone could absolutely kill several people with a knife in a subway station. But it would be a lot harder to injure 851 people and kill 58 innocent lives in less than ten minutes, as was the case in the horrific Las Vegas shooting of 2017.

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“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”

I honestly do believe that well-trained uniformed police or active duty military personal (a so-called good-guy) can absolutely stop a bad guy with a gun. Check, mate. But to make this argument for civilians is narrow and extremely short-sighted. Let us consider a recent shooting outside the Empire State Building. Let us imagine for a second that ‘concealed carry’ was legal in New York (which House Republicans are trying to pass, by the way…) and twenty “good guys with guns” were there. The first shots ring out, and all twenty draw their weapons. On a cold, busy New York City afternoon, how do they know who is the good guy and who is the bad guy? Do they just start shooting everyone else? How would the police know who is the “bad guy?” In fact, “No mass shootings in the past 30 years have been stopped by an armed civilian; in 1982, an armed civilian successfully killed a shooter, but it was only after he committed his crime.

The whole “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun” is incredibly faulty logic. I did not realize that we were going back to the figurative days of the Wild Wild West, either…

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“Criminals don’t obey the laws”

This is a pretty ridiculous argument that has become a major talking point on Fox News. Host Tomi Lahren recently gave her opinion that we should not pass any gun laws because ‘criminals don’t obey laws.’ Using this rhetoric, what is the point of having any laws? Why have a justice system at all? The whole intent of any law is to defer a specified activity. Would we say the same thing about literally anything else?

The Second Amendment though.

Yes, the second amendment! Let’s talk about it. I honestly do not understand people that are “against gun control.” Everyone is for gun control; we just disagree about where to draw the line. For example, should I be allowed to own a functional Sherman Tank, and park it in my driveway? If I had the resources, should I be allowed to legally purchase a rocket launcher? What about an ICBM? Of course not!! Only those on the absolute fringe of this argument suggest that I should be able to own a nuclear weapon to “defend myself.” In fact, the 2nd amendment is the only amendment that specifically encourages regulation: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This sentence has been up for debate for the past 300 years, and there is significant controversy over whether this amendment was even meant for civilian use to begin with (Remember when each state had a standing army, and even their own currency?). Also, for those that suggest that we need the 2nd amendment in case the government ever turns on us, does anyone really believe that 20 people with AR-15’s can actually defeat the strongest military in the history of the world? Highly unlikely.

The constitution of the United States of America is a document that was designed to be changed. Both Congress and the Supreme Court has put regulations on other amendments, including the famous restriction on the 1st amendment that one cannot falsely yell ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theater (See Schenck v. United States). In fact, the “2nd amendment” was literally the 2nd change to the constitution. Our founding document did not get everything right the first time, either. Remember slavery, which was 100% legal under the constitution? What about when white males were the only people that were allowed to vote? There is even precedent for repealing an amendment; specifically, the 21st amendment repealed the 18th amendment, and ended prohibition.

BUT WHAT ABOUT CHICAGO?

Great city, yes. I love those sandwiches from Hannah’s Bretzel (I actually think those sandwiches are better than the hotdogs, the popcorn, and the deep-dish pizza, come to think of it). But what about Chicago? Oh, the crime rate in Chicago, yes. To be clear, the gun violence in Chicago is truly a tragedy. A lot of people often use Chicago as the perfect example of why gun laws do not work, because Illinois has releatively strict gun laws. The truth is that many of the guns used in Chicago were purchased in neighboring states with significantly weaker gun laws. In fact, “nearly 60% of the guns used in gun homicides in Chicago in 2017 were trafficked from out-of-state dealers, and 20% of the guns came from Indiana alone.”

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Newark, New Jersey, also has a serious problem with guns. While the state has relatively strict gun laws, most guns used in homicides are trafficked from other states with less regulation. In fact, Governor Phil Murphy recently signed legislation that would mandate public reporting of where each gun that is used in a shooting throughout New Jersey was sold.

Solutions

People love to be critics, but what about possible solutions? Now that I have offered a plethora of debunks to common arguments of the National Rifle Association, let us now look at viable solutions that could actually have a sustained impact on our country and stop the vicious carnage once and for all. In Australia, the Port Arthur massacre was a mass shooting that took place in 1996. After this horrible tragedy, of which 35 people were killed and 23 wounded, the Australian government realized that ‘enough is enough’ and started a year’s long approach to end mass shootings. By every metric, their reforms have been extremely successful: there has not been a single mass shooting since 1996. To me, it shows that we can make a difference, if we have true leaders that are willing to put their country in front of their wallets.

Note: It should not be interpreted by any reader that any of the following solutions are original to the author in any manner.

Right to Operate License

Let us treat gun ownership like car ownership. Think about what one needs to do to buy a car:

  1. Be a certain age (dependent on the state)
  2. Pass a written test
  3. Pass a practical test
  4. Pass an eye exam
  5. Pay an administrative fee to get a license
  6. Obtain car insurance

And, even after you follow these steps, you need to follow “the law” to keep your license, and renew it every few years. I like that idea – let’s treat gun ownership like car ownership.

Increase the fidelity of background checks and end all “loopholes”

Currently, around 40% of all gun sales involve private sellers and do not require any background check whatsoever. A new Quinnipiac University poll suggests that “support for universal background checks is itself almost universal, 97 – 2 percent, including 97 – 3 percent among gun owners.” 97 PERCENT!!! WHAT ELSE DO 97% OF AMERICANS AGREE UPON IN 2018?!?  Let us increase the fidelity of background checks and end all loopholes, including the infamous “gun show loophole,” once and for all.

End the distribution of Military-style weapons

A recent Marist poll found that “following the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, 71% of Americans, including 58% of gun owners, agree the laws governing the sale of firearms need to be stricter.”

If a civilian wants to keep a hunting rifle in their house, I think they should more than be able to (after finishing the strict licensing procedure outlined above). A handgun for protection? I guess I could be ok with that in certain situations. But in my perspective, we need to end the sale of all military-style weapons to civilians. Quite frankly, there are no viable arguments as to why any civilian should be able to own one of these deadly weapons of war designed to kill people.

Strong safety measures

I am vehemently against arming teachers. For goodness sakes, even the TSA agents at our airports do not carry guns. In fact, most police officers abroad do not even carry their service weapon with them. Arming teachers would be a dangerous precedent that would end in the killing of more students, not less. That being said, I am all for a strong school perimeter and having a well-trained school resource officer, but without transforming our gun control, there is little a single SRO can do against a man holding an Armalite assault rifle. In fact, the school in Parkland actually had an SRO on duty, but remained outside the school during the shooting because he himself was afraid of the shooter.

Offer lucrative gun buy-backs

This is exactly what Australia did. The federal government should start a lucrative, no-questions-asked national gun buy-back program to start getting many of these weapons off the streets. Although many cities offer buy-back incentives on a yearly basis, a national gun buy-back program would do little without the aforementioned reforms.

Conclusion

We can and must do better, America. For those that are strong supporters of the 2nd amendment, I understand your loyalty. That being said, I encourage you to come spend a month abroad, and see what is like having to constantly defend our absurd obsession with guns while living in a country that has not had a mass shooting in decades.

For those incredible teenagers in Parkland – keep fighting the good fight. One of the best pieces of leadership advice came during my junior year of college at Marist, when the then Chief Public Affairs Officer Tim Massie told me that, “if people cannot find anything wrong with you, they will start making stuff up.” Over the years, I have truly learned how valid that advice is – when your opponents need to start making things up about you, you know you are slowly winning the fight. It may take us a long time to get there, but you are on the right side of history.

To close, it is overwhelmingly frustrating being abroad and constantly having to defend our countries absurd gun laws. While it is easy to feel hopeless, I will be purchasing an item from the Caliber Collection. This incredible organization purchases guns from police buy-back programs, melts down the guns, and re-purposes the metal as jewelry. In addition to helping get guns off the streets, they also donate 20% of their revenue to further expand gun buy-back programs across the country. I will also be donating to Sandy Hook Promise – a grassroots organization started by the families of the Newtown Elementary School shooting that looks to stop all gun violence in our country.

It may not change the world, but at least it’s a start.

This is posted in solidarity with all students who are participating in today’s #NationalSchoolWalkout on the 19th anniversary of the tragedy at Columbine High School, and is dedicated to all of those lost in senseless gun violence. Looking to make a difference? Consider purchasing an item from the Caliber Collection or donating to Sandy Hook Promise here.

Celebrating Chinese New Year in Asia

Xīnnián kuàilè! (Happy Lunar New Year!) I just got back from celebrating the start of the annual Spring Festival. The Lunar New Year is one of the most important holidays throughout Asia (in Vietnam, the holiday is referred to as Tết; in Korea, it is called Seollal), and is based off of the Chinese Lunisolar calendar. 2018 is the year of the dog, and according to the Chinese Zodiac, “those born in the Year of the Dog are considered to be loyal, honest and selfless. But they can also be stubborn, cold and critical.”

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Celebrating the Chinese New Year in Tainan!

The history of celebrating the Lunar New Year goes back centuries to the Shang Dynasty in mainland China, where “oracle bones inscribed with astronomical records indicate that the [lunisolar] calendar existed as early as the 14th century B.C.” This holiday was originally celebrated to commemorate a fable in Chinese mythology about the Demon Nián, an evil Asian version of the Greek God Poseidon. Worried that Nián was going to attack a village during the Lunar New Year, a prophet appeared, and informed the villagers that, “The beast is easily scared. He does not like the color red. He fears loud noises and strange creatures. So tonight, spread red across the village. Hang red signs on every door. Make loud noises with drums, music, and fireworks. And to protect your children, give them face masks and lanterns to protect them.” The villagers did as the old man instructed, and Nián never returned again.

During the Chinese New Year in modern day Taiwan, it is customary to have a large reunion dinner with your extended family. I was so excited when Michelle invited me to Tainan (the former capital) to celebrate the occasion with her family, which was truly one of the most memorable experiences of my time abroad thus far. I quickly learned that “Chinese New Year’s Eve” in Taiwan is much more similar to our Thanksgiving and is a holiday meant to enjoy time with family, to cultivate luck, and to extend wishes of prosperity in the coming year. Michelle and her sister-in-law cooked an incredible dinner that was absolutely delicious! After the traditional New Year’s Eve meal, the entire family started to get ready for the famous red envelope ceremony.

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Family members offer red envelopes filled with money as a sign of respect and to wish the other members of their family a healthy and prosperous year ahead. The red envelopes get distributed in reverse chronological order (i.e., the person that is oldest gets their red envelope first). I also learned that one should never give money in denominations of four—because the Chinese word for the number four (sì/四) is a homophone for the word for death (sǐ/死). Yes, Tetraphobia is alive and well in East Asia…

Once all of the red envelopes were given out, we all sat together and watched a movie. We also played other traditional games, ate a bunch of snacks, and drank oolong tea. Later during the evening, we facetimed my students back in Newark; it was a lot of fun involving them in our holiday festivities, too! Unlike New Year’s celebrations in the west, there is no countdown clock to midnight or crazy celebrations once the clock strikes twelve. The party does not end on the first night of the lunar calendar, though: the Chinese New Year celebration actually lasts 15 days!

The final day of the Lunar New Year is known as the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated with a variety of cultural dances and music (and has also become commercialized as the equivalent of Valentine’s Day in Taiwan and Hong Kong). I really appreciated getting the opportunity to experience this unique holiday, and I really loved being a part of my adopted family in Tainan. It really was such a special night, and one that I will forever hold close in my heart. Talk about true cultural exchange!

I do want to take a moment on this joyous occasion to offer my condolences to all those who were impacted by the 6.4 magnitude earthquake in Hualien last week. This natural tragedy was my first time experiencing a vicious earthquake; I woke up in the middle of the night, shaking uncontrollably. At first, I thought I was having a seizure or other medical situation, and it was not until after the earthquake ended did I look on Twitter and realize what had happened. If I have learned anything in the last two months, it is how incredibly resilient the Taiwanese people are, and we can only hope that these earthquakes stop affecting a country with such hospitable residents.

In Taiwan, many people have off during the Lunar New Year celebration. I used this time to conduct research into the Chinese imperial examination system that originated from Confucianism, and how those ideals have permeated contemporary Taiwanese educational culture. I am starting to put these ideas together for my next blog post on the history of standardized tests, which will be incorporated into my inquiry project. Stay tuned for more information!

Learn Chinese!

English                                    Chinese

Red Envelope                        紅包 (Hóng bāo)

Happy New Year!                 新年快樂 (Xīnnián kuàilè)

Wishing you happiness & prosperity.   恭喜發財 (Gōngxǐ fācái)

 

Why Taiwan? (Part 2: A Cultural Perspective)

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” -David Foster Wallace, This is Water

At the end of World War II, many world leaders realized that they needed to take steps to prevent another great war from ever happening again. One of these people, Senator J. William Fulbright, set an ambitious goal: he believed that if potential leaders could learn about one another’s cultures and build strong relationships with people abroad, they would be less likely to support future wars against those countries.

To achieve this end, Senator Fulbright introduced a bill in 1945 that called for the “use of surplus war property to fund the promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science.” On August 1, 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed the bill into law, and officially created the Fulbright Program, the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Government.

While I have long considered applying to the Fulbright Program, teaching a diverse population of students in an urban public school for the last several years has truly piqued my interest in learning about different cultures. Having previously had the opportunity to travel abroad, I have come to realize that my interest in visiting different countries centered on much more than tourism: I wanted to meet the people of other countries and come to genuinely understand their customs and way of life.

In the course of traveling, I have come to realize that you never really know where life will take you. I remember the friendliness of Patagonia’s indigenous people on my journey throughout South America and can recall the great conversations I had over dinner with locals while in Portugal two summers ago. When traveling through Havana last year, I listened to dozens of Cubans share their affection for the American people while at the same time respectfully disagreeing with U.S. government policy, particularly the failed embargo. I also have fond memories of my last night in Madrid, when six people from six different countries communicated using their newly acquired Spanish.

It is through these experiences that I have come to appreciate more fully the power of diversity. I also believe that traveling is one of the best ways to get to know the world, and perhaps more importantly, to get to know yourself. There is something about the serenity of traveling alone and the personal growth that comes about because of it that helps you look at life through a completely different lens.

Although I have been incredibly privileged my entire life, and have had multiple opportunities to travel throughout the America’s and Europe, I have never visited Asia before this trip. In applying for a Fulbright, I looked to study in a country whose customs are completely different from those with which I was familiar, a place that I ordinarily would not have thought to visit. I wanted to get to know the culture of a place to which few Americans have traveled to and come to appreciate the subtle nuances that make eastern culture so special.

As such, I was excited to see Taiwan, the Republic of China, on the list of Participating Territories for the 2017-2018 Fulbright ‘Distinguished Awards in Teaching’ Program. I was equally thrilled last April, when I received an e-mail letting me know that I will officially be spending 2018 abroad in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan. Once abroad, I will be hosted as a visiting scholar at National Kaohsiung Normal University in Kaohsiung City, the third largest city in Taiwan.

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Kaohsiung City at night

I am looking forward to conducting research and living in Taiwan, a country with a fascinating history. An island nation of 23.4 million people, its sovereignty has been hotly contested for over 500 years. After claiming Taiwan in 1895, the Japanese granted the land back to the Republic of China after being defeated in World War II. However, when Mao Zedong assumed power over the Chinese mainland in 1949 and renamed it the People’s Republic of China, the deposed government established a new seat of power in Taiwan. Currently, the mainland People’s Republic of China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, while Taiwan claims sovereignty over the entire mainland as the original Republic of China. Most international organizations, including the United States, do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.

Although a founding member, Taiwan is currently the most populous state and largest economy that is not a member of the United Nations. Taiwan’s government represented the entirety of China until 1971, when the People’s Republic of China assumed China’s seat. Geographically, Taiwan is a few hundred miles to the east of Hong Kong, and is roughly twice the size of New Jersey (and with 23 million people, has almost triple NJ’s population).

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New Jersey overlaid on top of Taiwan for comparison

I also look forward to experiencing Taiwan’s universal healthcare system first-hand after having read so much about it over the course of the last several years. Other interesting facts about Taiwan: the country competes in international competitions as Chinese Taipei, was the first democratic country in Asia, and was nicknamed Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island) by Portuguese explorers passing by the island en route to Macau as early as the 16th century.

As we move forward in a world that is increasingly changing and globally connected, the essential role each of us must play in fostering cross-cultural exchange becomes more apparent. For how else will we achieve a better tomorrow? If we can learn to listen attentively to one another, appreciate the wealth to be found in diverse cultures, and develop a stronger sense of the many different lenses through which one can view life—what Senator Fulbright referred to as “mutual understanding”—we might just start to care for one another in unprecedented ways. My only hope is that I can help contribute to Fulbright’s vision of creating a world with a little more knowledge and a little less conflict.

Perhaps David Foster Wallace said it best: “It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: This is water, this is water.” Maybe in Taiwan, I will actually be able to see the water once and for all.

 

This post is the second in a two-part series that attempts to answer the question, “Why Taiwan?” The first essay, focused on an educational perspective, can be found here.

Why Taiwan? (Part 1: An Educational Perspective)

I was born to be a teacher. For as far back as I can remember, I have always loved school and valued education as one of life’s most valued treasures. While I have always had a passion for education, teaching has lit a fire in me; I truly feel alive when leading instruction in front of a classroom. Though I love what I do, I take my role as an educator seriously, as I fundamentally believe that we are teaching the future leaders of our world. As it has been said, we are currently preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist, using technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve a wide variety of complex problems.

During the 21st century, our international community will need to respond to these critical global issues, including food security, public health (and the so-called “death gap”), and world peace. To solve these obstacles, we will need a new generation of creative leaders: people who appreciate diversity, can think ethically, strategically, and divergently, and refuse to be satisfied with the status quo.

To create these transformational leaders, we arguably need an education revolution in this country. The achievement data is clear: a significant opportunity gap exists between middle- and upper-class students and those living in poverty. As our schools slowly become re-segregated, many of our most vulnerable communities are being left behind (Frankenberg, Lee, and Orfield 2003; Orfield, Kucsera, and Siegel-Hawley 2012). Although we have made some progress over the years, I must ask: how can we live in the richest country in the world and continue to allow the opportunity gap to be so wide?

Over the past six years, I have had the absolute privilege of serving the students and families of the Newark Public Schools. During this time, I have learned so much about the unique challenges facing urban communities and the incredible resolve of Newarkers fighting for a better tomorrow. Between the city’s inspirational residents, delectable cuisine, and exceptional transportation options, Newark has genuinely become one of my favorite places in the world. As it has been said, Newark, like ancient Rome, is “a living reminder of a glorious past, a predictor of a possible future, and a lesson in the persistence of the individual and of the human spirit.”

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Newark, affectionately known as the “Brick City,” at dusk.

While I have a deep admiration for the “Brick City” and the people that live there, I have also witnessed first-hand the educational inequality that has plagued our country for decades. I have previously written about the unacceptable transportation issues within our district bureaucracy, but busing logistics is just the tip of the iceberg. Last week, the Baltimore City Public Schools made national headlines when the press learned that some of their schools had broken heating systems and children needed to wear their jackets to  class. Year after year, I have watched students fight an uphill battle within a system that, arguably, was not designed with their success in mind. If I have learned nothing else over the course of the last six years, it is that we have a long way to go until every young person has the opportunity to attend a great public school.

To re-think education in the United States, we need to look critically at a number of issues both within and outside our current system. While we still have a great deal to learn from ideas, research, and innovation carried out from universities, think-tanks, and scholars in the states, there are also many creative developments underway in schools throughout the world. Over the course of the past decade, Finland’s unique educational philosophy has become a worldwide sensation. Although Finland has plenty of progressive schools, efforts to replicate their instruction model has had its fair share of challenges, and students living in Asia perform better in higher-level mathematics, especially in Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. U.S educators and policy makers alike have only recently begun looking towards the far east in search of best practices beyond the primary school level. Though several white papers, policy positions, and research projects have tried to expand this effort to high school mathematics instruction, little success has been realized.

Taiwan leads the world in mathematical performance among all students in their country. The results of the Programme for International Student Assessment, colloquially known as the PISA, are clear: for the most recent year in which data is available, Taiwan was ranked as the 4th best country in the world for mathematical performance. The United States finished 36th.  The OECD (who organize the PISA) also uses a so-called “snapshot of equity in education” to determine how equitable the education system is in any given country. In this category, the U.S. currently ranks 25th, while Taiwan ranks 4th. It is worth noting that the Republic of China’s success in education stretches beyond the area of mathematics, as Taiwan currently ranks 8th internationally in reading comprehension and 13th in science, too.

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Using another standardized metric, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), eighth graders in Taiwan ranked 2nd internationally in science and 3rd in mathematics. Taiwanese students also achieved outstanding results in the International Mathematics and Science Olympiad. The Ministry of Education also has a plethora of current initiatives that are aimed at increasing creativity through art and music programs. If you put any faith in these standardized metrics (which, to be fair, are inherently controversial), it is clear that Taiwan is doing something special when it comes to educating its youth.

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During my time abroad, I will have the opportunity to observe hundreds of educators teaching at dozens of schools, learn more about their pedagogical approach, and work to apply as much of it as possible to my work with under-resourced students back home. Although a few ideas in this area have emerged from Japan and Singapore, the approach taken in Taiwan has received little public exposure despite the tremendous success on international benchmarks. This Fulbright project looks to change this paradigm once and for all.

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Stock photo of Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan.

As we look forward towards an ever-changing global economy, we as educators need to do a better collective job preparing our students for the complex world in which they will live and work. Commenting on the results of the 2015 PISA, the report’s authors noted that, “while changing how teachers teach is challenging, school leaders and governments should try to find ways to make teaching more effective.” Perhaps I am hopelessly optimistic, but I do believe success is possible.

I have worked hard the last six years to ensure that all of the students whom I taught received a great education, but I must confess that I have learned far more from my students over the years than I have ever taught them. While I am truly excited for the year of personal and professional growth that lies ahead, I also want to ensure that my time abroad actually makes a difference for our most vulnerable students. I hope that my studies in Taiwan can be part of the revolution that is committed to giving all students the chance to attain a truly excellent education.

 

This post is the first in a two-part series that attempts to answer the question, “Why Taiwan?” The second essay, focused on a “cultural perspective,” will be posted next week.