Mike the Mad Biologist

Oddly, curriculum–what is taught–is rarely discussed when the subject of educational ‘reform’ is broached. It’s odd, since most reformers, when trying to push their agenda, spend a good deal of time figuring out what to communicate and how to communicate it (like most of us). Yet, how one teaches and what one teaches never seems to enter into the discussion, even though it’s pretty critical to educational success. So maybe the reformers could actually do something useful and tackle this problem:

We can now say how many high school biology teachers do a good job, teaching the recommendations of the National Research Council and also, by the way, obeying the requirements of most state science standards: 28%. About a quarter of our biology teachers are actually discussing the evidence that evolution occurred and using evolution as a theme to integrate the components of a good year of biology instruction. And since most school curricula only include one year of life science, that effectively means that only about a quarter of our high school graduates are even exposed to evolutionary biology.

There’s also another problem. 13% of our biology teachers are openly and unashamedly creationists who teach creationism in the classroom. That number varies, by the way, with the political leanings of the citizens of the school district: 40% of the teachers in conservative school districts reject evolution entirely, while “only” 11% in liberal areas do. This is a disaster. This is active, ongoing miseducation and misrepresentation of science by the teachers we entrust with our children.

What about the rest? 60% of our teachers do nothing: they teach the bare minimum of evolution that they can get away with, focusing on details of genetics and molecular biology that allow them to avoid the more obvious implications (which shouldn’t happen, either; the molecular evidence for evolution is powerful stuff), or they allow it to slip off the schedule of lesson plans. They’re afraid, and rightly so, of aggressive, nasty, privileged religious parents who will make their life hellish if they do their job properly.

So, will the reformers do anything about the scourge of creationism?

Probably not: they have more important things to do, like bust unions….

Comments

  1. #1 harold
    February 2, 2011

    Unfortunately, your final sentence appears to be dead on.

    “Educational reform” seems to have become a euphemism for pushing some portion of public school funding into the hands of private profit takers (“charter schools”), and for making teacher jobs less secure and less well paid.

    I was interested by the latest round of squawking about test scores, in which children in Shanghai (not “China”, a region of China) did very well, among others.

    One thing I NEVER hear is anyone asking the following questions –

    1) Do these test scores predict future achievement at higher levels?

    2) What are they doing in all the places that have higher test scores than the US? Are comparable subsets of the student population being tested? If so, how are they achieving these scores? Can we bring some of the techniques to the US system?

    Instead, every US deficiency, if not simply denied, is always taken, by the vast majority of commentators, as further proof that the US needs to be “even more conservative”.

    All I ever hear from the White House on down is that the solution is (as I mentioned above) to add a layer of private profit takers to the publicly funded school system (“charter schools”) and make teaching a worse, less secure, less well paid job.

    In this arena, as in others, the obvious question of what other countries actually do when they achieve better results is ignored. It is de rigeur that all solutions in the US be based on pushing further in an already failed direction. More regressive taxation, lower wages and longer hours for the vast majority, and sabotage of what few legacy public systems actually work “must” be the answer. To conjecture otherwise is verboten, and anyone who does becomes a figure of ridicule, e.g. Paul Krugman.

    For full disclosure I am a pathologist turned entrepreneur and an investor; I have never been a member of a teachers’ union, or any real union, in my life, and strongly support free markets.

  2. #2 Clam
    February 2, 2011

    I keep, vaguely, insulting Yanks in the vain hope that you’ll do something about your sub-standard educational system. After all, a lot of your educational shibboleths (such as “elitism”) were passed on to our unhappy shores after the second world war.
    I think, now, that I’ll give up. The leadership of the Western World has already slipped from your grasp. Sic transit gloria mundi. (Gloria suffers from motion-sickness).

  3. #3 razib
    February 2, 2011

    my HS teacher admitted that he started teaching evolution only when he got enough seniority that the school board would give him latitude to perfunctorily ignore the yearly bitch-fests from creationist parents. seems that younger biology teachers had to “address concerns,” which basically meant a huge administrative time-sink.

  4. #4 Peg
    February 6, 2011

    To all science professionals who read this extraordinary blog – consider volunteering to help science teachers in the commonwealth make their classrooms an engaging and exciting place to learn about science, math…..

    We can talk till the cows come home – but how fun would it be to actually change the landscape!