Monday, April 16, 2012

Maybe, just maybe, it's WHAT we are teaching, and HOW . . . .

In Delaware our education debates have generally centered on the idea that access to a high-quality education is either being improved or damaged by charters, choice, and the Neighborhood Schools Act.

This is unfortunate in one sense because it detracts attention from what is actually occurring in our classrooms, and despite legions of data coaches and PLCs, we really don't know.

This is also true on a nationwide basis.

In the areas about which there is significant study, however, there are some extremely disquieting things happening.

Take the coverage of evolution in our high-school Biology classes, for example . . . .

This is an issue that strikes to the heart of the debate over local control of education, high-stakes testing, and teacher accountability.

First, it is important to realize that 40% of all Americans (down slightly over the past decade) believe firmly that God created humans as they currently exist, some time in the last 10,000 years or so.  These are the folks we call Creationists.

Almost as many--38%--believe that evolution occurred, but that God directed the process.  This is called Theistic Evolution and includes the intriguing sub-set of scientific creationism known as Intelligent Design.

Only 16% of all Americans believe that evolution is a natural (naturalistic) process that proceeds blindly without the necessity of divine intervention.  (Source:  Gallup)

What intrigues me about this is not the fact that better educated people tend to be in the 16%, and that highly religious people tend to be in the 40%, and that the total number of folks believing in some sort of role for God in the process (78%) is very close to the total number of Americans who express any religious belief (85%).

What interests me is that, according to Gallup, only 9% of all Americans with only a high school education believe in evolution as a natural process.  In other words, 91% of our high school graduates do not leave their Biology classes with an understanding or a belief in human evolution.


It would be tempting to cite their parents' belief system, or the public controversies generated by evolution's so-called critics, but it turns out to be much simpler . . . .

Biology teachers apparently are not really teaching evolution.


According to a Penn State study:

The majority of public high school biology teachers are not strong classroom advocates of evolutionary biology. . . .

Professors Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer surveyed Biology teachers and discovered:

--only about 28 percent of those teachers consistently implement National Research Council recommendations calling for introduction of evidence that evolution occurred, and craft lesson plans with evolution as a unifying theme linking disparate topics in biology....

--about 13 percent of biology teachers "explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design by spending at least one hour of class time presenting it in a positive light." Many of these teachers typically rejected the possibility that scientific methods can shed light on the origin of the species, and considered both evolution and creationism as belief systems that cannot be fully proven or discredited.

--the remaining teachers, the "cautious 60 percent," ... are neither strong advocates for evolutionary biology nor explicit endorsers of nonscientific alternatives.

Uh, wow.

And of those 60%, the cautious, how do they approach the topic?  Researchers found them employing three strategies:

The researchers found these teachers commonly use one or more of three strategies to avoid controversy. Some teach evolutionary biology as if it applies only to molecular biology, ignoring an opportunity to impart a rich understanding of the diversity of species and evidence that one species gives rise to others.
Using a second strategy, some teachers rationalize the teaching of evolution by referring to high-stakes examinations. These teachers "tell students it does not matter if they really 'believe' in evolution, so long as they know it for the test," Berkman and Plutzer said.
Finally, many teachers expose their students to all positions, scientific and otherwise, and let them make up their own minds. This is unfortunate, the researchers said, because "this approach tells students that well established concepts can be debated in the same way we debate personal opinions."

The difficulty with these approaches is that they devalue the scientific method and reduce the overall chance that students will leave high school with any decent level of scientific literacy:

Berkman and Plutzer conclude that "the cautious 60 percent fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments." As a result, "they may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists."

Why is this so critical and so timely?

Well it could be that Tennessee just passed a new law that codifies the "right" of high school Biology teachers to discuss creationism and intelligent design in their classrooms as long as the students bring it up first.

My experience in teaching World History at DSU bears out all of the conclusions above.  Typically, about 60% of my freshmen report their understanding of human origins (and the age of the world for that matter) as being something that occurred because God willed it somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago.  When asked how they square that belief with the evidence presented to them in Biology classes, they generally give me one of the following three answers:

--My teachers never covered that.

--I'm a Christian.  It doesn't matter what scientists say.

--Everybody is entitled to his/her own opinion.  [When pressed they will tell you that their Biology teacher explained evolution as "one of the possible answers.]

Here's my concern:  when there are larger policy issues in play (such as desegregation under Brown in the 1950s-1970s, or the choice/charter controversy in Delaware now), the question of what our teachers are actually teaching in their classrooms too often goes unexamined.

I have no doubt (because I have seen the curriculum and examined the homework) that human evolution is being taught at CSW, and I have no doubt it is being taught in the IB and Cambridge programs in Brandywine, Newark High, and now Dickinson.  These programs could not retain their accreditation without doing so.

But are Delaware Biology teachers in our traditional high schools allowing creationism into the classroom, or soft-pedaling Biology in such fashion as would undercut the general application of scientific method and reduce scientific literacy?  The Penn State study suggests that many of them are.

We don't know, and we should.

Should education be consistently under local control?  As a libertarian I am always tempted to answer "yes."  As an educated person I am sorely tried by the fact that untrammeled "local control" will mean school boards and state legislatures deciding on "religious grounds" to deny our children access to real science.

Not that the Feds have been doing any better.


Anonymous said...

The picture of the "bill of rights" witht the airplane heading straight for it is very offensive. You obviously had no one effective by the events of 9/11.

Anonymous said...

The teachers in the districts you cited may be teaching it, but the kids aren't getting it. I talk to them. Biology for them means molecules, not natural systems, and they believe evolution is a point of view. As a society, we have totally failed to teach evolution as distinct from Natural Selection, so they think it's a "theory."

We need to revamp our science education from the earliest, imo. They do not understand the meaning of science in toto.

And i might agree re: the illustration, although I totally agree about the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act was an offense perpetrated by our elected officials against the values those in the Twin Towers (and elsewhere) died for. The illustration implies it was the terrorists' fault, and that's too easy.


Steve Newton said...

I don't think the teachers are necessarily teaching it.

Steve Newton said...

@anon: That the image offends you does not mean it is offensive. What is offensive is that you assume that I lost nobody on 9/11 because otherwise I wouldn't use that image in a way you find unacceptable.

@anon (brooke): Funny, I read the image not as saying it was the terrorists' fault, but that we did it to ourselves.

delacrat said...

The Patriot Act is why people flying in to the US, must reset their watches back 10 years to correct for the time warp difference.