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Science Leaches Out of Science Class

• February 01, 2011 • 5:17 PM

Political scientists studying U.S. public school biology instructors find a majority of teachers — a “cautious” three out of five — are at best tepid in defense of evolution.

In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama urged Americans to “win the future” through a new dedication to the science and technology education that could help the United States “out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.”

He conjured an America where today’s fifth-graders could become the globe’s go-to experts in solar engineering, high-speed rail design and supercomputer construction. But in a sign of the distance between that universe and the one Americans really live in, it turns out many public school students aren’t even properly exposed to one of the most fundamental principles of science — evolution.

Penn State University political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer began thinking about the topic years ago when Berkman’s son first entered elementary school.
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“One of children asked the teacher, ‘Wasn’t it true that the continents at one time were connected, many years ago?’” Plutzer recalled. “The teacher said, ‘I can’t answer that question, it’s not appropriate for your grade level.’ This got us thinking about a whole host of issues.”

One of them was the sensitivity of acknowledging the Earth is billions of years old, a central tenet of the geosciences. Another was the notion of “grade-appropriate” information, generally spelled out in local curriculum standards.

“We thought about this for many years,” Plutzer said. “We decided, as political scientists, that we had something new we could say about the evolution–creation battles, and that is to view them through the lens of democracy and to understand that from the very beginning, from the Scopes trial on, the battle has not just been a battle of ideas about the way the world is, but it’s been a battle of who should decide what students should learn.”

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Darwin Day is February 12

Darwin Day is an annual celebration of the birth of naturalist Charles Darwin, who would have been 202 this Feb. 12. Some Darwinian links are below:
Darwin Day Celebration
International Darwin Day Foundation
Wikipedia listing on Darwin Day
A February 2009 Science Friday interview with Darwin’s great-great-grandson, Matthew Chapman, on the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.[/class]

Are career scientists at the National Research Council determining what students should learn about evolution (or any number of other technical scientific issues)? Or state departments of education? Or elected members of local school boards? Or someone else? Berkman and Plutzer mull the question in a new book, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, and they present some of the evidence for their conclusion in the latest issue of Science.

“We concluded that, by and large, it was the teachers that were really making policy at street level,” Plutzer said. “All of these well-publicized battles in Kansas and Texas and Ohio and elsewhere about what these content standards should include really have very little impact on teachers.”

This means students aren’t learning about evolution as professional scientific organizations would advise teaching it — and they’re probably not even learning about it the way other students down the hall are.

Berkman and Plutzer sent lengthy surveys to 1,900 public school biology teachers across the country. Of the 926 responses that inform their research, 13 percent of biology teachers — hailing from all over the country — advocate creationism or intelligent design despite years of high-profile court cases ruling this unconstitutional.

Only 28 percent of teachers consistently present the evidence for evolution as a unifying theme in biology, as the National Research Council recommends. The rest — Berkman and Plutzer call them the “cautious 60 percent” — should concern advocates of scientific literacy (such as the president) even more than the minority of creationists. Their caution promotes the idea that scientific findings are a matter of opinion, not rigorous research.

“Many of the teachers we classify as advocates for evolutionary biology, they recounted incidents where a student complained, and they calmly sat down with the student, or a parent or principal,” Plutzer said. “They’d be confident enough say, ‘That’s a controversy that has no real basis in fact.’ They could quote particular stats; they were very confident. They told us they went back to the classroom and taught exactly as they had before.

“This cautious 60 percent often don’t think they’ll come out quite as well in such an encounter.”

The teachers who do the best job of defending evolution are, not surprisingly, the ones who have the most command of the subject — they majored in biology in college or took a semester-long college course in evolutionary biology. Plutzer thinks most of the 60 percent would like to do a better job at teaching the subject, if they could. He and Berkman conclude the best place to start may be to bolster what they learn themselves when they’re students of evolutionary biology in college.

The American education system by definition, though, resists national control of what students learn (whether in 10th-grade biology or college biology programs), even as federal court cases try to dictate what’s out of bounds in public schools. This means that if the president has a national goal for where science education should take America, getting there could be considerably more complicated than he has made it sound.

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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