Education reforms working? Poverty, poor test results correlate in national study. What could it mean?

February 27, 2011

More from Greg Laden’s blog that deserves your attention, and a much wider audience.

The Science component of “The Nation’s Report Card” was released today and clearly indicates that we have moved one step closer as a nation in two of our most important goals: Building a large and complacent poorly educated low-pay labor class, and increasing the size of our science-illiterate populace in order to allow the advance of medieval morality and Iron Age Christian values.

The plan to sabotage the middle class, kill teachers unions and keep most Americans stupid, is working.

That was the plan, right?

Pay no attention to that teapot tempest in Wisconsin.  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.  You are getting sleepy, very, very sleepy . . .

Get the facts:

Teachers, compare your class results:

David Barton: Mediocre scientists who are Christian, good; great scientists, bad

July 9, 2009

I’m reviewing the reviews of Texas social studies curricula offered by the six people appointed by the Texas State Board of Education.  David Barton, a harsh partisan politician, religious bigot, pseudo-historian and questionable pedagogue, offers up this whopper, about fifth grade standards.:

In Grade 5 (b)(24)(A), there are certainly many more notable scientists than Carl Sagan – such as Wernher von Braun, Matthew Maury, Joseph Henry, Maria Mitchell, David Rittenhouse, etc.

Say what?  “More notable scientists than Carl Sagan . . . ?”  What is this about?

It’s about David Barton’s unholy bias against science, and in particular, good and great scientists like Carl Sagan who professed atheism, or any faith other than David Barton’s anti-science brand of fundamentalism.

David Barton doesn’t want any Texas child to grow up to be a great astronomer like Carl Sagan, if there is any chance that child will also be atheist, like Carl Sagan.  Given a choice between great science from an atheist, or mediocre science from a fundamentalist Christian, Barton chooses mediocrity.

Currently the fifth grade standards for social studies require students to appreciate the contributions of scientists.  Here is the standard Barton complains about:

(24) Science, technology, and society. The student understands the impact of science and technology on life in the United States. The student is expected to:

(A) describe the contributions of famous inventors and scientists such as Neil Armstrong, John J. Audubon, Benjamin Banneker, Clarence Birdseye, George Washington Carver, Thomas Edison, and Carl Sagan;
(B) identify how scientific discoveries and technological innovations such as the transcontinental railroad, the discovery of oil, and the rapid growth of technology industries have advanced the economic development of the United States;
(C) explain how scientific discoveries and technological innovations in the fields of medicine, communication, and transportation have benefited individuals and society in the United States;
(D) analyze environmental changes brought about by scientific discoveries and technological innovations such as air conditioning and fertilizers; and
(E) predict how future scientific discoveries and technological innovations could affect life in the United States.

Why doesn’t Barton like Carl Sagan?  In addition to Sagan’s being a great astronomer, he was a grand populizer of science, especially with his series for PBS, Cosmos.

But offensive to Barton was Sagain’s atheism.  Sagan wasn’t militant about it, but he did honestly answer people who asked that he found no evidence for the efficacy or truth of religion, nor for the existence of supernatural gods.

More than that, Sagan defended evolution theory.  Plus, he was Jewish.

Any one of those items might earn the David Barton Stamp of Snooty-nosed Disapproval, but together, they are about fatal.

Do the scientists Barton suggests in Sagan’s stead measure up? Barton named four:

Wernher von Braun, Matthew Maury, Joseph Henry, Maria Mitchell, David Rittenhouse

In the category of “Sagan Caliber,” only von Braun might stake a claim.  Wernher von Braun, you may recall, was the guy who ran the Nazi’s rocketry program.  After the war, it was considered a coup that the U.S. snagged him to work, first for the Air Force, and then for NASA.  Excuse me for worrying, but I wonder whether Barton likes von Braun for his rocketry, for his accommodation of anti-evolution views, or for his Nazi-supporting roots.  (No, I don’t trust Barton as far as I can hurl the Texas Republican Party Platform, which bore Barton’s fould stamp while he was vice chair of the group.)

So, apart from the fact that von Braun was largely an engineer, and Sagan was a brilliant astronomer with major contributions to our understanding of the cosmos, what about the chops of the other four people?  Why would Barton suggest lesser knowns and unknowns?

Matthew Maury once headed the U.S. Naval Observatory, in the 19th century.  He was famous for studying ocean currents, piggy-backing on the work of Ben Franklin and others.  Do a Google search, though, and you’ll begin to undrstand:  Maury is a favorite of creationists, a scientist who claimed to subjugate his science to the Bible.  Maury claimed his work on ocean currents was inspired at least in part by a verse in Psalms 8 which referred to “paths in the sea.”  Maury is not of the stature or achievement of Sagan, but Maury is politically correct to Barton.

Joseph Henry is too ignored, the first head of the Smithsonian Institution. Henry made his mark in research on magnetism and electricity.  But it’s not Henry’s science Barton recognizes.  Henry, as a largely unknown scientist today, is a mainstay of creationists’ list of scientists who made contributions to science despite their being creationists.  What?  Oh, this is inside baseball in the war to keep evolution in science texts.  In response to the (accurate) claim that creationists have not contributed anything of scientific value to biology since about William Paley in 1802, Barton and his fellow creationists will trot out a lengthy list of scientists who were at least nominally Christian, and claim that they were creationists, and that they made contributions to science.  The list misses the point that Henry, to pick one example, didn’t work in biology nor make a contribution to biology, nor is there much evidence that Henry was a creationist in the modern sense of denying science.  Henry is obscure enough that Barton can claim he was politically correct, to Barton’s taste, to be studied by school children without challenging Barton’s creationist ideas.

Maria Mitchell was an American astronomer, the second woman to discover a comet. While she was a Unitarian and a campaigner for women’s rights, or more accurately, because of that, I can’t figure how she passes muster as politically correct to David Barton.  Surely she deserves to be studied more in American history than she is — perhaps with field trips to the Maria Mitchell House National Historic LandmarkIt may be that Barton has mistaken Mitchell for another creationist scientist. While Mitchell’s life deseves more attention — her name would be an excellent addition to the list of woman scientists Texas children should study — she is not of the stature of Sagan.

David Rittenhouse, a surveyor and astronomer, and the first head of the U.S. Mint, is similarly confusing as part of Barton’s list.  Rittenhouse deserves more study, for his role in extending the Mason-Dixon line, if nothing else, but it is difficult to make a case that his contributions to science approach those of Carl Sagan.  Why is Rittenhouse listed by Barton?  If nothing else, it shows the level of contempt Barton holds for Sagan as “just another scientist.”  Barton urges the study of other scientists, any other scientists, rather than study of Sagan.

Barton just doesn’t like Sagan.  Why?  Other religionists give us the common dominionist or radical religionist view of Sagan:

Just what is the Secular Humanist worldview? First and foremost Secular Humanists are naturalists. A naturalist believes that nature is all that exists. “The Cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be.” This was the late Carl Sagan’s opening line on the television series “Cosmos.” Sagan was a noted astronomer and a proud secular humanist. Sagan maintained that the God of the Bible was nonexistent. (Imagine Sagan’s astonishment when he came face to face with his Maker.)

Sagan’s science, in Barton’s view, doesn’t leave enough room for Barton’s religion.  Sagan was outspoken about his opposition to superstition.  Sagan urged reason and the active use of his “Baloney-Detection Kit.” One of Sagan’s later popular books was titled Demon-haunted World:  Science as a candle in the dark.  Sagan argued for the use of reason and science to learn about our world, to use to build a framework for solving the world’s problems.

Barton prefers the dark to any light shed by Sagan, it appears.

More resources on the State Board of Education review of social studies curricula

Fighting cargo cult science

March 13, 2009

Creationism is not taught at any major university, as science.  It’s difficult to find creationism taught in any curriculum, including theology schools, because it’s not a part of the theology of most Christian sects.  And yet, creationism continues to pose hurdles to good science education in almost every state (especially Texas).

The hard work of spreading creationism is long entrenched, and continuing, though largely out of the view of most observers of cultural and scientific trends.

For example, consider this blog by a guy who teaches creationism at Bryan College.  It’s been discovered by supporters of science education — but what can anybody do about it?  P. Z. Myers at Pharyngula noted the non-scientific contents of the stuff being taught.  That’s not really enough.

We need to more aggressively promote good science teaching in public schools.

Here’s one thing we might do, as I noted in the comments at Pharyngula.  We need to create institutions to aggressively promote good, powerful science teaching.  Here is what I wrote there, essentially.

Notice that this is Bryan College that Todd Wood preaches at, the college set up to honor William Jennings Bryan, the creationist prosecutor from the Scopes trial. This is part of the evidence that scientists and other lovers of science and good education slept too long on some of these issues (“While Science Slept” might be a good essay somewhere).

Remember Scopes lost his case, and was fined; the overturning on appeal was due to a technical error in the fine, not due to other obviously major flaws in the law (which was signed and promoted by Gov. Austin Peay, who also has a college named after him).  The law against teaching human evolution remained effective in Tennessee until after 1967, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Epperson v. Arkansas — which finally persuaded the Tennessee legislature to repeal the act.

Some people thought H. L. Mencken’s mocking judgment on the Scopes trial was final. Not creationists. While the rest of the world went on, fundamentalists developed a powerful, out-of-the-major-media network to spread and promote their ideas. Part of this network was the establishment of Bryan College, and to some degree, I think Austin Peay State University (though, as a state university with serious intentions on educating people, APSU is in the evolution camp in curricula).

Why is there no Clarence Darrow College? Why is there no John T. Scopes Institute for Teachers (say, at the University of Chicago, where Scopes went back for his advanced degree)?

Unless we get out there and fight in the trenches of education and religion and culture, evolution will continue to face silly opposition. Feynman warned us of the dangers of cargo cult science. (Honestly, though, Wood’s stuff looks like cargo cult cargo cultism, it’s so far removed from real science — doesn’t it?)

In the end it’s odd that a progressive-on-most-issues guy like Bryan would be memorialized by naming a college after him to preserve his most profound errors. It’s effective propaganda. I’d be willing to wager Bryan would have come around to evolution with the evidence stacked as it is now. His error was emotional and theological, I think. Education can prevent and correct such error.  Bryan College doesn’t do that in evolution — something else needs to be done to fight what Bryan College does.

The John T. Scopes Institute for Teachers could run in the summer months, it should have a thousand teachers of science from primary and secondary education in every session, and it should emphasize the best methods for teaching the best science we have. We really need such an agency — or agencies — now. Our children lose interest in science between fourth grade and graduation, their achievement in science plunges in comparison to other nations.

Our economy suffers as a result.

Creationists have Bryan College to help them spread their versions of cargo cult science, with that mission specifically in mind. We can fight fire with fire, but we have to fight ignorance with education. And, my friends in science education, we are behind.

If science facts won’t improve reasoning, don’t study science, creationists say

February 8, 2009

If you saw the notice on the original study, you knew this one was coming.

A team of researchers checked two things in college freshman:  First, how much science they knew, sort of a trivia catalog; and second, how well they could use their reasoning powers.

The study showed Chinese students way ahead of U.S. students on simple knowledge of science facts.  But the study showed little difference in powers of reasoning of the two groups.

Wait, don’t jump to conclusions.  That’s what the creationists did.  Check out Ed Yong’s post and analysis of the study, at Not Exactly Rocket Science (with ensuing good discussion).

If knowing a lot of science doesn’t improve logic, why bother to learn science? the creationists asked.  Especially, why not teach creationism in biology, since teaching evolution seems to them rather authoritarian.

Could you make this stuff up?

Here’s the EurekAlert summary, and here’s a clip from the description:

The research appears in the January 30, 2009 issue of the journal Science.

Lei Bao, associate professor of physics at Ohio State University and lead author of the study, said that the finding defies conventional wisdom, which holds that teaching science facts will improve students’ reasoning ability.

“Our study shows that, contrary to what many people would expect, even when students are rigorously taught the facts, they don’t necessarily develop the reasoning skills they need to succeed,” Bao said. “Because students need both knowledge and reasoning, we need to explore teaching methods that target both.”

Bao directs Ohio State’s Physics Education Research Group, which is developing new strategies for teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. For this study, he and his colleagues across the United States and in China decided to compare students from both countries, because the educational systems are so different.

In the United States, only one-third of students take a year-long physics course before they graduate from high school. The rest only study physics within general science courses. Curricula vary widely from school to school, and students can choose among elective courses.

In China, however, every student in every school follows exactly the same curriculum, which includes five years of continuous physics classes from grades 8 through 12. All students must perform well on a national exam if they hope to enter college, and the exam contains advanced physics problems.

“Each system has its strengths and weaknesses,” Bao said. “In China, schools emphasize a very extensive learning of STEM content knowledge, while in the United States, science courses are more flexible, with simpler content but with a high emphasis on scientific methods. We need to think of a new strategy, perhaps one that blends the best of both worlds.”

The students who participated in the study were all incoming freshmen who had just enrolled in a calculus-based introductory physics course. They took three multiple-choice tests: two which tested knowledge of physics concepts, and one which tested scientific reasoning.

Did you see anything there that suggested that NOT learning science facts is a good idea?

Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian used the study as a springboard to rail at evolution in biology curricula, and at the National Center for Science Education, calling the study (somewhat tongue in cheek, I think) “terribly dangerous.”  No, that doesn’t make sense, but it gets stranger as he explains in comments that he’s not advocating creationism or intelligent design, either.

But nothing in the study suggests any serious problem with the teaching of evolution theory.  Where did Tom get that idea?

Bao explained that STEM students need to excel at scientific reasoning in order to handle open-ended real-world tasks in their future careers in science and engineering.

Ohio State graduate student and study co-author Jing Han echoed that sentiment. “To do my own research, I need to be able to plan what I’m going to investigate and how to do it. I can’t just ask my professor or look up the answer in a book,” she said.

“These skills are especially important today, when we are determined to build a society with a sustainable edge in science and technology in a fast-evolving global environment,” Bao said.

He quickly added that reasoning is a good skill for everyone to possess — not just scientists and engineers.

“The general public also needs good reasoning skills in order to correctly interpret scientific findings and think rationally,” he said.

Telic Thoughts seized on it , too.

It’s a springboard to a new creationist meme, and here’s how it will come out of the mouths of creationists, speaking to school boards and writing letters to editorial pages: “Learning a lot of science doesn’t improve critical thinking skills, so let’s teach something other than evolution.”

That’s not what the study says.

First, the study says Chinese students know more science than U.S. students. This is worrisome for the U.S.  While the study shows that entering freshmen are no better at critical thinking than U.S. students, the fact remains that more Chinese students graduate with science degrees.  Then a lot of them come to the U.S. to get advanced degrees.  Even the radical right wing National Center for Policy Analysis worries about the number of Chinese engineers and scientists U.S. colleges and universities graduate.  We’re behind in this race for brains and skills.

Second, researchers showed that freshman science students need to improve their reasoning skills, in both China and the U.S. Look hard at any creationist claim — they won’t argue for more education to improve reasoning.  We need to note what this finding is not:  It’s not an indictment of science education.  It’s not a call to stop or slow down science education.  It defies “conventional wisdom,” but it’s not an endorsement of knocking down science education as a result.

Third, the study only identifies what might be a problem. High school graduates in their first year of studying science in Chinese and American universities are not very sophisticated in their science reasoning.  Is this a problem?  Is this a skill that should be learned in high school?  Or, is it a skill that is better taught after the freshman year, at college?  This study was a snapshot, not a longitudinal study.  It did not purport to show when or how to best instruct on the reasoning processes necessary for a successful career in science.

In particular, this is not an indictment of biology education in the U.S., nor especially an indictment of education in evolution theory.  It’s possible to suggest that Chinese students know more evolution than U.S. students.  That’s a far sight from saying education in evolution theory doesn’t work.



Can we keep up with the Russians Indians, Chinese, Europeans, Japanese, Saudis?

December 29, 2007

Sputnik’s launch by the Soviet Union just over 50 years ago prompted a review of American science, foreign policy, technology and industry. It also prompted a review of the foundations of those practices — education.

Over the next four years, with the leadership of the National Science Foundation, Americans revamped education in each locality, beefing up academic standards, adding new arts classes, new science classes, new humanities classes especially in history and geography (1957-58 was the International Geophysical Year) and bringing up to date course curricula and textbooks, especially in sciences.

On the wave of those higher standards, higher expectations and updated information, America entered an era of achievement in science and technology whose benefits we continue to enjoy today.

We were in the worst of the Cold War in 1957. We had an enemy that, though not really formal in a declared war sense, was well known: The Soviet Union and “godless communism.” Some of the activities our nation engaged in were silly — adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance smoked out no atheists or communists, but did produce renewed harassment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and anyone else opposed to such oaths — and some of the activities were destructive — Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s excessive and ultimately phony zeal in exposing communists led to detractive hearings, misplaced fears of fellow citizens and serious political discussion, and violations of Americans’ civil rights that finally prompted even conservative Republicans to censure his action. The challenges were real. As Winston Churchill pointed out, the Soviet Union had drawn an “Iron Curtain” across eastern Europe. They had maintained a large army, gained leadership in military aviation capabilities, stolen our atomic and H-bomb secrets, and on October 4, 1957, beaten the U.S. into space with a successful launch of an artificial satellite. The roots of destruction of the Soviet Empire were sown much earlier, but they had barely rooted by this time, and no one in 1957 could see that the U.S. would ultimately triumph in the Cold War.

That was important. Because though the seeds of the destruction of Soviet communism were germinating, to grow, they would need nourishment from the actions of the U.S. over the next 30 years.

Sen. John F. Kennedy and Counsel Robert F. Kennedy, McClellan Committee hearing, 1957

Sen. John F. Kennedy and Counsel Robert F. Kennedy, McClellan Committee hearing, 1957; photo by Douglas Jones for LOOK Magazine, in Library of Congress collections

Photo from the Kennedy Library: “PX 65-105:185 Hearing of the Select Committee to Investigate Improper Activities in Labor-Management Relations (“McClellan Commitee”). Chief Counsel Robert F. Kennedy and Senator John F. Kennedy question a witness, May, 1957. Washington, D. C., United States Capitol. Photograph by Douglas Jones for LOOK Magazine, in the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LOOK Magazine Collection.”

Fourteen days after the Soviet Union orbited Sputnik, a young veteran of World War II, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy, spoke at the University of Florida. Read the rest of this entry »

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