Science Education in America

16 10 2008

American science education is a mess right now. Part of that is caused by the same factors that are hurting the education system as a whole, but there are also science-specific issues that need to be addressed.

First, the good: despite a few states where it has been a fight, most of the US does teach evolution pretty well. It doesn’t seem like much. It is definitely unfortunate that it seems like a plus to teach it well in most of the country, but it is. After all, if evolution were being attacked in more places, science education could be in a much worse state than it is.

Now, the rather longer bit: the bad.

The first bad bit is that evolution has to fight to be taught without creationism along side it at all. This is a fight that shouldn’t have to be fought at all, because evolution is one of the most well supported and solid theories in science. The forces of ignorance (well intentioned, sure, but that’s no excuse) have sought to stop evolution from being taught because it conflicts with their religious beliefs. They are outside the mainstream of the religious, but not nearly as far outside the mainstream as they should be.

This is made worse because the attack on evolution decreases understanding of evolution (or at the very least impedes it), thereby further perpetuating attacks on evolution. As the quality of biology teaching goes down, fewer kids learn evolution well and accept it. As fewer accept it, more attack it, and so on ad infinitum. This can still be reversed, and is probably the easiest to change because here at least the causes of bad education are fairly clear. In other areas, they are harder to discern.

For example, a second issue: most kids graduating from high school don’t really understand the scientific method. We have a science teacher at some point in school make us memorize the steps, but the reasons behind each step, how it really works, the messiness of the process, and the importance of it are never explained. I know about peer review from my own, independent learning. Nothing is taught about it in school even though peer review is a core part of the scientific method. Most of the kids I know think that the scientific method is a rigid, clean, neat process. As I’m sure any scientist could explain better than I, the process is far from neat or clean, and is rigid only in its demand for transparent methods and evidence.

Why is the scientific method not taught? Honestly, I don’t know. There are no obvious culprits like there are with regard to evolution. This is something I’m still trying to figure out, and since this blog is supposed to be about critical thinking, I guess I should just leave it at that until I find out more. Unfounded speculation would be rather hypocritical, I think.

The third is a more general problem: teacher quality. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of very good teachers in America. Unfortunately, they are rarely rewarded, and poor teachers have no incentive to improve. Whenever a district considers merit based pay, the teachers’ unions fight it. After all, at least as many teachers would lose out from it as would get more. In many places, it is actually cheaper to keep a tenured teacher “working” in a so-called rubber room, being payed to do sit there doing nothing, than it is to go through the legal proceedings to have them removed. On the one hand, tenure exists for a very good reason, but on the other, there is such thing as going overboard.

In addition to the problems with current teachers, we as a society do not encourage people to go into education. Teachers do not command very much respect, and few make much money, especially in public schools. For most intelligent people, it is much better to go into something else even if they like teaching because there are so many benefits to choosing something other than teaching.  How can we get quality teachers like this? We pay the people in whom we place the minds of America’s children less than we pay a retail store manager. Are children’s minds worth so little?

Again, I really don’t know why this has happened. I wish I did.

The case is by no means hopeless, but it is becoming more and more serious. For evolution, all I can really say is that people who care about science need to keep fighting creationism when it tries to pop up in schools. For the rest, all I can say is that we need to try to convince schools to focus more on the scientific method and try to convince school boards and teachers to accept merit bases systems. Those treat the symptoms, though, and really what needs to be done is treat the cause. If we do this, we can still avoid the path we seem to have started down. If we fail to change course, however, the damage to understanding of science in America will be great.

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