17 08 2009

Since trying to trash science standards wasn’t enough, they’ve gone after social studies/humanities as well.

For instance, a 2007 law that takes effect this school year requires Bible courses in school.

The article opens with an illustrative example.

“By the end of the year, what they begin to realize is that it is pervasive. You can’t get away from it.  The kids came back and were like ‘It’s everywhere,'” said John Keeling, the social studies chair at Whitehouse High School.

Short Keeling: they see the Bible everywhere!

Whitehouse already offers a Bible elective. “The purpose of a course like this isn’t even really to get kids to believe it per say. It is just to appreciate the profound impact that it has had on our history and on our government,” said Keeling.

Short Keeling: But really, no push to believe at all! What? No, I don’t need a fire extinguisher for my pants, why do you ask?

“I think it is a good thing because a lot of kids don’t have that experience, and they already want to take prayer out of school as it is– and you see where our kids are ending up!” said Tyler resident Laura Tucker.

Translated with painstaking hours of work into English, that reads, “I think it is a good thing, because a lot of kids don’t have that experience of flagrant First Amendment violations, and they already want to enforce the First Amendment as it is– and you see where our kids are ending up, with minds of their own, even as [whispering] libruls!”

Tyler resident Havis Tatum disagress with Tucker. He said, “I don’t want anybody teaching their religious beliefs to my child unless they want to send their child to my house and let me teach them my religious views. There is no difference.”

Ding ding ding! Correct answer, Mr. Tatum! Too bad believers in the Constitution such as yourself are such a small minority there.

Oh, and (big shock) the wingnuts can’t figure out how to write a bill properly.

School officials tell us schools haven’t enforced this law because of confusion over the bill’s wording and lack of state funding.

Incompetence: the best defense against government.

(via Skepchick)


The Hamstrung Footballer

7 05 2009

How many high quality quarterbacks have there been? Not legendary player level, but just high quality? Many, right? After all, you don’t get onto a major football team if you’re not a high quality player?

Now, how many high quality quarterbacks have there been who never had anyone who would teach them to play football until they got to college or beyond? Not many, and it would be ridiculous to expect someone, even someone with a lot of talent, to become a high level player entirely on their own. So why the **** does this not apply to school? Why should a young, talented musician have to learn on their own rather than having a teacher who will teach them to play? Why should a budding writer be told that they have to figure out how to improve their writing on their own just because they’re a better writer than the other kids in their class?

Anyone who has ever dealt with a person with talent should know that even among very talented people, sufficient talent and drive to achieve at the height of one’s ability is extraordinarily rare. To put it differently, it doesn’t work that way. It’s one of the most bizarre and persistent delusions of all in education. It hardly makes sense even on the surface, and any substantial look at it reveals an argument that is more hole than substance.

Not only that, but when did “fine” become the standard we should strive for? “She’ll be fine.” So what? Why is it only important that she be fine, and not great? Why do GT kids in any (every) area other than sports only need to get by to please those responsible for their education? Your job is to educate, not get high scores on standardized tests. It shouldn’t matter whether giving a kid more attention will raise your school’s test scores. If you honestly care about educating children (and I think most educators do), then give kids attention based on whether it will help them. Stop worrying about the measures that everyone knows are flawed and start worrying about the reason those measures were made:


Go China!

27 04 2009

That’s right, I’m rooting for the Chinese. In what, and why? Well, let’s start at the beginning.

On July 16th, 1945, the Trinity test was conducted. America was the first and only country to master the most devastating weapon humanity had ever seen.

When 1949 dawned, we were secure in the knowledge that the Russians would not have the bomb for at least 3 more years. We were rather shocked (not to mention terrified), therefore, when later that year the Russians detonated their own nuclear bomb. We were ahead of them and could blame it on spies, however, so all that came of it was the Red Scare, rather than a period of national introspection.

Then, in 1957, the event which I consider to be, symbolically if not practically, the most important event in human history to date took place. I’m referring, of course, to Sputnik’s launch. This time, America had no response. We were still a long way from space, and so this time we looked at ourselves and realized that we were simply not prepared to compete.

Our response was to launch a massive research and education program. Sputnik brought about a fundamental rethinking of United States STEM education, especially science and math programs in public schools. Excellence, it was realized, mattered. Science and math programs received huge amounts of funding and attention, and were reformed to truly provide a solid science and mathematics education. Post Sputnik programs weren’t perfect (funding was often pulled from other subjects, most of which also matter), but they were important, and they generally worked.


US education is a mess. Science isn’t really taught in schools, facts are. The scientific method is, ironically, taught by memorization, and as if it were a rigid, restrictive, tidy structure. Math, when it isn’t paced far too slowly, often skims over important fundamental concepts. English destroys rather than fosters a love of reading, and where it could be used to teach intelligent insight and thought, is instead turned into a postmodern playground. History is taught as dates, names, and bits of legislation. Analysis of it and application of it is mediocre at best.

That brings us to China. They are going to be the next superpower, and pretty soon will be our biggest scientific and economic rival. I’m hoping desparately that they will give us another Sputnik moment, whether it be with nanotech, genetics, or anything else. Anything less than another Sputnik, I think, won’t be enough to drive America to fix our education system, a fix that we are in dire need of before we fall too far behind to catch back up.

Why Magnets Matter

18 03 2009

When it occurs at all, by far the most common type of gifted program is separating classes based on ability (whether in pull out classes, accelerated classes, AP classes, radical acceleration, or what have you). These, when done properly, can often very successfully meet even highly gifted children’s educational needs. Well, I hate to shoot down something that does such a good job of that, but so what?

Cultures form in very, very small units. It’s pretty well known that two offices in the same company, doing essentially the same thing, can have very different mentalities and methods outlasting any individual employee. Someone’s experience in one, even with the same work, can be very different from their experience in another.

Well, this holds true in schools too. A school very much has a culture of its own. This affects policy, which is important, but it runs deeper than policy. It affects how teachers and students interact, and how students act. It affects how students perceive each others’ actions, and how they then respond. It affects attitudes and outlooks.

This can extend to the presence or lack of things like bullying, but I’m not talking about that at all. What I’m talking about is much, much deeper than that. It’s how the social unit of the school functions. The tiny, completely unconscious things that make a world of difference. The difference between a school that accepts, and a school that doesn’t reject, in many ways.

Well, extend that to gifted kids. A school made up mostly of fairly average students will have a very different culture from a school that’s very heavy in gifted kids. And I can say this from experience: a collection of gifted kids has a very different feel than a random sampling across the ability spectrum. Giftedness isn’t just intelligence, after all.

Some public schools don’t reject gifted kids. But there’s a difference between lack of rejection (and honestly, even acceptance) and belonging. Even in very well off, far above average schools, gifted kids often do not have that sense of fitting in because they don’t fit in. A magnet school draws gifted kids together, so that you have that concentration of gifted kids.

As I hope most people realize, that sense of fitting in is extremely powerful, especially for kids who aren’t used to it. It can make an enormous difference in a kid’s happiness just to feel like she is with people who really understand.

And it’s not just that. The culture I mentioned earlier is important too. It’s a culture that allows gifted kids to flourish because they can feel free to be gifted kids (strange, bizarre, and awesome creatures that they are). Gifted kids, when given the freedom to act like this, are downright strange. And that’s when they’re happiest, in many cases. But they can’t act that way if no one else does, because even if it wouldn’t actually garner negative attention, doing something that others around you do is hard because you always think it will.

And that too appears at a magnet school because, in many cases (even for very highly gifted kids), you aren’t that much weirder than anyone else, because everyone’s weird. And that matters enormously.

“Challenge” and “rigor” are not the most important things for a gifted kid’s education, although they are important. If the kid’s happy, she will learn a lot on her own, too. Ordinary schools rarely foster happiness for gifted children, though, even with pullout programs. Magnets are expensive, a pain to run, and an organisational nightmare. But they are very, very worth it.


26 10 2008

Children start out intellectually curious. Carl Sagan said much on this, and so have many other writers much more eloquent than me. They have disagreed on the extent to which education is responsible compared to the extent to which culture is responsible. I think it’s roughly even between the two, with each making the other worse.

In much of America, culture conveys the message that learning is bad. People who enjoy learning and studying are labeled nerds. If you enjoy reading quietly, you are guilty of unspeakable horrors like introversion. Asking questions too much, whether of parents, teachers, relatives, or other children earns annoyance and sometimes anger. Should you dare to learn more than your peers because you like learning, you are ostracized. This isn’t just very gifted students. Any inquiring child is treated this way, even if she is otherwise completely ordinary.

This shows up very early in childhood. Apart from a few exceptional parents, people who I admire very much for what they do, when a child asks “why?” they are often brushed off, or told “because.” Almost all parents do this routinely rather than explain themselves. Well, I love asking this question, so…why? Even young children are often very smart and, to a large extent, are actually much smarter than they will be when they are older, simply because they haven’t learned to be stupid yet.

I think that many parents just don’t think that explaining themselves is particularly important, but it seems to me that it is one of the most important things for a parent to do. Teaching your kids to always try to understand, to question, and simply to be curious is one of the best things you can do for them. Parents shape their children enormously, and curiosity is one of the most important traits there is. Curiosity drives learning. Questioning protects, because if you do not simply accept what you are told, it is much harder to trick you. The roots of many of our cultural problems, I think, are right there at the start. Parents train their kids not to ask why or how, and so their curiosity fades a little.

If we had to deal with this alone in our culture, I don’t think that we would have such a problem. Unfortunately, I think that is what enables all the rest of it, at least in part. If children were more inquisitive, I think teachers would fall into the habit of accommodating for and even promoting that more often.

Of course, teachers don’t do that. America’s schools are set up in such a way that they at the very best don’t help it, and at worst destroy it. Teachers don’t like overly inquisitive kids because, let’s face it, it’s harder to teach the other twenty kids if one or two are always wanting things explained in detail. Add to that the fact that often the teacher simply doesn’t know the answer (remember, even very young kids are not stupid), and you get a very bad situation. The teacher wants to make sure they can keep the class running for the rest of the students and, unless they are one of the better teachers, they may be a little embarrassed about being asked a question they couldn’t answer.

All this means that the teacher will, often completely unintentionally, treat the more inquisitive children worse than their peers. Like I said, kids aren’t stupid. They will change their behavior to avoid the teacher’s ire. They learn that asking questions makes adults mad at them, and of course they try to avoid that.  Even here, however, the damage in its own right is not fatal. The problem is that it is compounded by the fact that other kids learn to treat questioning and thinking derisively as well. The ones who enjoy thinking are in danger of being ostracized because their teachers have taught their peers to ostracize them. How many 8 year olds will take the principled stance and accept the cost? They aren’t dumb, but they care more about pleasing others, so most conform to fit in. The ones who don’t conform often pay for it throughout their time at school, and often even beyond school.

This chain of problems compounding each other is what shapes our culture. Kids don’t magically change as they get older. The prejudices, sloppy thinking, and incuriosity that they learn in school are still there when they grow up. All that changes is that they become the majority of voters and consumers, the government officials, politicians, and CEOs of America. America has become more and more incurious (not to mention anti intellectual, but that’s another topic in its own right).

Teachers’ problems are made even worse by legislation and district policies. There are tests that must be taught to in order to get high ratings and “maintain a high standard.” The tests do not measure understanding, they measure ability to regurgitate facts.Having delved deeper into a topic won’t help you. The test s only test knowledge of the surface of a subject. A teacher is pushed not to into detail about a topic because they need to give cursory attention to several, always cutting time away from teaching the subject in full. Science is not taught because there isn’t time, only facts are taught. Historical causes aren’t taught, there’s no time! We can only teach the facts! No time for the details, no time for understanding. Facts don’t inspire learning or curiosity.

Science is decaying because of attacks on it, sure, but mostly it is decaying because the drive behind it is fading. Science is done to be applied, yes, but more than anything science is done for its own sake. Scientists didn’t become scientists to make world changing discoveries, although they would love to do that. Mostly, I think, they became scientists simply because they love the understanding that science grants. Through science you may answer so many fundamental questions. How did we come to be? Why do we exist? Where did we come from? Where did anything come from? To be able to answer these, even only in part, is an amazing feeling.

Understanding even a tiny bit of how the universe works is truly awe inspiring. You probably know the feeling I’m talking about. How do you feel when you see the pictures of galaxies hundreds of millions of light years away, or when you see the immense, towering pillars of a nebula? How did you feel when you first understood evolution? That, to my mind, is the root of science.

The love of science and of learning is vanishing. Saving it requires a fundamental shift not just from parents, not just from teachers, not just from schools, and not just from policy makers. It requires all of them to change the way things are done. Parenting in the way most parents do can’t continue, teaching can’t continue to be about the regurgitation of facts, districts can’t mindlessly oppose changes, and policy makers can’t keep trying to measure everything. The changes aren’t easy to decide on, but we need to try something or risk destroying the minds of generations to come.

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.