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Texas State Board of Education Takes a Small Step Backwards on Science Education

TEA LogoAs described in the Austin American Statesman article, Texas education board approves curriculum that challenges evolution, the Texas State Board of Education has approved some troubling language for the state science standards.

If you want to see for yourself the full standards, you can find them here. Here are the four subject to the current controversy:

(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to:

(A) in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student;

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(B) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record;

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(G) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.

(9) Science concepts. The student knows the significance of various molecules involved in metabolic processes and energy conversions that occur in living organisms. The student is expected to:

(D) analyze and evaluate the evidence regarding formation of simple organic molecules and their organization into long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life.

You can read a detailed discussion in a report put out by the Texas Freedom Network, Texas Science Curriculum Standards: Recommendations for Dealing with Pedagogical and Scientific Problems (pdf).


The Bad

Yes, the motivation behind these standards really is to promote creationism / cast doubt on evolution. Here are a few excerpts from that TFN report regarding the motivation behind three of these:

[Regarding 7 B] In a final appeal to preserve his proposal, McLeroy stated that the purpose of his standard was to argue against: "...the idea that all life is descended from a common ancestor by the unguided natural processes."
[Regarding 7 G] During the board debate, McLeroy explained that this standard: "...questions the two key parts of the great claim of evolution, which is [sic] common ancestry by unguided natural processes."
[Regarding 9 D] During board debate, Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, explained that the new standard was "basically an origin of life amendment," referencing public testimony provided previously by Ide Trotter, a well-known promoter of intelligent design."

And the history of the first one, 3A, makes it clear that this was compromise language regarding the strengths and weaknesses gambit so popular among creationists.

Moreover, the Board had actually formed an expert committee to review the standards and make recommendations on improving them, and the committee recommended removing these four particular items because "they were vague, redundant or would require too much time to teach" (quoting the Stateseman article). So, the Board is going against the advice of experts to push standards that were originally motivated by anti-science positions.


The Good

The standards aren't actually that bad. All of them could be handled by textbook publishers and teachers strictly keeping to real science, and not injecting any creationism or other pseudoscience. Let's look at them again on a case by case basis.

(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to:

(A) in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student;

Well, it says specifically 'all sides of scientific evidence'. Creationism is manifestly not science, so this shouldn't be a backdoor for creationism. As far as real science, this is a little overwhelming for a high school biology class. I mean, all sides of the scientific evidence supporting evolution in general could be an entire class unto itself. Even 150 years ago, in The Origin of Species, Darwin had an entire tome full of evidence for evolution, and the evidence has only grown stronger and more abundant since.

Granted, there are different 'sides' within current evolutionary biology - the relative influence of genetic drift vs. natural selection, how much of the genome is truly junk DNA vs. possible other functions, etc. So, teachers could delve into these current topics, but it seems a bit of a deep dive for high school biology.

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(B) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record;

Well, if you're sticking to real science, this is simply a discussion of gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium, and perhaps some background on taphonomy and taphonomic biases in the fossil record. And that's all a decent discussion to have, showing students the evidence in support of both gradualism and punctuated equilibrium. In fact, there's evidence for both, so it's probably not an either/or discussion, but rather how they represent opposite extremes regarding the rates of speciation, and what might drive the different rates of change. Although like I said above, this is getting pretty in depth for a high school biology class.

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(G) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.

Well, yes, cells are complex. I remember learning about that back when I was in high school, and making a model stuffed full of organelles. And if you really want to get into the origins of the complexity, symbiogenesis is one of the topics to discuss in the origin of eukaryotes. And there's an entire field of study for abiogenesis, concerning how life first arose. But again, this might be more detailed than most people expect from high school biology.

(9) Science concepts. The student knows the significance of various molecules involved in metabolic processes and energy conversions that occur in living organisms. The student is expected to:

(D) analyze and evaluate the evidence regarding formation of simple organic molecules and their organization into long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life.

Lots of good stuff to discuss here, as well. I'm sure that teachers would at a minimum bring up the Miller-Urey experiment, as well as other more recent experiments that used different conditions thought to be more representative of the early earth. Teachers could start discussions on the RNA World. And of course, there's that whole field of abiogenesis that I already linked to. But like I said for each of the other questionable standards, and like the expert committee said, this is getting awfully detailed for a high school biology class that has to cover all the other standards and curriculum.

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So, it's troubling that these standards were motivated by creationist misunderstandings of science, and that the Board members went against the recommendations of experts regarding the standards. But at least the letter of the standards isn't horrible, and textbook publishers and teachers can stick to real science. I just hope teachers with creationist sympathies don't use these standards as an excuse to teach junk science.


Updated 2017-02-03: Made numerous small changes

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