Politics Archive

Friday, July 22, 2011

Texas Education - Follow Up to Science Instructional Materials Debate

TEA LogoWow. I think this might be my first blog entry about the Texas Board of Education where I'm not complaining about them (at least, not much).

I wrote a few days ago about the vote taking place today for the final adoption of supplemental science instructional materials. The worry was that given the past behavior of certain board members, there might be some last minute dealings that affected the adoption process. Of particular concern was the material submitted by International Databases, which explicitly supported Intelligent Design.

Well, the debating took place yesterday and the final vote today is now done. The end result was almost entirely good for our state's kids. The ID material was rejected outright, and most of the panel's recommendations were accepted.

The one snafu in the whole process was the recommendations of a particular member of the review panel, David Shormann, described by Steven Schafersman as "an aggressive and dogmatic Young Earth Creationist." Shormann suggested numerous changes to the biology materials from the publisher, Holt McDougal. TFN Insider has a copy of his recommendations, along with challenges to those recommendations from the publisher. As an example of the quality of Shormann's suggestions, here's one of them:

Whale evolution- 4 fossils is hardly a "transition". 400 intermediates would work. Also, research has shown that there is no reason to believe Pakicetus was ever anything but a land mammal. Also, no complete skeletons have been found, but the picture shows a full skeleton, which a major factual error. It is erroneous to include it in this example. Ambulocetus also shows a full skeleton, which is another major factual error, since no complete Ambulocetus skeletons have been found.

Here's how the publisher responded to that one:

There is no scientific basis to the assertion that hundreds of intermediates would be required to establish a transition in the fossil record. Four forms are shown here as a representative sample to illustrate the transition. There are, in fact, many more species in the fossil record linking the earliest forms in the lineage to modern cetaceans.

The text in this figure explicitly states that Pakicetus was a land-dwelling mammal. However, the panel's comment that "research has shown that there is no reaon to believe Pakicetus was ever anything but a land mammal" is not quite accurate. Research suggests that it was mainly a land animal living in seasonally flooded marshes and likely feeding in aquatic systems by wading and possibly paddling. The ear structure shows it as a taxa near the base of the lineage leading to modern whales. It should be no surprise that basal members of the group would not be aquatic animals, since cetacenas are derived from terrestrial ancestors.

It is true that no complete skeletons have been found of Pakicetus and Ambulocetus, but extensive sets of fossil evidence do exist. See the attached photo of fossil bones for a single specimen of Ambulocetus, which shows a nearly complete reconstruction of the skeleton (Source: website of Dr. Hans Thewissen, leading expert in cetacean evolution) In fact, complete skeletons are rarely found for any species in the fossil record, but it is not necessary to have a complete skeleton to make strong deductions about the form of an animanl, how it lived, and its evolutionary relationships.

As an indication of how some members of the board operate, the publisher was denied the opportunity to defend themselves against Shormann's comments. It also came out that Shormann's recommendations were never agreed to by the other members of the panel, even though one of the ultra-right wing SBOE members had claimed that all members of the panel had signed them off. So, one crank on the review panel had somehow gotten his recommendations to the publisher and into the SBOE debate about the educational materials.

Anyway, after a bit of discussion about what to do with Shormann's recommendations, a compromise was reached, whereby, in the words of Schafersman, "the biology materials can be adopted with the provision that Commissioner Robert Scott examine the eight passages and rewrite them in a way that is scientifically-accurate and satisfactory to the publisher." Schafersman wrote that he's talked with the commissioner, and that the commissioner intends to talk to appropriately qualified experts when resolving this issue.

So, it looks like the recent changes to the SBOE makeup due to the last elections have been good. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come, and we can hope for better results for our children in the future.

More Info:


Updated 2011-07-27 - Added the links to the NCSE articles.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Texas Education - Science Instructional Materials Debate

TEA LogoThe Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is in the news again, this time for science education. For a bit of background on the SBOE, one of my previous posts, Texas Education in the Budget Crisis, has a quick run down of the shenanigans the board has pulled in recent years, mostly on less than honest means of passing new standards for various subjects.

The latest controversy is over the adoption of new science instructional materials for our public schools. A one day hearing on the materials will be held this Thursday, July 21st, followed by a final debate and vote on Friday. Unfortunately, not all of the materials submitted for consideration are particularly good, and some are downright harmful.

Consider the material submitted by International Databases. Here are some of the passages quoted in that article.

…at the end of the instructional unit on the Origins of Life, students should go home with the understanding that a new paradigm of explaining life’s origins is emerging from the failed attempts of naturalistic scenarios. This new way of thinking is predicated upon the hypothesis that intelligent input is necessary for life’s origins.
Many scientists have adopted an unproven hypothesis upon which to build their theories regarding the origin of life and its’ diversification. This ‘foundation’ is called scientific materialism, naturalism, and so forth… There are other scientists who have adopted the unproven hypothesis that an intelligence is necessary to explain both the origin, and diversification of life on Earth. This view follows from the human experience that teaches order (complexity) results from intelligent action.

The article has more, along with screen captures to see these quotes in context.


While you might suspect that a sensible board would reject such materials that weren't based on mainstream science, not all of the board members have demonstrated themselves to be sensible. Given their past behavior and their actions leading up to this vote, there's some reason to worry.

For example, when nominating members for the review panel to evaluate these materials, several of the board members appointed creationists (including my own representative, Gail Lowe, who appointed a man who likened evolution to religious dogma).

The new head of the Board, Barbara Cargill (appointed by Perry to replace Don McLeroy, after his first choice, Gail Lowe, didn't even receive a confirmation hearing from the state Senate), has made some rather divisive comments. In a speech to the Eagle Forum, she stated:

Right now there are six true conservative Christians on the board, so we have to fight for two votes. In previous years, we had to fight for one vote to get a majority.

Not only is this counter to what should be the secular goals of our public education system (secular as in non-religious, not anti-religious), it's insulting to the other Christians on the Board who don't agree with Cargill.


So, if you live in Texas, send a letter to the Board member that represents you, demanding that they uphold sound science standards and only approve appropriate, evidence based materials (here's an example of what I sent back when it was the science standards up for debate, which obviously needs to be updated appropriately). If you don't know who your representative is, you can find out at Who Represents Me?. You can follow the links from there to get their contact information, though it appears that all board members seem to have the same e-mail address, sboesupport@tea.state.tx.us.

Hopefully, with the recent losses of the ultra-right wing bloc in the last election, there's some hope that underhanded dealings similar to previous occurrences won't take place, and that our students will end up with good educational materials.


Additional Links:


Added 2011-07-27 - The debate and vote are over, and our children came out the winners. You can read more in a new entry, Texas Education - Follow Up to Science Instructional Materials Debate


Added 2011-07-21 & 22 - The debates are being live blogged by the TFN and by Steven Schafersman. So, here links to their live blogs, along with a bit more information.


Added 2011-07-19 - I've completed my letter to Mrs. Lowe, for anyone interested in reading it.

Attn: Gail Lowe - Science Instructional Materials

Mrs. Lowe,

I am a resident of Wichita Falls, and so you are my representative on the Board of Education. I have been disappointed in some of your past actions and votes that have weakened our children’s science education, but you have a chance to vote in support of sound science this Friday when it comes time to approve the new science instructional materials. It’s no secret that some of the submitted resources are sympathetic to creationism and Intelligent Design. Such resources do not accurately reflect mainstream scientific views, and would do our children a disservice by miseducating them.

I have written you before on science education, but considering your actions since that time, I feel obliged to repeat myself on certain issues.

First of all, evolution is accepted as true by the vast majority of mainstream biologists. Consider the following statement from the summary of the National Academy of Sciences’ 2008 report, Science, Evolution and Creationism (available online at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11876):

"Scientists no longer question the basic facts of evolution as a process. The concept has withstood extensive testing by tens of thousands of specialists in biology, medicine, anthropology, geology, chemistry, and other fields. Discoveries in different fields have reinforced one another, and evidence for evolution has continued to accumulate for 150 years."

Rather than go on at length listing scientific organizations and agencies that have issued similar statements endorsing evolution, I'll direct you to the following page on the website of the National Center for Science Education, which does list such statements:
http://ncseweb.org/media/voices/science

Similarly, I could go on at length describing all the evidence supporting evolution - both the fact of common descent with modification, and the various theories describing how evolution happens. Instead, I'll point out few very informative websites where you can find this information:

I hesitate to bring up the legal issues involved with the teaching of creationism, because we should simply be concerned with teaching our children the best science that we can, which evolution most certainly is, and raising other points seems a bit of a distraction. However, it cannot be ignored that when other states have provided openings to allow the teaching of creationism and intelligent design, it has resulted in costly court battles. Consider the Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover trial in Pennsylvania, the Selman et al. v. Cobb County School District et al. trial in Georgia, or the Rodney LeVake v. Independent School District 656, et al. trial in Minnesota (which is relevant to the "strengths and limitations" tactic). These types of battles are completely unnecessary, as they could be avoided entirely simply by keeping science classes limited to well founded science.

I think it hardly needs to be said that I will not vote for a representative who puts their own biases above the recommendations of experts in the appropriate field. I urge you to vote in favor of the evidence based resources, and to reject the resources that would miseducate our children.

Sincerely,
Jeffrey R. Lewis

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Debt Ceiling - Frustration With Politics

MoneyI've admitted several times before on this blog that I'm not an expert in economics. So, coming to grips with the debt ceiling debate isn't the easiest thing for me to do. But, from my understanding of what I've heard the past couple years that the economy's been in a recession, it seems to me that both Republicans and Democrats are doing the wrong thing right now.

From what I've read from reputable economists, it seems that the consensus is that the best thing to do during a recession is to spend, and not worry about balancing the budget (only in the short term until recovery, of course). For example, looking to the Great Depression, Roosevelt's New Deal helped some in the recovery, but it was really the massive spending associated with WWII (the gross debt briefly reached over 100% of GDP) that pulled the economy out of the Depression. Japan was one of the least affected countries of the Depression, and also practiced some of the most aggressive Keynesian economic policies.

Looking to the current recession, back almost a year and a half ago, there was good evidence that the original stimulus spending had worked, but that it hadn't been enough, and that more spending would have helped more. I remember wondering back then why there wasn't increased spending, and if the recovery was going to stall out because of it. Well, look at where the economy stands now.

But like I said, I'm not an expert. What do actual economists think? As it turns out, they think what I would have thought based on everything I've heard over the past few years. According to a recent CNN Survey, a majority of the economists polled think that budget cuts shouldn't be implemented until next year, at the earliest, because the economy hasn't sufficiently recovered at this point.

So, we have a bunch of right wingers insisting that we make massive cuts to government spending to balance the budget, a bunch of left wingers calling for increases in taxes to balance the budget, and middle of the roaders calling for compromise to balance the budget. Where are the politicians saying that balancing the budget isn't a priority right now because the economy is still too bad off?

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Marriage Equality in New York

Defend EqualityThis news is almost a week old, and you'd have to be living under a rock to not have heard it by now, but it was such good news that I can't resist mentioning it: New York has granted marriage equality to same sex couples.

It required a few Republicans to cross party lines to pass. I get so frustrated with issues becoming so partisan. How does marriage equality tie in with economic policy or other political issues? Why in the hell is this issue so sharply divided on party lines? Republican senator Roy McDonald made a very good statement on this issue that I agree with (found by me via Bad Astronomy).

You get to the point where you evolve in your life where everything isn't black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing.

You might not like that. You might be very cynical about that. Well, fuck it, I don't care what you think. I'm trying to do the right thing.

I'm tired of Republican-Democrat politics. They can take the job and shove it. I come from a blue-collar background. I'm trying to do the right thing, and that's where I'm going with this.

I just wish more politicians acted like that on more issues.

Congratulations New York. Only 44 states and one federal government left to go.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Texas Education in the Budget Crisis

TEA LogoI moved to Texas several years ago to start a new job. For the most part, I like Texas, but the politics and the consequences thereof can be infuriating.

Texas has never had a stellar reputation for education. There were the shenanigans in our Board of Education over the past few years (Chris Comer resignation, language arts standards, science standards, more on science standards, social studies standards), where a bloc of ultra right wing board members have passed some standards that can only be described as counter to reality, and in very underhanded ways, doing a deep disservice to our students.

There's the TAKS Test, originally set up to try to make some accountability for students and teachers, but which has resulted in teachers training students for that particular test, rather than giving them a well rounded education.

There's our abysmal sex ed, which is abstinence only and focuses on scare tactics, resulting in the third highest rate of teen pregnancy in the country. (If you want to get involved in reforming Texas Sex Ed, take a look at the Texas Freedom Network 'Help Change Sex Ed in Texas' page.)

And then, there's just the depressing state of the general welfare of children in the state. According to the executive summary of the report mentioned in that article:

Texas ranks 50th among states in health care coverage for children; mental health services for children with diagnosed challenges; preventing childhood homelessness; preventing childhood food insecurity; and preventing obesity among adolescent girls. The state also has the most fatalities from child abuse or neglect among states and ranks 50th in per-capita spending on child abuse prevention.

So, what have legislators decided to do for children here in our state? Cut funding! Here's the headline that greeted me the other day when I looked at the local paper:

School district asks for 134 resignations

I realize that the state is facing a big budget shortfall (thanks Republican dominated state government), and that cuts need to be made. But damn, is it frustrating to see the cuts being made to education, when the education system was already so underfunded to begin with. If it really came down to it, I wouldn't mind my taxes going up a bit to keep education funded, because education is one of the most important foundations for a functioning democracy (not to mention for those kids' futures).

I guess I don't really have much of a point to this entry, other than just venting. And with the way politics goes down here, I don't have much hope that the representatives that got us into this mess will be voted out anytime soon, or that the quality of education in the state will be improved in the near future.

Archives

Selling Out