Saturday, February 4, 2012

Science Education Standards in America

I recently read a very interesting, and alarming, Scientific American article on statewide science standards in the US. This picture says it all:
Credit: The State of State Science Standards 2012
The figure comes from a report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute on the standards for K-12 education used in the various states. The overall conclusion is that the science standards for the majority of the States are mediocre to awful.
These standards are what's used to build curricula through the various states and grade levels. For example, I looked up the science standards for California and browsed through to the astronomy related ones. For sixth grade, here's what it has to say:

The solar system consists of planets and other bodies that orbit the Sun in predict­able paths. As a basis for understanding this concept:
  a. Students know the Sun, an average star, is the central and largest body in the solar
system and is composed primarily of hydrogen and helium.
  b. Students know the solar system includes the planet Earth, the Moon, the Sun,
eight other planets and their satellites, and smaller objects, such as asteroids and
  c. Students know the path of a planet around the Sun is due to the gravitational
attraction between the Sun and the planet.
So, a sixth grade teacher would be using these guides to make lessons that teach these concepts. I think those are pretty key concepts that everyone, even non-astronomers, should know. What the study presented is that some states have very clear and well-thought out guidelines. California is one such state and is graded 'A'. The report for Colorado follows and it's ranked at 'D'. Here's what I found for the science standards for Colorado (I'm looking at the eight grade Earth Science standards):

1. Weather is a result of complex interactions of Earth's atmosphere, land
and water, that are driven by energy from the sun, and can be
predicted and described through complex models
2. Earth has a variety of climates defined by average temperature,
precipitation, humidity, air pressure, and wind that have changed over
time in a particular location
3. The solar system is comprised of various objects that orbit the Sun
and are classified based on their characteristics
4. The relative positions and motions of Earth, Moon, and Sun can be
used to explain observable effects such as seasons, eclipses, and Moon

Compare, in particular, point 3 from Colorado to point b from California. Both are talking about the same thing, but one is much more vague. This vagueness in what exactly constitutes a valid lesson in the various states is one of the points the report raises. Unclear guidelines are basically meaningless and useless when defining a curriculum or trying to assess a student's understanding. You may argue that they give the instructors greater flexibility in what they teach, but really- there are some basic facts that students should learn and this should be made explicitly clear.

Another thing mentioned in the article and the report is the undermining of evolution. You've probably heard about this on various news sources. This is part of a growing trend in the US to make laws that prevent the teaching of evolution or enforce teaching intelligent design, creationism, or other alternatives. One troubling example is recent changes in New Hampshire: teachers are required to provide alternatives to any lesson if a parent dislikes it. This means that a high school student could in principle graduate having avoided learning about evolution, the Holocaust, contraception, or even gravity, all because his or her parents thought those were touchy subjects.

While there is a religious undercurrent to this, I think it's more of a misunderstanding of science and a fear of the change it can drive. I went to a private, religious high school in Puerto Rico and I learned about evolution my science classes, as it should be. I don't doubt that there are many schools out there that have no problem with teaching evolution, regardless of whether or not they are religious schools. The problem, I think, is that most people, and the politicians in charge, have no idea what evolution is and think that scientists are somehow out to get them and shatter their beliefs. Not teaching, or undermining, evolution just reinforces this idea and makes things worse.

All this talk against science makes me think Americans want to believe, not to know or understand. Science and mathematics give us tools we can use to understand the world around us and figure out things on our own. While you may not think this negligence regarding science education is a big issue, in the long run, it will be. If this continues on the same trend, less and less emphasis will be given to providing a meaningful science and mathematical education to the following generations. Student's will still graduate, but what they will require for that degree will be ever less. All of the advances of technology we enjoy, like cars, iPods, the Internet, satellite television, all come about thanks to our understanding of science. When I see such attacks against eduction (or these poor science standards), I have to wonder: why don't the people in power want us to continue to advance in technology and in our understanding of the universe? Are they afraid of what we might learn, or what we might do if we can think for ourselves?

1 comment:

  1. Glad I live in a state which has a B, and not an F. Of course, I homeschool, so I'm only loosely guided by my state's curriculum in the first place. My kids already know more about science than that.