© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Recognizing good results

(Last in a series of six. Start here.)

appledartsI wanted to blog the process of confronting non-science in the science classroom in part to lay out a few basic principles for parents to consider. Situations vary, so principles are better than a script.

My particular situation took place in a top-ranked high school in a top-ranked district with a (mostly and so far) sane and competent school board that is in the U.S. South (Georgia) but not really (Atlanta).

Thanks to a recent surge in business transplants, the area is surprisingly diverse, including an impressive worldview mix. School administrators here tend to be smart and responsive. The Fordham survey puts the relatively new Georgia Performance Standards (GPS) for science in the top tier nationally. The teacher’s excursion into ID was somewhat subtle, though his anti-evolution rant was anything but. By the time we began our exchange, my son was no longer in his class.

Some of these mattered more than others. If I had less reason to trust the good sense of our school and district administrators, for example, I might have wielded the double-edged saber of GPS and Kitzmiller more strongly from the start. And if I had reason to believe serious incursions of religion into the science curriculum were a more endemic issue in this district — as it is, I have reason to believe otherwise — I might have used this opportunity to build a further-reaching case.

Instead, I tried to apply just enough pressure to wake the principal to a possible liability time bomb in his midst, to let that time bomb know that the clippers are now poised over his red wire, and to get myself connected to existing efforts to keep good science in our classrooms.

I know some of you wanted to see Mr. Taylor’s head on a pike at the gates of Down House, but I’d suggest it’s the wrong goal. Among other things, that creates an irresistible victim narrative for ID folks to rally around and distracts from the issue of keeping good science in the classroom and non-science out.

So some principles, IMO, for approaching this kind of situation:

  • Check with your child before taking any action that might impact him or her;
  • Keep the right goal in mind: good science in the classroom;
  • Do your homework (NCSE, Kitzmiller, district policy, state standards);
  • Assume the best for as long as possible;
  • Approach the teacher first — in person if possible (one of the changes I would have made);
  • Make sure your tone doesn’t become the issue;
  • Focus on a single question if possible;
  • Move up the ladder by step if necessary;
  • Approach administrators as allies (and remind them why);
  • Recognize that not all good resolutions are clear-cut.
  • Even without the severed head, and even if I never get my hands on those damn overheads, I think the results in this case have been plenty gratifying:

    1. A science teacher who thought he could undercut good science standards without consequence has learned otherwise;

    2. A high school administrator with plenty of incentive to do the right thing now has a weather eye on one of his teachers, as well as a heightened awareness of the issue and a positive relationship with a parent science advocate;

    3. I learned that my son is capable of recognizing bad science when he hears it;

    4. I discovered and applied to join a citizen’s coalition dedicated to integrity in science education in our state;

    5. I learned that Georgia’s science standards are unusually strong and clear, and that they include explicit, repeated references to evolution by natural selection at all three school levels;

    6. I stumbled on the wonderful story of Pat New, a middle school science teacher in Georgia who courageously resisted pressure from her community, colleagues, and administrators for 14 years to drop the teaching of evolution, choosing instead to weave it into every unit and topic in her course, and how much easier the new state standards of 2004 made things for her;

    7. I fell in love all over again with the Kitzmiller decision, which has given both parents and educators the strongest foundation ever on which to stand when fending off non-science in the classroom;

    8. I was reminded that the judge in Kitzmiller was a Lutheran Republican, which nicely blurs the bright line we too often draw;

    9. I re-connected with brilliant resources like Panda’s Thumb and the National Center for Science Education;

    10. I took the opportunity to model an approach to parent-teacher conflict that has seldom been articulated.*

    In talking to hundreds of secular parents over the years, I’ve heard countless stories of the intrusion of a particular religious view into the public school classroom. Parents are often stopped cold at the thought of speaking up — worried about the repercussions for their kids, worried about the response of their neighbors, unwilling to get into a public shouting match or even a legal challenge.

    In some situations, a public row is exactly what’s needed. If a few courageous parents in Dover, Pennsylvania weren’t willing to go to the mat, I wouldn’t now have the privilege of speaking softly while carrying the big Kitzmillian stick. If I ever find myself in their shoes, out on the bleeding edge instead of back here reaping the rewards of their courage, I hope I’d rise to the occasion.

    But I wanted to blog this Taylor situation to demonstrate to those parents who are hesitant to speak up that it’s often possible to do so in a way that is both low-key and effective, that yields positive results for the long term, and that moves us closer to the day when we can simply expect science, and nothing but science, in our science classrooms.

    ____________________________________________

    *One excellent example: Stu Tanquist’s essay “Choosing Your Battles” in Parenting Beyond Belief.

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    This was written on Tuesday, 14. September 2010 at 11:01 and was filed under action, Atlanta, belief and believers, Kerfuffles, My kids, Parenting, Science. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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    Comments »

    1. I’m particularly curious about one of those principles: “Approach the teacher first — in person if possible”. I’d have thought that there would be advantages in using email as you did, including:

      – Having a record of what each of you said, which helps to avoid misunderstanding or misremembering, and can be used as evidence if the situation comes to that,
      – Giving everyone time to consider their responses; which makes it easier to avoid getting into an angry argument.

      Why would you prefer talking in person?

      Comment: Anonymous – 14. September 2010 @ 11:36 am

    2. @anon: Yes, those are the advantages of email, and they are considerable. But I’m beginning to think the in-person advantages might be greater. Email automatically creates distance and starts the walls going up. If I had shown my reasonable, smiling face from the start, communication instantly improves. I would now have a clearer picture of what went on in that class and who he is. And I think those overheads would be in my hand.

      Comment: Dale – 14. September 2010 @ 11:45 am

    3. Just wanted to say amen to this, not only related to Dale’s current parenting/citizen challenge but in most of what life throws at us:

      “Situations vary, so principles are better than a script.”

      Comment: JJ Ross – 14. September 2010 @ 12:19 pm

    4. Dale, I heard Justice Stephen Breyer interviewed about his new book today. Good stuff. I think you’d really appreciate it, and I’m on my way now to see if I can find a copy. He was asked about Bush v Gore and said it had hurt the Court’s credibility but not beyond repair, and that even when a great majority of the American people disagree with the Court, it’s to be celebrated that as in that case, they respect the law and don’t take to the streets with their guns and gods to rebel against our free secular system.

      Comment: JJ Ross – 14. September 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    5. Result #3 is the one that is most awesome to me. I hope my daughter has that, too!

      Comment: jenea – 14. September 2010 @ 1:44 pm

    6. In spite of my earlier critique you’ve done a magnificent job of modeling how to handle this kind of situation. And I agree: Had the first meeting been in person in the teacher’s classroom you’d almost certainly have the overheads/slides. I’d dearly love to see it/them. On the other hand you wouldn’t have a record of the teacher’s evasiveness, which itself should be a red flag for the principal.

      Comment: RBH – 14. September 2010 @ 7:51 pm

    7. As a parent, I think #3 is the biggest win.

      Comment: joley – 15. September 2010 @ 8:49 am

    8. I’m curious about what you would say to a teacher with concerns about a colleagues coverage of evolution. We have a science teacher who is evangelical, doesn’t believe in evolution or global warming, and “teaches the controversy” from what we hear. The problem is, I’m not in a position to have proof about what he teaches or how he does it. Any suggestion?

      Comment: teacherlady – 15. September 2010 @ 10:59 pm

    9. In our school district all teachers are subject to periodic observations by administrators, peers, and subject-area supervisors. If that’s the case for you as well. perhaps you could alert someone that there’s a potential issue to be investigated.

      Comment: codysmom – 16. September 2010 @ 6:00 am

    10. We get observed, but always announced observations. He is a pretty smart guy and knows not to do controversial lessons when he is being observed. Plus the principal is christian too so we aren’t sure she will understand the concerns.

      Comment: teacherlady – 16. September 2010 @ 7:39 am

    11. @teacherlady: Your question is too important to confine to the comments. See my most recent post.

      Comment: Dale – 18. September 2010 @ 5:57 am

    12. I think you took the correct action. I have had a couple of parents come and ask me questions about what I’ve said in class.

      It has been simple misunderstandings. Like a student asked if I thought there were undiscovered animals in the wild. I pointed out that scientists are finding new animals in extreme environments, and offered to find some information for him. This turned into I was teaching bigfoot was real. The parents said they thought it was something like that because they had seen my science material for several 6 weeks at that point.

      I resented the parents who went over my head and my principal’s without asking me what had happened. The school had a multicultural group come in and do a program about winter celebrations. James asked why Day of the Dead wasn’t in the program. I explained that is a Fall holiday.

      When we got back to the room it was dismissal time. James and Carla had a conversation about Day of the Dead on the BUS. The parents didn’t file the complaint till March or April. I had fish this out of my memory during an investigation. I was a 1st year teacher and contracts were being issued about the same time. I was scared I wouldn’t be renewed. Thankfully the head of elementary ed told the parents I was no way responsible for conversations their daughter had on the bus. If they didn’t want their daughter to talk to James about religion then they needed to forbid her to and hold her responsible.

      I think what happened is James and Carla had conversations on the bus around Easter, which brought up the older complaint.

      Comment: kherbert – 19. September 2010 @ 6:48 pm

    13. Thank you Dale, for this interesting series of articles. I think you handled the whole thing very well indeed.

      I consider myself fortunate that I live in a country where this kind of situation is unlikely to occur (England). It’s not out of the question though, and since my son is now approaching the age of eight I make it my business to quiz him regularly (but not TOO regularly!) about the content of his lessons. The next few years are crucial…

      Comment: macronencer – 05. October 2010 @ 4:38 pm

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