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© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

When science goes south

link2My daughter wants to be a scientist. It’s all she’s ever wanted to be. And though she’s only nine, I have a pretty strong feeling she’s going to end up there.

When Charlie’s Playhouse announced an Evolution & Art Contest last fall, she was all over it. Imagine an island with a unique environment. Choose an existing animal to put on the island. Fast forward a million years or so and imagine how the animal would evolve as a result of that environment. Draw a picture of the evolved animal. Awesome.

monkeySoon the sketches were flying. Finally, with just days to go before the deadline, Laney showed me her entry.

“The island has purple polka-dotted trees and bushes and quiet predators,” she explained. “And the only food is hard nuts. So after a long, long time, the monkeys evolve to have purple polka dots, huge ears to hear the predators, and sharp teeth to crack the nuts.”

She might not know an allele if it jumped up and mutated all over her, but her grasp of natural selection outstrips that of most adults. And she got this grasp not through lectures but by observing the results of natural selection all around us, and caring enough to think about it.

I described our approach in Raising Freethinkers (p. 17):

If I’m out on a walk in the woods with my own daughter and we see a deer with protective coloration, I’ll often say, “Look—you can barely see it. What if I was an animal trying to find a deer to eat? That one wouldn’t be very easy to find. And its babies would have the same coloring, so I’ll bet they’d be hard to find, too.”

[Then] imagine a poor adaptation. “Hey, what if it was bright pink? I think I’d have a pink one for supper every night, they’d be so easy to catch.” I step on a twig and the deer bolts away. “Ooh, fast too! I’ll bet I’d have to eat slow pink ones every night. Soon there wouldn’t be any slow pink ones left because I’d have eaten them all!”

When she does eventually encounter allele frequencies, cladistics, the modern synthesis and all the rest, it’ll glide into place on the foundation she’s laid for it. The key for now is to keep her engaged.

Winning the contest didn’t hurt that one bit. She nearly passed out in excitement. We let her teacher know about it, and he showered her with kudos, then forwarded the news to the front office.

Last week we received a call. It was Ms. Warner, an assistant administrator at the school. Becca answered. I didn’t know who she was talking to, but it was obviously good news of some sort.

Until it wasn’t.

When she hung up, she was clearly upset.

“Laney’s going to be interviewed by the principal on the Eagle News” — that’s a closed-circuit TV program that starts each school day — “about winning the Charlie’s Playhouse contest.”

I waited.

“But Ms. Warner said they’re not going to call it an ‘Evolution & Art’ contest — just an ‘Art’ contest. When I asked why, she said, ‘Because evolution is not in the curriculum.’ I said yes it is, it’s in the high school curriculum, and she said, ‘But it’s not in the elementary curriculum, so it’ll just be described as an ‘Art’ contest.’”

The heat started in my neck and spread to my ears, then into my face. Becca began swearing a blue streak. I sat down and wrote the most fabulously profane email of my life to a friend. Venting is good. Not sure if I was madder about the ignorance or the cowardice or the dishonesty — or the fact that this educator was dismissing the truly exceptional nature of what Laney did.

It wasn’t an art contest, you see. Delaney’s accomplishment had been scientific, not artistic. The drawing is dandy, but it’s just a way of expressing her grasp of the science. To have her school — savor that for a moment, her school — not only disregard her achievement, but send her the message that it’s something to be hidden, to be ashamed of…

sciencegradesI know what you’re thinking. Yes, this is Georgia. But as I’ve said before, in the four years we’ve been here, I’ve had far more opportunity to be pleasantly surprised than not. In addition to living in an area even more culturally and religiously diverse than the one we left in Minneapolis, our kids are getting an incredible education in top-ranked schools.

evolutionAfter many years in the national basement, Georgia’s latest science standards are excellent. And when it comes to the teaching of evolution itself, it ranks in the top tier of the Fordham study (see maps) — above Oregon, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and 24 other states.

Science standards don’t have to be in the South to go south. As Lawrence Lerner put it in the NCSE Journal,

although there is a disproportionate concentration of ill-treatment of evolution in the Bible Belt, geography is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for such treatment. Georgia and South Carolina, for instance, treated evolution very well while New Hampshire and Wisconsin did not.

The most relevant anti-science spectrum in the US (and elsewhere) is not North-South, but urban-suburban-rural. The suburbs of Atlanta have more in common with the suburbs of Philadelphia than either has in common with the small towns in its own state. The quality of science education tends to drop in sync with population density.

But that’s on paper. As Ms. Warner and Mr. Taylor clearly show, individuals in the system will do their level best to undercut even the best standards.

A deeply depressing Penn State study released two weeks ago found that only 28 percent of high school biology teachers consistently implement National Research Council recommendations calling for introduction of evidence that evolution occurred. About 13 percent of biology teachers explicitly advocate creationism in the classroom, while 60 percent use at least one of three strategies to avoid controversy: (1) pretending that evolution applies only on the molecular level; (2) telling students it does not matter if they really ‘believe’ in evolution, only that they know it for the test; and/or (3) “teaching the controversy,” which one researcher noted “tells students that well-established concepts can be debated in the same way we debate personal opinions.”

According to the researchers, these conflict-avoiders “may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists.”

The Principal of the Thing

I like to keep my posts to about 5 reading mins, so last week I posted only that part of the story and promised two more. But the (understandable) outrage began to spread like wildfire in minutes. Since I’m trying to make the case for a certain kind of approach, I didn’t need an online tsunami. So I’m going long today so you can see that it gets better. Then it gets much, much worse. Then better again. But that’s for next time.

I did the whole Mr. Taylor thing by email, which I now think was a mistake. Email lacks tone and visual cues, so it tends to read more harshly, especially in these situations. I decided to do this one in the flesh.

Seymour_SkinnerBecca suggested I talk to the principal, Mr. Robinson, rather than Ms. Warner. He’d be interviewing Laney, for one thing. It isn’t about Ms. Warner as such, but about seeing to it that Laney’s accomplishment isn’t misrepresented. Finally, he is among the most skilled, reasonable, and student-centered of the weirdly high number of principals I have known. A likely ally.

I asked for a quick meeting.

I knew that the best approach would be to focus on our shared interest — in this case the students and the educational messages they receive — so I started with the cool fact that a nine-year old girl in his school wants to be a scientist. She entered this contest to demonstrate her understanding of evolution and won. “Sandy Warner called and said you’d be interviewing Laney, but said it would be called an ‘Art’ contest rather than ‘Evolution & Art.’ When my wife asked why, she said evolution was not in the elementary curriculum.”

(I still can’t type that without shaking my head in amazement that anyone would try an explanation quite so obviously silly.)

It’s certainly in the middle and high school curriculum, I said, handing him a highlighted copy of each. If a third grader won a national calculus competition, no one would say, “Dagnabbit, if only that was in the elementary curriculum we could celebrate it!”

“I’m sure you’ll agree that’s not the reason anyway,” I said. “She was trying to avoid conflict. That’s an understandable impulse, but not when it damages the educational environment.” I handed him a summary of the deeply depressing Penn State study suggesting that conflict avoidance is the strategy currently doing the most damage to the scientific literacy of our kids.

Then there’s my kid, and the interview the following day. Among many other problems, I said that Delaney would be completely unable to answer his questions in any terms but evolutionary ones. Even a question like, “So tell me about this monkey” would lead to a description of the three adaptations she devised, since that’s what the contest was about.

He was nodding vigorously. “Absolutely. There’s not the slightest reason for her to hide any aspect of her accomplishment. But the curriculum is irrelevant in any case because…”

Oh my word, he was going to say it himself. Before I could even mount the slam-dunk argument against Warner’s ridiculous attempt, he would say it himself.

“…it’s student-initiated. Teachers have to stay within the curriculum, sure, but if a student initiates a project or has an outside accomplishment, they are absolutely able to talk about it freely without any regard to curriculum.” He explained that he is trying to encourage even more of this, to get the school celebrating outside accomplishments of all kinds to integrate the students’ outside lives into their school life. “This fits into that perfectly.”

See? Principals tend to know things. Actual educational policies. Court precedents. Best practices.

Total elapsed time: 7 minutes.

Now step back a minute and see what happened here. We (GOOD GUYS!) sent notice of Laney’s contest win to her teacher, who thought it was fantastic and submitted it for inclusion in the broadcast. GOOD GUY!

A middle administrator attempted to screw it up (both out of a misplaced sense of her responsibilities and, I have reason to believe, a reflection of her own point of view). BAD GUY!

The principal immediately recognized that the middle admin had screwed up and put it right. GOOD GUY!

Pretty good ratio, eh? But we often take our cue from the one person who did something dumb and respond with a scorched-earth policy that engulfs potential allies and puts everyone in a defensive crouch. Once I do that, they’re only looking to survive the attack. They can’t hear what I have to say, much less see that they have more in common with me than with the perp.

More often than not, the perp is surrounded by people who agree with you that the act was wrong, people who can join you in condemning the act and fixing the problem if you let them.

I’d like to say that’s the end of the story. (Continue to Part 2)

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This was written on Sunday, 13. February 2011 at 19:45 and was filed under Atlanta, church-state separation, diversity, Kerfuffles, My kids, Parenting, Raising Freethinkers, schools, Science, Uncategorized, values. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Excellent post, Dale. I’m not really looking forward to hearing what gets worse after this uplifting result of your meeting with the prinicipal.

    My daughter is in second grade and has been having trouble with another student in her class regarding evolution and religion. I don’t know what kind of conflicts we’ll see as she grows when her love of and interest in science may conflict with her friends’ (and teachers’ beliefs). We’re in NC which gets a B for standards, but is only marginal in practice. Luckily we are in the midst of several great universities whose influence keeps the science teaching pretty good.

    I am trying to become involved at the school (as much as a single, self employed, mom can be) so that when these things come up I can deal with them as well as you have here. However, I want to be sure that my atheism (and my daughter’s purported lack of belief) doesn’t make her life at school harder. It seems a fine line to walk. Of course, acceptance of evolution (while a logical step to it) does not equate to atheism).

    On the contest: My daughter was interested at first in the idea of the drawing, but lost interest and it was forgotten. Next year, I’ll see if she’d like to do it. She’s happiest drawing horses in their current form. :-)

    Comment: Lynn Wilhelm – 14. February 2011 @ 11:07 am

  2. This has been very encouraging so far. I am uneasily awaiting the next installment.
    Dale, I so admire your ability to think your way through situations like this. I tend to see red and want to scream (sometimes do in the empty house before my highschool freshmen – my youngest two children – come home. Then, bearing in mind exactly what you point out about the scorched earth policy, I wrack my brain for a day or two trying to think how to manage a situation and finally give up in despair, saying NOTHING, because 1) I fear that I will not be able to adequately conceal my anger, frustration and fear and 2) I honestly and sincerely fear the consequences for my children if I challenge authority figures in their lives based upon my conviction that freedom of thought and belief ought to be truly that. As you so tactfully put it in the post below this one, I fear – honestly fear – that my taking a stand based on these issues will result in blowback against my children. I may be paranoid, but I cannot deny it is how I feel. :(
    Blogs like yours really give me hope. Your description of real life situations like the ones we all face every week, and your sometimes self-described “imperfect” (but a helluva lot more perfect than mine!) responses to these situations gives other parents out there a template for managing life god-free in a gods-worshiping culture.

    Comment: niftywriter – 14. February 2011 @ 3:11 pm

  3. I thought of y’all today when I heard the president unveil his budget proposal in a middle school magnet for science.. :) Where I’ll bet Laney’s recognition would have been much appreciated there!

    Our new state governor just to the south of you, btw, unveiled his last week. In a Baptist church, sigh . . .who do I call about that?

    Comment: JJ Ross – 14. February 2011 @ 4:23 pm

  4. Congratualtions Laney on a well deserved win and congratulations dad on making sure that that achievement wasn’t taken away from her.

    One question… Don’t they believe in science in Iowa?

    Comment: Jumbles – 24. February 2011 @ 11:06 am

  5. @Jumbles: About 20 years ago, very few states had specific published standards, and states have caught up at various rates for various reasons. The map is from the 2005 study; Iowa adopted core science standards in 2007.

    Comment: Dale – 24. February 2011 @ 11:20 am

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