Archive for December 3rd, 2007

News Release: Standards can go from F to high B

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

The following news release was sent out today as a joint effort of Florida Citizens for Science and the National Center for Science Education.

Prof. who flunked Florida science standards says new ones are shooting for an A
Expert gave current statewide standards an F but new draft is “a dramatic improvement.”

December 3, Oakland, California —A national expert on statewide science education standards has reviewed draft Sunshine State standards, and says the writers deserve a gold star. In 2005, statewide science standards in Florida earned an F in a national report from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. An author of that report, nationally recognized expert Lawrence S. Lerner, has reviewed the draft science standards being prepared for the Florida Board of Education, and he is impressed.

“This draft is a giant step in the right direction,” announced Dr. Lerner, emeritus professor of physics from California State University, Long Beach, and author of numerous evaluations of state science standards for the Fordham Foundation. “It is clear, comprehensive, and most importantly, accurate.”

Evaluated with the same methods he has used to assess science standards for over a decade, the current draft would earn a high B. Lerner is delighted: “This draft already represents a dramatic improvement across the board. With a little bit of extra effort, Florida could bring that up to an A.” The National Center for Science Education, Florida Citizens for Science, and Dr. Lerner will give the assessment to the Florida Department of Education, along with suggested revisions to the draft that would move science education in Florida to the front of the class. Lerner’s report confirms a recent endorsement of the draft standards by biologist Paul Gross. Gross, another author of the Fordham report and a former provost at the University of Virginia, told the St. Petersburg Times on November 30 that the draft standards are “much better,” and that the writing committee has “taken to heart all the arguments that have been made about lousy standards.”

Brandon Haught, a spokesperson for Florida Citizens for Science, a grassroots organization dedicated to improving science education, welcomed Lerner’s evaluation. Haught observes, “Accurate and honest science education is critical to our state’s future. The Department of Education shot for the stars, and Dr. Lerner’s report shows how they can get there. These improved standards will give teachers a vital resource as they prepare the doctors, scientists, and citizens of the 21st century.”

The Florida standards have already moved from an F to an A in one subject. The 2005 report failed Florida and 11 other states for their treatment of evolution, and Florida was one of only five states to avoid using the word “evolution”. In Lerner’s assessment, the current draft earns an A for its treatment of evolution.

“Evolution is the central organizing principle of modern biology,” explained Josh Rosenau, a biologist and spokesman for the National Center for Science Education. “Cutting-edge work in biology, medicine, computer science, and even geology and astronomy requires a clear understanding of evolution. Adopting these improved standards will mean that Florida students will be better prepared to make life-saving and life-enhancing breakthrough discoveries, to make the best use of those new discoveries as they arise, and to maintain Florida’s standing in an ever more competitive world.”

The Department of Education committee drafting the new standards will meet December 17-19 to finalize a draft for review bythe Board of Education. The Board of Education will decide whether or not to accept these improved standards in the new year. “We are confident that the Board of Education will do what’s best for the Sunshine State,” said Brandon Haught, of Florida Citizens for Science. “Our teachers and our children are counting on them.”

The National Center for Science Education is an Oakland, CA based nonprofit organization dedicated to defending the teaching of evolution in the public schools. On the web at www.ncseweb.org. Florida Citizens for Science is a grassroots organization dedicated to improving science education in the Sunshine State. On the web at www.flascience.org.

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Science teachers need more than pay; they need guts!

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

This news article in the St. Petersburg Times provides a decent analysis of one possible reason Florida’s students do so poorly in science: shortage of qualified teachers. I like the nod the reporter made to the draft of the new science standards. He slipped in a mention of evolution’s inclusion and praised the standards’ improvement without bothering to go into all the controversy nonsense. But then the story moves on to outline the problem:

The state Board of Education annually puts middle and high school science teachers on its critical shortage list. Last fall, 10 percent of new science teachers, and 7.5 percent of all science teachers, were not certified in the appropriate field. That’s nearly 700 teachers.

Just last week, Florida State University and the University of Florida acknowledged the problem, announcing a $10-million program to boost the teaching ranks for science and math.

“We’ve got a huge gap,” said Christopher D’Elia, a zoologist who is interim regional vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. “There has been a real challenge nationwide finding teachers who are adequately prepared in their discipline.”

The article mentions low student performance on the annual FCATs and an American Institutes for Research study. I hadn’t heard of the American Institutes’ report, so I looked it up and saw that, yes, Florida is in the basement compared to other states.

In science, nine states are at the Below Basic level: Florida, Arizona, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Alabama, Hawaii, California and Mississippi.

And the report summary states what ought to be obvious:

The paper argues that the United States needs to substantially increase the scientific and mathematical competency of the general adult population so that the voting citizenry can better understand and reach a consensus on policies that address many of the world’s most pressing problems.

That’s a high, rugged mountain to climb, though. The report goes on to show how bad off the U.S. is:

According to the National Science Foundation (NSF, www.nsf.gov/statistics), the average U.S. citizen understands very little science. For example:
• Two-thirds do not understand DNA, “margin of error,” the scientific process, and do not believe in evolution.
• Half do not know how long it takes the earth to go around the sun, and a quarter does not even know that the earth goes around the sun.
• Half think humans coexisted with dinosaurs and believe antibiotics kill viruses.

On the other hand, according to the NSF, the general public believes in a lot of pseudoscience.
• Eighty-eight percent believe in alternative medicine.
• Half believe in extrasensory perception and faith healing.
• Forty percent believe in haunted houses and demonic possession.
• A third believes in lucky numbers, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, and that UFOs are aliens from space.
• A quarter believes in witches and that we can communicate with the dead.

It seems to me that there is an element left untouched in the newspaper article. The focus seems to be on pay, but science teachers need much more than a few extra bucks. They need courage and support. Not only do science teachers need to be properly trained and qualified, but they also have to unapologetically teach real science, which means standing up to passionate parents and their kids who believe in all that pseudoscience. In just a handful of hours each week, the science teachers have to try to punch through all the misconceptions that pervade the students’ lives. The teachers have to withstand the pressure of ill-informed, politically motivated school boards, and in some cases the teachers’ own school administrations. All teachers, regardless of subject, have a lot of pressures to deal with. But the science teachers sometimes have additional obstacles to negotiate. If a teacher isn’t up to the challenge, you get situations like this:

“Money is not always the driving factor behind their decisions,” said Tracy LaQuey Parker, who directs the UTeach Institute.

But are those incentives enough? Not for Sunny Jiang, who earned a Ph.D in marine science in 1996 from USF. She didn’t consider a career as a K-12 science teacher, she said, because kids are expected to do little more than “swallow a science lesson and spit it out.”

“It’s different at the graduate level,” said Jiang, now a professor at the University of California at Irvine. “Students are challenged and taught in a way that encourages them to ask questions.”

Teaching kids to think is a brave endeavor. A science teacher has to have the training and the guts to do the job right.