Archive for June, 2012

Where are we Going Wrong?

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

I can’t speak for anyone else, but the latest Gallup Poll on the acceptance of evolution came as a proverbial “kick in the gut for me. Why? Not because figures have not really change much since 1982 (46% of the general population are flat out creationists) Not because 32% believe in theistic evolution(a God guided and directed the process) which is basically Intelligent Design. No, none of these. What pill I find hard to swallow, is that the figures are almost exactly the same  for college graduates. Yup after sixteen long years spent at school and in our public and private colleges,US graduates still think the earth is less than ten thousand years old and the story of Adam and Eve is literally true. This is not the case in most Western Nations(US rates 37 in the world on the acceptance of evolution) So where is the US going wrong? I would like to hear any of your thoughts on this.

Virtual science education?

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Should science education go virtual? To a limited extent, I think it’s a good thing. But it’s a horrible idea to rush headlong into digitizing entire science courses or replacing hands-on activities with virtual lessons. Unfortunately, a potentially bad trend is developing as politicians and businesses push for more and more online classes and digital education resources. An approach that might work just fine for a virtual math or language arts course doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work in a science course. Do virtual education advocates understand that? The signs aren’t looking good.

There are definitely positives to be gained from incorporating interactive apps and computer programs into the science classroom. They are potentially valuable tools that can differentiate instruction and appeal to segments of learners who might not be engaged by textbooks and lectures. And teachers are really missing out if they aren’t tapping into the worldwide reach of the Internet for resources and ideas. It’s a pity when some schools have blanket restrictions on certain websites, such as one school I’ve worked in that blocked all access to Youtube. There are tons of interesting and free videos there demonstrating science concepts that would be difficult to show any other way.

But can students get quality science education with nothing but a computer? State Rep. Will Weatherford is advocating for an entirely online university (article behind a pay wall and so I can’t read it). Paul Cottle at Bridge to Tomorrow bluntly opines that science education can’t be properly done in such a setting. He points out that students aren’t grasping the deeper understanding that they really need. He also wrote a lengthy and detailed examination of how modern technology should and shouldn’t be used in the science classroom.

I completely agree with Paul. It seems that non-educators have this vision full of fancy computer programs that will magically impart knowledge with a few taps on the touch screen. Wiz! Bang! Learn! No classroom needed! That’s entirely unrealistic.

My son took a few math courses through the popular and highly-touted Florida Virtual School. He was flat out failing his remedial math courses in school, primarily due to constant classroom disruptions by way too many discipline problems. Frustrated by the school’s miserable responses to our concerns, we dropped his math courses and went online. The virtual classes were well structured and featured moderate interactive exercises and animations coupled with lots of standard practice problems. We had weekly phone conferences with the FVS teacher and I believe there were two or three assignments my son had to do live online with the teacher and other students all together.

If my son was turned loose on this by himself with no help from his mom or me, he would have failed. Period. If there was a concept that he just wasn’t grasping – and there were plenty of those – there would have been nothing he could do about it other than schedule an appointment with the FVS teacher. In the meantime, he would’ve just wasted time waiting to talk with her. However, his mom and I sat with him during every lesson and taught him the concepts using the FVS material as a guide. There were quite a few times when we, the adults, were stuck, too! Fortunately, I had a few college textbooks and a couple of non-FVS online resources to reference. The bottom line is that my son absolutely needed an instructor, not a mindless computer program that couldn’t answer his questions.

Online education is not for everyone. You absolutely must be self-motivated and resourceful. My bachelor of arts in science education (biology 6-12) was earned through Western Governors University, a fully accredited online school. I had spent about a year at a regular community college and then transferred to the online college when I realized that there was no way I could attain a bachelors due to scheduling conflicts with my full time job.

But even WGU wasn’t entirely online, which was a good thing from a science education perspective. My science courses came with big lab packs shipped to my house. For instance, my biochemistry lab contained a decent microscope, safety equipment, basic lab equipment such as test tubes and petri dishes, and the variety of chemicals/growing mediums and such that I needed to perform full experiments in my basement. I also had to use a few online lab programs, which I felt were OK but didn’t quite measure up to the real thing. The downside, though, was that I had no one to talk to and ask questions of while I was doing the work. There were a few times when things weren’t working the way they should and I didn’t know why until much later when I could finally schedule a call with an instructor. Overall, I do feel that I got a quality education through WGU, but I have to admit that I would have likely got better hands-on experiences in a physical school environment. I was incredibly grateful when I did my teacher internship at a local high school and was there during pig dissection time as well as lots of other lab exercises. The experiences were invaluable. But speaking of dissections …

Highlands County is going to all virtual dissections in biology courses next year. No hands-on dissections will be allowed at all. Apparently, the decision was made without input from the district’s science teachers who were not happy! I’ve written about virtual versus real dissections before and personally came down solidly on the side of real dissections.

I understand that this post is full of anecdotal evidence. If I have the time I may try to poke around and see if there is any solid information or studies concerning virtual science education. And I welcome any such tips that you folks can send my way. If I round up anything useful, I’ll write a follow up post.

However, I think that the stampede toward all-virtual education needs to be slowed down and controlled. Each academic subject needs to be evaluated separately. Can quality art education be done online? What does that look like? Is the course structured differently than a literature course? What about history and Spanish and geometry? And, of course, what about science and chemistry and physics? In other words, virtual education is not one size fits all. Politicians and other decision makers need to be educated on this before they cause more problems than they solve!

Doing and understanding, two separate things?

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

The folks at NAEP released results of a new assessment they did with science students in grades 4, 8 and 12. In addition to the good ol test on paper, students also conducted either hands-on experiments or interactive computer-based experiments. Results showed that students could conduct the experiments, but struggled to explain what they did. The main points NAEP highlighted about the results were:

Students were successful on parts of investigations that involved limited sets of data and making straightforward observations of
that data.

Students were challenged by parts of investigations that contained more variables to manipulate or involved strategic decision making to collect appropriate data.

The percentage of students who could select correct conclusions from an investigation was higher than for those students who could select correct conclusions and also explain their results.

 

And the first out of the gate … Pinellas!

Monday, June 18th, 2012

I really need to get a betting pool of some type going when each election season ramps up. Where is the first place in Florida we’re going to see a school board candidate (or candidate for some other elected office) give a thumbs-up to creationism in the schools? Unfortunately, it’s too late to start the pool this year because we already have a hit: Pinellas. The Tampa Bay Times has the story.

One question, about whether creationism should be taught in biology classes, drew a range of responses. [Corey] Givens and Elliott Stern, who’s running in District 1, agreed that there was room to teach about evolution and creationism.

“As long as it’s facts that are being taught in our schools, that’s what counts,” Stern said.

Cassandra Jackson, who’s running in District 7, prompted laughter when she paused and said, “I guess if we’re going to tell the truth, tell the whole truth, under God.”

Admittedly, they were asked the question and needed to give an answer, so they didn’t bring it up themselves as one of their causes. But perhaps the question needs to be asked at all school board candidate forums. The answers can give voters insight as what each candidate’s education priorities are.

Unfortunately, this is all the information currently available about the candidates’ answers. Keep in mind that brief mentions in a news article don’t tell the whole story. These folks may not have actually fully endorsed creationism. We would need a more detailed account of what was said to be sure of what the full meaning and intentions were. Any of you folks have the ability to track that down?

COPE … not much there

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

My previous post asked y’all to see what you can dig up about Citizens for Objective Public Education, Inc. The group apparently has roots in Florida as well as Kansas and I wanted to make sure we found out all we could to better prepare ourselves for whatever may hit here in the Sunshine State.

I now have the information and I’m not impressed at all. So far, only two of the organization’s members have been revealed by the group itself. There is Anne Lassey in Kansas and Jorge Fernandez in Melbourne, Florida. Fernandez doesn’t have much of a history. NCSE says he is “a self-proclaimed young-earth creationist, with publications to his credit in Journal of Creation and on the True.Origin Archive website.” Despite all the drama we’ve had over the teaching of evolution here in Florida over the past several years, Fernandez had remained quiet. That’s surprising in light of this new activity.

But even this recent letter of his is nothing to get excited about. All these folks did was win a little political lottery. They managed to get their letter into the hands of a vocal politician, which then led to a brief turn in the media spotlight. I’ve seen the letter, and it’s nothing more than a long rant about atheists and humanists worshiping the religion of evolution. For instance, from page 7 is: “… the Standards are designed to influence the worldviews of ‘all children’ and ‘all citizens.’ They explicitly have as their goal to cause children to relate their lives to the world around them. Thus, the Framework and Standards studiously ignore the religious rights of parents, children and taxpayers. Instead, the document explicitly and implicitly promotes an atheistic worldview.”

Move along. Nothing more to see here.

Research project for you!

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

I have an assignment for you folks. The national science standards that many states, including Florida, are considering adopting are predictably under fire due to the prominence of evolution in the draft document. Kansas has hit the news first, firing the initial shot: Kan. official wants evolution concerns considered.

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — People who question evolution shouldn’t be treated as “crackpots,” and their concerns should be addressed seriously as states consider new science standards for public schools, an elected Kansas official said Tuesday during a preliminary discussion about the work on new guidelines.

Will the issue crop up here in Florida? I bet you it will:

Willard, a Hutchinson Republican, distributed a nine-page letter criticizing the draft multistate standards from the group Citizens for Objective Public Education Inc., which lists officers in Florida and Kansas. The letter suggested that the draft standards ignore evidence against evolution, don’t respect religious diversity and promote secular humanism, which precludes God or another supreme being in considering how the universe works.

I did a quick Internet search for Citizens for Objective Public Education Inc. and didn’t come up with anything. Your mission, should you chose to accept it, is to find out what Florida connections this group has. Who are these Florida officers? We need to get to work on this right now so that we will be prepared for when it all hits the fan here. You can leave your findings in the comments here or contact me directly.

Science FCAT 2012, nothing new

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

FCAT science. Grades 5 and 8 (no more high school science FCATs with the advent of the Biology end of course exams): stagnant (pdf document, scroll all the way down to page 55 … yes, page 55, heck, even the press release buried the science results.).

Not much I can add to my comments last year and the year before.

Sorry, but I just don’t feel the motivation to say the same doggone thing over and over again other that to say that about half of Florida students don’t grasp basic science, and it may not be all their fault due to the way the science FCAT is designed. Move along. Nothing more to see here.

Rotten apples

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Don’t worry if that juicy apple has a rotten spot, folks. Just quickly swallow the mush and move on. There is still plenty of crisp, cool fruit to enjoy once you get past it. That’s the thrust of an argument posted recently at the redefinED blog: Why science advocates should embrace vouchers, school choice. (hat tip to Bridge to Tomorrow.)

The author of that post, Ron Matus, was a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and did an excellent job of covering education issues, including the exhausting 2008 controversy over the teaching of evolution in Florida’s schools. I had always considered him a member of the reality-based community who did his best to advocate for sound science education even while wearing the fair-and-balanced-reporter hat. He’s no longer at the Times, though. He recently scrubbed away the newsprint ink embedded in his fingertips and slipped into a new career as Assistant Director for Policy & Public Affairs at Step Up for Students, the organization that administers Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program. Now his job is to promote his employer’s causes, which are vouchers and school choice.

In that blog post, Matus tried to do some damage control. A recent New York Times article took voucher programs to task for funneling public tax dollars to blatantly religious education. Instead of evolution in biology class, students heard about Adam, Eve and Noah. Matus professes his acceptance of evolution as fact, but then he says that creationism isn’t something to froth at the mouth about if all the other aspects of private school education are exceptional. “Even if we disagree about creationism, we shouldn’t be so blinded that we forget all the other lessons these children receive in all the other classes they take, in all the years they attend school.”

How about we take a minute to swim around in the deep end of ridiculousness? Let’s pair a phenomenal reading program with a “science” book that says the earth is flat. The science lab has an expensive telescope that would be the envy of any college level astronomy program and it’s being used to show students that the sun goes around the earth. The history program won a shelf full of awards for its in-depth Civil War section, but then there’s that page later in the textbook that says the moon landings were fake. Oh, and President Obama wasn’t born in the United States.

Wave all that stuff away as my overreaction. I’m going overboard. No one actually teaches that stuff in school. Be serious, Brandon.

From the New York Times article: “A commonly used sixth-grade science text retells the creation story contained in Genesis, omitting any other explanation. An economics book used in some high schools holds that the Antichrist — a world ruler predicted in the New Testament — will one day control what is bought and sold.”

How do we know, really know, that my made up, ridiculous examples aren’t actually being taught in a private school where some students are attending with voucher funds? We don’t. And that’s what is so damn scary.

I’m sorry, Matus, but if any subject being taught in a private school supplants reality with ideology, then the whole barrel of apples is suspect. Sure, parents can choose a private school’s amazing language arts program, but public tax dollars most certainly should not support the garbage being fed to students a few doors down the hall.

The issue of vouchers paying for antievolution instruction has come up before here in Florida. I’m writing a book about the history of antievolution efforts in Florida. (I’m actually done with the bulk of the writing, more than 82,000 words now, and I’m going through the tedious editing, fact checking and citation organizing now. I hope to be all done and ready to shop for a publisher by the end of this month!) I’ll leave you with a relevant excerpt from chapter 8.

 ———————————————–

Education in general has been a major issue in Florida for decades, highlighted in 1998 by the strengthening of the education clause in the state’s constitution, which starts with: “The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida.” The following year Gov. Jeb Bush pushed the concept of offering school vouchers through the Opportunity Scholarship Program. The original version of the program allowed students who attended consistently failing public schools to either transfer to a higher performing public school or use state funds to attend a participating private school.

A separate voucher program, called The McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, was created a couple of years later. In this program, the voucher was based on students’ special needs instead of any school’s performance. Eligible students could transfer between public schools or choose to attend a private school. A third voucher program, called the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, was also implemented in the early 2000s to “encourage private, voluntary contributions from corporate donors to non-profit scholarship funding organizations (SFOs) that award scholarships to children from low-income families.”

Public schools were under increasing pressure to abide by state standards and improve their performance under Gov. Bush’s education reform programs he called the “A+ Plan.” Students’ performance on state-mandated annual exams, combined with other factors, resulted in letter grades being given to each public school, essentially marking schools in a very public manner as passing or failing. Private schools were not subjected to any of these requirements, which critics of the voucher programs frequently pointed out. Additionally, the private schools taking in voucher students had very little in the way of academic oversight or tracking by the state.

In all three voucher programs, the participating private schools could be sectarian or nonsectarian. However, for a private school to be eligible to participate in the Opportunity Scholarship Program it had to meet a short list of requirements, including: “Agree not to compel any student attending the private school on an opportunity scholarship to profess a specific ideological belief, to pray, or to worship.”

However, this wasn’t on the list of private school requirements in the other two voucher programs. As a matter of fact, the majority of the schools accepting them were religious. For instance, of all the private schools accepting McKay Scholarship students in the 2010-2011 school year, 64 percent were religious and 36 percent were non-religious. In the same school year, the Tax Credit Scholarship private schools were 79 percent religious and 21 percent non-religious.

“Many of the parents bring their kids here because they want a Christian education,” a voucher-accepting private school principal told the Palm Beach Post in 2005. “And a Christian education does not include evolution.” The newspaper noted that the state did not track what curricula were used at private schools and so reporters investigated the issue to find out. A survey found that 43 percent of religious schools that accept voucher students used curricula from distinctively conservative Christian companies. According to the Palm Beach Post, this equated to “about 375 voucher-taking schools, educating about 8,700 students” statewide.

One such company is A Beka Book, which is based in Pensacola and affiliated with Pensacola Christian College. Its science textbooks are based on Biblical literalist and young earth creationist beliefs. The Post pointed out that a sixth-grade science textbook sold by the company was advertised as: “This teachable, readable, and memorable book presents the universe as the direct creation of God and refutes the man-made idea of evolution.” The same book and description is still offered on the A Beka Book website in 2012. An eighth-grade textbook contains a chapter on “science versus the false philosophy of evolution.”

As soon as the Opportunity Scholarship Program became a reality, opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Education Association, sued to have the program stopped. They claimed that the voucher program violated both the federal and the state constitutions in multiple ways. One complaint was that when voucher money went to private religious schools the program violated the Florida Constitution, Article I, Section 3, which states: “No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

The case, Holmes v. Bush, was bounced back and forth among the Florida courts. In 2004 an eight-judge majority of the whole Florida Court of Appeals determined that the Opportunity Scholarship Program did violate that state constitutional provision. It was also determined that the program violated another, separate provision that requires the state to provide a “uniform, high quality education.” An appeal kicked the case up to the Florida Supreme Court where it was determined in 2006 that the vouchers were unconstitutional under the “uniform” education provision. However, the justices declined to offer an opinion on the aid to sectarian institution provision.

The end result, though, was that Opportunity Scholarship vouchers could no longer be used at private schools. The other two voucher programs – McKay and Corporate Tax Credit – were not affected, and there has yet to be any legal challenges to them.