10/31/2008

ON MY BALLOT: SCIENCE EDUCATION



I am sure that many of my sparring partners here will not be surprised by my sentiments. Many will not agree. That's wonderful! I'd be disappointed if people who read my blog agree with everything I write, and I learn more from criticism than from agreement. But I want to make clear that in deciding to support Senator Obama I'm trying to focus pretty tightly on my experience as a science educator. You may not have my experience, and you may care about other issues more than I do, and for you Senator McCain is a better choice for any number of reasons. I won't debate those points with you here. This post is not about what to do in Iraq, or the market, or economic philosophy, etc.

Instead, I want to talk about public support for science. I want science standards that are world-class, and I want every science teacher in the United States to actually have a real science lab to work in, to teach real science....an experience, I will add again, that I did not have in the first eight years I worked for Fresno Unified.

I want a President who is committed to expanding science education, who will fund NCLB and other federal mandates, not simply rattle them off as 'gotchas' at the expense of the states and local school districts in an effort to make themselves look good, or (more sinisterly) to deliberately set up public schools as 'failures' as defined by such law's unrealistic expectations.

I want a President, further, who will support 'tweaking' NCLB and other legislation so that there is a clear, well-funded mandate for testing science literacy as well as reading and mathematics at the lower level. It is a well-documented fact that the tight focus on the latter within the law, and in the state tests used to demonstrate proficiency, has led many school districts to all but eliminate science from elementary school classrooms. If science isn't tested, it will be eliminated from the curriculum in many places as a matter of expediency in order to further increase the emphasis on what is tested.

I want a President who views the scientific community as an independent source of information and counsel, not as an assembly of partisan hacks with their own agenda. I want a President who takes the role of Presidential Science Advisor seriously, the way it was when Glenn Seaborg offered guidance to the Oval Office, and who will revive the independent and non-partisan advisory role of our national academies and related bodies.

I want a President who is committed to new government-sponsored large-scale projects in science, engineering and technology---not empty projects that simply establish sinecures of funding for the politically adroit, but visionary projects that represent a lasting investment in our country's infrastructure and economic competitiveness.

I have reviewed the candidates, and for what it is worth I believe that they both would be a significant improvement over the present Administration in each respect. A McCain Administration, if I can read the tea leaves, would be less likely to tweak NCLB in a manner that would restore a balanced playing field for K-6 science lessons, and in this economy funding some of these things is not a sure thing, but I do think they would grant the states greater 'wiggle room' in interpreting and implenting the law than the present Administration. I also think a McCain Administration would greatly expand the federal government's support for alternative energy---the political situation demands it.

But, I do think that the Republican Party's base is moving further to the right, and this could have negative consequences for science education. If Senator McCain wins the Oval Office, the relative strength of the social conservatives who adore Governor Palin will, if anything, be greater than it is now. It seems clear that Palin would not have been McCain's first choice, and that the Senator needed to pick a running mate who would energize the base. It's hard to imagine that this group would become less powerful in the event McCain-Palin triumph, and it's easy to imagine that they would become far more influential than ever before. And this greatly troubles me, because this constituency is the very group that repeatedly attempts to interfere with public school curriculum in a number of areas.

Governor Palin sidestepped one aspect of this (creationism) in the 'let's-teach-all-sides' George Bush manner. Her reply to Katie Couric was reported in some circles as a brief assurance to the contrary, but I'm afraid I don't believe her on that point any more than the mainstream of the Republican Party believes Senator Obama will cut taxes, and for much the same sort of reasons. See, in 2006 she was in favor of teaching some form of creationism. She backed off that position at about the same time that she severed formal ties with her old Assemblies of God congregation and cultivated a 'non-denominational' label---no doubt because, in order to win the Governor's office, she needed to broaden her appeal. Surely we can trust her...now?

Well, sorry, but I just don't trust her. Her recent policy speech on developmental disabilities had very little that was new about that topic, but it had lots of GOP talking points about 'big government' and 'school choice', and it attempted to advance those points by either displaying/attempting to exploit (you make the call) indifference/ignorance of real science (you make the call). Whether the Governor knew what she was doing or not, the outcome (her performance) was shameful. Jerry Coyne explains why that real science, fruit fly genetics, is important and why Palin's performance is a 'bridge to nowhere.'

To some people, the fact that the Governor attempted to burnish her conservative credentials at the expense of the scientific community is just another case of a folksy populist making points by sticking it to 'elites.' They might wonder why I'm making such a big deal about it. Well, it's simple. This isn't an isolated incident, but part of a pattern that Chris Mooney has documented for us here. Palin didn't invent this strategy. As Mooney documents, many politicians (most, but not all, Republicans) have made a habit of deliberately cultivating mistrust in science for decades, often out of a desire to discredit research findings at odds with their positions.

From that perspective, Palin is just the latest person to feed a prize hog, giving the base what they desire. Policy speeches on scientific matters infused with this attitude are bad for science and science education, and I think that even (God willing) a healthy McCain would be hard-pressed to avoid a slide in this direction. Palin has far more juice with the social conservatives who make up most of the GOP base, and thus she will have far more influence over policy than , say, an Agnew or a Mondale. Let's not forget, too, that governors of states and V.P.'s are far more likely to become President than a Senator or Congressman.

Besides, my misgivings about Palin and other young-earthers aside, it's pretty clear that an Obama Administration is more promising for science and science education. Obama doesn't just give lip service to science education when pressed, as the GOP ticket does. He actually brings up the issue himself and ties it to our national security and the health of our economy, and how we need to reinvest in our infrastructure. He offers some specific things that he doesn't think are going well, and how an Obama Admistration would attempt to respond to it.

So, if supporting science and science education is a particularly important issue for you personally, I urge you to consider casting a vote for the Obama-Beiden ticket. From my perspective, they are the best choice.

4 comments:

Blake Stacey said...

Well said.

Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

Hey, I like the way you think, Scott.

Stan said...

The passion of your single issue position for the requirement of government $$ for science leads me to wonder about the wisdom of such education, period. If there are no other issues of any value at all beyond science, and this thinking is driven by science education, then something seems to be very wrong at the foundation of such education.

It concerns me that students would be led to think that nothing else has value.

While I know you don't agree, it seems obvious that more money for science and stopping creationism just cannot be the most urgent issues facing this country, its leaders, and the voters who select them.

As the recent SEED magazine endorsement article shows, scientism is now rampant in our culture; it is starting to smack of the Scientific Socialism espoused by Lenin, a huge fan of science, materialism and government largess for favored projects. Today to be against Scientism is to be labelled anti-science. The premise is incorrect, and the conclusion suffers the same defect. Science is not the same as either scientism or Scientific Socialism, but culturally the distinction is starting to fade. I am concerned.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Again, Stan, I didn't say that this was the most important issue and my post acknowledges that "you may not have my experience, and you may care about other issues more than I do, and for you Senator McCain is a better choice for any number of reasons. I won't debate those points with you here. This post is not about what to do in Iraq, or the market, or economic philosophy, etc."

I recognize in other words, that other issues exist which may trump my concerns. I'm 'OK' with that. My appeal at the end is similarly modest: "So, if supporting science and science education is a particularly important issue for you personally, I urge you to consider casting a vote for the Obama-Beiden ticket. From my perspective, they are the best choice."

I offer this perspective, that of a working science teacher, because most people don't know what's actually going on in science education. There is the possibility that if they hear my perspective that will tip the scales one way or the other for them...even against my candidate. That's 'OK', too. I just think my perspective is important.

So, for you to come here and wave your arms about 'scientism', please. This isn't about whether science is the only way to look at the world (it isn't) or whether some scientists are on the left or the right (which is trivial). This is about promoting science and science education.

The most important issue there is certainly not creationism, and I wouldn't recommend a bunch of tax dollars being thrown at that target, because we already have the curriculum and the standards that support evolution education. The biggest problems aren't ideological, but infrastructural: aging, dysfunctional classrooms, lack of proper equipment, a shortage of qualified teachers, etc.

Could a conservative politician privately sympathetic to creationism end up making a lot of good decisions to help us in the above areas? Sure, it could happen. But are they likely to do so? Seems unlikely, based on the last eight years, sorry. The Bush Administration did a poor job of supporting the scientific community, for reasons that I ticked off in my post. I think either McCain or Obama would do a better job in that regard, but for the reasons I gave, I think Obama would be the best choice.

And that's all that my post is about. I don't have the other agenda that seems to concern you, sorry. I encourage you to make the choice you see fit, and to help get out the vote.