A potential future colleague of mine sends me the following note:
"Hi Scott, my name is D_____ and I am a credential student at CSU Fresno. I came across your blog and saw that you are a science teacher and thought you would be a good person to ask a couple of questions for an assignment.
I was wondering if you would share with me what your opinion(s) are regarding California State Standards in high school education? Are they enough? Too much or just right? We started talking about the NCLB. I'm not sure how long you've been teaching but if you have been teaching before this law went into effect, what kind of an impact did it have on the classroom and students?
I am wanting to teach sciences at high school level as well, so I thought it would be nice to get some input from a science teacher.
Thanks for your time and have a good day.
Thanks for the question, D! The answer is complicated, so before I go into what I think, here's a link to a PDF file of the actual State Standards, so people can see for themselves what we're talking about. I think I'm a good person to ask, because I'm one of the few teachers in the state who have in fact taught all four of the Standards-based secondary science courses : Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science and Physics.
The first thing I should say is that California's Standards are in general both more comprehensive and detailed than those of other states. Their coverage of evolution in the Biology standards is excellent, for example, and you can get a detailed comparison of state standards across the nation here. While I do feel that in some particular areas the standards are too aggressive, that is not the main bugaboo. The big problem lies in the implementation of the Standards at the district level, which in turn is increasingly driven by the way that NCLB highjacks the state assessment process. In other words, while I have some problems with the Standards, I have a bigger problem with what government (federal, state, local) does with them. The more difficult Standards to teach would not be anywhere as problematic if 'best practice' was not so consistently defined in arbitrary and unrealistic terms.
For example, in Fresno Unified instructors have been increasingly placed under pressure to follow the same district-wide script at the same pace without regard to what is in the best interests of any particular cohort of students. Part of the art of teaching, and something that tends to come only with experience, is determining when to modify the pace of instruction. Interestingly enough, Fresno Unified's policy actually runs counter to the philosophy of the state's Science Teaching Framework, which remarks:
"At the high school level, the Science Content Standards document does not prescribe a single high school curriculum. To allow LEA's and teachers flexibility, the standards for grades 9-12 are organized as content strands. There is no mandate that a particular content strand be completed in a particular grade." (Chapter 1, Introduction to the Framework, pg. 10)"
Isn't that interesting, that what is coming down as 'best practice' at the district level ('one-size-fits-all instruction') is not quite in-sync with the Framework? It's not really that surprising, since the same groups didn't produce them, and the present Content Standards were pushed through over vigorous objections in a highly-politicized environment. I can say in confidence that I've talked to two academics who worked on the last Framework, and that these folks take an extremely dim view of some of the Content Standards. One of them took great exception to a remark I made that confused the Framework with the Standards: he was proud of his work on the former, whereas he felt that the latter were deeply flawed.
Before I go, there is a more sinister problem at work, and that is NCLB. The surprising fact is that NCLB has no provision mandating science performance in the elementary ranks. Thus, there is no incentive for the state or the districts to assess science performance. But there is a very strong incentive to make sure reading and math skills are on-target. So what happens in the elementary school ranks? Instructional time that used to be devoted to science has been abandoned for more reading and math skill rehearsal. As this article by Natalie Asimov asserts, science in the lower levels is in danger of 'extinction.'
That means that the Content Standards for science at K-6 are not being addressed. There is no penalty for doing poorly in science in the lower levels. But there sure is hell to pay if our science scores are low in the high school ranks! Clearly, this is a disaster in the making. This is not an intended consequence, perhaps, of NCLB as is written, but it is an extremely clear example of how the federal tail isn't just wagging the dog of local education, it's being used to rip the dog's heart out.
Here's a blog from a past (and hopefully, future) Valley resident that gives Central Valley Cafe Scientifique some most-appreciated media coverage in this article, for which the author, a journalist, interviewed yours truly. The least I can do is link to it!
On a more troubling note, our scribe reports that one of our Cafe Sci presenters had his car vandalized, with a profane note attached that makes it clear that they were targeted for humorously advertising their acceptance of evolution.
Well, what can we say about that? I would say, first of all, that the incident as reported would certainly be regarded as shameful conduct by most people of faith, Christians and non-Christians alike. The second thing I would say, though, is that this is in part a consequence of conflating different sorts of claims. Dr. Wendee Holtcamp, a biologist and professional science writer (and a Bohemian!) has a wonderful piece about this phenomena from a Christian point of view that I really think is a 'must-read' for anyone who has taken a passionate stand where either evolution or creation is concerned. You can read her article here on the ASA (American Scientific Affiliation) web site.
And since I mentioned it....a little pub seems in order.....
The ASA is an association of Christians who hold at least a bachelor's degree in science and who endorse the organization's statement of faith. The ASA publishes a peer-reviewed journal on science and faith issues, and while the organization is probably dominated by old-earth creationists who are sympathetic to some version of ID, it has among its leadership many enthusiastic supporters of evolution. The ASA does not attempt to dictate a particular view on evolution or other matters in which "there is honest disagreement between Christians." Instead, the ASA affirms that they "are committed to providing an open forum where controversies can be discussed without fear of unjust condemnation. Legitimate differences of opinion among Christians who have studied both the Bible and science are freely expressed within the Affiliation in a context of Christian love and concern for truth."
Which just about says it all for how I want (I don't always succeed) to engage my fellow Christians....which is why I'm a member of ASA.
Well, it's hard to believe I haven't posted in over three days, but then it's hard to believe the hours I'm keeping in the last three weeks of school. It's supposed to be the unpressured, post-state test time where the biggest cloud on the horizon is the handful of seniors in danger of not walking at graduation.
But, no, I have a class I have to take and it's really been stressing me out....because I'm used to really sprinting toward the end of the school year and pushing my students to excel on project-based learning, to get as many on the plus side of the ledger as possible. But that's just not in the cards this year, because I absolutely have to take a Monday-Thursday evening class which starts less than 30 minutes after I get off work, on the other side of town. The only sprinting I'll be doing is from the parking lot to the Education Building at CSU Fresno around 4:10 every day.
To make matters worse, the book wasn't available right away (par for the course for college bookstores, in my experience, grrrrrr) and the web-based learning aspect of the course wasn't up and running for anyone taking this course through extension learning, like myself, so it's been a mad dash to just get the materials and the paperwork handled. In fact, I was getting so disgusted I was considering taking the equivalent course later this summer through University of San Diego's Fresno extension program, but my colleagues talked me out of it. They pointed out that it would be best, given my October deadline, not to monkey around with multiple transcripts and just to bear down and get the thing out of the way.
I appreciated their wise counsel, and on Wednesday evening (third night of the course) I finally seem to be settling in. I just wish that bastard PZ Mytzlplk wouldn't brag about seeking recreation with his genetics tests all but in the books....