The ever-fulminous Vox Day generously peels off a fairly long blog post in response to a comment that I left on his blog. Here's the original comment:

I invite you to read the state science standards for high school biology in California. You'll find those on pages 51-56 of this PDF file. It's true that evolution is in there, but there is absolutely no requirement to teach 'scientific history.' I admit that I give one lecture on Mendel and his experiments when I teach genetics, and one lecture on Darwin's voyage of the Beagle and how that (and the thought of others, like Malthus) influenced his thought.

Other than that, the other 178-days of instruction are pretty much the concepts and facts that you can see on the standards, which are in fact voluminous. I can't speak for PZ and Dawkins, but I assure you that I care very much about the fact that there is less time for experiments and far too much time spent prepping for the standardized tests which, under NCLB, are used by the states and the fed to rate schools.

By the way, if your looking for a way to improve science ed, then please join me in rejecting the OBAMA administration proposal to tie teacher evaluations more closely to testing. A rare offer for you and I to unite in a criticism of the present administration!

Again, check out what we actually have to teach. There's a lot to cram in 180 days, and to do it, we typically are sacrificing labs, especially the highly-instructive but time-consuming ones that take weeks to complete.

Vox's reply is interesting and wide-ranging. I can only touch on a few points (in fact, three) that might be said to fall in my area of knowledge. Vox writes:

I'm curious to know how Scott would prefer to see teachers evaluated.

This is a thorny question, in that there are political realities at work. Most teachers are affiliated with teacher's unions which tend to resist objective measures tied to student performance on standardized tests, for reasons that Vox acknowledges. Unfortunately, many unions tend to resist objective measures in general, and many educational professionals in administration and in government are so wedded to 'standards-based reform' that considering a different approach is unlikely to occur during my teaching career. I'm not punting, you understand, just acknowledging that there are practical reasons why we have the impasse that presently exists in terms of assessing instructor performance.

Having said that....I believe in assessments that focus on content, instructional practice and classroom management skills that research shows are effective and appropriate to grade level.

What makes an effective instructor? The answer to that question would have to be somewhat different for middle school and high school science instructors than, say, an elementary teacher.

Toward that end, I am in favor of developing a class of true 'master teachers' who not only have years of teaching experience, but who have demonstrated mastery of the entire curriculum within their bailiwick. For example, I have complete confidence that someone like myself could master all of the middle school and high school science standards. Why? Oh, because I've taught them all. That should be, at a bare minimum, a requirement for any individual assessing instructional performance in a standards-based course: intimate, first-hand knowledge of the standards and how to teach them.

Without any false modesty, really, people like me don't just fall off the turnip truck. There are very few people in the state of California who can say, as I can, that they have taught all four standards-based courses (Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science and Physics) multiple times. So there wouldn't be a huge number of people, initially, who would have that sort of background that (as a first step) would be essential to evaluate other standards-based instructors.

People who do have those skills, however, should be able to directly evaluate instruction. Evaluation should employ a mixture of observations, student assessments and feedback for the instructor. Districts should decide individually what the best mix is, in concert with community leaders. The process for implementing assessment should be negotiated into their collective bargaining agreements, so that individual instructors could not automatically hide behind the blanket of their union, but would have to go through a process to justify their individual practice.

Yes, it's another layer of bureaucracy, but it's a local bureaucracy I envision, not a state or federal body. And, if implemented properly, it would be a vehicle for promoting and recognizing teacher excellence as well as identifying low-performing instructors. Because the carrot that would make the stick go would be to tie performance to salary, rather than seniority.

Notice that I'm not proposing anything that would be easy, or likely to happen any time soon. I'm just describing what I think would be a better way to do things.

Vox also writes:

But I'm sure Scott also realizes that for every good science teacher who wants to push his students and expose them to actually learning how to utilize the scientific method, there are several who would spend the entire school day haranguing their students on anything from Marxism and patriarchal oppression to Genesis and Scientology if given the opportunity.

I hear these urban legends too, but I have yet to personally encounter a science instructor who does anything like what Vox is describing. Even the creationists in the science teacher ranks (and there are many, sigh) spend virtually all of their time doing their job, which is actually teaching science. (The Freshwater case is sensational, but hardly typical of creationist science teachers in my experience.)

The thing is, the opportunity to spend significant instructional time pursuing your agenda can only come at the expense of covering the standards. And, the reality is, we don't have that much time. I have an earlier post this month that explains, in mind-numbing detail, exactly why we don't have that much time.

Finally, Vox writes, with respect to a California State Standard in Biology:

"8. Evolution is the result of genetic changes that occur in constantly changing environments. As a basis for understanding this concept: a. Students know how natural selection determines the differential survival of groups of organisms."

I should, of course, be very interested to know how they know that, given that even Richard Dawkins has now admitted that the science is still unsettled on whether Darwin was fundamentally wrong about the very core of his so-called "dangerous idea".

Vox, sorry, but you're misreading this. All the standard is saying, evolution (defined as genetic change in populations) happens, and that natural selection operates on those genetically-changing populations. These are facts. It is a trivial exercise to show that populations change genetically, and that in some environments some changes offer advantages, and others don't. Natural selection has been observed repeatedly in nature selecting for some groups, and against others, and in many cases it is possible to assess the relative contribution of selection with other forces. Consider, for example, this PNAS paper on Drosophila speciation in microclimates associated with canyons.

Keep in mind that 'evolution' and 'natural selection' are facts, whereas TENS is a proposed relationship tying such facts together in an explanatory framework to account for, among other things, the diversity of life. Please recall that, like all scientific theories, TENS is never 'proved'. Theories never become facts; instead, they are vehicles that drive scientific research, adopted because they are useful and productive, held provisionally until an improved model comes along. An improved model could be either a tweaked version of the present model, or else it could be a superior alternative that proposes an entirely different mechanism.

I am sure that you appreciate that, where biologists are concerned, we are more likely to regard the former as probable. That is what makes some of the hemming and hawing by the likes of a Richard Dawkins somewhat poignant. As an ultra-Darwinist, Dawkins has long argued that TENS is the be-all and end-all of biology, and his acknowledgment that there is a limit to the confidence we can place in such claims is certainly food for thought.

But, Vox, that has nothing to do with the standards I teach. The State of California is taking a position with the scientific consensus, that evolution occurs and that natural selection can cause evolution. These are well-established positions. The State of California takes no position on the less-established, technically interesting but not-all-that-critical question of the relative importance of natural selection in accounting for every known instance of diversification.

Richard Dawkins may be personally invested in that question, but I can honestly tell you that I am not, and I have yet to personally meet any biologist terribly invested in that point of view, or anyone who denies that processes other than natural selection can lead to speciation. I suspect, in fact, that Dawkins's caveats indicate his desire not to place himself inadvertently at odds with the emerging field of evo-devo. If so, he's being smart, because evo-devo is a happening field that is providing us clues to previously-unsuspected genetic mechanisms that certainly stand to enrich the now decades-old "modern" synthesis.

As always, Vox, I appreciate not only the traffic from your site, but the flow of ideas from your head.

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